Doing Digital Scholarship

  1. 1. Lisa Spiro

    Rice University

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When I completed my dissertation Bachelors of Arts:
Bachelorhood and the Construction of Literary Identity in Antebellum
America in 2002, I fi gured that I was ahead of most of my peers
in my use of digital resources, but I made no pretense of
doing digital scholarship. I plumbed electronic text collections
such as Making of America and Early American Fiction for
references to bachelorhood, and I used simple text analysis
tools to count the number of times words such as “bachelor”
appeared in key texts. I even built an online critical edition
of a section from Reveries of a Bachelor (http://etext.virginia.
edu/users/spiro/Contents2.html), one of the central texts of
sentimental bachelorhood. But in my determination to fi nish
my PhD before gathering too many more gray hairs, I resisted
the impulse to use more sophisticated analytical tools or to
publish my dissertation online.
Five years later, the possibilities for digital scholarship in the
humanities have grown. Projects such as TAPOR, Token-X, and
MONK are constructing sophisticated tools for text analysis
and visualization. Massive text digitization projects such as
Google Books and the Open Content Alliance are making
it possible to search thousands (if not millions) of books.
NINES and other initiatives are building communities of digital
humanities scholars, portals to content, and mechanisms for
conducting peer review of digital scholarship. To encourage
digital scholarship, the NEH recently launched a funding
program. Meanwhile, scholars are blogging, putting up videos
on YouTube, and using Web 2.0 tools to collaborate.
Despite this growth in digital scholarship, there are still too
few examples of innovative projects that employ “digital
collections and analytical tools to generate new intellectual
products” (ACLS 7). As reports such as A Kaleidoscope of
American Literature and Our Cultural Commonwealth suggest,
the paucity of digital scholarship results from the lack of
appropriate tools, technical skills, funding, and recognition. In a
study of Dickinson, Whitman and Uncle Tom’s Cabin scholars,
my colleague Jane Segal and I found that although scholars
are increasingly using digital resources in their research, they
are essentially employing them to make traditional research
practices more effi cient and gain access to more resources,
not (yet) to transform their research methodology by
employing new tools and processes (
on-humanities-research). What does it mean to do
humanities research in a Web 2.0 world? To what extent do
existing tools, resources, and research methods support digital
scholarship, and what else do scholars need? To investigate these questions, I am revisiting my dissertation
to re-imagine and re-mix it as digital scholarship. I aim not only
to open up new insights into my primary research area--the
signifi cance of bachelorhood in nineteenth-century American
culture--but also to document and analyze emerging methods
for conducting research in the digital environment. To what
extent do digital tools and resources enable new approaches
to traditional research questions—and to what extent are
entirely new research questions and methods enabled? I am
structuring my research around what John Unsworth calls
the “scholarly primitives,” or core research practices in the
1. Discovering: To determine how much information
is available online, I have searched for the nearly 300
resources cited in my dissertation in Google Books, Making
of America, and other web sites. I found that 77% of my
primary source resources and 22% of my secondary sources
are available online as full-text, while 92% of all my research
materials have been digitized (this number includes works
available through Google Books as limited preview, snippet
view, and no preview.) Although most nineteenth-century
books cited in my dissertation are now freely available
online, many archival resources and periodicals have not yet
been digitized.
2. Annotating: In the past, I kept research notes in long,
unwieldy Word documents, which made it hard to fi nd
information that I needed. New software such as Zotero
enables researchers to store copies of the digital resources
and to make annotations as part of the metadata record.
What effect does the ability to share and annotate
resources have on research practices? How useful is tagging
as a mechanism for organizing information?
3. Comparing: Through text analysis and collation software
such as Juxta and TAPOR, scholars can compare different
versions of texts and detect patterns. Likewise, the Virtual
Lightbox allows researchers to compare and manipulate
digital images. What kind of new insights can be generated
by using these tools? In the course of doing my research,
I am testing freely available tools and evaluating their
usefulness for my project.
4. Referring: With digital publications, we not only can refer
to prior work, but link to it, even embed it. What is the
best means for constructing a scholarly apparatus in digital
scholarship, particularly in a work focused not only on
making an argument, but also on examining the process that
shaped that argument?
5. Sampling: With so much information available, what
criteria should we use to determine what to focus on?
Since not everything is digitized and search engines can be
blunt instruments, what do we ignore by relying mainly on
digital resources? In my blog, I am refl ecting on the selection
criteria used to produce the arguments in my revamped
6. Illustrating: What kind of evidence do we use to build
an argument in a work of digital scholarship, and how is that
evidence presented? In my dissertation, I generalized about
the signifi cance of bachelorhood in American literature by
performing close readings of a few key texts, but such a
method was admittedly unsystematic. By using text analysis
tools to study a much larger sample of primary texts, I
can cite statistics such as word frequency in making my
argument--but does this make my argument any more
7. Representing: How should a work of digital scholarship
be presented? Ideally readers would be able to examine
the evidence for themselves and even perform their
own queries. At the same time, information should be
offered so that it is clear and consistent with familiar
academic discourse. How should I make available not
only research conclusions, but also the detailed research
process that undergirds these conclusions--the successful
and unsuccessful searches, the queries run in text analysis
software, the insights offered by collaborators? How will
the digital work compare to the more traditional original
dissertation? What kind of tools (for instance, ifBook’s
Sophie) will be used to author the work?
In addition to Unsworth’s list, I offer two more:
8. Collaborating: Although humanities scholars are thought
to be solitary, they collaborate frequently by exchanging
bibliographic references and drafts of their essays. How do
I engage the community in my research? I am encouraging
others to comment on my (re-) work in progress (http:// using Comment Press.
Moreover, I am bookmarking all web-based sources for
my study on delicious (
scholarship) and making available feeds from my various
research sources through a PageFlakes portal (http://www.
pagefl On my blog, “Digital Scholarship
in the Humanities,” I explore issues and ideas raised by
my research ( I
am examining what it takes to build an audience and how
visibility and collaboration affect my research practices.
9. Remixing: What would it mean to take an earlier
work--my own dissertation, for example--use new sources
and approaches, and present it in a new form? What
constitutes a scholarly remix, and what are the implications
for intellectual property and academic ethics? I also plan
to experiment with mashups as a means of generating and
presenting new insights, such as a Google Map plotting
census statistics about antebellum bachelors or a visual
mashup of images of bachelors.
This project examines the process of doing research digitally,
the capabilities and limits of existing tools and resources, and
the best means of authoring, representing and disseminating
digital scholarship. I aim to make this process as open, visible,
and collaborative as possible. My presentation will focus on emerging research methodologies in the humanities,
particularly the use of tools to analyze and organize
information, the development of protocols for searching and
selecting resources, and the dissemination of ideas through
blogs and multimedia publication.
American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS). Our Cultural
Commonwealth: The Report of the American Council of Learned
Societies Commission on Cyberinfrastructure for the Humanities
and Social Sciences. New York: American Council of Learned
Societies, 2006.
Brogan, Martha. A Kaleidoscope of Digital American Literature.
Digital Library Federation. 2005. 22 May 2007 <http://www.>.
Unsworth, John. “Scholarly Primitives: what methods do
humanities researchers have in common, and how might our
tools refl ect this?’ 13 May 2000. 20 November 2007. <http://

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Conference Info


ADHO - 2008

Hosted at University of Oulu

Oulu, Finland

June 25, 2008 - June 29, 2008

135 works by 231 authors indexed

Conference website:

Series: ADHO (3)

Organizers: ADHO

  • Keywords: None
  • Language: English
  • Topics: None