“I just love it when an English professor comes to me with a certain gleam in their eye and tells me that they’re going to problematize what it is that I do.”
About this Episode
Recorded 25 March 2021. Edited by James Harr and Aylin Malcolm.
Guests: J. Eric Ensley and Matthew Kirschenbaum
Content: In this episode, Caitlin and James talk with Eric Ensley and Matthew Kirschenbaum about the archive, both digital and material. Eric Ensley is a curator of rare books and maps at the University of Iowa. He received his PhD in English from Yale University in 2021 and holds an MLS from the University of North Carolina. Among his current projects is a digital edition of a Piers Plowman manuscript held in the Beinecke library, which he is co-authoring with Ian Cornelius of Loyola-Chicago. Matthew Kirschenbaum is a professor of English and Digital Studies at the University of Maryland. He is the author of Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination and Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing. His next book, Bitstreams: The Future of Digital Literary Heritage, will be published in the fall by the University of Pennsylvania Press.
Resources and Further Reading
Michael Gavin, “How to Think about EEBO,” in: Textual Cultures 11/1–2 (2017), 70–105, <https://www.jstor.org/stable/26662793>.
Peter C. Herman, “EEBO and Me: An Autobiographical Response to Michael Gavin, ‘How to Think About EEBO’,” in: Textual Cultures 13/1 (2020), 207–216, <https://www.jstor.org/stable/26954245>.
Matthew G. Kirschenbaum, Bitstreams: The Future of Digital Literary Heritage, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2021 (forthcoming).
Terry Nguyen, “NFTs, The Digital Bits of Anything That Sell for Millions of Dollars, Explained,” in: Vox (11 March 2021), <https://www.vox.com/the-goods/22313936/non-fungible-tokens-crypto-explained>.
Dot Porter, “The Uncanny Valley and the Ghost in the Machine: A Discussion of Analogies for Thinking about Digitized Medieval Manuscripts,” paper presented at the University of Kansas Digital Humanities Seminar, 17 September 2018, <http://www.dotporterdigital.org/the-uncanny-valley-and-the-ghost-in-the-machine-a-discussion-of-analogies-for-thinking-about-digitized-medieval-manuscripts/>.
C. M. Sperberg-McQueen, “Trip Report: SGML ’92, Danvers, Mass.,” 30 October 1992, <http://cmsmcq.com/1992/edr2.html>.
Bridget Whearty, “Invisible in ‘The Archive’: Librarians, Archivists, and The Caswell Test,” presentation at the 53rd International Congress for Medieval Studies, 11 May 2018, <https://orb.binghamton.edu/english_fac/4>.
The William Blake Archive (1996–present), <http://www.blakearchive.org/>.
automated transcription by <https://otter.ai>, manually corrected by James Harr and Tessa Gengnagel
James Harr 0:10
Hello and welcome to Coding Codices, a podcast from the Digital Medievalist Postgraduate Subcommittee. My name is James Harr.
Caitlin Postal 0:13
And I’m Caitlin Postal.
James Harr 0:15
Today, the two of us are going to be interviewing Eric Ensley and Matthew Kirschenbaum, as we discuss materiality and digitization.
Caitlin Postal 0:36
Eric Ensley is a curator of rare books and maps at the University of Iowa. He received his PhD in English from Yale University in 2021 and holds an MLS from the University of North Carolina. Among his current projects is a digital edition of a Piers Plowman manuscript held in the Beinecke library, which he is co-authoring with Ian Cornelius of Loyola-Chicago.
James Harr 0:58
And Matthew Kirschenbaum is a professor of English and Digital Studies at the University of Maryland. His next book, Bitstreams: The Future of Digital Literary Heritage, will be published in the fall by the University of Pennsylvania Press.
Caitlin Postal 1:11
So to get started, we sort of wanted to open this question about the reality of increased digitization. And this is a question for the both of you. So do you perceive that the increase in digitization projects may result in decreased physical examination of archival materials? For example, we know that certain medieval manuscripts have very limited access, for example, Cotton Nero A.x., because digitized photography is available in its stead.
Matthew Kirschenbaum 1:38
Sure, so I’m not an archivist. I’m not a curator; I don’t have responsibility for collections. So, I can’t answer anything with any authority. But, yeah, I think my sense, my sort of common sense view is that our access is greatly expanded through digital surrogates and digital facsimiles. Certainly, many more people then, who could travel to a physical site or a physical collection, are able to utilize collections’ materials to some degree, whether that, in turn, results in a decrease in actual traffic to the repository, again, I couldn’t say. It’s interesting that in the particular area that I’m interested in — born-digital materials — where you’re working with what are essentially primary source digital objects, so something like an author’s manuscript that only exists as a Word file, often times I’ve still had to travel to the actual institution to work with that digital object on site there, it’s not just up there on the institution’s website.
