Changing Authorities

My name is Setsuko Yokoyama, a first year PhD student at the Department of English. Prior to coming to Maryland, I completed a master’s program at the University of Michigan School of Information. (Yes, I seem to be chasing block Ms.) My research interest lies in American poetry, contemporary editorial theories and practices, and digital humanities. As a part of my dissertational project, I am planning on developing a digital platform for an American Modernist poet. The idea is to make primary resources readily available online for students and scholars in order for them to make their own judgment when navigating through the poet’s literary legacy. This is why I’ve decided to join the course, hoping to equip myself with the best practices for born-digital project and to be familiar with the debates in the field. I am also interested in getting to know my colleagues at iSchool, hoping we might be able to collaborate in the future.

I was particularly thrilled as I went through the somewhat idealistic description of “The Open Museum” chapter. Richard Rinehart writes: “Can we imagine museums whose authority is used to facilitate & engage a community rather than treat its members as passive cultural consumers?” (106) My marginalia reads: YES! Rinehart, of course, has in mind the new media art and that is different from my “digitized art”, i.e. digitized tape audio records. However, examples Rinehart provides concerning the generative nature of open source code make me realize that the metadata aspect of my work would be considered “digital art.” I seek relevance because, not surprisingly, Rinehart’s illustration of the historical shift among the cultural institutions’ role is also mirrored in the gradual change in Anglo-Saxon academia, concerning the notion of what scholarly edition of literature ought to be. It used to be the case that “authoritative” or “definitive” editions were considered desirable. This status quo of scholarly edition was further enhanced by the limitation of print media. Editors at times need to make scholarly judgment when met with variants, illegibility, and/or uncertainty of the manuscripts as they labor to transcribe the writer’s hand. The problem was that once transcription was presented in a manner divorced from the manuscript’s empirical evidence, those scholarly interventions became close to invisible to the readers’ eyes. Digital publication platform now allows editors to display the variants of manuscript and invite readers to the dialogue of what constitutes a literary text.

Though digital editions have challenged the authoritative notion, I think we have yet to leverage the power of the digital. That is to say, to the best of my knowledge, there hasn’t been a participatory edition that allows the readers to “play with” metadata scholars produce. As Rinehart describes, codes can be downloaded, studied, used, and remixed. Imagine what we can do with major digital editions such as The Walt Whitman Archive, Willa Cather Archive, and Emily Dickinson’s Correspondences should they allow users to download a big set of carefully prepared metadata? They are there, but their potential is yet to be fully appreciated, in my opinion. It seems like the book technology and/or archival and library exhibition model are deeply engrained in scholarly editors when designing the user experience—relevant to what Rinehart and Ippolito described concerning the “fixation on fixity” mentality of conventional cultural institutions.

I wonder how I can best address the need to reconsider the expansive possibility of literary metadata. Should editors be wary about the derivable projects? Rinehart and Ippolito provide examples about the weeding process of ArtBase. Granted we are forgoing the elitist and colonial approach, what do you think is the healthy relationship between professionals and amateurs concerning the Open Museum model? I ask because I think there will always be an agenda from the professionals’ side (including literary editors) in wanting to facilitate, say, reinterpretation of resources.

3 Replies to “Changing Authorities”

  1. Welcome to the course Setsuko! Thrilled to have you digging into “The Open Museum” bit of Rinehart and Ippolito’s book. They are really pushing back against a lot of the core ideas about what matters about works in their focus on social memory and I think that is a really intriguing vector to take through these issues. Many of these points are particularly salient in born digital poetic forms (I think we will get to talk about Google Poems in the course, and a lot of the twitter bot things we will look at also have a bit of a poetic quality to them as well.).

  2. Fascinating ideas regarding the use of scholarly metadata. I have had similar thoughts regarding various editions of musical scores, or perhaps the marginalia and notes found in the scores owned by various performers. I think that incorporating the metadata contributions of users is essential to creating a standard that pushes back against the quantization that Rinehart and Ippolito discuss; the more data that we have, the greater our sampling rate (What can I say? As a music archivist, the notion of mitigating “sociohistorical ‘lossy compression’” really hit home!). Does this mean that the role of professionals will be threatened by the Open Museum model? I can definitely picture a few folks who would complain about the unwashed masses and their, similarly unwashed, metadata and remixes.
    At the very least, the parallel folksonomy that is mapped to the controlled vocabulary is a good start. The professionals get to show off their expertise and the users can continue to do what they do best: shake things up. A byproduct of this state of creative unrest is that we hopefully avoid the “flattening of memory” that institutional standards lead to. Still, professionals need to be engaged with the users because lazily mapping the folksonomy to an existing standard could very well defeat the purpose of incorporating a folksonomy. Perhaps an advisory council of superusers and artists can meet with the Open Museum to help ensure that professionals and amateurs aren’t completely operating in different silos.
    Forgive me if I haven’t entirely answered your great question. There is a ton to consider!

  3. I was equally thrilled with that line in the Open Museum chapter. It’s interesting; I study folklorization in music, where outsiders to a tradition attempt to preserve it, and in the process typically make new traditions (i.e., indigenous musics are reproduced out of context at folk festivals, which will often favor older songs rather than newer musics… rather a bit like the Martha Maxwell anecdote from the chapter; a certain fixity is created), so the whole section resonated with what I research, but also made me hyper-aware of the number of pitfalls available to researchers hoping to do applied work or serve the community they study in some way. I would not want to simply help distribute the music I study, but rather help people become interested and engaged with the musicians and their legacy.

    I echo your sentiments and Pedro’s about scholarly metadata, and including more voices. One website I use regularly is to find records and information about them, and I have to admit, the comment sections of each record can be incredibly enlightening, as avid record collectors (but non-scholars) share their knowledge of the music, recording process, and distribution of each record. While this information is not definitive, too often, as Reinhart suggests, we take something as definitive when there are complexities to be discussed and discovered.

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