Jump to: navigation, search

Wolfgang Kaltenbrunner

Scholarly labor and digital collaboration in literary studies


Digital research technology as a tool for humanities scholarship has attracted considerable attention. It is often promised to facilitate collaboration among otherwise scattered, 'lone scholars', and as potentially allowing them to take advantage of large amounts of empirical material. In particular, digital research technology is often promoted by stressing how it can reduce human workload – the use of data-intensive tools in literary studies, thus the promise of project such as 'Digging Into Data', will allow scholars to vastly reduce the amount of time necessary to discover and analyze large corpora of texts. However, on the basis of participant observation and interviews conducted in the first two years of the COST Action Women Writers In History, I argue that digital tools for literary research do not only reduce human work load. Instead, they also require a significant input of human labor in order to properly embed them in scholarly research practices. To deliver on the exciting promises of digitally enhanced scholarship, these challenges must be taken seriously.

In order to grasp the implications of collaborative, digital scholarship for literary studies, it is important to understand how scholarly labor in this field has traditionally been organized. A valuable starting point for this can be found in the work of Richard Whitley (2000), who provides a comparative analysis of how fields of research differ in their organizational characteristics. Literary studies as a field is characterized by the co-existence of multiple theoretical perspectives. The organization of labor is oriented towards the development of original arguments, delivered in scholarly monographs. The shared use of a digital database on the other hand requires a coordination of individual efforts. Inevitably, this results in a certain tension between the investment of scholars in existing disciplinary paradigms and the participation in a collaborative European project.

This tension manifests itself for example in the duality of the theoretical decisions that inform the categories of the database (bio-bibliographic information, genre etc.). In line with the theoretical plurality of the humanities, definitions of concepts such as genre often are a matter of debate in literary studies. Scholars identify themselves not least by developing and defending an individual theoretical perspective. In the context of a collaborative database project, however, the theoretical choices that inform the development of data categories also have practical implications. Settling on a shared scheme of categories is a pragmatic requirement for advancing the project. This in turn can mean that participants find it hard to embed the database in their individual analytical perspective.

Another tension arises from the need to invest time in data input. While data input is important for reaching a critical amount of information on which to base comparative empirical claims, this labor is generally not rewarded in the context of a traditional research career. Often, it is associated with a subordinate technical activity. At the same time, it is through data input that individual scholars often find ways of creatively embedding the database into their individual research practices.

Finally, building a database requires a dedicated effort to provide quality control of digital data. In contrast to traditional sources of empirical information, such as bibliographies, library catalogues, and archives, this work cannot be delegated to dedicated data workers. Instead, a certain labor investment is necessary to harmonize and better understand the growing dataset. This, however, creates a tension with many participants' expectation that they can draw on the database as an empirical source for their individual research practice.

SvD, 29 May 2013

Personal tools