On tangentials (& pro-crastination)

One of my worse – or better, depending on your viewpoint – features is my tendency to run off on tangents. I’m not sure why this happens, unless it’s just that I find following paths to see where they end more interesting than continuing along a set course to a defined destination. This is, in any case, a highly indulgent habit, and one which I will indubitably have to shed once I get my degree and need to find a real (academic) job.

Case in point: a colleague asked me what I thought about diplomatic letterbooks (ie. copybooks of diplomatic correspondence): why are these made?

Asking me anything can result in Pratchettian philosopher-length response times, and my answer duly expanded into a small-scale investigation into letterbooks, including a comparison of the correspondence of Sir Charles Cornwallis (English ambassador in Madrid, 1605-1610) and Sir Robert Cecil as seen in original letters and letterbooks found in no less than five archives, and several collections within most of them..

I think the results are fairly interesting, and point to much work that could be done on this front. (For one thing, perhaps Henry Woudhuysen’s claim that we still know next to nothing about Early Modern English letter-writing practices isn’t that far off the truth, after all.) But this took at least a day of my time, and frankly I can’t afford to do this kind of thing any more. Yet ultimately I can’t be overly upset with my behaviour, for I tend to think of procrastination as definitely containing the pro-element, meaning that it is WORK just as whatever-you-should-be-doing-instead is work. And thus the results of procrastinatory activities are bits of research in their own right.

This is all fine & dandy, but yeah. Prioritization. Not one of my strengths.

type, type, type

Really just links this time: this one relates to my earlier post on the value of the arts. Crisis of the humanities indeed – I suppose one should really come up with arguments for why the arts are important, if nothing else then for funding applications..

And on the topic of why are we here &c, Josh Ritter is blogging about making a life in music. Everything always does come down to: work hard at what you do.

Or, and particularly aptly for my current situation, as Mr. Neil so well puts it when asked advice on writing: “Write. Finish what you write.” (He continues with “Send it to publishers”, but it works a bit differently in academia.)

Now, if I only could follow my own advice.. I suppose it’s a Write or Die sorta moment. So if you’ll excuse me, I need to try to stay alive…

Useless post

An archival scholar has to thumb through numerous copies of catalogues of manuscripts held by libraries and archives. Many of these were compiled in the 19th or early 20th centuries, and it has to be said this shows. Some time ago I was going through The Western Manuscripts in the Library of Trinity College, Cambridge. A Descriptive Catalogue (Montague Rhodes James, 1900-1904, 4 vols, Cambridge University Press), and came across these two cute examples (bold emphasis mine):

438.     R. 1. 21
Paper, 7 1/8 x 5 1/2. Cent. xviii.
A note-book containing Latin commonplaces digested under
headings, and in a later hand, miscellaneous memoranda, e.g. of
MSS. at Corpus Christi College which the writer intended to
It seems completely valueless.

633.     R. 3. 61 vac.
Paper, 7 5/8 x 4 3/4, ff. 27. Cent. xviii.
A note-book of historical events from 1649 to the death of
William III.
Apparently quite useless.

These value judgments now strike one as par with comments in editions of the correspondence of insert-Early/Late-Modern-English-Letter-writer-here from the same period, where the editor more often than not says he (and the editor is inevitably and always a ‘he’) has omitted the family letters as of “little interest”. But rather than make fun of Victorian scholars, I find it more interesting to wonder what choices in modern scholarly endeavours will strike our colleagues a century from now as peculiar or barbaric…

The value of the Arts

I’ve recently begun to think that the Humanities are not called the Arts for no reason. In fact, I’m currently inclined to argue that that is a most apt descriptor, and much better than “science”. Science allows us to investigate and understand the universe in terms of its details; Art allows us to study and understand the universe holistically and indirectly. ..or something like that: I’m sure this idea is not new by any measure, and that many people have put it much, much better than I have. But for example, literary criticism fares poorly when compared to cardiology in terms of how many lives has it helped to save. Yet lit. crit. gives one an immeasurably superior training in being human and understanding the universe than cardiology does.

