University of Rochester

Burning Bright

Capitalizing on the power of digital technologies, Rochester’s scholars are leading new efforts to organize and share their scholarship in the humanities.
By Kathleen McGarvey

Imagine you’re a scholar of the English poet and artist William Blake. What are the essential tools of your trade?

You might say a well-stocked personal library, not to mention access to a good research library. But if you want to consult Blake’s original manuscripts and art, you also will need to invest in a sturdy suitcase and a good frequent-flyer program.

That’s because the works of the 18th- and 19th-century writer, engraver, and painter are held in a continents-spanning array of institutions. You’ll need to visit the British Library and the J. Paul Getty Museum; don’t forget the Louvre, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Library of Congress; there’s also the National Museum of Victoria in Australia. . . .

eavesburns and andersonhahnafter words photo

RESOURCES: Morris Blake, cofounder and coeditor of the Blake Archive (top left), Vicki Burns, head of the reference department at Rush Rhees Library (on right, top right), and Helen Andeson, head of collection development; Thomas Hahn, professor of English and cocreator of the Robin Hood Project (bottom left); and Russell Peck, the John H. Deane Professor of Rhetoric and English Literature who heads a project of the Consortium on the Teaching of the Middle Ages (TEAMS).

What if you could trade a cramped seat in coach for a comfortable chair and a laptop?

Morris Eaves, a professor of English at the University and a scholar of British Romanticism and media history and theory, asked a similar question in the early 1990s.

“The study of Blake reached a kind of crisis point in the late 20th century,” Eaves says. “A huge pile of scholarship had accumulated, but seeing Blake’s work together, all in one place, was impossible.”

Eaves, along with Robert Essick of the University of California at Riverside, and Joseph Viscomi of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, set out to change that by developing an innovative hypermedia archive, called the William Blake Archive, that draws the threads of Blake’s career together in one carefully designed and exhaustively thorough Web resource.

The site is eclipsing distances, winning awards, and setting new standards for online scholarly work. It’s one of several initiatives led by Rochester scholars that capitalize on the technologies of the digital age to bring new insights and to share new ideas in the humanities.

Alongside the Blake Archive, other Rochester digital projects—including the Camelot Project, the Robin Hood Project, and the Middle English Text Series—are making their mark. The work of the libraries—indeed, the very idea of what a library is—is changing, too.

Today most people think of William Blake as a poet. His poems, such as “The Lamb” and “The Tyger” from Songs of Innocence and of Experience, are widely anthologized. But by training Blake was a painter and printmaker who became a poet during his artistic progression.

Because publishers found it more practical to print only the texts of the poems, the scope of Blake’s work as a visual artist—including 19 illuminated books, commercial book illustrations, separate prints and prints in series, drawings, paintings, and other typographical works—has become less well known.

He was, in the words of the Blake Archive’s editors, a “multimedia artist,” a way of thinking about creative work that traditional print scholarship has difficulty capturing.

“Printed books were so inadequate to the task,” says Eaves. Ultimately, he explains, Blake’s work has bifurcated into a stream of images for art historians, and a stream of texts for literary critics.

The Blake Archive is a way of bringing those two streams back together. Visitors can search by text and by images, giving them ready access to Blake’s entire artistic career.

Based at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the archive counts the Library of Congress and the University of Rochester among its sponsors.

Available for free on the Web since 1996, the archive received the prize for a Distinguished Scholarly Edition in 2004, a biennial award from the Modern Language Association, the largest and one of the oldest American learned societies in the humanities. The archive was the first electronic publication to receive the award.

“The Blake Archive has been quite specific about its aims from the beginning,” says Eaves. “We wanted to create an electronic scholarly edition that can sustain serious scholarship. For us, that was setting the bar quite high because of what was done and could be done on the Web at the time.”

The innovative nature of the Blake Archive has transformed the formerly stable and familiar tools of the literary scholar.

As the archive’s editors explain in their introduction to the site: “Though ‘archive’ is the term we have fallen back on, in fact we envision a unique resource unlike any currently available for the study of Blake—a hybrid all-in-one edition, catalogue, database, and set of scholarly tools capable of taking full advantage of the opportunities offered by new information technology.”

