Between Tradition and Web 2.0: eLaborate as a Social Experiment in Humanities Scholarship

Between Tradition and Web 2.0: eLaborate as a Social Experiment in Humanities Scholarship

Anne Beaulieu (University of Groningen, The Netherlands), Karina van Dalen-Oskam (Huygens Institute for the History of the Netherlands, The Netherlands) and Joris van Zundert (Huygens Institute for the History of The Netherlands, The Netherlands)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-2178-7.ch007
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Web 2.0 is characterized by values of openness of participation (unrestricted by traditional markers of expertise), collaboration across and beyond institutions, increased value of resources through distributed participation, dynamic content and context, and self-organization and scalability. These values seem to offer new possibilities for knowledge creation. They also contrast in important ways with traditional forms of knowledge creation, where expertise, institutional affiliation, and restrictions on access and circulation have been important. Yet, rather than seeing a dichotomy between Web 2.0 and non-Web 2.0 modes of working in digital humanities, the authors observe the rise of hybrid forms that combine elements of these two modes. In this chapter, the authors reflect on the reasons for such hybrids, specifically through an exploration of eLaborate. As a virtual research environment, eLaborate targets both professional scholars and volunteers working with textual resources. The environment offers tools to transcribe textual sources, to annotate these transcriptions, and to publish them as digital scholarly editions. The majority of content currently comprises texts from the cultural heritage of Dutch history and literary history, although eLaborate does not put limits on the kind of text or language. Nor does the system impose limits on the openness of contribution to any edition project. Levels of openness and access are solely determined by the groups of users working on specific texts or editions. This Web 2.0 technology-based software is now used by several groups of teachers and students, and by scholarly, educated, and interested volunteers. We conducted interviews with coordinators of and participants in different editorial groups, and we evaluate their experiences from the point of view of the described values of Web 2.0. We investigate changes in digital humanities resulting from intermediate forms between traditional academic practices and Web 2.0 modes. Rather than claim a revolution, we show how hybrid forms can actually be very powerful sites for change, through their inclusive rather than oppositional setup in relation to traditional practices.
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When technologies are hailed as “new” or “groundbreaking,” they invite attention that tends to focus on either the promises or the threats they present. Social software for scholarly research is no exception. However, rather than address the potential, positive or negative, of these new technologies here, we seek to understand how practices are transformed and how the experience of users changes in relation to new tools. In this chapter we trace the development of a particular platform, eLaborate, and analyze user experiences in order to understand how scholarly work is developing in the context of social software.

The developments we discuss in this chapter are in an area that is most commonly labeled “digital humanities,” a field of research intersecting humanities and the use of digital technologies. This label addresses the use of a range of digital technologies and has a broader scope than “humanities computing,” which tends to focus on data processing. Digital humanities is also posited as a scholarly enterprise, and is often explicitly contrasted with “digitization” as a technical or procedural endeavor of mediation (Schreibman & Siemens, 2001).

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