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The Future is Digital
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The Future is Digital

All around us information technology is moving from paper to digital forms. For humanists, while the need to consult original materials will always remain, our research and scholarly intercourse will soon be carried out primarily in digital media. Our depositories, finding aids, analytic tools, and publishing venues will all be digitally designed and integrated. This includes the Journal of Victorian Culture.

What should this digital environment look like, how will it function, and what kinds of institutional changes will it require? And how are we going to integrate the environment with our paper and bibliographical inheritance? Those questions are pressing and imperative. Why? Because the library is a cornerstone, if not the very foundation, of modern humanities. And the library is undergoing right now a complete digital transformation. In the next fifty years the entirety of our inherited archive of cultural works will have to be re-edited within a network of digital storage, access, and dissemination. This system, which is already under development, is transnational and transcultural. Do we understand what that means, what problems it brings, how they might be addressed? Theoretical as well as very practical discussions about these matters have been going on for years and decisions are taken every day. Yet digital illiteracy puts most humanists on the margin of conversations and actions that affect the centre of our cultural interests (as citizens) and our professional interests (as scholars and educators).

The disconnection is a serious social and cultural problem. Consider this interesting fact easily observable throughout higher education in the United States: the greater an institution's primary mission is conceived in research terms, the less will the faculty be involved with digital technology. Scholars now regularly use e-mail and word processing, and casual, non-authoritative online reference work is also increasingly common. Beyond that, however, few humanists in the so-called 'major research institutions' have ventured. My own institution, University of Virginia, is known as a leader in digital scholarship. But when I first became seriously involved with digital resources in 1992–3, four faculty members in an English department of about fifty were engaged with digital work. Today the numbers are [End Page 80] the same. And if you survey the departments at Harvard, Princeton, Columbia, Yale, Chicago, and Cornell, not a single faculty member in English is involved in digitally-oriented scholarship. And remember, these are the universities that define the ethos and set the standards for humanities research and education.

This state of affairs is particularly arresting because of the changes that have come since the emergence of the World Wide Web in 1992. On the one hand we've witnessed remarkable advances in the technology – the Web itself, Google, and what a colleague calls 'the googlisation of everything', vast online repositories of important cultural materials; on the other we've observed, in this case with apprehension, the rapidly growing crisis in paper-based scholarly publishing. No one today can doubt that scholarly research exchanges – communication and authorised publication – will have to be digitally organised and executed in a regular way very soon. We have, alas, very few institutional mechanisms that encourage or enable such activities.

Ignorance about information technology and its critical relevance to humanities education is therefore widespread. And the popular debates between digital enthusiasts and doomsters are often most dismaying of all, coming as they often do from persons who are only tangentially involved with digital instruments. You don't begin to understand the powers and limits of this technology except by hands-on collaborative interdisciplinary work. You understand it by active involvement in designing and building the materials and applications that alone can teach how best to make and use these things. You don't learn a language by talking about it or reading books. You learn it by speaking it and writing it. There's no other way. Anything less is just, well, theoretical.

Understand, we're not talking here about 'the death of the book', although anxiety about the future of books and reading is widespread among humanist academics. But in fact book publishing is alive and well and shows few signs of crisis. The problem...