For Andrew Stauffer, expert in Digital Humanities

Posted on Thursday, September 13, 2012

Andrew Stauffer. Photo courtesy of Andrew Stauffer.

Andrew Stauffer is Director of the Networked Infrastructure for Nineteenth-Century Electronic Scholarship at the University of Virginia – one of the most important projects in the new field of Digital Humanities. Stauffer is a key player in the online editing and study of literary and historical texts. Recently, he has written about the impact of Google Books on library policies. He points out that many libraries dispose of books that have been digitized by Google, with the result that a huge archive of material is lost to future scholars – including many marginal annotations that would allow us to understand how readers from the past used these books.

On Sept. 21, Stauffer will deliver a public lecture, “Nineteenth-Century Mark-Up Language and the Future of the Library,” during which he will talk about some of these annotations, as well as the unwanted effects of Google Books. Stauffer’s lecture will take place on Sept. 21, at 5 p.m. in Leacock 232. A reception will follow.

What can we learn from looking at how people from the past wrote in their books?

We tend to assume that interactive, social media came about in the digital age. But by looking at the ways people used books in different times and cultures, we can see traces of all sorts of human interaction taking place on the pages: between readers and authors, between readers and other readers, and between readers and earlier versions of themselves. People sent messages, recorded anecdotes, wrote journal entries, mourned losses, and of course reacted to what they were reading within the pages of their books. Looking at these traces not only gives us insight into their lives and opinions, but also helps us understand what books were as social media objects in earlier periods.

How has the digital revolution changed the study of the humanities?

In the last decade or two, the evolution of digital technologies and particularly of online communication has begun to change all aspects of the scholarly communication chain, from research to composition to production to consumption. We are seeing new methods for pursuing humanities research questions (e.g., data-mining, geospatial mapping, visual analytics, text-processing), as well as new ways of sharing ideas and building virtual communities. At the heart of all of this is the digital transformation of the library, which has always been the primary laboratory for the humanities, as well as the institution responsible for preserving and providing access to the scholarly record. As it changes, the humanities necessarily change with it.

What difference has Google Books made to the future of libraries?

Google has scanned about 20 million books and made them freely available (when copyright allows) to the world, which has had wonderful effects in terms of basic access. Of course, along with other large-scale digitization initiatives, it has also accelerated a movement away from physical libraries and the use of print collections, so there are some pressing questions facing us. Do we really need hundreds of similar physical collections in North America, or might we consolidate and downsize? What are the essential operations of libraries, and to what extent are they predicated on physical spaces and material collections? As a scholar who cares about the history of the book, I have a vested interest in seeing these things preserved. But in a world richly-populated with digital surrogates, it is going to take a lot of vocal supporters to keep the books on the shelves.

Do you think we’ll still be reading printed books when our current freshmen’s children are going to university?

I’m sure I will, but it depends on who the “we” is here. Humanities scholars and historians will always be consulting the actual documents of the past; and as long as children still grow up reading physical books, there will always be that early bonding with the format. But greater numbers of e-books are being read every year, and the technology and interfaces will continue to improve. In a few decades, reading a printed book for pleasure may be more of a specialist’s endeavor or a purist’s rather nostalgic exercise, like listening to music on vinyl. But I personally feel that human culture and human memory are too tied up with the history of the material book to ever abandon it.


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