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A Summary of a Report Published by the Digital Library Federation and Council on Library and Information Resources

Survey of Reissues of U.S. Recordings

By Martha Brogan with the assistance of Daphnée Rentfrow
September 2005

This summary was written by Kathlin Smith

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

Most of the report—more than 100 pages—is devoted to an extensive review of digital resources and projects in American literature. They 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 built around a particular area of interest, and teaching applications.

In a section that precedes the resource descriptions, Brogan summarizes the findings of her interviews with 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. The interviewees, while acknowledging the wealth of recent innovation, expressed a range of observations and concerns about how the field is responding to the emergence of digital scholarship.

Resistance to change. Humanities scholars have tended to resist change in how they do their work and to view digital media as peripheral to their scholarship, said a prominent humanist. He credits visionary librarians, professional societies, and their supporters in the philanthropic world with leading the transformation of the study of literature.

Need for organizational leadership. Many interviewees felt that scholarly and professional organizations in American literature have not exerted strong enough leadership in bringing digital scholarship into the discipline. Brogan 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. The field of American literature is fragmented and uncoordinated, said interviewees. There is a critical need for scholars, practitioners, publishers, and funding agencies to agree on priorities, standards, best practices, and a strategic plan. The Networked Interface for Nineteenth-Century Electronic Scholarship (NINES) project, which is creating “a publishing environment for integrated, peer-reviewed online scholarship,” is cited as a model for such a community of practice for scholars in nineteenth-century British and American literature.

Paucity of tools. Most humanists find it hard to articulate what tools they need beyond information filtering and navigational devices. Several notable projects are, however, available or under development. Among them are the NINES tools, the NORA project, the NITLE Semantic Engine, and DLF Aquifer. When fully realized, these tools are expected to support mainstream scholarly work.

Insufficient peer-review process. Faculty members expressed a range of opinions about the impact of digital scholarship on the promotion-and-tenure process in the humanities. Many forms of digital scholarship appear without peer review but some, including articles in leading journals indexed by MLA’s international bibliography, are now peer reviewed, and other formal peer-review mechanisms are starting to emerge.

Concern about preservation. The ephemeral nature of digital products is a concern of many scholars and scholarly publishers. The report 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. Services provided by digital object repositories and the DLF Registry of Digital Masters are 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. Twentieth-century American literature is largely off-limits for digital projects because of copyright restrictions. It is often complicated to obtain permission to use literary manuscripts of any period for print, let alone digital, publications. Finally, it can be difficult to obtain permission to access or reuse original digital source files. Brogan cites the Text Creation Partnership (TCP) led by 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.

Dearth of specialists. The field needs more specialists who combine disciplinary expertise with knowledge of new technologies. “Increasingly, all humanists will need a basic understanding of how technical decisions inform the presentation and longevity of digital content,” Brogan writes. She cites a few programs designed to meet these needs.

The digital pioneers in American literature 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? Brogan concludes, “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.”

More About this Report

A Kaleidoscope of Digital American Literature
Martha L. Brogan with the assistance of Daphnée Rentfrow
September 2005. ISBN 1-932326-17-0. 176 pages.

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