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CLIR Issues Number 46

CLIR Issues

Number 46 • July/August 2005


American Literature E-Scholarship: A Revolution in the Making by Kathlin Smith

The Promise and Problems of Digital Scholarship by Amy Harbur

In Brief

  • Bibliotheca Alexandrina Joins DLF
  • DLF Incorporates
  • Forthcoming in Print

Humanists Receive Library Fellowships

Tom Mallon: Coming from the Access Side of the Ampersand by Nancy Davenport

American Literature E-Scholarship:
A Revolution in the Making

by Kathlin Smith

Technology is transforming scholarship, and while technology’s impact has been less extensive in the humanities than in the social or natural sciences, recent years have seen a blossoming of innovation by digital humanists. In a forthcoming report from CLIR and DLF titled A Kaleidoscope of Digital American Literature, author Martha Brogan describes achievements in digital American literature and explores priorities and concerns of digital practitioners in the field. Written with the help of Daphnée Rentfrow, the publication is based on a preliminary report prepared for The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in 2004.

“Until quite recently,” Brogan writes, “the work of American literary scholars engaged in applying new media to their teaching and research has been viewed by their peers with a combination of skepticism and bemusement, tinged by awe, if only at their colleagues’ quixotic daring. . . . Because their work largely falls outside the safety net of traditional peer review, it has rarely been discussed in the core journals of the discipline unless one of its proponents is inspired to write about his or her experience.”

Brogan interviewed more than 40 scholars, librarians, and practitioners to learn how well digital resources serve scholars of American literature and what is most needed to advance digital scholarship. She also conducted a review of digital resources and projects in American literature, a sampling of which comprises the bulk of the report. Exemplars are organized into six categories: quality-controlled subject gateways, author studies, e-book collections and alternative publishing models, reference resources and full-text collections, collections by design (resources crafted by careful selection of materials related to a particular area of interest), and teaching applications.

A handful of scholars, visionary librarians, professional societies, and funding agencies have led the digital revolution in American literature. The University of Virginia—in particular, the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities and the Library’s Electronic Text Center—is widely credited with fostering a culture of digital innovation in the humanities. Amidst this innovation and wealth of new digital content, however, lie “obstacles to more rapid deployment of digital resources in American literature,” according to Brogan.

Need for Organizational Leadership

Overall, scholarly and professional organizations in American literature have not exerted strong leadership in bringing digital scholarship into the discipline, asserts the author. The history profession, in contrast, “has been actively engaged in an open, highly visible dialog about the application of digital resources toward a transformation of the discipline.” Brogan cites the American Historical Association and the Organization of American Historians as fostering innovation through numerous large-scale partnerships. She examines what three important scholarly associations for American literature—the Modern Language Association of America (MLA), the American Studies Association, and the American Literature Association—have done to advance digital scholarship in the field.

Lack of Common Agenda

Interviewees frequently said that their discipline was hampered by the lack of a common agenda. There is a critical need, they indicated, for scholars, practitioners, publishers, and funding agencies to agree on priorities, standards, best practices, and a strategic plan. Brogan points to the Networked Interface for Nineteenth-Century Electronic Scholarship (NINES) project, which supports scholars in British and American literature, as a model for such a community of practice. “In addition to formulating processes for peer-reviewed digital scholarship and creating a publishing environment, NINES is developing analytical tools to support the work of its constituents. The effort as a whole might be construed as an attempt to build a cyberinfrastructure for scholars in nineteenth-century British and American literature,” she writes.

Paucity of Tools

Because digital scholarship is still so new to them, most humanists find it hard to articulate what tools they need beyond information filtering and navigational devices.

A variety of notable projects are, however, available or under development. Among them are the NINES tools, which will support six basic scholarly tasks (arranging, comparing, transforming, discussing, commenting on, and collecting texts and images); the Nora project, which is developing software for discovering, visualizing, and exploring significant patterns across large collections of full-text humanities resources in existing digital libraries; the NITLE Semantic Engine, designed to facilitate accessing and organizing large amounts of unstructured digital text; and DLF Aquifer, a suite of services and tools to support a distributed, open digital library. These tools are the result of decades of research in humanities computing, and, when fully realized, they are expected to support mainstream scholarly work.

Insufficient Peer-Review Process

While the published monograph remains an important criterion for advancement and tenure throughout the humanities, digital scholarship is gaining acceptance in some areas. In history, for example, newly minted Ph.D.s whose work is featured in Gutenberg-e have secured tenure-track positions across the country.

Faculty members interviewed for this report had a range of opinions about the impact of digital scholarship on the promotion-and-tenure process. “One scholar observed that some forms of digital peer review already occur but that there is no public record of scholarly transactions when they assess the digital work of their colleagues going up for promotion and tenure, serve as references for new digital scholars on the job market, or evaluate grant proposals in support of digital projects,” writes Brogan. Another interviewee, a senior American literature scholar, maintains that the promotion-and-tenure issue is grossly exaggerated, and that most institutions see digital scholarship as an advantage.

