DiXiT is dead. Long live DiXiT.
I won’t lie. I have avoided writing this for a long time because I simply didn’t want to admit that DiXit had come to an end. But now, it’s 7:30 pm on a Saturday night, I’ve got a dram of whisky, and I think I’m finally ready. As ready as I’ll ever be to say goodbye to DiXiT.
Some memories of DiXiT are stronger than others. I remember walking through the medieval doors of Trinity College, thinking about all the people who had passed through them before me. I crept tentatively past the Porter and the swarms of tourists, and then to the right and up the steps to a courtyard where I found a circle of scared people standing in uncomfortable silence, looking around at each other and wondering what to say. During our very first coffee break I thought, okay, step one: learn to speak Italian! This was followed by a blur of presentations, lots of discussions and many grand plans for the future. Ironically, I think we all felt out of our league that day in some way or another.
After that initial week of workshops and seminars in Cambridge and London, I returned to my new home department, the Swedish School of Library and Information Science at the University of Borås. I immediately set to work on my ESR 8 fellowship. My DiXiT work revolved around the nexus of LAMs (libraries, archives, and museums) and scholarly editing through the bibliographic work of textual reproduction via critical digitization. Quite a mouthful, eh? Well, lucky for you, my supervisor came up with a handy moniker for these processes, called critical transmission activities. By surveying digitization processes and workflows across Europe, and particularly in the UK and Scandinavia, it became increasingly evident over my three years that the work of textual criticism is occurring in the library environment. The digitization of text-bearing objects is an important process in the creation of digital editions, in so much as it provides digital surrogates that can be used to create transcriptions and even become the central feature of an edition. Moreover, recently developed processes like multi-spectral imaging support the creation of genetic and documentary editions, as they are often able to show earlier versions of a text-based document. Further, this type of imaging moves the focus of textual reproduction via digitization from the domain of facsimile creation to that of inherently unique digital objects, providing new research questions that simply would not be possible to pursue without this technique.
In the original announcement for my position, a secondment had been planned for six months in Rome. When this fell through due to administrative roadblocks and lack of a good fit with my research questions, I needed another venue where I could get hands-on experience working in a cultural heritage digitization environment. Luckily, I had previously met Huw Jones at Cambridge when he gave a talk during our first workshop there about the digital work being done in the library. I contacted him and we were able to set up a Visiting Research Fellowship for me at the Digital Content Unit at the University Library. Starting in March 2015, I began working with staff in the Cambridge University Digital Library, documenting workflow processes, analyzing digitization equipment, measuring color profiles, checking lights and photographing batch after batch after batch of various cultural heritage materials, including manuscripts, printed books, maps, and even human bones. I also learned how to photograph and render objects in 3D using Sketchfab, and how to use image processing techniques. As a result of this work, I was able to contribute to the Words that Changed the World iPad app.
Concurrent with my Visiting Research Fellowship at the DCU, I applied and was accepted for a Visiting Studentship at the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at Cambridge University. With the help of my departmental supervisor, Professor Simon Schaffer, I crafted several filmed interviews of digitization staff in the Digital Content Unit at the University Library, and developed my interest in reuse of digital data to facilitate new digital projects. Simon and I discussed how reuse of digital content could greatly expand the Board of Longitude project, a three year endeavor for which Simon was the PI and the DCU was the digitization and encoding team. Conceptualizing reuse as a precursor to digital projects rather than a nice bonus will, I think, enhance our work and increase the rigor of our documentation and workflow in digitization. I look forward to the results of an ongoing survey put together by several European organizations, with the intended outcome of setting up a use and reuse charter for cultural heritage digitization.
