Learning changes, one byte at a time

Digital preservation and translation of manuscripts has expanded and democratised access

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In an 1816 sonnet, the English Romantic poet John Keats describes an autobiographical episode of looking at the English translation of the Greek poet Homer, the revered author of epics Iliad and Odyssey. “Oft of one wide expanse had I been told,” confesses Keats’s narrator, “yet did I never breathe its pure serene.”

Though widely read and rigorously curious, akin to “some watcher of the skies”, Keats had received no formal literary or classical training, and couldn’t read Homer in the original. Thus, experiencing Chapman’s translation “speak out loud and bold” from the 1616 folio was like the thrill of having “a new planet swim into his ken”.

Others in his environment, who had not suffered the same limitations of access to classical texts, had little appreciation for his discovery. The flamboyant and aristocratic Lord Byron was among them, lampooning Keats for “contriv[ing] to talk about the Gods… without Greek”. Another contemporary dismissed him as a “vulgar Cockney poetaster”.

Democratising access

At the time, this democratisation of knowledge and access to the classics without the attendant linguistic training had its detractors. Two centuries later, On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer remains relevant. For knowledge is far from democratised, and the institutions — archives, museums and universities — keeping it confined to a privileged few have regularly adopted new technologies, such as intellectual property regimes, to guard their turf.

Fittingly, these same institutions have also taken the lead in expanding access to their resources to the wider public. Digital preservation, translation, and annotation of old manuscripts have made them available to those who cannot physically travel to the First World institutions that house them.

For example, the University of North Carolina’s Documenting the American South project is an online repository of texts (oral, image, audio) from its holdings. These include the English translation of the 1831 biography of Omar Ibn Said, a Muslim man enslaved in North Carolina, which is the only surviving Arabic text written by an American slave. Earlier this year, the manuscript written in Said’s hand was digitised and made available through the Library of Congress.

Closer home and to the contemporary moment, the 1947 Partition Archive — “a global digital museum accessible to everyone” — has digitised and preserved more than 30,000 photographs, family portraits, and physical objects to complement their collection of oral histories about India’s Partition. Accompanying Google maps help graph the journeys on to physical space and contemporary borders.

New tools, new questions

This democratisation is not confined to preserving and uploading manuscripts. Digitally available texts can now be subjected to questions through an expanded toolkit. For example, my students in a course on Twentieth Century South Asia at the University of Virginia used geospatial visualisation and mapping to annotate historical maps and lay them on top of one other.

The exercise made students appreciate maps as palimpsests, and drove home a central argument in the course that national and inter-state borders in postcolonial South Asia are forged, not natural, and results of recent historical processes. In an exclamation that reminded me of Keats’s excitement, one student commented after the exercise, “I understand now that maps don’t come as facsimiles from heaven!”

A manifesto for the digital age

The burgeoning discipline of digital humanities — an approach to humanistic enquiry employing digital tools — has extended and reformulated old questions of access and use for these new media.

In Digital Humanities Manifesto 2.0, a collaborative document produced in a seminar at the University of California at Los Angeles in 2008, the authors declare that the ground beneath our feet has shifted. We now inhabit a universe in which “print is no longer the exclusive or the normative medium in which knowledge is produced and/or disseminated; instead, print finds itself absorbed into new, multimedia configurations”.

For these authors, the collaborative, open, and diffused Wikipedia is the best model: “it represents a truly global, multilingual authorship and editorial collective for gathering, creating, and managing information”.

And, here’s their clincher: “Wikipedia wasn't invented at/as a university.”

Let’s rejoice, but remain critical

We need to remember that not all digital archives and tools are free. Many remain paywalled or exclusive to the institutions and their partners. For example, the 1947 Partition Archive has only been able to make a fraction of its interviews publicly available through Stanford University Library’s Digital Repository. The ArcGIS software that my students in the US used for their map exercise is prohibitively expensive for most public institutions outside the developed world. Training in the languages of computer programming — though less exclusive than a training classical languages in Keats’s time—is also not equally available to everyone.

I write this as I am myself making a move from studying and teaching in the United States to India. My experience of working with students on three continents, including many who don’t have access to formal university education, study in under-resourced institutions, or work with constraints imposed by state censorship or extra-legal proscriptions on information access, has made me sensitive to the relative usefulness and limitations of different digital tools.

The most valuable part of a digital humanities approach to learning is the space it provides to think critically about and through texts and tools, and not take them as value-neutral.

(Swati Chawla is a historian and digital humanist trained at the Scholars’ Lab at the University of Virginia)

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