O’Donnell on Obsolescence

In his article “Disciplinary Impact and technological Obsolescence in Digital Medieval Studies” available here Daniel Paul O’Donnell gives an interesting and readable breakdown of the history of the difficulties and triumphs of medievalists, and indeed scholars in general, with regards to the digital editions.

O’Donnell begins by recounting a lecture he was at in which he was struck by two lessons, the first, “how easily digital editions can age” and the second “durability [is] not necessarily a function of age or technological sophistication.” It is throughout his article that O’Donnell goes into more details about these lessons, showing the short-comings and progress, of digital scholars. On a light-hearted note at the end of the first section, he concludes that “the lesson one should not draw from these and other pioneering digital editions, however, is that digital projects are inevitably doomed to early irrelevance and undeserved lack of disciplinary impact” and it is this optimistic lesson which O’Donnell shows in his article.

Broken down into different sections, O’Donnell gives a concise history of the short-comings of digital scholars, most notably those who worked on the Electronic Domesday Project, which he brings up as a comparison throughout his article. The project, though innovative, ultimately failed due to lack of foresight on developers, and, as O’Donnell states, no fault of the technology; as he goes on to give examples, most notably of projects by McGillivray and Kiernan that have lasted longer, even though, technologically, they have become somewhat obsolete.

O’Donnell works a time-line in his article, giving readers a concise and through look at the drawbacks and successes that scholars had to go through prior to a standardization in digital scholarship (even though he goes on to say that this standardization could become obsolete, at least because it is standardized, they can be easily changed and upgraded when needed). O’Donnell, as a medieval scholar, also gives a new look to the struggle with the digital age by talking not just about the written word, but about images, maps, tapestries and sculptures.

As with the projects on written texts, O’Donnell gives examples of the successes and failures of images and interactive media on websites, most notably Martin Foy’s 2003 edition of the Bayeux Tapestry and Reed Kline’s 2001 “A Wheel of Memory: The Hereford Mappamundi” as a success story and short-coming of the digital adaptation of images, respectively. Like with early digital scholars and their struggles with texts and coding, O’Donnell notes that non-textual editions will also struggle, and like the digital texts of the past few decades, “it seems likely that few of today’s non-textual editions will still be working without problems at an equivalent point in their histories, two decades from now.”

O’Donnell breaks off from this almost chronological look at the innovations and short-comings of digital scholars to look at the idea of collaboration, something the internet, with wiki’s and blogs and Twitter, has helped increase exponentially. Though still in its early stages, O’Donnell gives a pro and con look at collaborative works such as Wikipedia. Because anyone can add or edit these words, the legitimacy and accuracy of the work comes into question, as well as the intellectual content. However, in his conclusion he seems optimistic about the idea of collaboration, as do other scholars, confessing in a humorous anecdote that while at a conference “one of the speakers confessed to having devoted most of the previous month to researching and writing a long article for the Wikipedia on his particular specialism in Medieval Studies.”

O’Donnell ends on a positive and optimistic note, stating that “The solutions [current digital scholars] are developing may or may not provide the final answers; but they certainly will provide a core of experimental practice upon which the final answers most certainly will be built.”

I would conclude that O’Donnell’s article is not just informative, giving a through break-down and examples of the struggles of digital scholars both textual and non-textual, it is also quite an easy and enjoyable read to get through. He all but holds the readers hand as he explains in detail (sometimes too much) the short-comings that even our own generation of digital scholars face, but gives us hope for the future that we will learn from, and not repeat, the Electronic Domesday Project.

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