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Developing the Future of Libraries: Phase I Sub-Grant Projects


Paper Traces in Digital Environments: Enhancing Analysis and Representation of Content and Materiality in Digitized Print Collections


  • Stefania Forlini, Associate Professor, Arts/English
  • Uta Hinrichs, Lecturer, School of Computer Science, University of St Andrews


Because of the sheer volume of published works, scholars involved in tracing the history of a literary genre have traditionally focused on a relatively small number of supposedly representative works. In the case of science fiction (SF) this narrow focus has profoundly limited our understanding of the most influential cultural mode for grappling with scientific and technological change. Now ongoing mass-digitization – and the computational analyses it allows – offers unprecedented opportunities for large-scale research, including literary histories based on vast, previously unexamined collections. However, the digitization process also introduces a critical blind spot. It preserves the semantic content of print artefacts, but it largely obscures meaningful physical features (size, paper types, bindings, etc.) that contain valuable historical traces of print technologies, markets, and readerly interactions. How can we support large-scale digital humanities research more finely attuned to the complex significance of our inherited material records? What are the best ways to showcase such research and these most valuable collections in a digital environment?

Working with the Gibson Anthologies of Speculative Fiction, our multidisciplinary team will combine methods from literary studies, book history, computational text analysis and visualization to facilitate the study and digital presentation of this unique cultural resource.  We will pursue 3 objectives:

  1. Examining Relationships between Literary Content & Paper Types. We will examine relationships between the content of early SF works included in the Gibson anthologies and the paper materials on which they are printed to provide an unprecedented account of the formative years of SF. By analyzing the content of these early SF stories by paper type, we can begin to tell a more textured history of how literary innovation was tied to changes in periodical publishing.
  2. Juxtaposing Content & Material-based Metadata for Exploration in Digital Environments.  We will outline ways to juxtapose metadata about semantic content and physical features of print artefacts through digital screen-based media.  As libraries shift from being “physical repositories and research spaces” to becoming “access portals” to digitized materials, we urgently need more nuanced approaches to digitization and digital representations, or we risk losing important historical information embedded in the very paper, bindings and covers of print artefacts that are part of our cultural heritage. Moreover, we risk missing opportunities to stimulate new types of research and modes of readerly engagement with this heritage in digital environments.

Facilitating Online Publishing of Research Data as Central to Academic Impact. We will explore ways to facilitate online publishing of our research data and outputs through the library and as part of the Gibson collection's digital presence, balancing intellectual property rights with public and scholarly interests. This collection is of wide appeal (for researchers, students, and legions of SF fans worldwide), and these anthologies, physically located in Special Collections, exist nowhere else in the world. Providing digital access to this collection and our research data is therefore key.