Bethany Nowviskie

open and shut

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I recently collaborated on a project a little outside the ordinary for me: a case study for a chapter in a forthcoming textbook for, well, cops and spooks. (Cue performative outrage and sub-tweeting about the digital humanities’ complicity in our modern surveillance state–which I will address in a moment.) The book is the infelicitously-titled Application of Big Data for National Security: A Practitioner’s Guide to Emerging Technologies, edited by Babak Akhgar et al. These are circles alien to me, but in which my chapter’s co-author, Gregory Saathoff, frequently moves.

I write about the project here for two reasons–seemingly different, but in fact closely aligned. The first is that I successfully and quite easily negotiated alterations to my author’s contract with Elsevier (my own little valentine) that made it possible for me to reconcile placing the chapter in a Butterworth-Heinemann book with my deeply-held open access values. (I remain, in terms of journal publishing, a Cost of Knowledge signatory, pledging not to publish in or contribute editing and reviewing time to Elsevier journals until their business practices become less damaging to academic libraries and the public good.) I thought it might be helpful for others to know how I undertook this negotiation, and why open access publishing is usually even easier for me. The other reason for this post has to do with the content and message of the book chapter, and its relation to recent debates in the digital humanities. This, too, relates to problems of openness, audience, and the public impact of humanities scholarship. Read the rest of this entry »

johannes factotum & the ends of expertise

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[This—more or less—is the text of a keynote talk I delivered last week in Atlanta, at the 2014 DLF Forum: the annual gathering of the Digital Library Federation. DLF is one among several stellar programs at CLIR, the Council on Library and Information Resources, where I have the honor to serve as a Distinguished Presidential Fellow. I began the talk with the following slide…]


You’re probably wondering who Johannes Factotum may be. Let’s start with a story.

Grad school in English, for me, began with a scavenger hunt. I am deeply sorry to report that this was not as much fun as it might sound. In 1996, the University of Virginia Library’s OPAC had been online for only a few years, and for most, the physical card catalog reigned supreme. Journal collections were almost entirely in print or on microfiche, but above all were in the building—shared and offsite storage being mostly a thing of the future. Search engines, which were poor, were supplemented by hand-coded indices, many of which were made and maintained by individual enthusiasts. These folks were a mix of established and self-proclaimed experts who had newly gotten their hands on the means of production. What they produced were largely pages of blue and purple links on Netscape-grey backgrounds, punctuated with little icons of shoveling dudes—lists of this and that, labors of love, some of which aimed to be comprehensive. Read the rest of this entry »

how we learned to start/stop “speaking in code”

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[UPDATE: #codespeak is over and was a smashing success. See a post on outcomes, including a kit for hosting similar gatherings, here. This entry is cross-posted from the Re:Thinking blog at CLIR, the Council on Library and Information Resources, where I’m honored to be serving as Distinguished Presidential Fellow. Check out all the great content at CLIR!]

Here’s a consummation devoutly to be wished: digital humanities research and practice becomes its best self, and finds scholars and technology staff engaging as peers in mutually intelligible conversation. It sounds like a modest hope, until you reflect on how far we are from achieving that vision.

Communications gaps are deep and broad, even among humanities-trained software developers and the scholars with whom they collaborate. Much (not all) knowledge advances in software development through hands-on, journeyman learning experiences and the iterative, often-collaborative development of built objects and systems. Much (not all) knowledge advances in humanities scholarship through fixed and fluid kinds of academic discourse: referential, prosy, often agonistic. A real division exists in style and practice, even when the subjects and objects of humanities inquiry are the same. What might bridge a gap like that? And can we move past an historical moment in the academy, in which the onus is almost entirely placed on archivally and theoretically trained humanities scholars to become tech-savvy digital humanists—to build a concomitant sense of momentum, responsibility, and opportunity in our community of DH software engineers? Can we build greater community itself, just by making a space in which such problems are addressed? Read the rest of this entry »

what’s next

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As we end an amazing 11-year run of the Mellon Foundation-supported Scholarly Communication Institute (the last six years of which it was my privilege to witness, learn from, and help to engineer at UVa), I am looking forward to new chances and challenges. Today, CLIR, the Council on Library and Information Resources, announced my appointment as a Distinguished Presidential Fellow. (I’m still a little stunned.)  A couple of days ago, I accepted an invitation from our wonderful Provost to join his office in the part-time role of Special Advisor, assisting at the institutional level in the advancement of digital humanities scholarship at UVa.  And on Tuesday I turned forty!  Quite a week.   Read the rest of this entry »

resistance in the materials

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[This is the text of an invited talk I gave at the 2013 MLA Convention, as part of Michael Bérubé’s presidential forum on “Avenues of Access.” The session also featured Matthew Kirschenbaum and Cathy Davidson, and was subtitled “Digital Humanities and the Future of Scholarly Communication.” My slides are available here, and if you like this talk, you may also be interested in my RBMS keynote, Reality Bytes.]

Most mornings, these days—especially when I’m the first to arrive at the Scholars’ Lab—I’ll start a little something printing on our Replicator. I do this before I dive into my email, head off for consultations and meetings, or (more rarely) settle in to write. There’s a grinding whirr as the machine revs up. A harsh, lilac-colored light clicks on above the golden Kapton tape on the platform. Things become hot to the touch, and I walk away. I don’t even bother to stay, now, to see the mechanized arms begin a musical slide along paths I’ve programmed for them, or to watch how the fine filament gets pushed out, melted and microns-thin—additive, architectural—building up, from the bottom, the objects of my command.

I’m a lapsed Victorianist and book historian who also trained in archaeology, before gravitating toward the most concrete aspects of digital humanities production—the design of tools and online environments that emphasize the inevitable materiality of texts, and the specific physicality of our every interaction with them. I suppose I print to feel productive, on days when I know I’ll otherwise generate more words than things at the digital humanities center I direct at UVa Library. Art objects, little mechanisms and technical experiments, cultural artifacts reproduced for teaching or research—cheap 3d-printing is one affirmation that words (those lines of computer code that speak each shape) always readily become things. That they kind of… want to. It’s like when I learned to set filthy lead type and push the heavy, rolling arm of a Vandercook press, when I should have been writing my dissertation.

I peek in as I can, over the course of a morning. And when the extruders stop extruding, and the whole beast cools down, I’ll crack something solid and new off the platform—if a colleague in the lab hasn’t done that for me already. (It’s a satisfying moment in the process.)

Sometimes, though, I’ll come back to a mess—a failed print, looking like a ball of string or a blob of wax. Maybe something was crooked, by a millimeter. Maybe the structure contracted and cracked, no match for a cooling breeze from the open door. Or maybe it’s that my code was poor, and the image in my mind and on my screen failed to make contact with the Replicator’s sizzling build-plate—so the plastic filament that should have stuck like coral instead spiraled out into the air, and cooled and curled around nothing. Those are the mornings I think about William Morris. Read the rest of this entry »

Creative Commons License This site uses a heavily modified version of Bryan Helmig's Magatheme. Work at by Bethany Nowviskie is always CC-BY. Want to know why? The falling letters are by Wayne Graham. He kindly made them to replace a set I designed in Flash in the late 1990s and had in place for more than 17 years. Not a bad run! Ave atque vale.