Many electronic resources, including articles in leading journals indexed by MLA’s international bibliography, are now peer reviewed, writes the author, and other formal peer-review mechanisms are starting to emerge.

Absence of Trusted Mechanisms to Sustain and Preserve Digital Work

The ephemeral nature of digital products is a concern of many scholars as well as of scholarly publishers. Brogan describes three initiatives related to American literature that are addressing this concern. The Electronic Literature Organization’s Preservation, Archiving, and Dissemination Project is educating digital scholars about what they can do at the point of creation to help ensure that their work remains viable. The University of Virginia Library’s Model for Sustaining Digital Scholarship is developing an institutional framework to support a full array of digital scholarship services. Finally, Brogan cites the services provided by digital object repositories and the DLF Registry of Digital Masters as critical to ensuring that digital scholarship remains accessible and fit for long-term use.

Rights Restrictions

Several interviewees identified copyright as the biggest obstacle to advancing digital scholarship in American literature. Brogan cites some reasons for this barrier. To begin, American literature of the twentieth century—the period that currently attracts most scholarly interest—is largely off-limits for digital projects because of copyright restrictions. Second, it is often complicated to obtain the necessary permissions to use literary manuscripts of any period for print, let alone digital, publications. Finally, scholars are challenged in obtaining permission to access or reuse original digital source files. There is no U.S.-based source repository, similar to the Oxford Text Archive, from which they may request source files. Indeed, one interviewee doubted that such a model would succeed in the United States because academic institutions, which have invested heavily in digital-product development, are unwilling to relinquish “ownership.” Brogan cites the Text Creation Partnership (TCP) at the University of Michigan as “the only wide-scale initiative aimed at releasing digital master files from proprietary control to unfettered use by its members.”

Need for Sustainable Business Models

Interviewees expressed concern about the expense of large-scale digital efforts. “Publishers and librarians alike look to models such as the TCP as the only economically viable way to produce high-quality, thoroughly edited and encoded text. Even this public-private cooperative, which hinges on purchasing the corpora first, is beyond the reach of many academic libraries,” Brogan writes. Scholars worry that this could create new classes of information haves and have-nots.

Concerns about the shift from owning to licensing content are felt across disciplines and are experienced increasingly by campus leaders who realize that they are paying more for, yet have less control over, the scholarly resources on which their institutions depend. Even the creation of institutional digital repositories—one means of regaining control and ownership of faculty output—is expensive, and the idea is not always popular with faculty. “This and other questions show the need in the field of American literature for coordinated strategic planning among professional organizations, scholars, librarians, publishers, and funding agencies,” Brogan writes.

Dearth of Specialists

The field needs more specialists who combine disciplinary expertise with knowledge of new technologies. “There is a concern that too few institutions, including research libraries, have subject specialists with the requisite knowledge of technical standards and encoding protocols,” Brogan writes. Graduates with advanced degrees in English need sufficient familiarity with digital practices to make informed decisions about instructional, research, and publishing options. She cites three opportunities for developing such specialists—the CLIR Postdoctoral Fellowships in Scholarly Information Resources, the NINES Summer Workshop, and the Humanities Computing Summer Institute in the Digital Humanities, held at the University of Victoria. “In the minds of the current cadre of specialists, there is an immediate need for many more graduate fellowships, postdoctoral training programs, and early-career faculty institutes such as these,” she reports.

The digital pioneers in American literature are beginning to take stock of their achievements. They are asking questions about how the new technology is affecting analysis itself, rather than focusing only on its scope, speed, or convenience. What are the new genres and forms of publication appropriate to the digital age? “In their efforts to answer tough questions, these seasoned digital leaders are substantiating the ways in which new media are transforming the study of literature,” she concludes.

A Kaleidoscope of Digital American Literature will be available in print and on the Web in August.

The Promise and Problems of Digital Scholarship

by Amy Harbur

“The University,” Ed Ayers declared, “is still unified under one convention, and that is scholarship.”

So opened the Digital Library Federation’s (DLF) Spring Forum 2005, held in San Diego April 13–15. Edward Ayers, dean of the University of Virginia’s College and Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and director of the Valley of the Shadow project, delivered the keynote address to an audience of DLF members, allies, and invited guests from the United States and abroad. Ayers’s theme of “technology and the professorate” was timely. All university constituencies find themselves grappling with the implementation and implications of modern technology. What does it mean for the scholarly community when new tools change not only the method of dissemination but the very creation of scholarship itself?

