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Exploring the Humanities in a Digital Age at the Newberry

Exploring the Humanities in a Digital Age at the Newberry January 20, 2014
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Why go to a library or an archive when so much of what’s on the shelves is available online? How does digital technology affect the ways we create, organize, and access knowledge? In a digital age, do we see the world differently?

These are just some of the questions that Monmouth College professors Hannah Schell and Bridget Draxler will explore with their students this fall when they co-teach ACM’s Newberry Seminar: Research in the Humanities.

Bridget Draxler and Hannah SchellBridget Draxler (left) and Hannah Schell

Their seminar topic, Knowledge and Technology: From Socrates to the Digital Age, will examine the relationship between knowledge, technology, and power – first historically, and then moving to the present day to focus on the emergence and future of the digital humanities. The students will also have the chance to take the next step and become digital knowledge producers themselves in their independent research projects.

“The Newberry Seminar tends to attract students who are likely to become scholars, whether they go on to be teaching professors or researchers, or they’re working in libraries or museums,” said Schell. “The prospect of having a semester-long discussion with that group [of students] about the limits and possibilities of the digital humanities is especially exciting.”

As a premier research library in the humanities, the Newberry will not only be the site of the seminar; it will be part of the seminar’s topic, as well. “The Newberry is a great example of how so much of what’s useful about an archive is working in a community of scholars,” Draxler said. “I think the seminar does a great job of taking advantage of that opportunity, with students working with each other, with the faculty, and with the librarians.”

Servers at the Internet Archive's headquartersServers at the Internet Archive’s headquarters in San Francisco.

Photo: Steven Walling, Wikimedia Commons

“There are some really magical things that can happen in a physical archive that don’t happen online,” she added, “but there is a kind of democratization of knowledge when you have these resources online. In addition to accessing Newberry resources, the students will be able to take advantage of other online archives in tandem with the resources at the Newberry, so we’re going to try to help the students get the best of both worlds out of a physical archive and a digital archive.”

During the opening weeks of the seminar, the students will participate in readings and discussions, assignments, and meetings with Newberry librarians and research staff to learn about the collections and other resources at the library. Throughout that time, students will be pursuing their own interests as they select a topic and develop a proposal for their independent research projects, which they complete during the remainder of the semester.

In past years, the students’ projects have always culminated in a lengthy research paper. Given the focus of the fall 2014 seminar, Draxler and Schell are planning to encourage students to dive in and explore the possibilities of digital publishing for their research projects.

The syllabus will include a series of tutorials on various techniques and software – such as video editing, creating digital timelines, or tagging and manipulating maps. Schell and Draxler also have talked about having the students write research blogs during the semester to share with their seminar classmates and, possibly, a larger online community of undergraduate scholars.

“Part of what we want to teach them is to think critically about the most effective use of media and the most effective way to make their argument,” said Draxler. “For some of them, the most effective way to make their argument will be a traditional research paper and nothing else. For some of them, having more multimedia components will help them make different and better arguments.”

Invention of PrintingDetail from Jan van der Straet, The Invention of Printing, plate 4 in Nova reperta. Ioan. Stradanus inuent. Phls Calle excud. …(Antwerp, s.m. 1600?) Case Wing folio Z 412.85

Photo: The Newberry Library

“The digital humanities component of this is new and different and probably will be the draw for many of the students,” Schell noted. Both she and Draxler emphasized, though, that this will still be a traditional Newberry seminar in which students engage with primary materials from the library’s collections and do the rigorous intellectual work of interpretation, synthesis, and analysis in their research projects.

Schell is a veteran of the Newberry Seminar, having co-taught the program in fall 2008, and she’s seen instances when digital presentations could be useful. “During the first couple of weeks, a lot of the seminar meetings are orientation sessions with librarians from different parts of the collections,” she recalled. “One of the most popular presentations was by the ‘map guys,’ as we called them, and they brought in this very interesting selection of maps. Some students said they really would have liked to have done something with maps, but they couldn’t quite conceive of how to use visual materials. So it’s actually going to empower students to be able to digitally include materials like that.”

“Having a digital component will allow students to more fully take advantage of using the Newberry collections,” Draxler said. “If they include multimedia components in their research project, with images or videos or interactive maps, they’re going to be thinking about the objects in the archive as artifacts rather than just as texts, and I think that attention to the content and medium of those sources really will enrich the work they do.”

“In some ways the digital tools can improve the traditional ways of doing scholarship, but in some ways it’s changing what humanities research can look like,” said Draxler. “I think that’s the more interesting piece of it – how we can ask different kinds of questions, as humanists, when we have access to new tools, new ways of engaging those texts, and new ways of seeing the world.”


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