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I thought that many of you would like to see this review of our recent publication on Digital American literature: http://www.diglib.org/pubs/brogan0505/


College and Research Libraries
May 2006, Vol. 67, No. 3

Book Review

Martha L. Brogan, with the assistance of Daphnée Rentfrow.  A Kaleidoscope of Digital American Literature.

Washington, D.C.: Council on Library and Information Resources and the Digital Library Federation (Strategies and Tools for the Digital Library), 2005. 176p. alk. paper, $30 (ISBN 1932326170). LC 2005-22693.

Of the making of Web sites, there appears to be no end. Except, cautions Martha Brogan, in the case of those dealing with American literature. Of this ilk, she contends, there are too few and fewer still of substantial quality. The problem, she argues, is pervasive. Disciplinary practitioners tend to be highly conservative and resistant to change. And those who may be interested in Web-based learning don’t seem to know what they want in the way of digital tools and resources. Key professional groups remain curiously oblivious to the call of the Web. And copyright restrictions close the door tightly on much twentieth-century literature. The picture Brogan presents is not a happy one. Cruelest of all, perhaps, is Brogan’s observation that although American historians have gotten their act together, the AmLit crowd remains in disarray. And yet, after reading this thoughtful and searching report, it is possible to draw a different set of conclusions. In fact, the landscape Brogan describes seems alive, quirky, inventive, and individualistic. In short, it seems typically humanistic: messy, ill organized, and resistant to easy solutions from the top or the center. Perhaps the picture is not so bleak after all. A kaleidoscope, after all, is a thing of beauty, not something to rue.

Prepared for the Digital Library Federation and the Council on Library and Information Resources, this report will be of interest to every academic librarian whose portfolio includes the humanities and, by extension, humanities computing. Moreover, it will also be of interest to anyone—faculty, student, librarian—who is thinking of launching a Web site that has anything to do with American Studies. Despite its title, the scope of the report is much broader than American literature. Its terrain spans an enormous chunk of humanities computing, including multidisciplinary content sites, metadata, file types and formats, preservation issues, encoding schemes, Open Archives Initiative, digital editing, classroom applications, e-publishing, finding aids, and the like. It is a marvelously thorough environmental scan that yields a robust conspectus of information about commercial and noncommercial Web resources in the humanities. As such, it has a significant reference value above and beyond its function as a formal report.

Brogan’s survey is based on both a thorough review of the currently operational sites and resources and a series of interviews with dozens of leading professionals from the academy, libraries, and IT communities. She has packaged her conspectus in six categories, each of which includes a generous harvest of digital resources: subject gateways; author studies (including digital editing projects); electronic books (facsimile, encoded, and born digital); reference sources and primary text collections (chiefly commercial); subject and genre collections (e.g., poetry); and teaching applications. Within these categories, Brogan compacts finely honed capsule reviews of sites and resources along with discussions of technical requirements, best practices, and the like. Though necessarily brief, Brogan’s reviews are quite useful because they are critical and evaluative, not just descriptions of what’s on the screen. They reflect her own judgments and those of the experts she has tapped along the way.

From within this forest of reviews, some exemplars emerge. Any number of initiatives from the University of Virginia receive consistently high marks for creativity, content, and sustainability. These are typically faculty-driven projects that transcend their specific origins and become bridges to larger, community-based approaches. Also receiving just acclaim is an assortment of Web projects launched by the American Historical Association, the Organization of American Historians, and the American Council of Learned Societies. Then there are the underachievers, chief of which seems to be the Modern Language Association (MLA), about which no one seems to have a good word except the leadership of the organization. The MLA is the great white elephant of the report: Brogan gently, but firmly, admonishes it for its general sluggishness toward digital information and publishing options. Given the size of its disciplinary footprint, the MLA should be playing a much more prominent role in facilitating the incorporation of electronic options into the research and learning strategies of its membership. Alas, after reading Brogan’s report, I am not encouraged by the response of the MLA to the challenge.

The thrust of Brogan’s recommendations predictably calls for greater coordination, collaboration, articulation, and calibration among disciplinary communities. No one would seriously dispute the need for these and more. The editorial status of e-texts, to take one chronically serious problem area, would benefit hugely from common standards and transparent practices so that users would know exactly what they are consulting. So, too, greater coordination among sibling humanities disciplines might yield greater leverage with commercial vendors and software developers to develop better, more affordable products and a more generous suite of tools. At the same time, the struggle for interoperable systems and federated manipulation of digital objects must be of the highest priority for all scholars and librarians.

That said, the ill-coordinated reality of the present state of AmLit on the Web does seem an appropriate match for the intensely individualistic nature of the humanities as practiced today. Organized research has not been a defining characteristic of humanistic scholarship, and probably for good reason. Attempts to rationalize the Web—the dream of many—would thus not come without costs and losses. No one involved in humanities computing on college and university campuses today is unaware of, or unaffected by, the increasingly centralized nature of academic IT. The needs for standardization, control, scalability, and cost-effectiveness are real, but so, too, is the creative freedom they tend to drive out. One of the reasons why humanities computing may not be so robust as it could be is that campus IT initiatives are almost always top-down and generic and thus antithetical to traditional humanistic practices. After all, if the new first commandment on campus is "Thou shall use Blackboard." What are the incentives for innovation? Keep your pencils sharp and at the ready. I raise the issues of hierarchy and creativity not out of any false nostalgia for the "good old ‘90s" but, rather, out of a perceived concern that in building a more stable, durable, and usable Web future, we keep in view the need to sustain the vibrancy and creativity of the humanities at the same time. We need not be careful of what we wish for, if we wish for the right things.—Michael Ryan, University of Pennsylvania.