Too Fragile: Understanding Digital Texts


photo credit: Stuck in Customs via photopin cc

photo credit: Stuck in Customs via photopin cc

Lauren Owen explains the rationale behind the Too Fragile project, which is investigating how digital texts, and other forms of digital reading, writing, and research exchange, are affecting scholarship. PhD students are invited to participate in the project’s survey on how researchers gather, store and share information.

In ‘Mars University,’ an episode of the cartoon series Futurama (The Simpsons’ prematurely-cancelled sibling), the characters encounter a library which apparently contains the ‘largest collection of literature in the Western universe.’ The library building is revealed to be grand, spacious – and empty, except for two computer discs, one labelled ‘FICTION,’ the other ‘NON-FICTION.’

It’s a comic moment that emphasizes both the expansiveness and diminutiveness of the digital library – large enough to contain previously unimaginable quantities of data, but so small that it no longer requires a specialized building to house it. Instead of being unimpressed at the library’s visually underwhelming display, Fry (Futurama’s everyman protagonist) is impressed by the amount of learning the discs contain. Digital texts are shown to be both all-encompassing and strangely intangible – materially small, but containing a wealth of material. Futurama, characteristically, has taken a feature of modern existence, and pushed it one step further to create a result which is absurd but recognizable. The leap which Fry, an inhabitant of the 31st century, makes without effort, is one which today’s readers, writers, and researchers are finding increasingly easy.

The development of the e-reader and increasing sales of ebooks has triggered one of the most famous – and long-running – debates relating to digital texts, with speculation on the future of the book rife among readers, writers, and publishers of fiction and other forms of non-academic literature. The digital text has been presented as a threat to conventional, printed texts for years. Authors of fiction have viewed the new technology as both a positive and a negative innovation.

Whilst there has been extensive discussion about what such developments will mean for non-academic readers and writers, the increasing prevalence of digital texts is also of great significance to academic scholarship. Digital texts are also playing an increasingly prominent role within academia and critical study. One indication of this trend is the fact that last year the MLA (Modern Language Association of America), the US-based professional organization for academics working in language and literature, whose Style Manual is used widely across the US and Canada, sparked interest (but not surprise) by announcing that its style guide would now include the correct academic style for citing a tweet. In an article covering the development, The Atlantic noted that even the tedious business of preparing a source for academic citation has been updated – the site tweet2cite allows users to simply paste the link of the tweet they want to quote, and generate a perfectly-formatted reference.

Far more than simply offering texts online (via Project Gutenburg or Archive.org, for instance), new digital technology presents scholars with new and exciting methods of research. The modern academic has access to many new programmes and resources – some, like Voyant, Google Ngram viewer, and Wordle, permit new forms of reading, allowing students to make textual discoveries which would not have been possible twenty years ago. Nor is it merely written texts which are newly accessible. Reel to Real, for example, allows researchers to brows a huge sound archive, with recordings ranging from European children’s games to Bayaka women’s songs. Worlds away from the outdated stereotype of the lazy student plagiarizing an inaccurate Wikipedia article verbatim, academics are finding new ways to conduct and share their research online in a variety of ways which are swiftly becoming more varied and gaining greater academic standing. The development is fascinating not only for the new ways in which information can be gathered and transmitted, but also for what it shows us about academic disciplines in evolution, and the process by which new programmes and technologies are adopted into the establishment, slowly acquiring respectability. These are the changes that the Too Fragile project will explore.

About the Too Fragile Project

Are you a PhD student? Participate in the Too Fragile survey about how researchers extract, store, and share information

‘Too Fragile’ is a research project directed by Dr Mariann Hardey and Professor Simon James, and focuses on how digital texts, and other forms of digital reading, writing, and research exchange, are affecting scholarship. The project is a collaboration between the Business School and the Department of English Studies at Durham University, founded with funding from the Institute for Advanced Research in Computing (iARC).The project’s name refers to digital texts’ curious nature – practically numerous, but scattered across a range of platforms, in a range of different forms.

The research will be concerned with the transference of texts into digital objects, and the new meanings and new forms of scholarly practice dependent on the combining of the physical and non-physical attributes of text. ‘Too Fragile’ will also analyse how research and methodological tools are employed within these new forms of scholarly practice. It will ask what standards currently exist for textual authority for sites and sources online, and how PhD students make use of these new resources. One of the ways in which the project will achieve this objective is by investigating the ways in which digital resources are understood, interpreted, and used by PhD-level researchers.

The project is currently running a survey which aims to collect data about the types of resources currently available to student scholars, and about how students extract, store, and share information required for their academic research. PhD students are invited to complete the survey for a chance to win a £50 Amazon voucher. All data is anonymous, and no individual will be identifiable in any future publications of the research.

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