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Editors’ Choice: The Amateur in the Archive: Toward a Wider Audience for Your DH Project

Changing my form of communication reminds me of my audience. The challenges of communicating through the digital highlight the corresponding issues faced by readers of this non-traditionally presented content. My master’s thesis involved a user study evaluating the use of well-established digital humanities archives by a wider audience, a group I still refer to as “amateurs”, and it’s an awareness of this specific audience for our work that I’m discussing here.

“Amateurs” in the old sense of pursuits not undertaken in a professional role, but often with passion, competence, and curiosity–the humanist geek latent in all of us.

In terms of DH creations with advanced scholarly uses, “amateurs” as I’m defining them are a sometimes under-served group–not the relatively small circle of creators and colleagues at the center of a digital archive’s realization, but the nebulous audience just beyond that inner circle: “amateurs” in the old sense of people whose pursuits aren’t undertaken in a professional role, but are followed with passion, competence, and curiosity–the humanist geek latent in all of us. For example, instead of assessing the Blake Archive’s use by it’s developer-users and other Blake scholars using the site as a primary resource for their professional work, I’m interested in users without this degree of specific content knowledge about Blake (some with overlapping knowledges, e.g. art historians, non-Romanticist literary scholars, artists and printers, and creative writers, and some with no relationship to Blake, e.g. the casual reader of poetry) and/or without the familiarity with DH commonplaces and digital archive design that make navigation and use of such sites more intuitive.

In “Collaboratively Curating Early Modern Texts“, Martin Mueller argues (in the context of crowdsourcing) that this audience encompasses anyone motivated by “duty, fame, and love: the amateur scholar, the citizen scholar, and everybody else who would like to be recognized for something useful or splendid they have done”. Whether we’re seeking their assistance or making our scholarly efforts meaningful outside of the people who already have advanced knowledge in our field, the digital placement of our work means that it’s more easily accessible to more people than thirty years ago–but virtual access doesn’t mean much if new site visitors are bouncing off your archive without using it. (Check out Section 2.1 “ Two Types of Digital Text Users” in my master’s thesis for more on types of users for digital humanities archive projects, or yesterday’s post on how you can tell if people aren’t staying on your DH website for more than a few second.)

I don’t mean to argue that every piece of DH work needs to serve a general as well as a scholarly audience.

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This content was selected for Digital Humanities Now by Editor-in-Chief based on nominations by Editors-at-Large: