The Form of Digital Projects

A word processor from the 1970s-1980s. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Not too long ago we used word processors to write documents on computers. The act of writing itself was called “word processing.” The excitement around the revolutionary new technology (first electric typewriters, then computer applications) inspired a new name for writing, defined by the instrument with which we produced it. Now the technology has become common place and we just write documents, whether electronic or on paper. The term “word processing” has fallen out of use.

So, in another decade, will the long-form, peer-reviewed digital humanities projects, or interactive scholarly works, produced today be known as just books? Is it our excitement about the new technological instruments of production that has us searching for a new name? Time will tell. What we know for certain is that this new form of scholarly publication has significant implications for the practices and processes of authoring, publishing, archiving and preservation.

In another decade, will the long-form, peer-reviewed digital humanities projects, or interactive scholarly works, produced today be known as just books?

Though we may no longer think of ourselves as using word processors when we write with computers, we do pay attention to the format of the electronic documents we create and share. The format, whether .doc, .pdf, .rtf, .md, or one of many others, tells us something about the functionality and interoperability of the electronic file. With digital projects, the form changes everything. Print books published by the Press are usually born-digital—written with the help of a word processor. But, as Jasmine Mulliken explained in her post, “Beyond the ebook,” what distinguishes digital projects is the way the argument is tied to the digital form. It is precisely that close link between the form and the argument that presents significant new challenges.

The traditional humanities monograph, destined for print, is a form that is taught beginning in the first year of graduate school. The training in whom to read, whom to cite, and how to write a convincing narrative is so fundamental, so deeply ingrained in the process of becoming a scholar, that it is hardly recognized as method. But new scholarship in emerging digital forms is shining a bright light on method. Digital projects require design and engineering decisions about form that have a direct bearing on the communication of ideas, and yet are not necessarily part of shared disciplinary rhetoric.

Image from Enchanting the Desert by Nicholas Bauch, Stanford University Press’s first multimodal, born-digital publication.

A central concern for scholars facing this divide is whether digital humanities work will be valued for promotion and tenure review. The challenge for the department is how to adequately evaluate it without established criteria for review. Much has been written on that topic both from the perspective of the creators of digital projects and the administrators responsible for review. What is often overlooked in those discussions and from the guidelines prepared by professional organizations like the Modern Language Association (MLA) and American Historical Association (AHA) are the implications of the form of the project for its longevity. Will the digital project last long enough to make a meaningful contribution to knowledge production?

In academic publishing longevity is a question not only for the publisher but also for the library that is expected to make the work accessible and preserve it as long as possible. When the form of the book is an expression of argument, an encoding of method, and is also critical to determining its sustainability, is it the author, the academy, or the publisher who decides which format is acceptable?


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