A Collaboratory in Need of Occasional Walls

By  Melissa Dalgleish, PhD Candidate, York University

In 1989, William Wulf defined the collaboratory as a “center without walls, in which the nation’s researchers can perform their research without regard to physical location, interacting with colleagues, accessing instrumentation, sharing data and computational resources, [and] accessing information in digital libraries.” This definition of collaboratory describes, almost perfectly, the new EMiC Modernist Commons (modernistcommons.ca), the online edition creation environment that I spent a glorious week at DHSI getting to play in. The idea behind the Commons is that it allows researchers from across the country—and across the globe—to produce digital editions using shared data (the archival images and document transcriptions uploaded to the site) and computational resources (the embedded CWRC Writer for TEI markup and the Shared Canvas image-markup tool), thus freeing individual scholars from having to cobble together tools, software, and publication venues on their own. The Modernist Commons is, fundamentally, a collaboratory—a centre without walls where scholars can come together, without consideration for physical location or individual computational resources, to collaboratively experiment with digital editorial theory and practice. EMiC itself functions in much the same way—its collaborators come from across the country and as far away as Glasgow and Paris, our work is largely done without benefit of walls (unless you count firewalls, or the walls of server rooms), and our centre isn’t any definite physical location, but the largely imaginary centre that is “EMiC.” Most of the time, the decentredness of the Commons and of EMiC is one of the project’s great strengths, since it makes the kind of work that EMiC supports possible for a much more diverse group of scholars than a more centred and closed structure would. But during weeks like DHSI, I realize that while creating collaboratories like EMiC, CWRC, and HASTAC are crucial to the transformational work going on in the digital humanities, the collaboratory as defined by Wulf is missing something important.

D.L. Cogburn’s revised definition suggests some of what I think is missing. He argues that “the collaboratory is more than an elaborate collection of information and communications technologies; it is a new networked organizational form that also includes social processes; collaboration techniques; [and] formal and informal communication” (emphasis mine). True collaboration requires sociality and communication, and, sometimes, centres and walls in which those social interactions and moments of communication are contained. If EMiC were only the radically decentred collaboratory it is for much of the year, I am sure that it we would still be able to point to it as a catalyst for a definitive shift in the way that we as scholars produce books, and as a source of funding and training that has produced a number of exciting critical editions. But it is those moments when we’re all in the same room, or at least in the same city—DHSI, the upcoming Exile’s Return conference in Paris, the 2010 Conference on Editorial Problems—that the truest collaboration, the profoundest shifts in thinking, and the most meaningful communication occurs. It’s within the walls of a conference room that two of us realize that we’re working on nearly the same thing and need to start working together. It’s at the bar that we have a conversation that, while seemingly unimportant, is the nudge that sets us off down a path that radically transforms our thinking. It’s in a classroom like this week’s Digital Editions that we see others doing work that we can use as models for our own, and where we have the opportunity to learn from them firsthand and take their teaching to our own work. In other words, the definition of the collaboratory, and the act of collaboratory building, also need to have built into them moments of coming together, of real-time interaction, of both purposeful and purposeless conversation that happens when people come together between the same four walls.

Maybe I’m romanticizing physical proximity and face-to-face contact—EMiC folk are some of my favourite in the world to hang out with, and every one of the experiences I listed above I’ve had myself—but maybe I’m not. The accessible-from-anywhere, decentred, common space of the collaboratory is something we need to keep building to do the work we want to do—but the fact that I can’t help but speak of the collaboratory as a space suggests that sometimes, proximity does matter. So let’s keep coming together across geographical and temporal divides to work together in the common spaces that the collaboratory represents—but let’s make sure that we also make a date to talk about it over a cup of coffee afterward.

Melissa Dalgleish, is a PhD Candidate at York University. Her research interests are: Modern Canadian poetry; modernist mythopoeia; new modernist studies; Canadian pataphysics; digital humanities; editorial theory. Melissa’s current research project is Anne Wilkinson’s Counterpoint to Sleep: A Digital Edition.