It is true, Ayers acknowledged, that modern American universities often seem fixed in the apparently disparate disciplinary structures formed in the nineteenth century. But it is also true that those who gather at our universities and colleges, regardless of their discipline, come with the common goals of creating new scholarship and building on what already exists. Digital technology does not alter these goals, but it does raise serious questions about the nature of modern and future scholarship. How may scholars best study, write, and share their knowledge? And how can librarians most effectively support scholars in an increasingly digitally based environment?

Risks and Rewards

Ayers praised former generations of librarians for having the foresight to hold on to seemingly insignificant items—dusty diaries, outdated recipe books, long-forgotten letters—that now are veritable gold mines for historians such as himself. The systems that they devised to organize and preserve such materials have proved their worth time and again.

But while repositories for print and other physical artifacts are now well established, what of the digital creations of today? What must be done to make them accessible to today’s scholars and safe for tomorrow’s? The digital realm is rightly prized for its ease of transmission. Dissemination has never been simpler. But an electronic work is also fragile and easily destroyed. Books come through floods and fires perhaps damaged but often at least partially legible. Information on a corrupted or deleted digital file, or one that cannot be accessed by current hardware or software, by contrast, is irrevocably lost.

Matters of retrieval present other, equally difficult problems. A file that cannot be found is as useless as one that is corrupted. Digital works are stored and organized in different ways by different institutions, and sometimes even by different departments within the same organization. Over time, these works are often moved from one file folder or server to another or are renamed, resulting in broken links. Librarians and their compatriots must remain vigilant, constantly creating and reforming practices, policies, and procedures to keep up with evolving forms of media.

But the new work also brings rewards as scholars learn to exploit the advantages of digital materials. Consider the footnote: Once the first signpost in a conceivably formidable journey, it is now simply a doorway into an adjacent room. To fully use a footnote in a printed source, a scholar must access a copy of the article to which the footnote refers. That article may be in a different book, a different room, a different city, or even a different country. Hyperlinked footnotes, by contrast, can be accessed with a click, allowing scholars to easily and swiftly place works in a readily assembled context. Readers see the evidence and it becomes their own; they can build on it in a way not previously possible. Seen in this light, Ayers conjectured, the digital age is not just fostering, but actually giving rise to, marvelous new forms of scholarship.

Improving Interoperability, Creating Repositories

If proof were needed that librarians, scholars, and administrators continue to grapple with these new challenges to scholarship, it was readily found as the forum progressed. Speakers reported on related projects in various stages of conceptualization and realization. Several touched on the need for standardization to make it easier to search and retrieve documents. Corey Keith and Morgan Cundiff of the Library of Congress discussed the creation of a Metadata Encoding and Transmission Standard (METS) profile-validation tool that will facilitate interoperable exchange of METS documents by enforcing standard rules. Sayeed Choudhury and Tim DiLauro of The Johns Hopkins University proposed that their colleagues consider the benefits of using one “agnostic” interface for repository access rather than several different interfaces customized to various applications. To this end, with the support of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, they are conducting an evaluation of repository software and services. Tito Sierra and Steve Morris of North Carolina State University discussed the work under way in their institution toward developing a “single search box” for Web site searching.

These and other sessions focused on ways to increase interoperability among institutions so that resources can move fluidly from one repository to another. There has also been discussion in the community, reflected at the forum, about the creation of global repositories. One way of accomplishing this is to house all materials at a single site. Another way is to gather links to items stored at any number of participating repositories in a central area—a “commons”—for searching. These links then serve as pathways to the digital items, wherever they may be housed. Charlotte Hess of Indiana University spoke of the Digital Library of the Commons, which she directs. They have found the “library of the commons” model to be unsustainable in practice, given the current state of technology. No matter how many staff are hired to review the collection as presented by the commons, links break faster than they can be repaired. Broader use of digital object identifiers may eventually solve part of the problem. For the time being, however, the most practical way to mitigate broken links is to house all the material onsite.

Members and allies of the DLF and, indeed, library and scholarly communities worldwide, continue to work together to identify and address these and other issues. Through it all, as Mr. Ayers said, the goal remains the same: to foster scholarship and enable current and future scholars to retrieve the wisdom of the past so they might create the knowledge of the future.

The next DLF Forum will be held November 7–9, 2005, in Charlottesville, Virginia.

