On Nostalgia, Sentimentality and the Digital by Dianne Harris

In an age of the virtual book—and a myriad of other delivery systems for the written word—reading matters more than ever. Watch this blog for posts about how people live with reading now. We begin with a hail-and-farewell reflection by former IPRH director Dianne Harris on what it meant to move almost 20 years of reading material from Illinois to Utah this summer.

Summer 2015 

I’m moving. For the first time in nearly two decades, my spouse and I are dismantling the material components of our lives in one location and schlepping them to another that is 1,420 miles away. I am a tenured professor, my spouse is an artist who also teaches at the university. Thus, we have to dismantle and move the contents of a house, two campus offices, and an art studio. Fortunately, we are not hoarders—we have a fairly average amount of “stuff” to move, with the exception of some very large and heavy etching presses and miscellaneous pieces of studio equipment. I like things, and I’d say I have about an average level of attachment to material goods and artifacts, especially those with some family history attached to them. I’ve also based part of my scholarly career on examining the cultural history and meaning of things, including buildings and landscapes. So I believe things are important sources of evidence when it comes to understanding the past. But when it comes to my personal possessions, I like to think of myself as being a bit more detached: “Things are things, stuff is stuff” I’ve said to my spouse over the years. What matters most are memories, relationships, deeds, acts of kindness.

Like most academics, we have books—a lot of books. I love my books, but I would not characterize myself as a bibliophile. Hard copy volumes are great and often quite beautiful, but I’m as happy reading a novel on an ipad as I am cradling a print copy in my hands. I obsessively annotate scholarly books in my personal collection, but I’ve also been an enthusiastic observer of developments in the open annotation movement, hoping I will one day make good use of those digital tools and their affordances.

Books are heavy, which makes them costly and cumbersome to move. So in an effort to lighten the load, I made the practical decision to prune my collection, removing the volumes I no longer considered an essential part of my personal, scholarly library. Unlike thinning the contents of my wardrobe, I did not apply the “one year rule” (if it hasn’t been worn in more than a year, it goes to Goodwill). We purchase books, after all, because they have an extensive shelf life. We may have an immediate need or interest when we purchase them, but we also know they will sit on a shelf for years, their content within arm’s reach whenever needed. But my shelves have become cluttered with books that focus on subjects to which I will likely never return, or that no longer interest me; they include books with limited value to the scholarly projects to which I have devoted the majority of my career, and in which I plan to continue to work.

So I began to sort, pulling every book off the shelf: piles of books to keep; a stack of books to give to graduate students; another to give to a colleague who might appreciate a small collection that focuses far more on her area of expertise than on my own. I thought it would be a painless task. It wasn’t.

As I pulled book after book off the shelf, I experienced unexpected waves of nostalgia and sentiment, remembering precisely when and where I made the acquisition of each volume. I remembered the friends who had given me the book and in some cases could recall it passing from their hands to mine along with the quality of the light in the room at that moment, the color of the day, and the feelings of gratitude for the gift being bestowed; I re-read frontispiece inscriptions written by authors who have become treasured colleagues. I held in my hands books authored by graduate school friends—members of my dissertation writing group—whose acknowledgements mention my name, and whose names appear in the acknowledgements of my own books. Handling some books brought tears to my eyes, especially in cases of a deceased author whose work and friendship I had deeply valued, and whose ideas or mentorship had indelibly marked my career.

I remembered my first two years as an assistant professor, frantically trying to assemble lectures for my classes. I’ve been fortunate to work on a campus with one of the world’s greatest libraries, yet I still purchased books in those years at an astonishing rate, especially considering my then meager salary. Yes, it was easier to have my own copies close at hand on my office shelves, but it was also enormously comforting in those first years to literally surround myself with the paper company of the scholars who meant so much to my intellectual formation, to my field, to the life of my mind. Scanning the spines on my bookshelf, I saw the names of scholars with whom I had studied, scholars whom I had admired, scholars whose work I hoped to somehow emulate; I saw the names of scholars in several fields whom I had never met, but whose published words had entirely reshaped the course of my own work. The ownership of those books gave me symbolic and intellectual purchase on the subjects I had to master when teaching survey courses; they provided content to be interpreted for lectures; they shaped the direction of my courses and scholarship; their presence on my shelves gave comfort to an insecure, overworked, and anxiety-ridden junior faculty member wondering how in the world she would ever get tenure, let alone publish her own books one day.

I am certain that none of this will surprise the thousands of scholars whose offices are similarly filled with personal libraries. So why did my sentimental attachment to my books surprise me?

