Starting with Manovich

From a post titled Starting with Manovich, February 2, 2005:

In the landmark work The Language of New Media Lev Manovich presents the compelling argument that the “[D]atabase becomes the center of the creative process in the computer age”.

The focus of digital library development is primarily the digitization of material into discrete digital objects that can be represented and retrieved through databases utilizing standardized metadata. The library community has made enormous strides in digital library developments. The results are a wide range of databases that support academic research in a variety of disciplines. For libraries, the database has certainly become the primary mode through which digital information is presented to users.

While databases of digital objects are essential to scholarship, the database paradigm should not be viewed as the ultimate end result of library experimentation with digital technologies. Databases alone are merely containers that allow people to access information; in a sense, a database functions in the same way as a library building in that the library building is a container that allows users to access information in print. Of course, all librarians know that libraries are much more than buildings containing books. In the same way, digital libraries need to be viewed as much more than databases containing digital objects. Physical libraries are often defined as much by their services as by their collections. An area of digital library development that is under examined is the ways in which researchers can re-purpose digital objects into new works of scholarship.

Scholarship, whether in the form of a printed article, monograph or digital media, can be described as the gathering, analysis, and re-purposing of information into a new context of understanding through scholarly insight by a researcher. Historically, archives and libraries generally are not involved in the interpretation or publication of printed research by scholars. However, the techniques for presenting the findings of research through digital media are just now evolving. Academic units such as libraries need to work closely with faculty to understand and support how the story of a scholarly research can be expressed through digital media.

In examining print scholarship as a literary genre, one finds that it is essentially driven by a strong narrative supported by references (i.e., footnotes) to primary and secondary sources. This type of narrative-based scholarship is most obvious in the humanities, especially history, but is also very relevant to the social sciences and even the sciences. Narrative is one of the oldest ways of contextualizing information and making it understandable.

The current products of digital libraries most closely resemble reference materials and archival finding aids; indeed, monographic indexes and encyclopedias are essentially databases in printed format. Yet, narrative will surely play a strong role in the future of digital scholarship. The digital culture is in the early stages of utilizing narrative in new media, analogous to the early days of filmmaking when the techniques for effectively telling a story through the new media of that age was just being developed. Indeed, it may be the documentary film rather than the monograph that serves as a better model for the future of digital scholarship.

Narrative in digital scholarship does not supplant the role of databases in digital libraries. Rather, databases should serve as the foundation on which to build narrative-based digital scholarship. Manovich contrasts the database paradigm with that of narrative and describes databases and narratives as “two competing imaginations, two basic creative impulses, two essential responses to the world. Competing to make meaning out of the world, databases and narrative produce endless hybrids.”

Librarians and scholars need to understand more about the capabilities of new media to produce online narratives that are enriched with scholarly digital content that is aurally, textually, and visually stimulating. The growth of digital scholarship is inextricably tied to the means through which digital library databases can be manipulated in order to support the creation of rich and engaging narratives that foster learning.

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