in Digital Humanities
Research Triangle Park, N.C.The grandson, son, and brother of printers is the first winner of an award that honors pioneers in a still-new area of the humanitiesthe use of digital tools to expand traditional notions of scholarship and teaching.
McGann, who is also on the faculty at Royal Holloway College, University of London, will receive the first award, along with a prize of $25,000, in a ceremony at the Time & Life Building in New York City on May 6.
In recent years, scholars in the classics, English and American literature, history, and other humanistic disciplines have increasingly used new information technologies and the World Wide Web to create and distribute facsimiles of rare manuscripts; to archive, index, and annotate literary, artistic, and scholarly materials; to link text, visual images, and sound; and to create a new social structure that will break down boundaries between learning, teaching, and research. The Lyman Award recognizes the exciting results of these efforts, according to James O'Donnell, professor of classical studies and vice provost for information systems and computing at the University of Pennsylvania.
"The award honors an individual who has made important scholarly contributions that could not have been made without the innovative and wise use of information technology," says O'Donnell, who led a committee of seven scholars who selected McGann. "It's not a technology prizeit's a recognition of scholarship that all in the field will recognize. But it's also a recognition that information technology is a powerful tool precisely for the most substantial scholarly accomplishments."
McGann's digital/scholarly credentials include the Rossetti Archive, a hypertextual instrument designed to facilitate the study of Dante Gabriel Rossetti (jefferson.village.virginia.edu/rossetti/); the Ivanhoe Game, a Web-based software application for enhancing the critical study of traditional humanities materials (eotpaci.clas.virginia.edu/speclab/index.html); and extensive scholarly writings on computing in the humanities, including Radiant Textuality: Literature after the World Wide Web (Palgrave/St. Martin's, 2001). A noted scholar of the Romantic and Victorian poets and of textuality and traditional editing theory, McGann has also written several books of poetry. His free adaptation of Thomas Lovell Beddoes' "Death's Jest Book" will have a New York premiere in the summer of 2003. (Professor McGann's homepage is jefferson.village.virginia.edu/~jjm2f/home.html.)
The Rossetti Archive is one of about 40 digital projects underway at the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities (IATH) at the University of Virginia, of which McGann is a co-founder. Like William Blake, the subject of another IATH project, Rossetti is ideally suited to "an all-purpose, multimedia, hypermedia environment for editing cultural works," McGann says. "You can't really edit Rossetti in textual form because he is, like Blake, actually more than Blake, a multimedia artist. He designed furniture; he designed jewelry; he designed stained-glass windows; he is a poet, a prose writer, a painter."
The archive allows scholars and students to examine and integrate for interpretation the entirety of Rossetti's works in all their material forms. The archive at present organizes more than 8,000 distinct files and digital objects. When it is completed in four years it will contain about 20,000.
It brings to practical realization the scholarly proposals for a new approach to editorial method that were advanced in the early 1980s by McGann and the late D. F. McKenzie. These proposals call for an editorial method that focuses not merely on the linguistic "text" but on the entire graphical and bibliographical object, as well as its network of social and institutional relations. "These proposals were vigorously contested at the time," McGann recalls. "One of the chief objections argued that while a 'social theory of editing'that's what the new approach was calledmight appear attractive in theory, it could not be implemented in practice. 'Scholars edit texts, not books.' Or so it was said. When I undertook the archive, I set out to prove otherwise. In practice, not theory."
McGann relishes the collaborative nature of the Rossetti Archive and of projects such as the Ivanhoe Game, developed with his colleague Johanna Drucker, a professor of media studies at the University of Virginia, and a team of graduate students and computer scientists. "In 1965, '75, and even now for most people, what you do is you go off and write a book by yourself. Of course you are in contact with the work of many others through your readings and so forth," he says. "But it makes a great difference if you are engaged in intellectual activity and it is face-to-face with many people having input. That collective environment gives you access to whole new orders of critical reflection."
Digital expertise is an increasingly marketable skill for the young humanist willing to put in the necessary time to acquire it, McGann says. And at a time when even important scholarly books often fail to sell even 500 copies, he sees digital publishing as an important avenue for a new generation. "I believe that our scholarship will increasingly be transferred to a digital archiving and delivery system," McGann says, "and our scholarship will be even better for it."
His accomplishments and ambitions place McGann in an important tradition, according to Willard McCarty, senior lecturer, Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London, and a member of the award's selection committee. Noting that the first scholar to apply computers to the study of literature, Father Roberto Busa, once said that "since man is a child of God and technology is a child of man, I think that God regards technology as a grandfather regards his grandchildren," McCarty adds, "But the job of the humanities scholar is to look beyond the claims made for technology and the obvious uses, to question long-term consequences and implicationsand most significant of all, to discover how the new knowledge-making instrument empowers our imaginations. The Lyman Award is important because it recognizes individuals whose work has gone furthest in realizing this empowering potential. Jerome McGann has been named the first recipient because his explorations and reflections on them have most compellingly engaged us in the long conversation about the significance of the computer in our culture and in our lives."
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