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Ayers Discusses Digital Scholarship at Research Commons Opening

By Rajiv Velury Posted: 02/02/2012
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Edward Ayers, president of the University of Richmond and American history scholar, spoke at Emory on Tuesday to inaugurate the new Digital Scholarship Commons (DiSC) of the Robert W. Woodruff Library.

He extolled the virtues of digital scholarship, a form of research that DiSC will strive to promote, which utilizes technology and databases to make information more accessible to those who wish to analyze it.

DiSC, which will provide resources for graduate student research, is a permanent fixture of the larger Research Commons, located on the third floor of the Robert W. Woodruff Library. Both DiSC and the Research Commons were created as a result of a $695,000 grant given to the library by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation last March.

Richard Luce, vice provost and director of libraries, told the audience that DiSC is a “virtual laboratory.”

“[Digital scholarship] is a bridge between the humanities and the social sciences. One day, we won’t be talking about digital scholarship as something different, but just scholarship,” Luce said.

According to Allen Tullos, associate professor of the Institute of Liberal Arts at Emory, the library administration believed that Ayers was a good choice to speak at the inauguration of this new feature of the library due to his work with digital archives and his advocacy for digital research.

Ayers spoke about how potential digital scholarship can change the way research is conducted by making information more widely available and easier to access.

Ayers said that digital archives helped him in his research for his history book The Presence of Mine Enemies: War in the Heart of America, 1859-1863. His Internet archive, “The Valley of the Shadow,” features thousands of letters, diaries, speeches, census records and church records from the Civil War era of Augusta County, Va. and Franklin County, Pa.

“It’s like a harp,” Ayers said of the variety of sources in the archive. “You can play it, and it’s different every time.”

Ayers also said that he admires digital scholarship because of the way it allows people to share information with the public.

“[It’s] not about the few to the many, but the many to many,” he said. He spoke of the possibilities of even elementary school classrooms using the archives to illustrate lessons and explore history further using interactive maps that showed the progression of events such as the movement of the Union Army during the Civil War.

As he showed the audience such features, he explained that the technology makes data and information more “human.”

“You don’t have to lose particularity or submerge [data] into a statistical average — you reserve preserve? the human drama,” Ayers said.

He added that digital scholarship complements traditional scholarship.

“Deans like it, provosts like it, presidents like it,” Ayers said. “Departments are the gatekeeper for this technology.”

Some members of the audience shared Ayers’ enthusiasm for digital scholarship. According to Richard Mendola, vice president of Emory’s Information Technology and chief informations officer (CIO), the potential for using technology in research is promising, but it would depend on institutional support.

Louise Miller, executive director of the Association of Academic Health Science Libraries, said that she thought it was interesting to see how “technology is not being used for technology’s sake but to do things that further [research in] the humanities.”

Ayers noted that he is confident about the future of digital methods.

“Digital scholarship does not corrode or erode what we have dedicated our lives to,” he said. “[Because of it], we can write the humanities with different voices, with different methods.”

— Contact Rajiv Velury.

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