James Harr 3:03
No, that certainly does make sense. And we are going to talk about this a little bit more, because I think this is something that both Caitlin and I are interested in — whether the digital surrogate has an effect on interaction with the material. So yes, many of us will still go to the archives and still look at, engage with, the material artifact, but that is not always the case. And so that’s something that we definitely do want to think about a little bit more is whether the digital actually pushes the material away. So Eric, maybe let me kind of focus this question a little bit more for you. How might digitized materials, especially those that are in manuscript studies change the way we do scholarship now and in the future?
Eric Ensley 3:43
I think that’s a really interesting question. And just to kind of backpedal for just a second to what Matthew said, I can speak from the sort of data that we’ve gathered here at Iowa, and also some data that we’ve seen at Yale that when people see digital objects, it doesn’t necessarily keep them from coming in. In fact, it’s quite the opposite; you end up with people seeing the digital object, and they want to see the actual object. And that happens for a variety of reasons. And I’ll come back to this eventually. But one of those is kind of the out in the ether, you know, Benjamin-ey kind of, you know, people want to see the old object if it’s a medieval manuscript, but then, you know, there’s certain things that we still have trouble capturing with digitization. So for example, you need raking light, if you want to see dry point glosses, and those are incredibly hard to get into a photo, or watermarks are still quite difficult to get photographed correctly. So there’s going to be things in digitization to actually end up driving people to the library, and I don’t think that’s a huge fear for us. I think the other thing that’s interesting, too, is the British Library, which is the kind of example manuscript that we use to start out, they’re such a unique case and they’re increasingly kind of out in left field with their digitization policy in the sense that they charge quite a bit for their images, and then also that they have what are called the special restricted manuscripts that you can’t take photos of, which is a very strange policy. Even without flash, you can’t take photos of those. And so it’s kind of this funneling project where you end up having to pay for the images they’ve made. I think, increasingly, though, libraries have seen this sort of public good of offering images and have taken on the cost to do it themselves. And I imagine we’ll come back to this towards the end with some of the questions that we’re planning to discuss how they relate to say, Digital Scriptorium or EEBO… God forbid.
James Harr 5:39
Thank you, Eric.
James Harr 5:48
Matthew, you’ve stated that you’re not an archivist, but you certainly work a lot with material and physical objects, and then how they relate to the digital. So the question here is, what is the purpose of distinguishing between the material physical archives and digital archive materials? Why do we need to do that?
Matthew Kirschenbaum 6:05
So you know, the way that I increasingly think about this is that I tend not to distinguish between them in the sense I mean, certainly there are practical ways in which of course one does, but conceptually, I regard the digital object or the digital surrogate as very much a material entity. This is what I’ve really spent my career writing about — the materiality of the digital. I do think that that materiality performs and functions in some different ways, the cause of an object’s digital pedigree, but it’s not less present. And it’s even, I would go so far as to say not less palpable in its own respect. I think too that, increasingly, there is a kind of fluidity or just a kind of oscillation, a give and take, between what we might sort of commonsensically think of as the physical and the digital. So what we were just talking about a moment ago, digital surrogates for physical materials, what seems essential to me, and this is something I’ve been working on with my own students this semester, is to account for the digital surrogate, as part of the ongoing transmission and reception history for whatever that artifact actually is. So it doesn’t stand apart from the artifactual history of the material objects, it constitutes an extension or a further permutation of that. I always really like the portmanteau word that the Canadian bibliographer Randall McLeod gives us — transformission — how something is transformed as it’s transmitted. And for me the digital is just another moment another instance of transformission in the life cycle of some creative entity.
Eric Ensley 8:15
That’s such a fantastic response Matthew just gave, and I immediately think of one of the landmark creators of TEI, Goldfarb, when he gave his famous presentation. You know, when was this? Back in 1990-something, where he said, the death of the document. And of course, that has not quite panned out in the way I think that he would have imagined it to and that same talk, he also compared it to a medieval manuscript, what he imagined, this sort of hypertext. So I agree, it enters into this ecosystem. To speak from the librarian/archivist perspective, I think that the role distinguishing between material and physical is perhaps a little different for us in that we all have limited time in the day. The ability to curate different collections takes a tremendous amount of training. And we end up getting to be rather specialized; to be a medieval curator requires a different set of skills than to be a digital curator. And we see this pop up all the time in curation that we enter into different workflows where you know, I can put something I can identify the manuscript and say, “Oh, this is one of our all-star manuscripts that should go into the digitization workflow.” But then once that becomes a TIFF file, or it becomes an XML file, my ability to curate and to preserve that data effectively, you know, I’m mildly competent, but it’s enough to be dangerous. And so really, we have to listen to other people’s expertise in the library just because of the limitations of our training.
Caitlin Postal 9:47
This is a really great point to transition to our next question, which is in terms of preservation and conservation, and then in our archival experience, how do we think about planned obsolescence and the shifting needs of digital projects? So what can digital archivists and medieval curators currently do? Or what are they doing? What are you doing, for example, Eric, to anticipate something like technological obsolescence or bit rot, which I know, Matthew, you talk a little bit about this in your forthcoming book, Bitstreams. So I think either one of you could speak to this question about bit rot, and digital archival work, technological obsolescence.
