I Know What I Did This Summer

Glamorous vacation reading

In order to fulfill the promise of monthly posts, here I offer a whimsical and whistle-stop tour through my summer reading and research, or as much of it as I fitted around vacations and catching up with my British life…

This summer, I…

Continued to feel as though Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop are my soul sisters.

Realized that Robert Louis Stevenson (Victoria’s boyfriend) could have called the central character of Kidnapped Edward Waverley and I would never have noticed I wasn’t reading a Scott novel.

Strengthened my academic crushes on Leah Price (through reading her first monograph) and Mary Poovey (through befriending one of her former advisees).

Fallen in love with yet another Eliot novel, this time Romola. I never know how I might write about such devastating depictions of the shaky sustenance of reverence through difficult personal tragedy and the pitiable flaws of each individual human soul. 

Not stopped worrying about the lack of American literature and poetry on my CV.

Admired the structural brilliance of Woolf; regretted Anne Bronte didn’t share this skill with her sisters.

Nicknamed my yet-to-be-proposed dissertation, “Taking It Literally”.

Submitted an article for publication: the first venue rejected it immediately; the second has acknowledged receipt. I know very little about how to place comparative twentieth century work, unsurprisingly.

Felt deeply concerned about removing the question of race as I wrote on Kipling while sitting across the table from my elder sister’s pile of “race” readers.

Failed to read Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms despite drinking many eponymous cocktails at the hotel where he likely composed it.

Normal blogging service will resume when I return to the US and the academic year begins in earnest. Who knows: I may siphon off my thoughts as I prepare!






An Archive of One’s Own

Recently a colleague of mine who is a Smith College alumna drew my attention to a digital humanities project that utilizes the special collections of her alma mater. Woolf Online is a “digital archive” of the 1927 novel To The Lighthouse—coincidentally my favorite Woolf novel so far, although The Waves is on my summer reading list—that offers scholars and students access to digitized versions of the multiple instantiations of the novel, including drafts, typescripts, proofs, early published editions and so on, as well as a wealth of contextual material. It will become one of the first resources included in ModNets, the latest period-specific consortium that vets and publicizes relevant digital initiatives. (We might note that copyright restrictions have caused many problems for scholars of twentieth-century literature but that Woolf Online is open access and operates with permission from the Woolf estate.)


I promised—particularly as it’s a relatively free summer for me—that I’d take the time to offer a full review of Woolf Online in order to inform my readers of such a potentially useful tool as well as to reflect on what it means for me to evaluate digital projects. I have only just taken on the role of a designer of digital projects, although I have been a long time user, but I’ve realized that, while my glee at certain finds is now expressed by my desire to collect models for my own work, ultimately the criteria by which I wish to measure Woolf Online remain those of someone to whom it seeks to be useful. The additional desire to offer the same utility to users of any project I might develop merely stems from my role as the ur-user: the person who invents something because no one else has yet done it for them.

My major reservation about Woolf Online is the organization of its content for ease of navigation. While I began to feel more familiar with the “Taxonomy” charts, particularly once the user guide informed me of how to manipulate them, the different versions of the novel were difficult to navigate between. The home page suggests that the digitization of Woolf’s notebooks offers access to a consecutive reading experience “from cover to cover” that was previously restricted to those with physical proximity to the volumes. If the ostensible scholarly motivation for the project is interest in Woolf’s process, I found such a particular form of linearity frustrating. Once I played around with the search engine, however, I found its listings useful to begin compiling my own mini genetic edition in which the layers of composition could be seen by merely switching between the tabs of my browser.

The brilliance of Woolf Online was made apparent on this micro-level as I began interacting with (admittedly single) documents i.e. images and transcriptions of pages. These transcriptions are intuitive representations committed to reproducing the mise-en-page, even Woolf’s characteristically sloping handwriting. The possible interactions between the image and the text provided by Woolf Online are unprecedented in my own experience of such projects to date. Not only is the user provided with a floating pop up box that offers transcriptions as one hovers over sections of the image but there is—drum roll, please!—an opacity slider that allows one to layer image and transcription. The incredible clarity of the potential palimpsests, in which transcribed text lies between the lines of handwritten or printed text, allows for a detailed examination of individual artifacts. This jewel in the crown of Woolf Online teases one frustratingly with the possibilities such digital tools could have been put to for macro-level comparisons.

The Leverhulme Trust funded the pilot stage of Woolf Online—focused on “Time Passes”—before a National Endowment for the Humanities grant led to the expansion of the project to an entire novel. The content management system, Mojulem, was specifically designed for Woolf Online and is also being utilized for a website on Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native. The very real difficulties of funding highlight why so often digital archives develop their own tools for a specific author or text and Mojulem is clearly being utilized elsewhere. This author-centric approach is perhaps a natural consequence of the structure of literary inquiry and has led to immense riches that I would not wish to be standardized. Yet I am increasingly cognizant of the need for digital tools to be designed as adaptable methods or approaches, particularly when few can afford to construct their own from scratch. Hence why I am so excited to read about the Australian Electronic Scholarly Editing initiative which is currently developing a “Workbench” that anyone interested in editing could use for their own projects as its capabilities include transcription, archiving, comparison, and annotation. As I reflect on my own research, I only become more aware that what I offer as a scholar of literature is never a text but a way of reading. The digital humanities similarly asks us to interrogate the relationship between the archive and the tool: we cannot merely use the digital to recreate the library in a virtual space but ask ourselves what it might allow us to do in that utopian space.