MLA 2022 Session on “New Methods to Explore Digital Archives”

Modern Language Association convention 2022
SHARP session on “New Methods to Explore Digital Archives”

Online, Friday 7 January 8.30am to 9.45am (EST).

Dr Nora C. Benedict
Assistant Professor of Spanish & Digital Humanities
Department of Romance Languages, University of Georgia

Title: “Buyers versus Borrowers: A Look at the Finances of Shakespeare and Company”

Sylvia Beach is known for her “imperfect record keeping” and often indecipherable business accounts (Fitch 161). Joshua Kotin has even gone so far as to say that it would take “[a] team of forensic accountants…to reconstruct the finances of Shakespeare and Company” (121). That said, data from her lending library cards and logbooks provides key insight into Shakespeare and Company’s cash flow. While this financial information is not always presented in a systematic or exhaustive manner, it can still be used to develop a more nuanced understanding of the inner workings of Beach’s literary enterprise. To that end, in this paper I use the Shakespeare and Company Project datasets to examine the exchange of material goods in Beach’s bookshop. More specifically, my analysis centers on the details surrounding purchases and borrows of books from the events dataset. By limiting the scope of my study to only those records that contain transactional data—whether in the form of membership fees or actual book purchases—I unearth a new array of networks that were central to the daily operations of Shakespeare and Company. As a result, in contrast with the common focus on solely the most notable lending library members (or members of the Lost Generation in general), this financial approach brings to light invisible networks and underexplored figures whose monetary contributions were essential to keeping Beach’s business afloat.

Lawrence Evalyn
PhD candidate in English
University of Toronto

Title: “Random Sampling in the Digital Archive”

One of the lessons of distant reading has been that history contains many millions more books than we can actually read. Computational literary study has learned to be explicit about textual selection, but debates about method in non-computational research are often focused on the methods of analysis or rhetorical persuasion carried out by a piece of writing, rather than the work that precedes writing, namely, discovering and reading texts. As a provocation to our expectations of method, I have taken ten entirely random titles published in England between 1789 and 1799, and close-read them for an analysis of that decade’s contentious print culture. I expected this process to be an illuminating failure, but instead have found that critical interpretation is fully capable of locating important narratives about gender, war, racial difference, and religion, even when examining a prophetic pamphlet about a lunar eclipse alongside a budget report for the East India Company. In this paper I will particularly discuss how a random sample sheds new light on eighteenth-century medical misinformation. This experiment highlights the value of embracing the true scope of what is held in digital archives, and suggests that new methods of exploring digital archives could be excitingly alien.

Dr Jennifer Burek Pierce
Associate Professor
School of Library and Information Science, University of Iowa

Title: “Finding Fictional Places on Actual Maps: A Case Study of Methods for Locating Reader Responses in the Digital World”

Matt Kirschenbaum has described the archive as “unbounded” and always in the process of creation, an apt description of digital media that document reading. These media appear on multiple platforms but are otherwise uncollected and unpreserved. Research that analyzes contemporary digital reading must respond to these conditions, particularly as individuals reconsider and remove their accounts from different platforms.

Digital mapping is a distinctive mode of reader response. Google Maps and other mapping technologies allow users to annotate professionally created maps, — a practice known as folk cartography — and readers adapt this technology to their own ends by adding fictional places from favorite books to real digital maps. One example emerges from reader response to Rainbow Rowell’s best-selling Simon Snow trilogy and readers’ decision to put her fictional Watford School of Magicks on Google Maps.1 The hidden school, a parallel to J.K. Rowling’s Hogwarts, gained reviews and images that reflected how readers read and envisioned places in Rowell’s narrative. Understanding this practice requires research methods that allow us to locate and study map-based media that document reading.

The Watford example is significant because selective imaginary places have been mapped to the real world. If we search for venues listed in Manguel and Guadalupi’s Dictionary of Imaginary Places on Google Maps, we find that many fictional places do not have digital correlates. This asks that we consider why fictional sites are selected for mapping, how they are realized on technology platforms, and how we locate them.

When fans add fictional places to real maps, their voices are inscribed and stored in ways that augment what Kirschenbaum characterizes as the “heterogeneity of digital data and its embodied inscriptions.”2 Simple searches of maps are not an effective way of finding these sites. Guidebooks, news stories, and social media help highlight these sites of reader response, a kind of triangulation. Crucially, affect, or readers’ feelings for stories, is an important cue to the sort of narratives that might be realized on maps.

Dr Zackary Turpin
Assistant Professor / Director of Graduate Studies
English Department, University of Idaho

Since Walt Whitman’s death, the rediscovery of his lost publications has been a surprisingly regular process, turning up everything from manifestos and travel writings to a men’s wellness guide and a serialized novel. The search for lost Whitman works has also evolved substantially, with major discoveries of the poet’s unknown publications coming increasingly through digital means, thanks to his extensive publication record (signed or unsigned) in more than one hundred known newspapers, as well as his fondness for reusing pen names and initialisms. The rediscovery of lost texts, however, formerly done by way of manuscript and bibliographic evidence alone, is today being augmented with new digital methodologies, which enhance researchers’ efficacy and extend their reach into digital newspaper and manuscript archives. In this presentation, I will enumerate the strengths and weaknesses of some of the newest digital methods aiding the recovery of lost Whitman publications, including byline searches, metadata triangulation, computational stylometry, and idiolectic analysis. Such methods may turn up any number of lost texts, including not one but two Whitman novels that may still be missing, The Sleeptalker (ca. 1850-51) and Proud Antoinette (ca. 1858-60).

1 @rainbowrowell, “What do you do … Penny’s mom is going to be so PISSED” Twitter (15 Sept. 2019); @rainbowrowell, “I guess I should leave a review” Twitter (15 Sept. 2019): nhttps://twitter.com/rainbowrowell/status/1173268813451878401

2 Kirschenbaum, Mechanisms, 6.