Eric Ensley 10:27
My experience with bit rot is, I’ve always kind of questioned what the term means; it’s always felt like a kind of amorphous and vague term. Is it the kind of obsolescence that happens because we aren’t keeping up with platforms? Or is it the kind of literal degradation of materials that we see with you know, CD-ROMs breaking down, magnetic tapes eventually breaking down. It kind of seems to come to encompass both and how people talk about it from time to time. And I suppose those are different things. But in my experience, I do a lot of work with XML. And I think that there’s kind of a couple of different prongs here with this. With TEI, I’ve witnessed with certain digital archives, that it takes time and effort to change something, to do the transmission from P3 to P5 in TEI, for example. And you might, you know, everybody likes to think, “Oh, you know, once you get something into XML, or TEI, you know, it’s standardized.” And everybody’s kind of bought into this sort of data platform. At the same time to do those sorts of updates requires somebody with the ability to run the transformation scenarios. And that requires training, it requires time and therefore requires money. And I think the other issue is that we’re seeing less training in a lot of our programs for this sort of foundational skills. When I was in library school, it was at the tail end of the training for XML that every librarian would receive. And you’re starting to see that fall out of curriculums more and more as we go along. The reason for that being that a lot of our programs do the XML for us now. It used to be the role of archivists to write the XML data for archives. But now you have programs like Archon or ASpace, ArchiveSpace, that will do that for you. But the cost is that you have an archivist or a librarian who may not have ever seen XML before go in and be able to change the data itself. And that, for me, is a big fear that that’s going to lead to some sort of obsolescence down the road, when you know, what if God forbid, ASpace goes under at some point?
Matthew Kirschenbaum 12:26
Yeah, and, you know, from my standpoint, again, as somebody who has the luxury of not being responsible for a collection, I tend to actually be a little bit sort of, I guess cavalier about bit rot, at least in the sense that Eric mentioned of kind of the specter of like actual physical degradation of the media, that kind of Nicholson Baker slow fire scenario where somehow our CD-ROMs on the shelf are sort of self-immolating in some way. I, you know, I have floppy diskettes that I used as a kid with my Apple II computer growing up. I still have the Apple, I still have the diskettes, and they still work fine. And I don’t do anything in particular, I still keep them in pretty much the same shoe box. And I’m sure one day they will stop working. But it hasn’t happened yet. That being said, you know, this is a big part of what I write about in the forthcoming book that you mentioned in your introduction, what I call “the bitstream.” And what I’m trying to, I guess, address or capture or articulate in the book, this goes back to the question of the materiality of the digital, it’s the really sort of weird, peculiar nature of that materiality, the strangeness of the bitstream as a kind of artifactual construct, the way in which a digital object can be both incredibly fragile and precarious. All the kinds of things that Eric was talking about, with regard to format, obsolescing and so on, but at the same time, also incredibly resilient, so that if you’re able to recreate the conditions under which the bitstream was originally accessible, there’s a sense in which it really is almost like time travel. This is the kind of magic of an emulator, I think, you know, anytime at least for me when I open an emulator on my screen, and like, I’ve got a Commodore 64 planted in the middle of my Mac OS desktop, it’s really weird, but also just incredibly sort of powerful as a kind of experience. And, you know, for me, that speaks also again to that kind of resiliency that the bitstream has, that’s part and parcel somehow, of its precarity. So that’s, you know, that’s kind of a more sort of, you know, abstract response than Eric gave you. I, you know, so here’s a particular example. One of the examples I write about in bitstreams, I was working with the Toni Morrison papers, which are at Princeton a few years ago, and partly, but only partly because she had a devastating house fire about halfway through her career, a lot of the papers were badly damaged. All access to everything in the collection is via digital surrogate. So whether it’s born-digital or not, you’re seated at a workstation, a dedicated workstation in the reading room. This, again, is one of those collections that even though the material is digital, you still have to go there and be there on site. And you’re working, essentially, with high quality digital images. And so I was able to open some of these fire-blackened damaged manuscripts, that’s incredibly sort of just moving to kind of see that. It’s certainly a testament to the resiliency of physical archival materials. But then alongside of that there are some born-digital items in the collection, too. And so I was able to open some of those, some early word processing files that were part of Beloved. And when I did, they were mostly legible, but portions of them were glitched. So I had this kind of moment on my screen, where on one window, I was looking at a really high resolution digital image of a fire-blackened type script. And you could sort of see the, you know, where the smoke had carbonized along the edges of the paper, again, very dramatic, very moving. And then in another window, there was this glitched word processing file that was mostly but not entirely legible. So again, two very different kinds of materialities and juxtaposition there. But nonetheless, two clear instances of materiality nonetheless.
Eric Ensley 17:20
Matthew, could I jump in with a question here? When you’re talking about the emulator, I realized that earlier I mentioned Walter Benjamin and the sort of aura that attaches itself and you know, this post-industrial society to certain art objects. And it made me wonder, is there a digital aura possible with sort of emulators and things like that? I guess I hadn’t really considered that, and you seem like the prime person to ask.
