As frequent readers may have guessed, I have in recent months been getting more and more interested in that nebulous world often described as the ‘digital humanities’ (they might also have noticed the shameful lag between the last post and this – my excuse is that I’m a couple of short months off submitting my phd (hopefully!), so please forgive my laxity).
Now, I don’t have to tell you that the broad church of digital humanities involves more than online publishing, whacking texts on the web for all to see. It’s true that DH offers exciting possibilities for elegance and efficacy in digital publication, regarding content, browsing, searching and so on (look at CELL’s dateline view for the correspondence of Thomas Bodley project, for instance). But the digital humanities are also moving towards the kind of activity and interaction that is in concept, design and process web-based. That is, it is not just about making the non-digital digital, it is about opening up and thinking up whole new ways of working, researching, editing and writing.
The Devonshire Manuscript project masterminded by the Electronic Textual Cultures Lab at the University of Victoria is a great example of this, and I urge anyone interested to get involved.
The manuscript is a verse miscellany dating from the 1530s and 40s, for which there is no authoritative published edition. That is about to change. However, instead of producing a single-instance, single-authored transcription of its content, the ETCL are developing a social edition of the manuscript, that is at present available online here.
The ‘social edition’ aspect of it means that anyone is free to adapt, update and add to information on the manuscript and its many features, creating a pooled wiki-type knowledge base from which the final version will benefit. It is important to note that this will avoid the dangers of a lack of authority or accuracy, concomitant with a free-for-all wiki approach, by reintroducing authorial checks and balances at the end of the process.
The editors are keeping track of all user updates, and will review the project in July when turning the online version back into an authorised publication, to be published by Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies.
The project demonstrates real awareness of the advantages and risks involved in social knowledge contribution in that there is a sense of culmination, an end point at which authorial control can be re-established, contributors can be credited for their input, and the role of the editor again becomes central in deciding how best to amalgamate and solidify the working text.
So, what is in the Devonshire Manuscript? It is well known in literary circles as a key source for the poetry of Sir Thomas Wyatt, but its nature as co-authored miscellany means there is a richness to its material, scribal and paratextual features that is only now being fully explored. It contains multiple hands from key figures around the court of Henry VIII, and has been called ‘the richest surviving record of early Tudor poetry
and of the literary activities of 16th-century women’. The online version at present offers transcriptions with scholarly apparatus, as well as an impressive amount of contextual, textual and bibliographic material, all of which is open to addition by whoever has knowledge to offer: just click ‘edit’.
This is a socially-mediated, socially-constructed text, and so to have its publication echo its origins so beautifully is a fantastic idea. The very fact of the manuscript being a co-authored court anthology and thus a point of intersection for so many different people, poems, themes and contexts means that it lends itself particularly well to social editing. Opening the text up to the scholarly community allows those with the relevant special interests to contribute as much or as little as they know and want to share.
I’m a firm believer that the process of building knowledge works best when based on sharing; not just in terms of wide and accessible transmission but in terms of collaboration in the building itself. The open source movement in computing is an incredible working example of this, but I think we can do more in the humanities (the regular non-digital kind) in terms of collaborative research.
The greatest insights come from collaboration, and there is nothing like discussing your ideas verbally to sharpen them. It is perhaps strange, as a friend remarked last night, that the PhD is a process involving 3-4 often somewhat solitary years spent writing your words in relative isolation, but nonetheless a process whose worth is eventually measured by a verbal defence – the dreaded viva. That may betray my own personal anxieties at this time, but I suggest that if you’re part of the humanities research community (and if you’re not, for that matter) consider how much you actually talk about your own work and ideas, and how much you do or could do collaboratively – save the polish for the final version and let’s open up the process a little bit, it’ll be the better for it.
 Colin Burrow, “How to Twist a Knife,” London Review of Books 31.8 (2009): 3, 5. Quoted in <http://en.wikibooks.org/wiki/The_Devonshire_Manuscript/General_Introduction> [accessed 04.03.12]