Digital Scholarship

At semester’s end, Autumn 2012, Professor Lewis Ulman, Department of English, and students from his latest electronic textual editing seminar (English 8982) presented the results of their course length project, a digital edition of a selection from the Lucius Clark Smith Diaries (1859 – 1862) (http://people.cohums.ohio-state.edu/ulman1/LCSmithDiaries/default.cfm ). Professor Ulman and the Rare Books and Manuscripts Library have partnered on such projects since Winter quarter of 2003.  Essentially, Rare Books scans an unpublished manuscript from its collections and Professor Ulman’s students, “working as a collaborative editorial team   . . . edit and publish on the Web a portion of [the] manuscript. . . . Students . . . learn to transcribe, encode, annotate, and describe manuscript materials—from any period—and reflect on the information gained and lost in the preparation of electronic representations of cultural artifacts.”  The partnership has proven to be mutually beneficial:  Professor Ulman’s students learn much about the theory and practice of textual scholarship in addition to invaluable real world, technological skills while Rare Books adds new online research resources that are easily accessible and highly searchable. 

Over the years a number of manuscripts have been digitized and edited by Professor Ulman and  his classes and many are available online while others await further development:  Sophie Peabody Hawthorne letters (correspondence from the wife of Nathaniel Hawthorne to her sister Elizabeth Palmer Peabody) (http://people.cohums.ohio-state.edu/ulman1/Sophia_Hawthorne_Letters/ ); Valentine Peers Collection (letters and documents of a Kentucky family from the Revolutionary period to the Civil War); William B. Anderson letters (correspondence of an Ohio River boat captain to his wife during the Civil War) (http://people.cohums.ohio-state.edu/ulman1/WBAnderson_Letters/); Samuel S. Cox journal (a future U. S. Congressman’s honeymoon tour of Europe and the Orient in 1851) (http://people.cohums.ohio-state.edu/ulman1/SSCoxJournal/); the Louisa A. Doane journal (a young woman’s account of two voyages, the first to Marseilles [1852] and the second to Mexico and Peru via Cape Horn [1852 – 53]) (http://people.cohums.ohio-state.edu/ulman1/LADoaneJournal/default.cfm); the Stephens Family letters (correspondence of a teenage girl who traveled to El Paso, Mexico, the Northwest and the Yukon in the early 20th century); and, the Lucius Clark Smith diaries noted above (the thoughts of a New Albany, Ohio schoolteacher and famer, 1859, 1861 – 62). 

Much has already been written about the contributions of digital works for the advancement of knowledge and learning.  If you are like me, you have read about or heard lectures upon the death of the book dozens if not scores or hundreds of times, a hysterical reaction to the growing influence of digital texts.  On the issue of rapid digitization of texts, I think we should welcome the democratization of knowledge.  On the death of the book, I believe the declamation is premature.  It will be a long, long time before all texts in print or manuscript will be digitized.  The digital documents edited by Professor Ulman’s class are surrogates of but a fraction of the 2,500+ linear feet of manuscripts in the Rare Books collection and our collection is a but a fraction of the myriad manuscript collections in institutions around the world.  Virtual access to manuscripts can generate from its users further information and knowledge about the subjects of the documents; it can encourage social reading of personal texts; it can solicit links to other like and related documents; and more.  Also ,what may appear counter intuitive, the production of digital surrogates actually leads to more use of the original physical documents because of their unique artifactual value and their intrinsic historicalness, prevailing allures for the serious scholar.

Geoffrey D. Smith

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