Matthew Kirschenbaum 17:45
There is for me. I mean, again, it’s precisely about just kind of the uncanniness, maybe a better word for it than sort of the magic of the emulator, but just kind of the uncanniness. I mean, a lot of people, I think, have written about this with regard to digital media. It’s the Ghost in the Machine or the undead nature of the medium. So when you kind of reanimate the bitstream with an emulator, and again, you’ve got that Commodore 64, or that Apple or whatever it is, that’s somehow co-existing with your current operating system, it’s really weird and really powerful. And for me, it does kind of conjure that same experience of aura.
Caitlin Postal 18:29
I actually want to thank you, Matthew, for bringing up your work with Toni Morrison’s materials. That’s exactly what I was thinking about when James and I were writing up this question, because I had the great pleasure of reviewing an early draft of that chapter, when you came out to visit the University of Washington. And it was compelling.
Matthew Kirschenbaum 18:47
I remember that. Yeah, yeah. Thank you.
Caitlin Postal 18:50
No, it was really compelling to me. And that’s exactly what I was thinking about when we were coming up with this question about bit rot and obsolescence and digital materiality. So thank you for saying that explicitly.
Matthew Kirschenbaum 19:01
Great, thank you.
James Harr 19:03
I think the more that people read or write about bit rot, you’ve got two extremes. You’ve got the Vint Cerf, who’s with a sandwich board and a bell walking down the street saying the end is near. And then you’ve got someone like Tim Gollins, who was at the National Archives and UK and now he’s up at Glasgow, who just says bit rot is switching ones and zeros, which is kind of scary in itself, when you kind of think about this automated world of self-corruption that all of a sudden ones and zeros are being switched, but he minimizes it. We’re on one side and then we got this, again, end of the archive, end of digital preservation on the other side, and I feel like you’ve presented a very nice, middle of the road that yes, it can happen, but we’re aware of it and we’re trying to stop it. So thank you very much for that response.
Caitlin Postal 19:45
I just want to pop in. The visual that came into my mind was scribal error and just words out of place or eye-skips, lines that have been eye-skipped. And I love, I just love the resonances between when we’re thinking about medieval material culture, and then contemporary digital culture. And it’s, even though it’s temporally distant, it’s actually really quite similar.
James Harr 20:19
So our next question is how does archival work, including the digital archives, necessitate varying skills that are cultivated through different educational environments? So you know, Eric, let’s see, you, in addition to your background at North Carolina State University, you have training with the MLS program at North Carolina, and then you have your PhD training at Yale, you kind of brought these worlds together. And so from your perspectives, both of you, I would say you’re not just sitting down and teaching literature classes. You’re in disciplines brought together. So how does this work on archives and studying archives bring in those skills necessary for doing this? And I guess, for people who want to engage in this type of scholarship, how do you two navigate all these different disciplines coming together?
Eric Ensley 21:05
So I guess I’ll start with kind of a job ad, actually, that hit this past week that has ended up with everybody on Twitter sort of retweeting it and saying, “Oh, you need to apply for this, everybody needs to apply for this.” Which is, there’s an early cataloguer job that the Beinecke just opened up this week, and everybody’s kind of, you know, atwitter about it. And the thing is that I was kind of glancing at the job and I know the kind of position that it is, and just looking at the requirements for this position is kind of stunning. It’s metadata standards, structural standards, class systems, project design, writing, early lit in history, broad knowledge in the humanities, Latin, Neo-Latin, Latin abbreviations, paleography, book history, Middle English, Middle French, German vernacular, and an MA or PhD in an humanities subject.
Matthew Kirschenbaum 22:00
Oh my God, I haven’t seen this. I need to go looking for it.
Eric Ensley 22:04
And it’s sort of the stunning thing where, you know, when we had these early materials job ads, especially in libraries, you kind of had this huge slate of desiderata that, you know, some are more than others but I guess what I’m kind of struck with is that it’s a difficult thing to train for. And it’s one where we have increasingly fields that are talking past each other. You know, if you start to add up the number of years it would take to learn all these skills, you’re ending up at about 10 years or so, which is a stunning amount of time to train for a job that starts out, I think, it’s 60k. Right? Like, that’s, that’s not very much, and especially in New Haven, Connecticut. And whenever you start to kind of add up these issues and realize that they’re a broad swath, right, you end up with metadata coupled with Latin coupled with this sort of humanities and old, very old styles of study, meeting with very new data standards, and you’re expected to be able to navigate both of them. And this is also happening at the same time that library schools have been accused of becoming overly technologized. So that, you know, they’re only interested in information standards is like the fear from faculty and humanities subjects. And then on the other side, you have the librarians often saying that faculty in the humanities are gatekeeping, with requirements for Latin, requirements for sort of dense book history. And these are kind of playing out in very interesting ways. I was struck by this, I don’t want to relitigate a lot of these positions, but a recent one at the Bass Library at Yale was that they were moving to an Information Commons model, because they realized most students were beginning to use PDFs more than physical books, they needed places to charge their laptops. That’s looking at the actual tools that students are using for their research. And so they planned to move a lot of books out of the library to make more study space to make more sort of integrated digital study spaces. And the humanities, a lot of the humanities faculty absolutely went wild on this. There were op-eds written in this student newspaper by faculty and undergraduates calling these people biblioclasts, you know, they’re trying to destroy the library, they’re trying to destroy the physical object, which is, of course, not true. But at the same time, you also have the librarians kind of throwing these names back at the humanities faculty. So you end up with people talking past each other, not realizing that we have to do both effectively. And that’s going to become increasingly true. I find that when we kind of end up in these name calling situations, it’s the wrong path to take in that what we should be asking is how do we reach people sooner and start thinking from the very start? You know, we need to get people trained in Latin, and that at the same time, for example, we, I think we’re almost at a crisis point with it, where we are going to have to have librarians capable of understanding early materials, and how are we going to train for it? I don’t know, it’s really a question of access to the university as well, that I hope will come back to at the end of this talk, I really would like to talk about at some point, kind of EEBO and Digital Scriptorium. And the sort of politics of neoliberalism, and how this feeds into the university as well, and who gets trained and how we train for technical expertise like these.