For the past decade or so, I’ve become increasingly drawn to the world of the digital humanities. I don’t code, text mine, or create digital maps, but I have participated as a team member in the making of a digital platform for scholars in my field. I would mostly characterize myself as an avid and very curious observer of the rapidly shifting digital world. I read about the digital humanities, I follow digital humanists on social media, I participate in panel discussions and have written about the future of scholarly research and communication in a digital age. In the past five years, I’ve published some writing that’s appeared on my learned society blog, created content for a digital exhibit, and had an article appear simultaneously in an online journal and in a traditional print volume. I’ve assigned projects in my classes that require the creation of online digital exhibits using a content management system (Omeka); I’ve worked with a multidisciplinary group on my campus to explore the possibilities inherent in new forms of multi-media scholarly publication. And in my capacity as a humanities center director, I organized and facilitated conversations about the digital humanities and digital culture on our campus and beyond.

To put it simply, I’ve been an enthusiast for the digital, embracing a both/and mentality, convinced of the enduring need and desire for print publications while simultaneously advocating for and creating possibilities for new forms of digital publication. I am aware of the complex issues surrounding preservation of and access to digital content, and the thorny debates about promotion and tenure for junior faculty who venture into this brave new world. But what compels my interest in digital scholarly communication is at least two things: First, the excitement of the new with its inherent promise of as-yet-unforeseen and seemingly limitless possibilities for the creation of new scholarship, new intellectual projects not previously possible; Second, the thrill of reaching vastly expanded audiences through digital publication (especially open access digital publication). Although I, like most scholars, have only an abstract sense of how many readers have accessed my traditional, print publications, I know with assurance (because this is easily tracked) that much larger audiences have accessed my digital publications. That’s pretty seductive stuff.

As a full professor with tenure, I’ve had the luxury of being able to experiment in the realm of digital publication without worry or fear for my prospects of institutional advancement. And besides (I told myself), one can always have a print copy too—either produced via traditional means by a university press, or perhaps via one of the newer possibilities now emerging in libraries and a range of innovative outlets (many of these have been recently funded with support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation). I have wondered about the long-term preservation and access of the digital content I’ve created in recent years, but not enough to stop creating it. In short, I never considered my emotional attachment to those projects that have no lasting material form, that cannot be held in my hands as independent objects, will not generate nostalgic tears by anyone in the future because they won’t be taken off a shelf and packed away. I also never really paused to seriously consider what it means over time to create scholarly content that will never occupy space in a room outside a computer screen, that does not have a spine taking up room on a shelf behind my desk, that cannot be handed to a friend with a hand-written inscription on the frontispiece.

To be sure, anyone who has labored long and hard on the multi-year creation of a complex digital project must feel a deep sense of at least intellectual attachment to the endeavor, just as one would expected to feel similarly about a project conducted in a laboratory. But eventually, the life span of such projects ends, or they pass into the hands of other principal investigators. Do they— can they— will they— share the artifact of the printed book’s ability to elicit laughter, tears, love, nostalgia, or even anger? Whither the emotional life of the digital object?


July 24, 2015

I moved. And I finally have time, two months later, to sit down and attempt a bookend (pun intended) to what appears above. The intervening months were filled with the packing and unpacking, the hauling and unloading, the unsettling and settling that one expects from a cross-country move. I’ve started a new job, and I am surrounded by an astonishingly beautiful and surprising new place where nearly everything and everyone is unfamiliar and each day brings an exhilarating rush of new information, new faces, new experiences. As I aim to reestablish both a home office and a university office, unpacking and reorganizing my books on new shelves in as-yet unfamiliar rooms, I feel again the importance of my personal library. My books are once again reminding me who I am during a time of major transition: I am a new Dean, happy to be given an opportunity to support the humanities in a new capacity, and learning the ropes of a new university’s administrative realm; I am also and always a scholar, a historian, a practitioner of the humanities. Just as they did when I was that new assistant professor, my books are once again providing comfort, reassurance. But this time their spines align on the shelves as entities familiar and known; knowledge possessed, processed, synthesized, treasured. I’m still not sure whether or not digital objects, collections, platforms, or publications can generate this same sort of affection in their owners, creators, users, archivists or curators. They are not, strictly speaking, material artifacts. They can’t be touched, and they can only be seen as onscreen illusions assembled by our brains through our complex retinal pathways. As such, they can’t have the same “life” as do things. And of course, their retrievability over time remains a puzzle. In this sense, digital content is a fickle companion for scholars. It might be there when you need it; it might not. And yet, as can be true for fickle companions, the digital remains (at least for me) alluring, dynamic, exciting, full of promise.

My interest in exploring the digital humanities and that field’s potentials remains unwavering, my optimism for its potentials is intact. And I still believe this: things are things; stuff is stuff. But I am going to continue to unpack and organize my books on new shelves in this new place and in the process (to borrow from Anthony Grafton who has likely forgotten more about books than I will ever know), I will continue to make for myself “worlds made by words” that I can see on my shelves, and touch with my hands. Meanwhile, I’ll continue to ponder the emotional life of the digital object.


About iprh

The Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign was established in 1997 to promote interdisciplinary study in the humanities, arts, and social sciences.
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