Sunday, October 14, 2007

Documents In-Stream

Another inspiring post by Peter Brantley, this time commenting on the observations of Rob Weir that our need for and understanding of documents is dissolving... Documents In-Stream. I'll go read the referenced post in a minute, but this brought into focus some uneasiness I was feeling over the weekend about where my research project was headed. I conferred with Sharon Strover on Friday and I just was not at all enthusiastic about what I was committing to spend the next several months thinking about and reading about and writing about. Perhaps any subject, even one that's very interesting, has a tendency to get tedious and boring when you "operationalize" it down to the level of a single research question and a method for making observations about the phenomena described in the question.

Whatever the reason, I am just not interested in surveying people about what kind of reception a blogged paper gets at a refereed journal. Yes I wrote the question, but more as an exercise to see how you derive questions from general problem statements. What really interests me is not that level of detail ("uh-oh" I hear a little voice in my head saying...). What interests me is the idea of the gradual evolution of the form of the book, the article, the document, as Peter notes. How does the blog change scholarship, not as some endpoint, fait accompli observation, but what exactly happens, one scholar at a time, over time. How does change happen? How does the need for and understanding of the document dissolve? Surely Peter knows that for about 99.999% of people, the document is as solid as Gibralter. But the fact that someone realizes it's dissolving signals a phase in the process of its dissolution. It started dissolving a while back (when?); people are beginning to notice now (some people); it will be some time before the next signal of a new phase appears. What will the signal be? What will the phase be?

How do I operationalize that, and if I do, does it lose entirely the character of the question that interests me? So far, the answer appears to be, yes, if you operationalize anything, its character changes radically. That's the trigger for the "uh-oh" I mentioned above. I am getting it, that you can't just write about things, make observations based on your own experience. No, that's not what research is about. It's about observing other people's experiences, and then bringing your experience to bear on the interpretation of your observations of others. But setting up and gathering those observations -- that part seems incredibly boring. Is this, "welcome to research," or am I missing something? Ah, maybe this is why faculty get grad students to help them with their research, that is, do this boring stuff. Now that makes sense.

I do feel rushed into doing research, certainly. But it seems to be expected that I will get started right away. To me, that makes about as much sense as having been expected to try cases as a first year law student. That's about as absurd as one can get. Real things are at stake in a trial. You don't send in a 1L to act where consequences matter. Is it different in research? Is there a lot of inconsequential research, such that if a 1L Ph.D. student does some stupid research, who the hell cares? I think that's it. No one cares. You just have to get in the pool, as I often say. But I don't want to do stupid research. It's too much of a waste of good time to do stupid research.

Ok, enough complaining. I read several things this weekend that sounded interesting, in addition to Peter's note. First, an article by Kenneth Fleischmann, "Digital libraries with embedded values: Combining insights from LIS and Science and Technology Studies" (2007 Library Quarterly 77(4), pp. 409-427) in which he recommends some comparative projects to look at the values embedded in different types of digital libraries, using the boundary object with agency framework from SST. I could instantly imagine a study comparing the values embedded in our Google Book Search Latin American Collection digital library, with Brewster Kahle's digital library of pd works, and our Texas Digital Library (an institutional repository). I would love to get into that. The article even suggests methods and none of them turned me instantly off the project! I have written a little review of the paper with a sort of proposal to take the author up on his recommendation that someone needs to do this research.

I reread the post from if:book and DLF last weekend, the Really Modern Library, because even though I can't participate in the symposia they are organizing, if this project goes anywhere, it's likely to be ongoing for awhile and at some point I may be able to get involved when I am a bit further along in becoming a social scientist (or whatever). This part really appeals to me:

* most analog works were intended to be experienced with all of one's attention, but the way we read/watch/listen/look is changing. even when engaging with non-networked media — a paper book, a print newspaper, a compact disc, a DVD, a collection of photos — we increasingly find ourselves Googling alongside. Al Pacino paces outside the bank in 'dog day afternoon' firing up the crowded street with "Attica! Attica!" I flip to Wikipedia and do quick read on the Attica prison riots. reading "song of myself" in "leaves of grass," i find my way to the online Whitman archive, which allows me to compare every iteration of Whitman's evolutionary work. or reading "ulysses" i open up Google Earth and retrace Bloom's steps by satellite. while leafing through a book of caravaggio's paintings, a quick google video search leads me to a related episode in simon schama's "power of art" documentary series and a series of online essays. as radiohead's new album plays, i browse fan sites and blogs for backstory, b-sides and touring info. the immediacy and proximity of such supplementary resources changes our relationship to the primary ones. the ratio of text to context is shifting. how should this influence the structure and design of future digital editions?

And this part dovetails nicely with our Google pd project at UT, and with the comparative research I suggested I might be interested in above (see how tentative I am about even things that are appealing?):

* for reasons both practical and political, we've considered restricting this contest to the public domain. practical in that the public domain provides an unencumbered test bed of creative content for contributors to work with (no copyright hassles). political in that we wish to draw attention to the threat posed to the public domain by commercially driven digitization projects ( i.e. the recent spate of deals between Google and libraries, the National Archives' deal with and Amazon, the Smithsonian with Showtime etc.). emphasizing the public domain could also exert pressure on the media industries, who to date have been more concerned with preserving old architectures of revenue than with adapting creatively to the digital age. making the public domain more attractive, more dynamic and more *usable* than the private domain could serve as a wake-up call to the big media incumbents, and more importantly, to contemporary artists and scholars whose work is being shackled by overly restrictive formats and antiquated business models. we'd also consider workable areas of the private domain such as the Creative Commons — works that are progressively licensed so as to allow creative reuse. we're not necessarily wedded to this idea. what do you think?

And this comment, wow:

James W. Marcum on October 11, 2007 08:53 AM:

I'm glad to see 1) you are moving beyond "mass digitization" -- which is still working largely with the "information transfer" model rather than social knowledge construction, and toward interactivity and the visual/multi-media ecology of our time. And 2) That the analog item warrants attention. We must focus on those functions of the book (primarily reading, with consideration for preservation) where it has clear advantage and keep those vital. The other functions, for which the codex has been overused, such as compendiums of articles and data, should be cleared away. An unread book taking up space on a shelf for decades is a hole in the air that collects dust, gets moldy, costs money better used elsewhere. 3) While the important book is a powerful technology and social phenomenon, the format can no longer represent human knowledge (consider the human genome project or google maps) as it did for 500 years. Bottom line: we must encourage reading--a different project from building collections--AND move on.

I am simply not ready to commit to put my energy into something I don't care about. So, here's the roundup from this week: things I give a damn about:

1. The values that are embedded in different types of digital libraries: whose interests are supported and whose are neglected?
2. How does change takes place when new technologies make different forms of communication possible? How does the need for and understanding of the document dissolve? How does the blog change the nature of scholarly communication?
3. What forms of human knowledge can no longer be represented in physical form? What does this mean for the future of the book, the future of publishing, the future of libraries?
4. Is the public domain becoming more attractive, more dynamic and more *usable* than the private domain? What is the ratio of freely available and usable Web-based representations of information to published representations in which copyright is asserted and enforced? And yet, the demand for copyright-asserted materials remains strong (dominant). What is going on here?
5. The ratio of text to context is shifting (reading an article or a book now *requires* that I be by my computer to enable follow-through on questions and interests that reading triggers). How should this influence the structure and design of future digital editions? What are the opportunities for publishers if only they would wake their damned asses up?

Back to the drawing board...

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