The above image shows the beginning of the sheet music for John Stump’s Faerie’s Aire and Death Waltz. This musical piece was intentionally designed to be utterly unplayable (according to his nephew’s blog), but is nonetheless fairly widely known and distributed online. Despite the fact that it cannot be played – and I maintain the position that it can’t be played, despite valiant attempts – Stump’s piece’s charming ridiculousness renders it, or at least the sheet music, something of an artistic achievement. Art can be confusing or incomprehensible; sometimes it’s even supposed to be. Academic work is not. It’s supposed to be useful and understandable – that’s why ‘good practice’ is important. That’s why we have normative citation styles. That’s why we have a clear standard documentation style for digital scholarly projects. Actually, we don’t.
In the context of digital scholarship, clarity and documentation have become relevant in different ways than traditional scholars might be used to. Because the digital humanities rely on digital tools, documenting the way those tools are used and how data produced by them is dealt with has become highly important. Particularly with regard to comprehensibility and the ability to reproduce and modify methods, extensive documentation is essential for a digital humanities project in terms of scholarly value. While working on our own little project, we have recently had to start thinking about what exactly we will have to include in the “documentation” section of our project site. In order to try and find examples of how this might best be done, I had a look at a couple of elaborate digital humanities projects that I hoped would feature extensive documentation (e.g. Women Writers Project, Mapping the Republic of Letters, Open Joyce, HeDoThePolice.Org). Although some of these feature quite extensive documentation on TEI/XML mark-up and algorithms used, there does not seem to be any consistency in the ways these projects are documented. Admittedly, they’re not all meant to be highly academic (OpenJoyce seems to be more of an artsy community hub than a scholarly project), but I feel that this lack of coherency with regard to the set-up of the site is a bit problematic. It means that for every project, academic or not, whose documentation one might like to check, a different (not always intuitive) way of checking them has to be learned. And having to mentally switch from Faerie’s Aire to Death Waltz for every other project is simply inconvenient. I’m not saying that the documentation of these sites as such is usually bad. I just think that the lack of standards decreases the usability of such sites in a scholarly context greatly.
Claire Warwick addresses this issue in her 2009 article “Documentation and the Users of Digital Resources in the Humanities”, and describes documentation as “extended metadata” (5). She makes a distinction between technical and procedural documentation, both of which are highly important. However, since our project is not going to involve complicated mark-ups or programmes invented/implemented by ourselves, I feel that what we are going to have to focus on is procedural documentation, which involves pointing out where we got our material and tools from, what editorial choices were made in the creation of our project and a precise description of how and under what circumstances the project was run. As Warwick states, procedural documentation ideally does not only preserve “the institutional memory of a project”, but in doing so also “helps give users confidence in the quality and reliability of digital resources” (6). Particularly in order to avoid or at least address scepticism from traditional literary scholars, I feel that it is therefore vital that a certain degree of standardisation with regard to digital and online academic work be established. With regard to our own project, I guess we will have to find our own way to ensure thorough documentation, since even the Modern Language Association – our trusted consultant when it comes to citations – only seems to know how to quote and evaluate websites, not how to properly document them.
It’s up to us, then, to
Warwick et al. “Documentation and the Users of Digital Resources in the Humanities”. Journal of Documentation. Vol. 65:1. Emerald Publishing Group, 2009. Accessed via http://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/13809/
Exam No. B054532