The Space Between: Literature and Culture 1914-1945

Book Review | Scholarly Adventures in Digital Humanities: Making the Modernist Archives Publishing Project

Scholarly Adventures in Digital Humanities: Making the Modernist Archives Publishing Project. By Claire Battershill, Helen Southworth, Alice Stavely, Michael Widner, Elizabeth Willson Gordon, and Nicola Wilson.  Palgrave Macmillan, 2017. $109.99 (cloth). $84.99 (ebook).

Reviewed by Erin E. Templeton, Converse College


Scholarly Adventures in Digital Humanities: Making the Modernist Archives Publishing Project is curious book. It aims to marry book history, digital humanities, and modernism with reflections on scholarly collaborative practices, pedagogical applications, and public outreach work for academics working in any (or all) of these fields. Its authors, all six of them, have performed a labor of love in the chronicling of their joint venture, and though it is a little strange to be reading a print book about a digital project, an irony that the authors themselves recognize in a footnote, this category-refusing book has much to offer a wide range of readers.

Digital Humanities, or DH in short, has been in the academic spotlight for the better part of a decade, though its lineage in the academy can be traced back much further. With few exceptions, however, modernist scholars have been late to join the fray. Our delay is the result of a variety of factors, most of which share the common denominator of copyright law, which poses particular barriers for scholars in the United States but has affected modernists from all over the world in different ways and to different degrees. The Modernist Archives Publishing Project (MAPP), Scholarly Adventure’s online counterpart, is a recent foray into the relative wasteland of digital modernism following in the august footsteps of projects like the Modernist Journals Project and The Orlando Project. Its print companion, Scholarly Adventures, is a collective set of reflections on a number of topics: the origins of MAPP, theorizing collaborative work in the humanities, the process of building the MAPP, digital pedagogy, and what it means to be a public intellectual in humanities in the twenty-first century. 

Collaboration is often a hallmark of DH work, largely because few academics possess the wide range of skills and expertise necessary to build a project like MAPP. Such a project requires not only knowledge in subject matter (in this case, specializations in both British modernism and book history) but also proficiencies in digital platforms, mark-up languages, data collection, and management. As a result, it’s common to have teams of scholars working together across disciplinary specializations and institutional borders, particularly for a larger scale project like MAPP. Scholarly Adventures provides detailed biographies of each of its creators, which is useful to demonstrate the range of expertise and various skill sets that each contributed to the overall project. Often, users only see the end result of DH work, the front end, or the user interface. Scholarly Adventures provides a rare glimpse behind the curtain, so to speak. It not only details how each of its contributors came to the project, it also theorizes the importance of collaboration in humanities scholarship and provides concrete recommendations for readers who themselves might be considering a similar kind of collaborative work.

The chapter book that is dedicated to detailing the process behind MAPP is titled “Building a Critical Digital Archive” and opens with a history of digital archives. This material might be familiar to some readers, but it will be new to others and provides a useful critical overview for the technical discussion to follow. The authors detail their decision-making process from MAPP’s inception, including how they came up with its name, and they take the reader through various considerations which led to the selection of their digital platform (Drupal), as well as the assorted kinds of data and mark-up that MAPP will offer its users. This chapter is the only one to get into technical considerations of datasets, digital interfaces, and design considerations. Lay readers might feel a little overwhelmed by the discussions of data modeling and the semantic web, but to their credit, the authors have made rather complicated the material accessible and provided clear explanations of their rationale and goals for the MAPP.

In addition to chapters dedicated to collaboration and archive building, some chapters focus on digital pedagogy and the challenges of public scholarship. All of the chapters in the book are related to elements of (Virginia) Woolf studies and the work of the Hogarth press, but the book is not primarily about modernism, Bloomsbury, Virginia and/or Leonard Woolf, or the Hogarth press, nor does it position itself as such. Readers who come to it expecting detailed engagements with the primary source materials available on the MAPP will be disappointed (that’s what the website is for, after all). Instead, the focus is less on the early twentieth century as an end in and of itself and more on trying to forge connections between the important digital work that the MAPP has made available to its users and the more analog-based contemporary concerns of the academy. Each chapter is grounded in important digital sites that provide context and illustrate the chapter’s focus. When relevant, the authors also reference digital work in modernist studies such as the Modernist Journals Project and the Modernist Versions Project, but the authors also bring in other prominent works such as the Rossetti Archive, the Women Writers Project, and the William Blake Archive. Together these provide a good introduction to various elements of DH for a wide range of readers who are new to the field or are familiar with some elements and not others. At times, however, this context feels a bit dated. The discussions of “hack vs. yak,” for example, or whether or not DHers need to code, recall debates that were quite heated in 2010 and 2011 but seem far less pressing in 2018. They do provide entryways, however, into important questions that DH has had to confront as it has struggled for legitimacy as a field.

I particularly appreciate the way that the authors collectively parse out concerns for scholars in different countries, at different kinds of institutions, and at different stages of their careers. There is a collective awareness of potential users who might have different interests and needs from a site like the MAPP and who also might have different levels of familiarity with DH jargon and DH resources. To that end, Scholarly Adventures provides its readers with two appendices: a glossary of DH terminology and “A Field Guide to Digital Projects.” The glossary contains terms from the proprietary “Dropbox,” “GoogleTools,” and “Skype” to “Graphical User Interface” and “TEI (Text Encoding Initiative).” While it’s hard to imagine a reader unfamiliar with Google or Skype, it’s better to err on the side of caution particularly given the rate of changing platforms and technological obsolescence. The Field Guide is even more useful. It is a list of a number of significant DH projects and includes both modernist projects and those which are not modernist in subject but which the authors have chosen because they “paved the way for our own excursions into the world of DH” (145). It includes 18thConnect and the Emily Dickinson Archive as well as Digital Yoknapatawpha, Infinite Ulysses, Open Modernisms and many, many more. Together, the Field Guide and glossary provide a good entryway into DH for those readers who might find DH as a field to be intimidating or otherwise inaccessible. In addition, the Field Guide provides examples of the wide range of digital possibilities and interventions that might spark ideas and inspiration.

Scholarly Adventures in Digital Humanities: Making the Modernist Archives Publishing Project is an interesting book that defies neat categorization. It’s a print companion to a terrific digital resource that offers thoughtful engagements with several issues confronting humanities scholars in the academy as the digital becomes more commonplace in research protocols, our classrooms, and our engagements with the world more generally. It will be especially valuable to readers who are seeking ways to think about collaborative digital interventions in modernist studies, but fans of the MAPP will also appreciate the reflections that the book has to offer about the project and its creators. 

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