Bethany Nowviskie

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 »

reality bytes

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[Today, I gave an opening plenary talk at the 53rd Annual RBMS preconference in San Diego. RBMS is a conference for people professionally interested in rare books and manuscripts. Here’s the text. But first—I want to make clear that the views it expresses are mine alone. They may not reflect those of my co-workers at the University of Virginia, and my employers had no prior knowledge that I’d be giving such a talk. I didn’t have much warning, myself. I re-wrote it late into the night on Monday, before joining (for a couple of hours, anyway) the crowd in the dark outside our beautiful Rotunda—a night documented here.]

At the University of Virginia Library, we begin our regular directors’ meetings with a round of “hot topics”—a chance to make pressing announcements or insert late-breaking news into the agenda for the day. Now, readers of such obscure periodicals as the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Chronicle of Higher Education may have noticed that UVa is having… kind of a rough week. So when my colleagues and I gathered most recently, I had a fairly good guess at what our meeting’s “hot topic” might be. Instead, the first hand to be raised was that of our Director of Facilities Management, who made an earnest and concerned report: at least—two rats!—had been sighted!—in the grass outside, not terribly far from our wonderful Special Collections Library.

The question, my friends, was obvious. Were these rats coming—or going?

When I sat down to draft this morning’s presentation, I found it very difficult to disentangle what I had intended to say to you, from what I felt newly compelled to say. I had my title. As a more physical-collections-focused companion piece to Matt Kirschenbaum’s “Bit by Bit,” how could this talk not be called, “Reality Bytes?” But I meant, at first, for it to have a narrower scope: to be purely about the shape and trajectory of the most bookish side of what has come to be called the digital humanities. I’d discuss how rapidly-advancing analytical and presentational technology might impact our thinking about bibliographical research, paleography, and special collections librarianship. Just as Matt would cover the born-digital archive, I had planned to talk about new opportunities to be found in the changing relationship of scholars and students and humanities software developers to their historical, paper-based archives and research collections.

I was going to razzle-dazzle you with demos and slides. I threw them out.

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  • Published: May 4th, 2009
  • Category: swinburne

on hoardings

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Mine isn’t the only new blog in town. If you are interested in 19th-century scholarship, particularly as it is practiced and disseminated online, you should subscribe to Andy Stauffer’s The Hoarding. Andy has recently taken over the directorship of NINES from Jerry McGann. NINES is a scholarly collective and software project I worked on for several years, and I remain on its executive council — so it’s near and dear to my heart. (And if you’re here from the library world, you might be interested to know that it, in the form of Collex, provided the seed for Project Blacklight, an open-source catalog interface now being implemented by UVA Library and Stanford, among others.)

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Creative Commons License This site uses a heavily modified version of Bryan Helmig's Magatheme. Work at http://nowviskie.org 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.