Thoughts on the Yale Conference – The Past's Digital Presence

I just bookmarked the website for the Yale conference in our del.icio.us account because they keep updating it with audio and video and an aggregated Twitter feed, in case anyone wants to take a look. Eventually they should have video for most of the conference, but who knows if that will be in the lifetime of this class?

I think Sara’s planning to write something about the conference and Genevieve tweeted it comprehensively (@linkedlibrary), but we weren’t all at the same events so I thought I’d add a few highlights.

Overall, I was impressed. The conference was well-staffed and very well-organized and Yale was a great host. It wasn’t a LAM conference per se, although there were plenty of librarians there; it was really a conference of scholars, mostly PhD candidates, most of whom were presenting their thesis in one form or another.

Peter Stallybrass of UPenn gave the keynote lecture, which we all attended. The topic was the technology of the book and all the ways things have and haven’t changed, focusing mostly on medieval texts. Genevieve tweeted his most interesting points so I won’t repeat them here, although I have to add that a lot of his focus was on the transition from handwriting to print and from scrolls to volumes, less on paper to digital…

For the next four sessions attendees had to choose between 1 of 2 panels, and I think I chose well two times and chose poorly two times… The sessions I enjoyed were (Session 1) Digital Politics and Society (especially Lauren Klein’s “Towards an Ethics of Electronic Research: Accounting for Absence in the Jefferson Digital Archive”), and (Session 3) Evolving Reading Practices, which was tremendously entertaining and informative all around and featured a last-minute replacement presentation by Patrick Redding, called “Meeting Frank O’Hara on YouTube”, which ended up being my favorite. This panel alone validated the trip to dreary New Haven, and hopefully they’ll get video up on the website soon. The sessions I did not enjoy were (Session 4) How-to Digital Humanities, which was dull, to say the least, and (Session 2) The Digital Age Library, which, ironically, stood out to me as being the most insensitive to the realities of libraries in the electronic age…

Sean Morton’s “University Library Book Acquisitions Policies in an Electronic Age” seemed to lament the shift from purchases of print materials to purchases of electronic materials, claiming that this stacks the deck against humanities scholars, who are (in his opinion) greatly disadvantaged by having to conduct research in a digital library… Morton came armed with dozens of unreadable Powerpoint graphs that didn’t actually support his claims, and was promptly set upon by several incensed librarians who pointed out that usage numbers for expensive humanities print volumes are abysmal, and that bringing the materials to where the users are (i.e. on the computer) is only logical…

Claudia Scala Schlessman’s presentation was, for me, the most distressing, since she herself is a cataloger and should know better… Her study, “The Scholar as Archivist: A Case Study in Negotiating the Borders Between Description and Analysis”, centered around her own work as a cataloger of ancient Italian documents in both print and digitized form. She advocates extensive research as the only way to *truly* catalog with accuracy, as there is so much depth to the material and the only way to describe it is to really “know” it… I found this problematic for several reasons. First, it’s incredibly expensive and time-consuming. Schlessman is a student at UPenn and is extremely well-funded (well enough to go off to Italy to look at primary documents…), and has a very narrow field of focus, but that’s not a reality for most catalogers. Second, to do extensive research before describing an item completely negates the professional objectivity we are expected to provide. I asked Schlessman about this, and her response was that she “tries to be objective” and “uses subject headings”… I, for one, am not convinced. In her defense, she is not a trained cataloger or an MLS, but rather a scholar who has taken on cataloging duties, but I find it problematic that she’s advocating heavy research as a component of cataloging…

In sum, the conference was interesting and thought-provoking and I’m very glad I went. If you have a chance to review the conference website, I’d love to know what other people think.

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