What does this matter? Well, currently the Humanities are getting shafted in terms of funding and whatnot, wich constantly being compared to the ‘hard sciences’ and being required to “prove their worth and usefulness to society”. And I think the measuring stick is wrong – not that the Humanities (or some branches thereof) are incapable of delivering such proofs, but rather that it is much the same as requiring Medicine to contain social commentary and be provoking and beautiful. In other words, the system is biased.

..hmm, I’m not entirely happy with my argument here, but what the hey, this is a blog.

It’s alive!

I’ve been thinking about resurrecting this blog for some time now. I think I was rather too ambitious originally, and then the lack of highbrow inertia got to me. Maybe I should stick to vignettes? In any case, when Neil recently wrote that blogging is “a nice warm up exercise for the mind and the fingers” when working on a book, I thought the time had come for me to ape him. So, here goes. Now, I failed this once, so no promises to write more than three entries between now and finishing my thesis. But we’ll see..

The blog is dead, long live .. er, something else..?

That really sums it up. Three “blog” entries in a year is hardly satisfactory (not that I’m trying to satisfy anyone per se), so I concede defeat: clearly writing this blog wasn’t as pressing a concern as other things I do with my endlessly bound days.But I might as well leave this here as a reminder to myself. And who knows, resurrection is always possible (or reincarnation)…

Finding answers

I’ve usually not welcomed the question “what do you do?”, for it inevitably leads to “..so, what are you?”. That is, to having to define the discipline I am in. However, I think from now on I will give the answer suggested by a friend recently:

I am an Early Modernist.

What has made answering difficult – what still makes it difficult, really – is the fact that there is no one simple answer for me; I can’t say I’m a linguist, for instance, or a historian. Despite being a member of a research unit of historical corpus linguists, I am not a linguist myself – although I do do a bit of linguistic research. I can’t call myself a historian either, not having the training, although definitely I seem to use and read more historical research than anything else. And then there’s the digital humanities aspect to my work. What does that make me?

Recently, I attended a lecture on interdisciplinarity as seen from the viewpoint of an eminent medievalist, who pointed out that medievalists have been inter- and multidisciplinary from day one. In their research, they regularly combine (historical) linguistics, history, archaeology, and a whole slew of other disciplines. I think it’s time to copy this usage. Yesterday was the first time that in conversation with someone I’d not met before, I called myself an Early Modernist. I found that it was a much easier explanation than ones I’ve given previously.

There is, however, another answer I could give – one also multidisciplinary in scope:

I am a manuscript scholar.

..but somehow I feel that “Early Modernist” sounds better than “manuscript scholar”, despite the fact that yes, the latter is also very much true. On which note, let’s have an image:

Richard Cocks to Thomas Wilson, 1607

Digital Humanities* and “Digital Humanities 2.0”

Back in June, I attended the Digital Humanities 2008 conference. Digital humanities, for those not in the know (although I’m sure the term is hardly opaque), is the ridiculously wide field covering all humanities disciplines which use computers. So it includes everyone from corpus linguists to software engineers interested in solutions for humanists, and from librarians to educators who create computer games in order to teach kids history. And more.

There are a few reasons why I attended DH 2008. The main reason is that my PhD thesis will be a digital edition. To that end I’ve started a project with two fellow PhD students for developing linguistically oriented digital editions; the paper I gave at DH 2008 was for the project, part of our Spring 2008 promo tour. Our project falls into the digital humanities sphere, rather than the field of corpus linguistics where we come from. Next, I like things digitally humanistic – particularly digital resources such as corpora, editions, databases, textbases,(1) and to a lesser degree portals and their kin. Also software and websites and gadgetry (ok so that’s software, but if you’ll allow the distinctions between Word and Tofu, I’ll call the latter gadgets. This term is liable to change.). Finally, this year the DH conference was in Oulu, so I could hardly not attend (for our non-academic readers: yes, since travel money is hard to find, location can be decisive in terms of which conferences to attend!).