James Harr 25:42
Yeah, I remember when Cambridge, I think it was Cambridge University, when they started made the comment that they were going to digitize everything, the immediate reaction that you saw, and like, especially social media, with some academics who didn’t understand what that meant were all of a sudden panicking that all these old books were going to be thrown into this huge bonfire. And that was it. They were getting rid of all the material. And it’s certainly not the case. But that sticks in my mind, that visceral reaction to digitization equals evisceration, I guess, I don’t know, of the material. So Matthew, in archival work and digital archives, how do certain skills, varying skills, how are they necessitated by cultivating different educational environments?
Matthew Kirschenbaum 26:26
Yeah, I mean, so I can speak a little bit. For a number of years now, I’ve been co-teaching at the Rare Book School in Charlottesville, the Born-Digital Materials course. We call it the “Rare Computers” course. And so I started doing that with Naomi Nelson, who’s the director of the Rubenstein Library at Duke. We started right back around 2009 / 2010. And we teach it every other year now. You know, I think that for a while, certainly for the first three or four or five times we taught the class, the focus was very much on, for want of a better word, skills. That’s just how you get the disk image. This is how you extract metadata from a file header. This is how you run this open source digital forensics suite. This is what our workflow looks like, and so forth. And our constituency for the course, correspondingly, was largely practicing archivists. So for a while my joke was that I was the English professor who taught archivists about computers. What we’ve been doing more recently, though, is we’ve moved away from some of the more technically-focused aspects of the course towards not only just more sort of background and conceptual material, but also more meaningful kinds of applications. So one of the exercises we do in the current iteration of the course that I really enjoy, is we look at a disk image, a virtual surrogate, a bitstream, as we were discussing earlier, of, quote, unquote, “the same digital work” and early piece of electronic fiction that was written and programmed back in the 1990s. But the three different images that we look at come from three different diskettes and three different collections. And the challenge for the students is to ascertain whether or not they are the same object. And that in turn, raises all kinds of questions because as Eric has been reminding us, hours in the day, resources, people’s time, none of these things are infinite, the same kinds of questions that you will encounter with physical books: if one institution has it, do these other four institutions need to have it as well. And so that always generates a really kind of robust conversation about sort of wherein the bitstream thresholds of differences lie, how that can be located and found. So that to me is, I think, a more meaningful kind of sort of pedagogical exercise than learning how to use a particular software package, the cost there constantly passing in and out of date. So that same kind of question when you have multiple disk images, is this the same object? How do we think about difference with regard to the digital that takes us of course to what’s been in the news, very recently, the emergence of Non-Fungible Tokens or NFTs and all of the questions these will raise both at a practical level for collecting institutions but also I think, again, with regard to how do we sort of construct — because I do believe these are always very much constructed — how do we construct digital associations or digital analogues to traditional values like authenticity and originality? How do we think about that with regard to the digital? I think as NFTs have shown us dramatically over just the last few weeks, those values systems can be upended very suddenly, and very unexpectedly and dramatically.
Eric Ensley 30:50
Matthew, if I can jump in for a second and just ask if you have been following the sort of back and forth that’s been taking place in Textual Cultures, over EEBO between Herman and Michael Gavin, kind of going back and forth. And I was actually kind of curious about it, because it kind of brings up some of the topics you’re talking about here talking, thinking about the sort of material surrogate, and then the sort of idea of a more disembodied text functioning as a digital object where Gavin wants to celebrate the sort of EEBO TCP document as this kind of liberating document that will allow all sorts of people to access text. And Herman kind of is saying, well, you know, there’s all these issues with TEI, where if we had all the time in the day, we could keep adding more and more tags, and perhaps approach something more perfect, but it’s not there. And, you know, we tend to use the material surrogate in there. I was just kind of not asking you to weigh in, exactly, but I was just wondering, what do you kind of see it as the stakes of these sorts of arguments? And how does capitalism and other things come into play with these sorts of surrogates versus text versus access and bigger issues like that?
