Academic Exchange: Explain your role in the library.
Connie Moon Sehat: I've been asked to help advise the creation of a research laboratory where what we're calling digital scholarship would happen. I am also involved in creating a certificate curriculum in digital scholarship and media studies in the graduate school for Ph.D. students. I think the basic question is, how are these technologies going to transform research and teaching methodologies for traditional disciplines, whether they're history, biology, or business? What I've been doing is trying to assess the strengths that are particular to Emory.
AE: What are you finding?
CMS: First, because this lab is going to be very grounded in the libraries and in collaboration with the Manuscripts, Archives, and Rare Book Library, I think there's the potential to create an organization with a unique archival strength in comparison to other initiatives going on around the country. A second way that the library dimension might offer particular insight, especially as digital technologies continue to impact research disciplines, involves information access: how does one create an appropriate research environment that allows access to information in a way that understands its potential uses? For example, how do scholars of history versus medicine use information, and what would it actually mean to be collaborative about their research?
It has been my experience that in terms of shaping scholarship, the technologist needs the scholar, and the scholar needs the technologist. In a way, it's just data to the technologist. But interpretive problems, understanding how this could affect methodologies in research or pedagogy, that's definitely in the scholar's field. And yet the scholar can't even imagine some of the technological possibilities that are out there now. So one of the things that digital scholarship tries to do is be interdisciplinary. In our case, the goal is to create an actual, physical space that might mesh scholars and technologists with librarians, invite them to sit together, and let that interaction allow for creative possibilities.
AE: What do you think it will take for digital scholarship to gain greater credibility?
CMS: There are now small, peer-reviewed venues and journals devoted to digital humanities. Additionally, some projects have gained credibility through the participation of scholars who vet the information. As any young field comes into maturity, peer review processes are put in place and more centralization happens, and all this is happening for digital scholarship. I think the real pressure that digital scholarship presents is, what would it mean to deny somebody tenure if, for example, they spent six years of their life creating a large digital project that was submitted to a peer review process and accepted by main scholars in that field but wasn't an individual effort? It took maybe three scholars, plus a team of technologists. Should that work be counted for tenure? I think people in digital scholarship say yes. If you can cite it, if it has intellectual creativity and value, it's a production, it's stable, it's vetted, why should it not be accepted just as well as a monograph?
That's the major challenge: how do we move to the next level and actually become a field or discipline proper, asking the question, What is online scholarship? And the definition shifts. Some people will say digital scholarship is purely about the tools. Others say it's mostly about the questions it raises in terms of the politics and ethics of knowledge. I think it's addressing the opportunities and problems presented by technologies to traditional methodologies in research and teaching. I can't see that it's only about tools. There's a larger question at stake. The tools are a response to technological problems, such as the abundance of information created by our computers.
AE: Do you think the monograph has a future in electronic form?
CMS: Yes, but there is a tremendous amount of data scholars are going to have to deal with. For instance, if you want to be a scholar of the Clinton or George W. Bush administration, that's 33 versus 140 terabytes of information. Even if you're a scholar of the classical world, you have increasing networks and amounts of data at your fingertips; how are you supposed to have access to all that data? At what point does it make sense only for a single person to try to do a monograph with all of that?