In Brief

  • Bibliotheca Alexandrina Joins DLF
    Egypt’s Bibliotheca Alexandrina has joined the Digital Library Federation (DLF) as its first strategic partner from outside the United States or Europe. The library was inaugurated in 2002 to recapture the spirit of the ancient Library of Alexandria, a center of world learning from 300 BC to 400 AD. The new library and its affiliated research centers are devoted to using the newest technology to preserve the past and to promote access to the products of the human intellect.
  • DLF Incorporates
    In May, the Digital Library Federation incorporated, a move that will allow it to seek grants directly from funding agencies. It is currently applying for nonprofit tax status. DLF executive offices will continue to be housed at CLIR, and CLIR will continue to provide DLF with staff and financial and administrative services on a contractual basis. The programs and activities of the two organizations will remain closely aligned. A Board of Trustees, comprising a representative from each DLF member institution, will govern the organization. The DLF will appoint a Trustee to serve on CLIR’s Board, and CLIR’s president will serve as a DLF Trustee.
  • Forthcoming in Print
  • In July, CLIR will publish case studies of the two recipients of the 2004 Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Access to Learning Award.Aarhus Public Libraries: Embracing Diversity, Empowering Citizens in Denmark, by Jack Jackson. Denmark’s Aarhus Public Libraries have pursued an innovative agenda to reduce the growing gap between skilled information users and individuals who have no access to information. In a city where almost 12 percent of the residents are refugees or immigrants, the public library system has responded by creating a diverse array of outreach programs and electronic and print resources in immigrants’ native languages.Evergreen: Bringing Information Resources to Rural China, by Geoffrey Z. Liu. The China Evergreen Rural Library Service (CERLS) has used the public school infrastructure to introduce computers and information literacy to populations in rural China where poverty and illiteracy are widespread. The case study describes the partnerships that CERLS formed with local officials, public libraries, and corporations to maximize the impact of its work, and shows how rural residents are using information to improve their lives and their communities.

Humanists Receive Library Fellowships

Four individuals have been awarded Postdoctoral Fellowships in Scholarly Information Resources for Humanists for 2005–2006. The fellows, each of whom recently received a Ph.D. degree in the humanities, will spend next year at an academic research library, where they will gain hands-on experience relating to the issues facing scholars at research libraries in a changing information landscape. CLIR administers the program in collaboration with several U.S. colleges and universities as a means of recruiting new talent into the library profession.

The fellows began their year by attending a preparatory seminar June 12–22. The first week of the seminar was held at Bryn Mawr College; the remainder took place in Washington, D.C.

Information about the fellowships is available at The page includes a link for details about the work of the 2004–2005 fellows.

2005–06 Fellows in Scholarly Information Resources

Marlene Allen
Discipline/Where Ph.D. Earned: English, University of Georgia
Fellowship Host Institution: UCLA

Ali Anooshahr
Discipline/Where Ph.D. Earned: History, UCLA
Fellowship Host Institution: UCLA

Kelly Miller
Discipline/Where Ph.D. Earned: Slavic Languages and Literatures, University of Michigan
Fellowship Host Institution: University of Virginia

Michelle Morton
Discipline/Where Ph.D. Earned: Literature, University of California, Santa Cruz
Fellowship Host Institution: University of California, Berkeley

Tom Mallon: Coming from the Access Side of the Ampersand

Mallon photo

Tom Mallon describes himself as more at home in a library than anywhere else. Tom is the not-so-new director of preservation at the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), having assumed the position in January 2005. George Farr, the previous director, retired in September 2004.

When Tom and I met for this interview, I pressed him on the question, “Why would you leave a policy-level position as a member of the National Humanities Council for a position managing the NEH’s grant-making activities in the area of preservation?” As a member of the council, he had been responsible for the Public Programs Division of NEH.

“Moving to preservation was a natural for me,” Tom said. He has haunted archives and libraries for years while researching his novels and essays. “I’ve worked with original resources. I know how important they are for the researcher. I’ve worked with the crumbling CBS kinescope tapes and with handwritten ledgers,” he said. He comes to the position with the point of view of the scholar-user, having done research for his novels at the Library of Congress, the National Archives, and the Senate Library.

Tom has published four novels, including Aurora 7, set in the early days of space exploration, and Two Moons, set just after the Civil War. He has also published several works of nonfiction and numerous essays. He has been the literary editor of Gentlemen’s Quarterly and has published in the New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s, The New York Times Magazine, and The New York Times Book Review as well as The American Scholar and The Yale Review. He said that his book editors see his new job as a natural continuation in his career; he has used historical materials so extensively that they see him taking a stewardship role for such materials as a logical next step.

Tom describes digitization as the way to have maximum impact over a wide geographical area. “In fact, geography disappears!” Digital work can be accessed from anywhere so it’s the “best form to serve the user.”

Pressed to give advice on developing a winning NEH proposal, he urged prospective grantees to cite the need, emphasize creativity, inventiveness, use of best practices, and documentation of the methodology. Preserving born-digital materials is vital, he noted. How do we preserve all the important work that is on the hard drives or the e-mails in our personal computers? What will be missing from the personal papers that scholars have traditionally deposited and their biographers have used years later to understand a scholar in his or her own time?

As a scholar and a working writer, Tom brings to the preservation program a passion for access to preserved material for scholarly purposes—the access side of the ampersand in preservation and access.

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