The Art of Research in the Digital Age

The Art of Research in the Digital Age

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Research and the internet are perhaps two words which raise some wariness in educators. There is definitely the need to teach students about research and how to do it well, and also to open up the wealth of libraries and archives on our doorstep in London.

For many researchers, the love of solitary work in a quiet archive is an integral part of the job. And undoubtedly there is a lot to be said for the pleasurable experience of using texts, and of sitting down with a text as a physical artefact.

However, the rise in digital humanities is changing the way we do research. It’s affecting the practical ways in which we access material, and also changing the ways researchers conceive of their projects and the questions they ask of the archive.

The New York Public Library is widely regarded as a world-leader in digitising collections, and its online portal is an impressive tool which brings together all of the Libraries collections across different archives, and is even pioneering ways of exploring the collections as a vast interconnected network.

Digitisation is an important tool in terms of conserving delicate material like manuscripts and rare books. Increasingly, librarians will ask researchers to access digital images as a first port of call before bringing delicate material out for handling.

The British Museum’s Search the Collections site is one major example of an institution opening up its collections to both the interested amateur, who can search on any time period of topic they would like to browse, right up to specialist researchers who can access excellent-quality images of delicate ephemera like Hogarth handbills or woodblock prints.

Libraries are also archiving digital material. Recently, the British Library archived the Grenfell Action Group blog in it’s UK Web Archive, which is dedicated to ‘web resources of scholarly and cultural importance’.

Dr Jennie Batchelor is a Professor of eighteenth-century studies at the University of Kent. Her latest project is an excellent case study in how digital humanities can help shape research.

She heads up the The Ladies Magazine Project,  which has just completed its digital index of a magazine which was hugely influential in its day, but which is seldom accessed nowadays.

“More people were reading the magazine than were going out to buy novels, or were reading he Lyrical Ballads,” explains Dr Batchelor.  “Or, they’d be reading the Lyrical Ballads in the pages of the magazine, alongside poetry written by readers.” The magazine had ten to fifteen thousand readers a month, a particularly impressive figure compared to the Jane Austen’s original anonymous print run of 750 copies of Sense and Sensibility.

She remembers the old days of having to use microfiche to read the magazine. “It gave me an awful headache,” she laughs. ”It’s a tiresome and unwieldy process that is really at odds with the experience of reading a magazine”.

Thanks to digitisation, the entire run of the magazine is now easily accessible. “I really chanced my arm,” explains Dr Batchelor, “and asked the owners of the microfiche archive to create an online database”.

But digitising content alone isn’t enough. Navigating the archive is an immense task. The Ladies Magazine was hugely popular in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, running for 62 years with 13 issues per year. As well as being dense in terms of volume, it is also a multi-media affair, with pictures, musical scores, and, as we shall see, stitching patterns all featuring in the publication.

“It’s a real window on the world in that period,” elaborates Dr Batchelor. From the latest on the Reform Act, to changing hemlines, the Ladies Magazine was vitally interested in wide-ranging, multifarious topics. It was also a significant platform for readers, mainly women, to write and to engage with ideas.

The magazine had multiple authors, and in fact most of its original material was written by readers themselves. They would often write and converse with each other through its pages, sometimes over decades.

It quickly became clear to Dr Batchelor that developing a navigation tool would be of utmost importance in “opening up” the magazine to new readers and researchers.

There are several ways in which her digital index is a valuable tool for  researchers. Key-word searching, usually available in online databases, is useful but can be misleading. The project sought to define its own keywords for every individual article, a labour-intensive task but a profitable one.

“Let’s take “suicide” as a bit of a morbid example,” says Batchelor. It could maybe not even feature as a word in an actual article and you could be faced instead with having to work through polite eighteenth-century synonyms for self-sacrifice, or conversely going through every grisly method you can think of in order to turn up a result.

Other ways in which researchers on the project are using the index include looking at the concentration of contributors and geographic spread, and the spread of material and changes over time. Content can also be sorted generically, which isn’t always a straightforward task for a complex text which can be very fluid generically. Researchers can also distinguish original content from previously published sources.

Dr Batchelor and her colleagues became emotionally invested, too, in the people behind the raw data. They traced friendships made, and even relationships kindled, in the pages of the magazine.

She has always maintained, also, that the index should be open-access. This brings into question issues about paywalls and access limitations. Although free-to-use and high quality resources like the British Museum and New York Public Library collections are highly accessible and useful for interested members of the public and specialist researchers alike, access to other digitised archives can be patchy and dependant on membership of institutions. Even the British Library, although free to use, does make some demands for membership, asking that members demonstrate a need to access their resources specifically. Unfortunately the digitised content of the Ladies Magazine remains behind a paywall, but the index itself will always be open access for everyone.

For Dr Batchelor, the digitisation process and the research that followed has really made her forthcoming book. Originally conceived as a traditionary-structured monograph, “the way it’s structured and the people I’m talking to with it have completely changed,” she says.

Social media has also played a surprising part in her research journey. “Honestly, it’s been revelatory!” she laughs. “ I originally thought it would just be a bolt-on to the project, but it’s taken on a life of its own.” Twitter has been an asset, from gaining an insight as author into what really animates readers, to getting people from different disciplines from around the world interested in the project.

However, tweeting pictures of surviving embroidery patterns from the magazine was what really took off. The buzz of excitement about the fragile printed designs, which normally would have been taken out of the magazine to be used, and lost to the archive, led to the The Great Ladies Magazine Stitch Off. Talented readers from the around the world stitched their own beautiful copies of the designs, in an unusual and exciting way that connected historical material with lived artistic production. It also resulted in an exhibition at the Chawton House Library, seen by over seven thousand people.

Dr Batchelor has also utilised blogging as an important strand of the project. “I would really recommend it as research practice. It’s a great way to write as you go and really test out ideas.” There’s a neat echoing of eighteenth-century practices, too, in the back-and-forth intellectual exchanges seen in the pages the magazine.

What she hopes will emerge from the Ladies Magazine Project is re-evaluation of university teaching of this period, and an engagement with what women were actually reading and writing in their everyday lives.

What’s certain is that digitisation projects like this are opening up more and more texts for researchers, and opening up the archive for more and more people beyond the world of academia.

 

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