Archival Discoveries @ Chawton House Library

Chawton House Library is paradise for (studying) Early Women Writers
Chawton is lovely, and especially Darren Bevin, Librarian Extraordinaire, top right.


“Just what do digital humanists really do?” 

This question is the theme of today’s events, and it’s a great one. I’d love to know more answers! The crowd-sourced method of the project, which empowers everyone who considers themselves a DHer to contribute, is both emblematic of the hospitality of the DH community and also evidences of one of the major contributions of DH as a burgeoning set of practices.

One method of DH involves the aggregation of massive amounts of data, and then the use machines to help in analyzing that data in order to answer interesting interpretive, theoretical, or practical questions. So the Day of DH project makes sense in both content and form.

But that is not the kind of DH that I do, or, at least, not the kind that I have done. Since I’m currently enjoying one of the most fun and productive periods of my academic life (ie: I’m on sabbatical at a fantastic research library) I will write about that.

Chawton House Library, Church, and "Barn"
Chawton House Library, Church, and “Barn”


DH at Chawton House

I am writing this from the upstairs Reading Room at Chawton House Library, a research library located in the ancestral home of the Knight family (relatives of Jane Austen) in southern England. The House became a library in the 1990s, when American philanthropist Sandy Lerner (co-founder of Cisco) leased it from the family and refurbished it to serve as a center for the study of Early Women’s Writing. The Library is now run in partnership with the nearby University of Southampton, under the guidance of the incomparable Gillian Dow. It is a fantastic place to do research.

So, to get to the prompt, what am I doing today? As you can see in the above photo, I am simultaneously reading three books: John Plotz’s Portable Property is on my laptop screen via the University of Southampton Ebook collection; I’ve got a volume of the Dictionary of Literary Biography edited by Joan Klingel Ray and titled “Jane Austen’s Popular and Critical Reputation” open in front of me; and I’ve got Father Paul’s 1735 The Rights of Sovereigns and Subjects from the Knight family collection (which means Jane Austen may have actually handled it!).

This scene probably looks much like the desk of any scholar working on a historically-based study, doesn’t it? So what’s “digital” about my methods? The real answer is that, in my opinion, many humanists working today could call their work “digital humanities” and be absolutely accurate.

Working in the archives: Digital text, Critical Book, Archival Text
Working in the archives: Digital text, Critical Book, Archival Text


So what have I done today?

  • Read an Ebook (Tracy Mcnulty’s amazingly clear yet complex The Hostess), using Evernote to take notes and to annotate screenshots of relevant passages.
  • Took photographs of archival materials (oh, and the interior of the reading room for this post and then organized them on my Ipad to enable future retrieval.
  • Noticed that a friend of mine contributed to a book I’m reading, so I posted on Facebook and Twitter asking him if he’d be interested/willing to read a bit of my current draft.
  • Read–delicately–an eighteenth century text on sovereignty.
  • Wrote a few pages of my draft, and drafted this quick blog post.
  • Read an inspiring article on collaborative peer review, by one of the editors of Hybrid Pedagogy (I’m linking to it, since it’s so wonderful I hope you’ll take a look at it.)

These are all pretty pedestrian, aren’t they? The horizon of this current project (on hospitality in Jane Austen) includes a textual analysis component which will benefit from some fancy computerized analytic methods. I hope to get started on that component before I leave Chawton House, but I will definitely work on it at DHSI this June as I attend David Hoover’s workshop “Out-of-the-Box Text Analysis for the Digital Humanities”. But so far most of the work on this “Digital Humanities” project involves reading both new and very old books, thinking about them, writing about them, then asking other scholars for input, and waking up the next day and doing more of the same. That’s my day. I’m delighted to report that I wrote 3 pages today, and also drafted this blog post. That makes it very good day indeed!