Reassessing the ‘Real’

This piece is a response to A.S.G. Edwards’ ‘Back to the Real’, from 7 June 2013. Find it here [accessed 25 July 2013]. — Apologies for taking such a long time to post. I started writing this response a few days after the piece was posted on the TLS website, but life took over and, as usual, the blog was the first thing to be neglected. Another thing to add to my growing list of ‘THINGS I NEED TO DO BETTER’.

Medievalists (in any incarnation, be it musicological or otherwise) have produced a broad array of reactions to digitization, and have been writing (in both digital and print media) about these reactions for the 30-odd years that this form of technology has been developing methods of use and gaining popularity within the field. Given the availability of digital resources to be evaluated (existing on both ends of the Spectrum of Helpfulness) and the access to scholarship that is both supportive and constructively critical of digital surrogates, the general response that a surrogate is simply not the same as the original seems, well, obvious. Sometimes it is good to have a reminder of this, especially in a time where technology is growing at an exponential rate, but I do not believe it is as cut-and-dry as the question Edwards puts forward: Is digitization ‘a good thing for those of us who study or edit the book in its various material forms?’ (¶5).

Yes, there are pros and cons, but perhaps it would be more constructive to ask how we can adapt digitization to fit both the needs of researchers and students. While Edwards concedes that accessibility is a positive aspect of digitization, he puts much greater emphasis on the misleading qualities of the digital surrogate. The concept of a user’s understanding of the book as an object is important, and the effect of perception on scholarship is a subject that continues to fascinate me as I work on my own Ph.D. research in the field of medieval musicology. The idea of cognitive dissonance when attempting to relate a digital image on a screen to an object whose existence, history and contents are being studied can be a difficult road to navigate (in ¶6, Edwards discusses the negative side effects of being unable to physically interact with a source). Modern scholars and teachers will certainly have experience with the so-called ‘Google effect’, a theory where students supposedly develop lower rates of recollection as a result of having a secondary brain at their fingertips – will a digital image of a manuscript cause students to miss specific details, or misremember things simply because they know they have the image to refer to? This worry is certainly tied into Edwards’ warning, and similar past warnings from other scholars, but as Douglas Rushkoff points out in his book Program or Be Programmed: Ten Commandments for a Digital Age, this process of ‘offloading our remembered information began with the invention of text, and met with similar critique even back then’ (39). Perhaps a more productive reaction to this potential problem is to support the need for restructured research methods rather than for general demonization of technological innovation. Most digital images of manuscripts include a ruler in the image frame to indicate actual size of objects digitized – perhaps including some sort of comparison shot (such as a human standing near the source, or the source next to an object such as a pencil) would be a more helpful indicator for students still learning the basics of research with sources.

I found the implication that general interest in digital surrogates (as in non-scholarly) is not something that research libraries should strive for, or even take pride in, to be slightly troubling. Using the British Library’s digitization of the Codex Sinaiticus as an example, Edwards asserts that the 10,000 estimated hits per month are possibly a sign that the BL is ‘investing heavily not in scholarship, but in a new branch of the entertainment industry’, and goes on to wonder if it is worth asking ‘whether making the surrogate digitally accessible for the benefit of a small number of scholars justifies the million pounds it cost’ (¶7).

I believe I understand the economic impetus behind Edwards’ statement here (a later discussion in ¶12 asks if a grant-funded digitization project at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge can rightfully justify subscription-based access to the resulting digitized MSS), but the BL’s site also has lots of open-access information on the Codex, its history, creation and contents. Open access is not something we can offer only to scholars. The British Library is free to visit seven days a week, and offers many free exhibitions. Couldn’t digital collections be considered an extension of this open-access engagement with the public? Also, in a time when crowdsourcing and digitization are beginning to go hand in hand, are we willing to trust the general public for help in transcription, but unwilling to allow them to view objects that have long been deemed worthy of scholarly interest?

The argument that I take most issue with, however, is that of digitization leading to a lack  of skilled research students. Because my Ph.D. research is directly tackling the use of digital images in developing teaching tools, I believe that if this is a problem then digital images could easily be part of a solution. Edwards writes that, ‘Graduate students ought to be given properly supervised access to primary materials at an early stage. Few universities offer such training, and there has been an alarming and sustained failure to offer it by central research bodies’ (¶9). I agree wholeheartedly with this statement, but I’m also aware that many universities lack access as well as the funds to offer subject-specific training. Depending on the design of the resource, digital images could be a cost-effective (there are many sites offering free access, usually only requiring free registration) way to teach students how to work with sources. As long as the physical elements are discussed clearly, a combination of printed facsimiles and digital images could be a supplementary teaching resource – digital images for close work on contents and mise en page, for example, and printed facsimiles for a physical reminder of size. I of course say supplementary because images cannot replace working with sources – this is merely a way to integrate digitization into teaching practice as well as offer a cost-effective method of preparing students for eventual work with sources, where the learning process would continue to be developed. By integrating digital images into teaching methodology, universities could potentially ensure a greater return on the investment of a digitization project. Use in a classroom would guarantee regular use, possibly giving greater motivation to a funding body to provide economic backing. Edwards suggests, ‘One could argue that, in terms of investment, bibliographical training (including palaeography) for graduate students should take priority over digitization’ – in this case, the two could be combined.

Having worked for a digitization project while working on my Masters degree at Oxford, I can say that the amount of bibliographical training I received was far greater than what I would have gained independently. I believe that, because the project I was working on contained a huge number of images from many international sources, I was forced to very quickly familiarize myself with the bibliographic elements of what I was working with in order to effectively do my job.

This isn’t a discussion with a clear-cut ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answer. As is the case with most elements of education, different learning and research strategies will be more or less effective based on the individual student or scholar. Yet we are fortunate to live in a time where the technological possibility exists for experimentation (and dare I say — revolution) in educational structure, policy, and process. Our daily interactions through technology and digital media are quickly creating a world where the concept of ‘real’ is shifting. Yes, some of our conversations may be through the digital medium, but does that make the content and the thought behind our words any less valuable? We are fortunate to have the opportunity to explore new resources. The only way to discover any sort of effectiveness in practice is to experiment, and to keep an open mind.

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