Below is my response/open review from Digital Humanities Now‘s open peer review project.
I’ve also been pondering peer review and the writing process over at my website a bit (mostly in reflecting on Planned Obsolescence and thinking about Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s arguments that writing is a social process, or could be more so). I’d be interested to talk more about writing communities and formal processes of open and closed review and as well as more informal feedback that happens conversationally as part of academic writing practices. Most of this interest is because I am working toward a few articles now, and also because I am undergoing the first formal peer review of my work (and I am finding it to be a more obtuse experience than I had expected it would be).
My response was for Tim Hitchcock’s “Academic Writing and its Disconnects” post:
The beginning of this piece had me thinking a lot about the transition from the material object of the book (as container) into something that is more fluid when turned into code and made searchable online. Thus, I agree with one of the main points of this piece, that we may not care in the future whether what we read is called an ebook, blog post or journal article, etc. (and especially so with born-digital works).
The question is whether this change and loss of emphasis on the container will fundamentally change the work of the historian. In thinking about online tools for searching through many formats of text, we are faced with a change in the methods by which historians might perform research, but will scholarship itself be fundamentally altered? Is this a shift from paper to screen, or much more than that? I liked this sentence, and would like to hear more about how historians “have restricted themselves to asking only the kind of questions books can answer.”
It seems that the book—with its lengthy history—holds a special, almost untouchable place for all of us, historians or otherwise. I wonder if you could tease out a bit more about what it is about the book that historians cling to, and what we might lose through the death of the book? I’m also wondering whether there conversations like these about the death of the journal when electronic article databases were introduced?
“And in the process of moving beyond the book, we have also abandoned the whole post-enlightenment infrastructure of libraries and card catalogues (or even OPACS), of concordances, and indexes and tables of contents.”
I agree that libraries and information hierarchies are changing right now. But we will continue to need systems of organization beyond keyword searching as we move into digital landscapes—your point about the scans of newspapers in the Burney collection points out our continued need for careful metadata about the texts that we hope to continue to use. Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s book “Planned Obsolescence” has some great sections about the importance of metadata that might be helpful here.
“We read online journal articles, but cite the hard copy edition; we do keywords searches, while pretending to undertake immersive reading. We search ‘Google Books’, and pretend we are not.”
I’m wondering if you are arguing that these tools hurt the process or the product of historical scholarship. Are you arguing these practices are lazy and detrimental to scholarship? Or part of the future of doing digital research, after the death of the book, and we should acknowledge them?
Perhaps after this death, “historians of the book” become those who, instead of studying paper bound in particular ways, become those who focus on informational tools. Thus, just as scholars continue to study the book as “tool, text and metaphor”* today, in the future historians might study the search engines and databases we use to search through different texts (and as Joe points out, the social and political impact of these tools and who creates and owns them). Despite the fact that we don’t yet know how to cite or refer to these sources, I think those systems will come—just as they did for the book.
*following Rafael C. Alvarado’s piece, “The Digital Humanities Situation”:http://transducer.ontoligent.com/?p=717