Matthew Kirschenbaum 32:11
I think over time, I’ve become much more sort of convinced by a kind of minimalist approach or more product less process, as you all say, just in the sense that, you know, so I cut my teeth on the William Blake Archive which is still around and still one of the sort of boutique digital humanities archival projects today. The really wondrous thing about that Blake Archive is I understand they’re getting close to being done. The Blake Archive was like the sort of epitome of that kind of bespoke approach to what a digital project or a digital archive is. I mean, it participated in lots of different standards, but it was very much its own idiosyncratic thing and still is. And, you know, I don’t know that even to this day for all of the kind of success and popularity and notoriety that the Blake Archive has generated, whether it’s really sort of produced the kind of breakthrough work in Blake scholarship that was its original promise, and sort of the original vision of people doing all kinds of comparative image searches. And, you know, using the deep encoding that was part of the archive, the archive sort of ethos to kind of really generate these high-powered scholarly interventions and discoveries. I suspect its uses are much more sort of, I think it has a vast popular audience. I think it’s used in classrooms all the time. I think it’s a tool of convenience for many, many scholars. But I guess my point is that it seems to me that a lot of the features that we sort of lavished a lot of energy and just kind of heartache on and heartburn with in those early days, it’s not clear to me that they turned out to be at all what’s most important about the Blake Archive. So I don’t know if that speaks to kind of the terms of that current EEBO debate or not.
Eric Ensley 34:25
I think it does, in a way. And I also think that it kind of brings up, again, another fascinating issue for me, which is these archives that don’t quite reach their promise. But then they do other things. And I think that’s been really fascinating. When I was on a job interview a couple of years ago, I got this question, I was talking about Fragmentarium, because I’m a big fan of Fragmentarium and medieval studies. You know, because every university in the world has a medieval fragment somewhere in their collection. So it’s this kind of invitation to universities that may not be always invited to participate in digital archives. And I had a question from a scholar that was, well, you know, sure, but what do you get out of that? And at the time, I didn’t have a good answer if I’m going to be honest with you. And now in retrospect, what has come out of that is that Lisa Fagin Davis has kind of backdoored in that everybody’s on IIIF now, you know, and all of a sudden everybody’s using a standardized system so that they can participate with their medieval manuscripts in Fragmentarium. So that maybe the fragments themselves weren’t the actual great thing to come out of it. I mean, I think they’re cool that maybe not everybody else does. But now we’re all using a standardized framework, which is the good takeaway.
Matthew Kirschenbaum 35:44
That’s a great example.
Caitlin Postal 35:46
I think one of the things we’ve sort of been talking around, and I want to make sure that we talk explicitly about is labor. And this is both in terms of standardization as well as just people’s time, their job responsibilities. Where when we’re thinking about physical archives, when we’re thinking about digital archives, when we’re thinking about the digitization of physical archives into digital archives, a lot of that work is being done by librarians, and curators, and archivists and not done by tenured faculty. But then tenured faculty are using those materials in their research, in their teaching. And I want to pose the question about how that work, how that labor is made visible in these different processes, how digital projects that are using those materials can recognize the labor of the people involved. And I’m thinking sort of specifically about Bridget Whearty’s Caswell Test where, when we’re talking about archives, are we citing and referencing archivists and librarians? How are we valuing their labor in traditional research? So I’ll pose that question to both of you: How is the work made visible? How are we made aware of the work that’s happening? Like Eric was talking about these different groups that are talking past each other, when they could really be talking to each other? And then if you have a specific project in mind that clearly recognizes the labor of all those involved. This is something I’m personally interested in.
Mathew Kirschenbaum 37:25
You know, I still have a very sort of vivid and fond memory. And this again, goes back a few years to when I was doing a lot of collaborative work with archivists, around projects like BitCurator and some of the material that I was developing for NEH and the Mellon Foundation that involved collaboration with practicing archivists. But I remember, probably this was over beers, an archivist who I’m very fond of said to me something very close to, “I just love it when an English professor comes to me with a certain gleam in their eye and tells me that they’re going to problematize what it is that I do.” And this, you know, this usually is accompanied by, you know, the kind of breathtaking revelation that archives are not neutral, or archives don’t collect and save everything. And the kind of presumption that archivists are this sort of benighted class who don’t understand these things. That people who have read Derrida and Archive Fever do, right. And I actually, you know, I’ve read Archive Fever, and I actually like the book a little. I mean, it’s an easy book to make fun of. You know, I think it’s a pretty, it’s, there’s a lot there that’s compelling, but I also and this, this is also something that I hope is on display in Bitstreams, I cite archivists, and I cite archivists for their contributions to collections but I also cite their professional literature. There are journals devoted to archival practice. Archivists write books, they have conferences. I’ve been to a couple of them. They’re pretty good times. Right? Right. And in other words, they do all of the things that humanities faculty do by way of professional dialogue and intellectual exchange. And there is a record of that in the form of things like journal articles that we can cite. So I cite Derrida, but I also cite Michelle Caswell. I cite Terry Cook. I cited Gerald Ham, who was the State Archivist of Wisconsin, who gave an address to the SAA in 1974 that minus the Freud and the Jewish intellectual history basically says everything Derrida says in Archive Fever, right? And so I think the potential for interchange between these two conversations is really rich. I don’t know of any way to kind of facilitate it other than to, it’s like anything else, you’ve got to go out and read. And it’s not hard. The journals are out there, you can follow citations, but you’ve got to be willing to do that work. And it starts with acknowledging that there is, in fact, a professional literature that is associated with archivists.
