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Democratizing Knowledge

By Martha Nell Smith | HUMANITIES, September/October 2005 | Volume 26, Number 5

"Houston, we have a problem." So went the subject line of a February 2000 e-mail written by a graduate student at the University of Maryland. She and another member of our team had identified an error in my work editing Writings by Susan Dickinson, the poet Emily Dickinson's sister-in-law.

"It's not 'I'm waiting but the cows not back' but rather 'I'm waiting but she comes not back,'" the e-mail read.

Kudos had come my way for identifying the lyric in question as a poetic response to Susan Dickinson's favorite painting, John Kensett's Sunset with Cows, and other scholars were already building on the misinformation that I had reported with faithful and good intentions.

I knew immediately that my students were right, and I had been wrong.

Had we not been working together on the Dickinson Electronic Archives and had we not had the high-quality reproductions of Susan Dickinson's handwritten manuscripts to revisit online ( and enlarge to reevaluate our key to her alphabet, my misreading of her handwriting might have become congealed in a critical print translation. What is very probably a poetic homage to Emily Dickinson by someone who knew her well could have lain lost in the annals of literary history.

This is certainly not the only time a pupil has corrected a mentor. This happens in all fields, particularly those that are growing.

In the case of humanities knowledge production, which has for the last five hundred years depended on printed books to transmit the fruits of intellectual labor, crucial parts of the process of knowledge building and bookmaking have been hidden from public view.

A scholarly editor's work for book production is to translate what is seen on individual copies--unique items stored in special collections that cannot easily be circulated to multitudes--into easily reproducible texts that can be consumed and enjoyed by many. The errors made in viewing and reporting what is seen in a writer's manuscripts are sometimes not even known.

Believing that it is better to have more, rather than fewer, pairs of eyes looking at and evaluating primary materials (a writer's manuscripts, for example), many scholars have argued for editorial practices that are more collaborative and transparent. But before new media made possible the production of electronic archives featuring digital images of primary materials, it was not easy to imagine how this could be done.

To make primary materials viewable to more than a few experts would be costly in several ways. Not every interested reader could afford the time or expense to travel to special collections and view originals. Books that photographically reproduce images of the originals would be expensive and unwieldy. The medium of the book seals editorial judgments into print, and because of cost concerns those are unlikely to be changed, unless a new edition is published.

So every editor of a print edition has had to ask readers to trust the accuracy of his or her analytical description of original documents. Faith in editorial accuracy underwrites any print edition.

By contrast, new technologies for distributing humanities research can make possible, on a scale and to a degree not realizable by books, access to the processes that bring cultural knowledge into being. When I first started to work with new technologies, I did not dream this could be the case.

Until the early 1990s, I assumed the primary contribution of computer technologies would be in sophisticated word processing. New possibilities opened up in fall 1992 when a fax arrived from an influential intellect working in literary and editorial theory. He suggested that the study of Emily Dickinson's manuscripts would be well served by producing a "hypermedia archive" of her writings. For people interested in studying Dickinson's original handwritten manuscripts but who had neither the inclination nor the means to travel to the East Coast, and spend months and even years in libraries studying the primary documents, what could be better than making images of those manuscripts available? That fact alone--making visible documents that only a select few scholars had been able to see--persuaded me that undertaking the project was valuable.

The development of the decade-old Dickinson Electronic Archives was several years in the making before I realized that new media could change scholarly methods and rules of work in profoundly beneficial ways.

Democratizing access to primary materials is the most obvious value that multimedia research archives bring to humanities education. As recently as the early 1990s, an undergraduate hearing a professor talk about William Blake's illuminated books or Dickinson's handwritten works would have been forced to take the expert's description on faith or buy an expensive book to see reproductions of a very few of them. Today, students can visit the Dickinson Electronic Archives (, the William Blake Archive (, and a number of other literary archives and sites devoted to Dante Gabriel Rossetti (, Walt Whitman (, Willa Cather (, and others. In these, students can see more than a representative few samples of original documents.

A number of sites also let students explore out-of-print works. Among them are Early American Fiction (, the Orlando Project (, the Women Writers Project (, and the Digital Schomburg (

On the artistic front, students can visit the Louvre (, the National Gallery of Art (, the Museum of the American Indian (, the British Museum (www.thebritish, and other art repositories.

Though all of this viewing is of digital surrogates, such access is a big deal. Readers can make their own judgments about worth and literary legacy. Art viewers can avail themselves of sustained periods of study not possible when the works of art are received via a slide show during class time. Twenty-first-century teachers would be well served to take advantage of these resources, critiquing their limitations as well as their possibilities, just as they would for any bookbound resource.

Developing the Dickinson Electronic Archives and the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities (MITH) have impressed upon me the value of audio and video files in teaching. Sir Philip Sidney's assertion about poetry and the pleasures of "speaking pictures" in the sixteenth century resonate profoundly in our twenty-first-century humanities world teeming with new media.