The value of the archive’s virtual nature became apparent, Eaves says, when a set of 19 long-lost Blake watercolors surfaced earlier this decade, after 165 years. The museum Tate Britain, a major repository of Blake’s work, failed to raise the money necessary to purchase them together, and so the set headed to Sotheby’s to be auctioned off individually.

Before the set was scattered, Eaves says, the editors of the Blake Archive arranged to get reproductions of the images. Today the watercolors—illustrations of Robert Blair’s poem “The Grave”—can be seen as an intact group only at the Blake Archive. As is true throughout the archive, the reproduced images are of the extremely high quality necessary to serve scholarly needs.

“The Blake Archive is the one entity that could create proper reproductions and scholarly editions of this set of illustrations in time for them to be preserved before they were in the hands of private investors,” Eaves says. “We were able to capture them at the moment when they popped to the surface. We’re not only the best, but the only, source for scholarly access to these images.”

Alan Lupack, adjunct professor of English, curator of the Rossell Hope Robbins Library, and creator of the Camelot Project—an online compendium of texts, images, bibliographies, and information related to Arthurian legend—calls access “the primary advantage” of digital scholarship. The Camelot Project receives more than a million hits every month and features work by Lupack, other scholars from the United States, Canada, and Britain, and undergraduate and graduate students at Rochester.

Working digitally is like working on a sort of dream book, says Lupack—“the kind of book no publisher would ever publish, because it would be too big, too expensive.

“Digital scholarship makes accessible a lot of material that isn’t otherwise accessible,” he says. “Access is important, and when it’s freely available, scholarship becomes more democratic, and more interesting things can happen because more people are involved.

“I’m a very book-oriented person,” Lupack reflects. “But digital scholarship makes books more available.”

The Middle English Texts Series, published for the Consortium on the Teaching of the Middle Ages (TEAMS), has made increased access of special value for the classroom. Begun in 1990 as a book series, the project developed an online component in 1995.

Called a “model of its kind” by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the project is run by Rochester’s Russell Peck, the John H. Deane Professor of Rhetoric and English Literature.

“The project has completely changed the teaching of medieval English literature,” he says.

For medievalists, simply getting hold of texts to teach has long been a challenge. Anthologies are expensive and rarely stay in print for more than three years. By the time instructors find a book to their liking, organize a course around it, and ready their notes, the book is out of print.

TEAMS has 500 medieval texts online, and its site receives more than a million hits a year. The result has been to put texts in the hands of scholars who would otherwise have no access to them. It also offers far greater latitude for instructors to teach as they would like, Peck says, no longer confined in their syllabi by an anthology’s choice of readings.

Digitization can change the intersection of scholarship and the classroom in other ways, too.

Thomas Hahn, who helped to develop Rochester’s Robin Hood Project—which contains no copyrighted material and so is freely available to all users—with Alan Lupack, is at work on what he titles “Robin Hood: The Digital Archive.” It has its roots in Hahn’s own 2,000-item collection of Robin Hood materials: books, movie posters, musical scores, theater programs, and advertisements. With support from a Kauffman Enterprise grant, Hahn is creating a database of popular materials treating the Robin Hood legend. The project, for classroom use, has a planned rollout date of 2009.

“The archive offers this possibility of seeing the multiple channels through which information comes to people,” he says. “There’s a layered array of artifacts that let’s you see what it was like to enjoy Robin Hood in the 17th century, or the 18th, or through a film in the 20th.”

“In some ways, that’s the wonderful part about digital scholarship—seeing things in relation that you wouldn’t otherwise be able to pull together,” says Melissa Mead. She is a visual and digital resources librarian and the organizer of the library’s online Frederick Douglass Project, which aims to digitize all of the Douglass materials—including correspondence, photographs, and copies of his newspapers—held by the University libraries.

To medievalists and other scholars of the premodern period, digital scholarship’s unsettling of familiar concepts—the purpose and form of books, for example—resonates with questions in the historical periods they study.

