• Digital Versions of Life Narrative

    My first THATCamp, right in my backyard.  I’ve hopped around every digital branch of the UVA tree (think the bewigged cardinal): Scholars’ Lab (including the GIS specialists), NINES, SHANTI, and IATH, where lately we’re working on the BESS schema (Biographical Elements and Structure Schema), a database, and some prototypes for visualization, all taking the bibliography of 1200+ books in the Collective Biographies of Women project further into studies of biography.  Lots of DH work is biographical (a lot of projects have a person’s name in the title), and personal data and life narratives are all over the Internet, but even in literary digital studies there is relatively little work on genres of nonfiction.   I just got back from a conference on Life Writing at the Huntington Library.  My talk was called Social Networking in Old and New Media, the “old” being books, the “new” being digital, both social media and digital humanities.  The talk was like a sandwich with “all about my DH project” pressed thin in the middle, and thick slices of observation and speculation about the social construction of persons online.   What are the elements of a unique “person,” identity, or life narrative?  How do the forms (in all senses) of life narrative vary with repetition across different media?  Name, date and place of birth and death, portraits, signature or password, resume-style events (think Linked-In)–and, as on Facebook, relationships and consumer choices/opinions–these elements seem to give us a handle on the unique individual linked to others.  But as anyone who has worked in a library, written a biography or a history, or developed a database involving any social records knows, every component in this list of identifiers can be shared by others or it changes over time or can be falsified or lost.  There’s lots to pursue in the ways that computers affect life narrative, writing or encoding or studying it.  I’m interested in all the angles people might bring to this, but the Huntington crowd was very much about scholarship in paper archives and writing full-length literary biography.  I think print and digital media present similar issues about reconciling the big and little picture, what’s shared, what’s interesting, and what kind of elements or controlled values our schema allows.

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12 Comments


  1. Ethan Gruber says:

    Hi Allison,

    Are you using EAC-CPF for this?

  2. Profile photo of ab6j ab6j says:

    No, though it’s good to be reminded about it. Daniel is in the thick of that, and is helping with the schema, but when we discussed it, it seemed that their standards weren’t going to be directly useful for this project.

  3. lisaschamess says:

    Alison, I am intrigued. I am not a particularly hardcore academic nor a true DH scholar, but deeply interested in the possibilities for narrative online.

    Last year I published an essay in Creative Nonfiction on what Samuel Pepys might have made (and made of himself) in our age: www.creativenonfiction.org/thejournal/articles/issue42/schamess.html

    I have toyed with continuing to look at this theme in the larger context of diary-making. I am also working at a memoir and a novel, both of which have important points of contact with online environments and curation of artifacts–what exactly those points of contact are, I am still trying to discover.

    Count me in!

  4. lisaschamess says:

    whoops — just adding this postscript so I can subscribe to this thread…

  5. There are some interesting resonances here with the Quantified Self movement, which I mention in my proposal. A combined session might be fun.

  6. Profile photo of lisaschamess lisaschamess says:

    I would love that, Bethany, as I seem to be following you and Alison around now and it would make my commuter easier.

  7. Alison Booth says:

    I love the Samuel Pepys piece–wonderful links! It’s exciting to historicize serial personal narrative/social networking. I’ll have a look at Quantified Self, too. I always want to work with Bethany, who has a gift for making it feel mutual (-;

  8. Profile photo of lisaschamess lisaschamess says:

    It was fascinating to rework that piece for a digital audience (and I frankly think you are the first to actually click the links :-) ), because CN does not normally do much with digital. It was originally only a print piece, and when they went to republish it, the notion of including lateral links and playful asides as a kind of meta-commentary and parallel treasure trove to enliven the essay had not even occurred to them.

    I am especially fond of the Easter Egg I buried at the very end.

  9. lisaschamess says:

    …and, uh, well, here is something odd and wonderful…tonight I was busy doing something not *even* close to nothing on Kickstarter when this crossed the transom. It’s got lives, women’s lives, digital, pedagogical, looks to be incredibly beautiful and fun. Whatever it is, I thought it should go in this thread:

    Wollstonecraft: A Children’s Book Project

  10. George Brett says:

    lisaschamess @magpie (Megan Brett) brought WoolenCraft to my attention. So I joined her and signed up.

    Questions: would this be like aggregating one’s digital footprint? I have begun to have a blog that is primarily feeds from other sources to provide a time line and content.

    Or could this be presented or thought of as an ePortfolio for students to begin to capture and collect better samples of their work that they would be willing to share or at least keep as a private diary for later project resources?

  11. Profile photo of lisaschamess lisaschamess says:

    George, I have been toying with the best way to introduce the eportfolio notion into the classroom. It is best done in the broad, institutional, cross-classroom way you describe has been undertaken at Mary Washington. As an adjunct, I will be looking at ways to do it in a single classroom model, which is not as meaningful but it is a start. Am very, very interested in teaching writing to students in a way that moves us beyond the destructive “improve yourself and know your questions in a single term” dynamic.

    Alison, I found the article I made reference to in yesterday’s session here–Douglas Coupland reviewing Hari Kunzru’s Gods Without Mercy. The value of it is Coupland’s extended meditation on the fluid, anachronistic environment for thought and literature that has been accelerated by the Internet, a movement he calls “translit.” The implications of this anachronistic “ever now” environment interest me a lot…maybe something here for how to engage, intepret, assemble, and reassemble the lives of historic figures…?

    Bethany, does the time element I have just described have a good interface with the quantified self topic? I have not yet even reviewed the link you offered but would like to track that idea over time (pun not intended).

    Would love to keep talking with all of you. I am at moc.l1502997586iamg@1502997586ssema1502997586hcsas1502997586il1502997586

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