It was a great conference, overall. Good papers, nice people, exciting projects, excellent contacts, and everything went smoothly and I may have given my best presentation yet (I really should make notes for my next one, though – although I suspect there is always room for improvement). Those interested can go read the abstracts of the papers and posters given at the conference on the DH 2008 website.

However – and this is why I’m writing this post – I must say I am rather dissatisfied with all too many digital resources and tools. Since I’m working on a digital edition, this is what I am perhaps most familiar with (that, and corpora of course), and so I’ll voice my disapproval at digital editions in particular. But more generally, too; here’s the thing:

digital resources are not digitised print resources (2)

Nonetheless, people keep creating these things as if they were.

I think this is mostly a generational thing. That is, older people have more difficulties in envisioning born-digital tools and resources. The prime examples come from outside academia – kids today have grown up with exponentially more powerful digital tools than previous generations. This has given them infinitely better intuition in working these tools and machines – mainly computers of course, but this includes dvd players, mp3 players, mobile phones, game consoles, gps devices, and so on and so forth: all electronic devices, in other words. And the same holds for interfaces: kids are much more adept than adults in using the software in all of these devices.

None of this is new, none of this is surprising: younger generations are more at home with technological advances.

But my main gripe concerns digital editions, which I call (for now, at least) re-born digital resources. Reborn because the digital editions I am talking about are resources created out of extant documents – manuscripts or printed works. What I am concerned with is the amount of wasted resources – time and money – put into developing obsolete solutions in digital humanities.

What do I mean, specifically?

Well. I think digital resources should take full advantage of the medium. That is, one should not try to re-create an object from another medium as if it was still in that medium. You can come up with your own examples, such as films based on books that got it wrong, or vice versa. Here, I am talking about so-called “digital editions” which, first of all, are nothing more than scanned images of the original document,(3) and second, don’t even try to make the edition user-friendly – i.e., provide it with an intuitive and simple interface which allows easy and fun (yes, fun!) browsing of the images.

As a concrete example, take PicLens/cooliris, which transforms browsing images into an awesome experience. It’s freely available online, and very easy to install on your website. I’m not saying cooliris is the solution, I’m just saying that people have created and released great tools which facilitate working with computers. How about using them? Guys? Anyone? Bueller? Anyone?

Ok yes, so there’s Turning the Pages at BL etc, but come one – while it’s cool, there’s a limit to its usability – I mean for research purposes in particular, but also just general stuff too! ..not that TtP wouldn’t be a cool feature to have, provided you could do other things with it than just, um, turn the pages…

Anyway, my primary point was user interfaces, specifically image browsing. However, this really can be extended to a whole slew of solutions created by all and sundry, bascially all of which can be classified under what is commonly known as “Web 2.0”.

See? Old news, really.

This is something I mean to push in academia, in my small way. And when I create something groovy, I shall post a link to it. (Like dipity – you guys seen dipity? Melikes it.)


* Does anyone know a good term for “digital humanities” in Finnish? “Humanistit ja tietokoneet” .. “humanistinen tietojenkäsittelytiede” (??).. nothing I can think of really cuts it.

(1) Text databases. Yes, really!

(2) Unless they are, of course. And in fairness, there are loads of these: e.g. all things available on EEBO; all the digitised books on Google Books and in the Internet Archive; also most thing digitised by libraries etc (like those on the Finnish National Library website. But even then, I think just scanning the books and putting simple images online isn’t really enough.

(3) Yes, there are arguments for this kind of editions. I think the only one to carry any real weight is for projects aiming at quantity, rather than quality (of the edition’s interface, that is, not of the images). Even then, though, I find it difficult to allow for any excuses in, say, ordering the images in the edition, or renaming the damn things. From experience I can say that while this can be a time-consuming task, actually not doing so is a real pain in the arse later on. This means you, Anglo-American Legal Tradition project!

dead promises we keep around

Well, this blog has certainly not lived up to its title. But at the same time, I have grown fonder and fonder of the motto of Robert Cecil (Earl Salisbury; 1563-1612), which I think I may adopt for myself: Sero, sed serio – that is, something like “Late, but in earnest”!

Anyway. Proper post anon.