“The status of a subcategory of writing—a self-contained, autonomous artifact between two covers—now seems completely natural to us, but was very much in process in the late medieval and early modern eras,” says Hahn. “In many ways, mechanical reproduction homogenized and fossilized ‘book-ness’ in ways that impede our historical and cultural understanding of how this came to be, and digitized materials, in bringing together a variety of examples and variants for collective study, make it possible to see this more clearly than ever.”

The implications of digitization may be felt nowhere more acutely than in libraries, where “book-ness” has had an especially central place. Increasingly, however, online databases are among the most powerful research tools for humanities scholars.

“There’s incredible power when you search this way,” says Vicki Burns, head of the Rush Rhees Library reference department.

The library’s first digital database acquisition—nearly 20 years ago—was HarpWeek, which provides campus patrons electronic access to Harper’s Weekly between 1857 and 1871. Other databases have followed swiftly in recent years: among them, Early English Books Online, offering digital facsimiles of nearly every book published in England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, and British North America—and works in English printed elsewhere—between 1473 and 1700; Eighteenth-Century Collections Online, a fully searchable database of full-text books published in the United Kingdom and the Americas during the 18th century; and ARTstor, a digital library of some 500,000 images from art, architecture, the humanities, and the social sciences.

Susan Gibbons, the newly appointed vice provost and Andrew H. and Janet Dayton Neilly Dean of the River Campus Libraries and an expert in emerging library technologies, says digital resources are helping expand scholarly connections by making it easier for researchers to find works they may not have been aware of.

Digital scholarship also has the potential to alter fundamentally the nature of libraries, she says.

“The introduction of digital material changes the role of the library,” says Gibbons. It used to be simply a physical place, “but now your engagement with the library can happen anywhere. It changes the nature of our service.

“The digital in some ways makes the library invisible. Will it make people less aware of the value of the library? Or should we be content that seamlessness is expected?” Gibbons asks. She holds with the latter position. That seamlessness, she says, best serves the “end user—our students and faculty”

Even as librarians and digital scholars aim to serve those users, however, they must contend with the inevitable fluidity of developing technologies.

“Microfilm, properly kept, will keep for centuries,” Mead says of what was until recently the most common form for making rare texts more accessible. “The Internet doesn’t have the same fixity.”

Eaves and his colleagues keep that in mind as they develop their sites. As a result of digital scholarship’s relatively recent origin, he says, their work is still experimental, and even small decisions become freighted with precedent-setting considerations.

When the editors decide how to render Blake’s manuscripts on the archive, for example, they must develop methods that will accommodate such thorny cases as Blake’s notebooks, where he drafted poems, drew sketches, wrote lines over other lines, and crammed as much as he could onto a page to conserve paper.

“When you’re doing something like this, you have to think of the worst case—you have to anticipate the most difficult things, even when you’re working on the simplest,” Eaves says.

“You can be very advanced in a book, and I don’t mean to suggest otherwise. But when it’s done, it’s done, and we’re all familiar with the conventions of print scholarship.”

Thomas DiPiero, senior associate dean of humanities, says digital humanities resources make possible not just greater access, but “new perspectives on traditional material.”

That includes new opportunities for future work.

“To date, the vast majority of digital scholarship has been text-based,” DiPiero observes.

But he hopes a developing collaboration between the University and Rochester’s George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film will help to change that.

A new Images & Light initiative, one of the signature programs in the strategic plan for Arts, Sciences & Engineering, aims to bring together not just the visual arts and the sciences, but the research mission of the University and the extensive resources of the Eastman House.

“What we’re looking at now, in addition to the really interesting textual work in digital humanities scholarship, is taking it the next step further, to image capacities, as well,” DiPiero says.

Even a project as comparatively established in the digital world as the Blake Archive, however, continually finds itself addressing new frontiers. As Eaves contemplates the challenges he and the other editors face now in developing the archive—settling on technical standards for high-quality digital reproductions usable for scholars today and in years to come, choosing mark-up language that will be viable as long as can be foreseen—he is invigorated by the possibilities that come along with the uncertainties.

“We have all these image problems, all these text encoding problems—and for the future, who can guess?

“That’s what makes it a great adventure.”

Kathleen McGarvey is associate editor of Rochester Review.