Digital has revolutionised many sectors, democratising content and providing access to resources otherwise unavailable.
Victoria Buckley is in the final stages of a PhD at the University of Sussex and talks to me about what online communities have done for academic research; the Bard, digitised; and the pitfalls of not being selective when choosing one’s sources.
Can you sum up your PhD topic in 140 characters?
I’ll certainly try. I’m looking at the impact of the Gunpowder Plot on Jacobean Drama 1605-15. Did I manage?
Have you found online communities to be helpful in assisting you with such an esoteric research subject?
I think online communities such as Twitter are an invaluable resource for researchers.
Through Twitter I’ve been able to connect with academics from all over the place, and although very few have contributed directly to the body of my research, contact with the online research community has proved extremely useful. Notification about conferences, symposiums, new books published in my field etc. are instantaneous on Twitter, in comparison with reading such information via more traditional avenues.
Of course you have to be following the right people in the first place, but the sheer
number of excellent new articles, databases, and emerging electronic collections
means Twitter is one of my primary sources for discovering new activity in my
particular area. Essentially early modernists are all swimming around in the same
material, so even if research interests are different there are always crossovers.
What advantages/disadvantages has the digital age provided the academic community?
I think the digital age has been greeted with almost universal welcome, although there are of course those academics that prefer the more traditional approaches and resist the advances of technology!
There are huge benefits to digital humanities, such as the growth of online academic communities, shared resources, and speed. The speed at which I can now find a book or journal article is astonishing.
When I first began my Master’s degree a lot of my research was paper-based and involved inter-library loans, and schlepping to libraries. Now I can access almost any article I need at the touch of a button.
I think there are probably some disadvantages too. Information overload can be a problem, and I do worry that some traditional methodologies may be dying out. A facsimile copy of a 17th century book just cannot compete with handling the real thing at the British Library. Some aspects of what an early modern text can tell us are lost when we only view a virtual copy. Kateryn Parr’s prayer book for example is not very remarkable in PDF, but when you see the real thing, its tiny size, and the cramped printed letters, you get a real sense of the expensive nature of paper in the 16th century and the craftsmanship of the bookbinders.
I think lots of universities have been quick to embrace digital research but many may not yet have caught up with the explosion of micro-networking sites and the age of the blog.
Does the democratisation of information online mean that there are now too
many resources to plough through when working on a PhD?
In some senses, definitely. When it comes to academic research, one disadvantage of online information is that anyone can set up a website and market themselves as an expert. There are thousands of websites devoted to both Shakespeare and the early modern period, and it’s very important to be selective.
If I was interested in researching Elizabethan shoes or hairclips, I might have a quick look at some blogs on historical clothing, but I’d also know, (or find out!) which historian I really ought to turn to for a definitive answer. And as yet, and perhaps thankfully, the most authoritative information on the period is still published primarily in books rather than in online content.
There is a lot of misinformation out there in cyberspace and people shouldn’t rely on Wikipedia. I marked an undergraduate paper on Hamlet, in which a footnote read ‘www.askjeeves.com/what is the renaissance?’ which I think is probably a good example of the need to be selective when it comes to online sources!
Can you identify any interesting projects/campaigns where social media has been used in conjunction with an academic project?
I was involved in just such a project recently. The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust created a digital project called 60 Minutes For Shakespeare in support of Shakespeare as the author of his works. 60 scholars, myself included, were each given a different question to answer in relation to the Authorship debate. We recorded our answers via Audioboo and the project went live last month and is accessible from all over the world; it’s intended to be a permanent resource for schools and universities, indeed for anyone interested in Shakespeare.
The whole thing was publicised primarily on Twitter and blogs to great effect. I really think it’s a fascinating example of how academic research and social media can work together.
Can you share any sites/online resources that help you streamline your research techniques?
I simply couldn’t work without EBBO (Early English Books Online), an invaluable database of English books printed between 1473 and 1700. Each book has been digitised and tagged, which enables multiple search functionalities. Effectively this means that for my own research I can download a number of early modern books in either PDF or plain text format to my desktop. Without EBBO I’d spend my life in the British Library laboriously reading through a physical copy of each book.
I also rely on JSTOR, a database of academic journal articles published across all disciplines.
My other favourite is Zotero, a freely available tool that enables me to build a virtual database of sources, books, notes, bibliographies, woodcuts and so on. It’s linked into Firefox and can be used as an Add On in Microsoft Word for Mac.
The other recommendation I’d probably make is Dropbox, which is also free. Having lost six months of research after a computer crash I’ve become quite fanatical about backing up my work. Dropbox is really easy to use and means I can drop work into a folder on my desktop which I can then access online from any computer. It even works in conjunction with my iPhone!