One of the most popular areas of the MITH site features Hughes@100 (, a poetry slam the institute cosponsored in February 2002 to celebrate the centennial of African American poet Langston Hughes. Students can still visit the site and listen to Caribbean novelist and poet Merle Collins, former poet laureate of Maryland Michael Collier, and touted slammer D. J. Renegade with the seven hundred students they faced at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at the University of Maryland.

Good sites are vital for developing an audience for the humanities and for mainstreaming the work of university research. The best sites help People appreciate the beautiful, evaluate through comparison, negotiate scholarly complexities, make sense of what may seem contradictory, and learn to appreciate how working with metaphor is at the center of all knowledge production. All of this can happen beyond the walls of the classroom and long after a semester ends.

The humanities are vital to the educational system Thomas Jefferson saw as necessary for achieving democracy. In fact, the "pursuit of happiness," one of the inalienable rights of people enumerated in the Declaration of Independence, depends on knowledge. As far as Jefferson was concerned, the two primary facets of education were subject matter, or the knowledge required to obtain a level of happiness, and subject method, or the processes by which knowledge is made.

The examples recounted make clear how new media can enhance, enrich, and extend subject matter by increasing access. Today, I cannot imagine a successful course--whether a small graduate seminar or a large lecture course--bereft of thoughtful application of technology: peer-to-peer information exchange; digital repositories of literature, art, history, and music; blogs enabling daily critical responses to works under study; wikis enabling a class to collaborate on critical responses in ways unimagined even after the creation of the World Wide Web in the early 1990s.

Even more powerful, however, is the access to the other facet that Jefferson identified as key to education, that of subject method. When humanists began working to produce digital scholarly editions, there were no clear models for producing them for or with new media. Using digital media, the scholarly editions could be made perpetually updatable in ways that a book cannot.

As I talked about plans for the Dickinson Electronic Archives with my colleagues and students, I concluded that two paths were before me: adopt the old paradigm and work for years developing a digital scholarly edition "behind the curtain," where it would be unavailable to audiences until it was "perfect." The dynamic edition would be developed following the protocols by which books are made.

The alternative would be to develop the digital scholarly edition publicly, sharing the production process with audiences and using that transparency as part of the critical review process. That second method, which was the one used, is a new paradigm in the humanities. When used to reveal the processes to students, they can probe much more deeply asking, "How do our items of knowledge come into being, who made them, and for what purposes?"

The paradigm shift will change the old truisms of scholarly publishing:

  • An author's work is best when presented in a single, "most authoritative" scholarly edition.
  • Scholarly editions subsequent to such an edition are "corrections" and supplant what has come before.
  • Editors working on a single edition probably agree with one another.
  • In any disagreement, one party is right and all others are wrong, or at least one party is "better than" all others.
  • Readers and users of such editions need not be bothered with the details of judgment that went into determining what to include, exclude, and in what order.

As far as editorial work goes, such assumptions lead to critical games of "gotcha" among editors and critics and suppress the creation and validity of different versions, which may allow that both, neither, or either might all be true. Neither faultfinding as an end in itself nor suppression by hiding the processes that determined final products is healthy for knowledge production and critical understanding.

Moving beyond the idea that scholarly conclusions can only be authentic, authoritative, and reliable when determined by a single expert makes it possible to provide insights from people with different levels of expertise, such as the middle school teachers and students who have used the Dickinson site to try their hand at writing new endings for "Safe in their Alabaster Chambers," a work the poet never finalized.

So what new methods of editing and understanding texts might be created in a dynamic electronic environment?

  • An author's work does not need to be normalized, have diverging views of its identity excised.
  • Multiple authorities can be included for scholars and students of all levels to process and analyze rather than a single authoritarian view dictating what is seen and known.
  • Scholarly editions produced over time are not so much "corrections" as they are genealogical markers of what audiences could see and understand in different intellectual eras.
  • Editors working on a single edition need not agree with one another. Each can report what she sees and audiences benefit from multiple viewpoints and levels of expertise, from critical dissensus.
  • Users of such editions can benefit from exposure to the details of judgment that went into determining what was worthwhile to include and can contribute to the decision-making process.

Using new media to share research findings among scholars and in the classroom enables distribution of humanities research in much more interactive, rigorous, accountable ways than traditional training leads one to think possible, and it turns students into researchers, and the teachers and primary researchers into students. A digital environment opens up research territories reserved for those most advanced to beginners and makes use of intellectual and social networks, which is the software of the highest order. And that makes all the difference.

Martha Nell Smith is founding director of the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities (MITH) and executive editor of the Dickinson Electronic Archives. She teaches English at the University of Maryland at College Park. MITH received $410,000 through an NEH challenge grant.