Eric Ensley 40:39
Matthew, you took the words right out of my mouth but yes, you’re absolutely right. And I appreciate that you’re citing archivists and, you know, librarians and curators and information professionals. There is a whole kind of ecosystem of literature. Caitlin, I was really struck, too, that when Bridget Whearty says that, gave her presentation on the Caswell Test that she points out that, you know, it’s not that I don’t understand archives, I’ve read the literature. And she goes on to paragraph out, like, everything she’s read, and at the end, it’s, and I’ve even gotten through Archive Fever before, YET… And I think that’s kind of a powerful thing, it’s not that archivists don’t understand that literature, they live that literature, if they don’t explicitly know it, through reading, they implicitly know it, that the archives are not neutral, of course. And I guess the sort of thing I wanted to take a step down from, the sort of archivists and librarians, for just a moment, if I may, because, you know, if we are in universities, like, or large research libraries, we tend to be middle class, we tend to be white, we tend to be… our positions may not be the greatest in this sort of academic ecosystem, but they’re not uncomfortable, typically. And why I’m saying this is that whenever you take the next step down, and you start to look at people like, say, at Google, who are scanning rare books, which they are now doing, you know, you see their fingers show up visibly in the pages as they turn them. And Google’s answer to this is, well, not that we don’t pay enough wages, it’s that we’re going to try to remove the image of their fingers from now on, you know, and that’s the thing, trying to literally erase the labor that they do in their gloved fingers. And I would also add to that with EEBO, of course, that they are outsourcing to South Asian countries, Vietnam, India, and paying very, very low wages to the people who are doing a lot of the markup for the EEBO editions. So there, even if we are talking about archivists and librarians, there are still several rungs down that we should be looking at, too, and how this factors into a global neoliberal kind of institution, wherever we, you know, we say that what we’re doing is kind of this academic good, but it’s also built on really horrible labor practices, just rife with it. Then to take another step back up to what we’re doing in universities with archivists and librarians, I was always fond of a lot of what we saw at Yale with the Beinecke, where librarians were invited to teach courses, they were invited to work on exhibitions, and they were billed as full members of the curatorial teams. I think that that’s really important, too, given the kind of job ad I was telling you about. So many of the librarians and archivists and curators do have PhDs, they have MAs, but not that that should be the standard for, you know, celebrating their work. I mean, I think that’s pretty exciting, too, that you’re beginning to see, archivists and curators seen as not just members of the library community but also the teaching community on campus; that it’s seen that paleography, codicology, are not just things you bring in your class once a semester for. They’re actual things that you can teach semester long courses. And they’re valuable skills that are obviously needed in libraries and sort of academia more broadly. So I think that’s pretty heartening. And I’m starting to see that here at Iowa. We’ll be teaching a course in the fall directly in Special Collections called “What is a Book?” where we’re bringing in first year students their first weeks on campus to teach about special collections and what we do and what a day in our life is like, which is really heartening for me.
Matthew Kirschenbaum 44:25
Yeah, I love that. Yeah, I think it also bears mentioning along those lines, given where we are now, I think we’ve all seen examples that get shared out over Twitter and other networks. So it’s really noxious behavior on the part of faculty that seems especially most often during the pandemic have had very much a kind of service orientation, a service view of what it is that the librarians and archivists are there for; you know, occasional instances of outrage that somebody is not available, somebody is not on-site to do a kind of Zoom session in Special Collections for their students, all of whom, along with the instructor are remote. Right? And so, again, that takes us back to Archive Fever in the sense that Carolyn Steedman talks about it as a kind of literal epidemiological phenomenon. But COVID, I think, has also certainly surfaced a lot of those inequities. And I think too, just sending this off to really just kind of echo something Eric was saying. I remember, you know, another conversation with an archivist where, you know, I thought I was being very sort of perceptive and enlightened and I talked about the need to have, you know, kind of full-time salaried individuals responsible for the caretaking of collections. And the person I was speaking with stopped me and said, well, you know, I would love it if we lived in a world where that was the norm, but the reality is, you know, at my institution, it’s typically unpaid interns who do the kind of work that you’re talking about. Right? So that was kind of another layer of revelation and understanding for me that it wasn’t even the kind of idealized notion of the professional who is often doing this work, but in fact that there are deep inequities. Even, you know, once you get down to the level of how a collection is actually processed.