What has struck me most in the last three years about the scholarly editing activities I have seen in libraries (which in my mind includes the process of digitization), is that this work is (still) not perceived as scholarly work. While this opinion is not universally held, digitization is overwhelmingly viewed as a precursor to “real” scholarly work, even by some of the people who perform it. To my mind, the process of textual reproduction, a central feature of bibliography, is essential scholarship that encompasses skills in archival selection, conservation, digital preservation, metadata, and textual criticism. Further, I have seen many examples of people working in libraries who are trained as classical scholarly editors and who have previously contributed to scholarly editions. These library staff have excellent ideas for research projects based on textual criticism, but no mechanism (via affiliation with a traditional faculty or department) to carry these ideas to fruition. My hope is that in the near future, libraries and their staff can find a way to become the impetus of research projects, by approaching faculties and more traditional academics, rather than accepting a role as supports of this type of research. The library can definitely take on a role as a publishers of academic work, and mechanisms can be created to support this move. I also hope to see an increased focus on digitizers as scholars in their own right, since they perform critical work that could not be replicated by anyone off the street without first gaining advanced knowledge of a broad spectrum of technical skills.
Fast forward to three years later, as I sit at my desk, reminiscing about the overall experience of DiXiT. I remember the terror of giving presentations. Of learning new skills. Of hearing the whoosh of deadlines rushing past. Of meeting academics whom I respected and whose work had shaped my own. I remember holding Darwin’s notebooks in my hands- seeing his first drawing of the tree of life and the development of his theory of evolution. I remember feeling as though there was no one on earth as lucky as I was at that moment.
I remember having a Belgian office mate who always brought me chocolate and beer (scientifically proven to be the two best gifts), and who is the single most focused person I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with. I remember a glorious night of dancing in Cologne followed by a 3 AM stop at a kebab shop. I remember almost falling out of a fifth-storey window in Montreal after attempting to (incorrectly) use a piece of exercise equipment. I remember long talks accompanied by (lots of) wine, about embracing weirdness and eschewing normal life choices. I remember playing a round of the Dixit board game in an apartment in Antwerp, in a house in Cambridge, by a river in Oxford. I remember the 6 AM bus up to a frozen lake in Sweden, where we Warrior Women braved the icy waters and then ran, screaming and laughing, into the sauna. I remember drinking whiskey and listening to fiddles in a bar in northern Scotland after a long day of writing. I remember the best sandwich in the world from a little hole in the wall in Crete. I remember a baking competition in London and a tropical dinner in Queensland. I remember the ethereal sounds of a piano being tuned in a cathedral in Lausanne and a Spaniard flying over his handlebars in Amsterdam. I remember late night Skype sessions and early morning coffees. I remember a spare cigarette every now and then (sorry Mom). I remember moody walks in the Highlands, contemplating life (and moose attacks) with a Finn. I remember celebrating babies and engagements and graduations and new jobs and new houses. I remember laughing so hard I cried.
I remember sad times as well. The disagreements, the uncertainty, the lack of appetite, the self-medicating, the caffeine headaches, and the inherent loneliness of writing. The impostor syndrome. The days spent staring at the screen, willing the words to come. The nights spent staring at the ceiling, unable to sleep because they didn’t.
Most importantly, I remember that first tentative conversation with my DiXiT (and PhD) supervisor, Mats Dahlström, on our way to our kickoff meeting in Cambridge. How we instantly bonded over our mutual love of dry humor, television shows, films, books, cooking, travelling, and beer. How he encouraged me to explore my intellectual interests and build collaborations both in and outside of the DiXiT network. How he has enough of a sense of humor to let me be silly, and still manages to consistently give the best advice I’ve ever received. How he builds up my confidence as a scholar while challenging me to do better every day. I’m so grateful for the steadfast, unerring support he has provided through thick and thin in the past three years, and I look forward to our remaining year of working together as I finish up my PhD. I know it will contain many more memorable moments.
Being a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Research Fellow has afforded me unparalleled opportunities to develop my scholarship and present my ideas to critical and passionate audiences in Europe, North America and Australasia. I know that in terms of PhD students, I am as lucky as it is possible to be. What I will miss most is the group of people in this ITN, supervisors and fellows alike, who inspired me to be a better academic and, more importantly, a better person. When I remember DiXiT in the future, I’ll remember feeling at home.