Caitlin Postal 46:35
The sort of last question that we’ve planned out for today is thinking about the behind-the-scenes work, so to speak, and more public-facing work. So how do we distinguish between what we consider to be behind-the-scenes digital archival work and public scholarship? Can and should we even draw those distinctions when we’re doing different kinds of work? And I’m thinking, I’d like Eric, for you to speak to this initially. Because I know that you’re doing a lot of public facing work with UI special collections, including videos on their YouTube channel, and the class that’s going to be taught in the fall of “What is a Book?” bringing in first year students to get some hands-on experience just sounds really fantastic. So yeah, that question about what’s considered behind-the-scenes, what’s considered public, and why we make those distinctions.
Eric Ensley 47:23
I will kind of start by talking about the… there was a Twitter battle that was just pretty horrendous a couple of weeks ago, which was the library superstars versus the “keep your head down and do your job” librarians. And both sides are present on Twitter. And it just ended up being a massive battle between the rock stars and the “keep your head down” people. And I think the point though is that you have to have both. The rock stars, the library rock stars are doing an important service. I’m not a rock star in that regard, you know, maybe 5% of what I do is digital outreach. Most of my day is spent updating catalogs, doing shelf reads, writing finding aids, and teaching classes. But the people who are doing the outreach and showing the special collections and rare books, that they matter and that they’re cool, and that they get people in the door, that’s very important work. I would also say that I don’t want to draw a hard distinction between digital outreach and digital scholarship. Because there’s kind of an amorphous area in the middle, right. There are blog posts that can just be very close to academic articles. And there can be YouTube channels where, you know, I’m baking historical recipes and having fun doing it. I think the point though is that those all do something for the library, and that they kind of guide people that there are different ways to interact with rare books. And it’s not just the dusty professor in a tweed jacket in the Bodleian. It’s also that these are interesting things that can be fun to talk about and fun to joke about. So I think that there’s a lot of different approaches and a lot of different means to approach to go about working with rare materials and doing outreach with them. And I think the other thing, too, is that we do probably need to start thinking about how we’re going to think about giving plaudits to people for what they’re doing. So I don’t think that every finding aid that archivist or librarian writes needs to be signed. But I think of this kind of statement that you get in XML documents saying the responsibilities, like, who did what for this document are important, right. And it’s good data practices to mark when somebody does something, if somebody changes something in the code, you mark it in the XML, to show who did it and when it was done. And I think it would be nice to see an academia that functions a little bit more like that. Maybe, you know, not everybody needs the author credit, but just saying, hey, the archivists helped with this at this point, or kind of reenvisioning how we do scholarship and who gets praised at what points rather than just putting it all in an acknowledgement that maybe two people will read at the outset of a book. I don’t know. That’s a big ask, and maybe that’s a good way to end my major statement here. It’s a complete reenvisioning I would love to see.
Caitlin Postal 50:07
I think it’s funny that you say not every finding aid needs a signature, because I would say that every finding aid does need a signature because I’m particularly interested in not just like the provenance of the object, but also the provenance of the metadata. I always want to know that information. And maybe that’s just me, maybe I’m the only person interested. But I would make that stronger argument because I want to see it.
Eric Ensley 50:32
And I actually, I want to say something real quick, which is that you’re not wrong. I know somebody who thinks that every finding aid should be signed. Why I’m against it is that we change finding aids every couple of weeks, you know, they get updated all the time. And at a certain point, you’d end up with something that looks like, you know, the Declaration of Arbroath or something, you know, with like 50,000 signatures below it. I’m being purely practical, but the idea is right, so…
Matthew Kirschenbaum 50:57
And that’s, you know, you never know what’s going to be useful or important or interesting to someone down the road, you know. The kind of something that seems like only a kind of rote statement of credit or responsibility, that becomes part of the story of what the artifact is. And it reminds me of those gloves and the Google scan and the fingers and the gloves in the Google scans which, Google may scrub those from their images, but we know now when we look at the materials in our collections, some of the things that we cherish the most are precisely those that reveal the hand of either their originator or somebody else who touched them along the way, right? And so, you know, I think that sort of sense of presence that we’ve been calling both materiality and also labor for the last hour, there’s an ethical dimension to it. But there’s also a kind of a real epistemological dimension as well. That’s how we know stuff by being able to kind of recreate, retrace those networks of responsibility. Every finding aid should have a signature.
James Harr 52:24
The question is, how do you do it in a minimalistic way?
Caitlin Postal 52:29
There’s probably some very smart people who can discern how to do every finding aid with a signature in a way so that it doesn’t become 50,000 lines of names for you know, two paragraphs of information.
Caitlin Postal 52:40
Thanks for listening to Coding Codices, a podcast by the Digital Medievalist Postgraduate Subcommittee. I’m Caitlin Postal.
James Harr 52:47
And I’m James Harr.
Caitlin Postal 52:58
And our guests on this episode were Eric Ensley and Matthew Kirschenbaum. You can listen to more episodes of Coding Codices on our website, podcast.digitalmedievalist.org, or the podcast provider of your choice. Or get in touch with us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Intro/Outro: TeknoAXE, “Chiptune Nobility” (CC BY 4.0).
- Interludes: Random Mind, “The Old Tower Inn” (CC0).