Ephemerality and Loss in Digital Humanities Projects

Black and white image of a woman looking at the screen of an early desktop computer

Kathryn Wymer, Victoria Szabo


Type: Visiting Fellow

Drawing on affect theory and the study of digital humanities, Professor Kathryn Wymer will look at what our feelings about digital media mean for digital projects in the humanities. We have focused on what might happen if we lose books and other physical media, but what happens when we lose our access to digital versions of media?

Creating a digital version of a text, image, or performance makes something new. A .jpg of Picasso’s Guernica is not the same as the original painting. Scanning a copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio creates a new way of interacting with the text, and that interaction can be very different from the experience of sitting down and reading a copy bound in a book. We invest a great deal of time and effort into these projects, but the truth of digital projects is that they are deeply impacted by technological advancement, and often that advancement means that the original forms of digital work become obsolete.

This work has the potential to add greatly to our understanding of the digital humanities conceived broadly. As we begin such projects, we do so with great hope and expectation that they have the power to transform our understanding of literature, the arts, and performance. However, we also know from experience that digital projects can move quickly into obsolescence, as the technology they use changes at a rapid pace. We are in a constant race to upgrade our laptops, tablets, and smartphones. Scholarly digital humanities projects find themselves swept up in the current of new technology as they attempt to be sustainably productive and accessible. Many projects find such sustainability unattainable and simply lapse.

What happens to the investment that authors of such projects have made? For academics, how does lapsed digital work impact tenure, promotion, or reputation in the field? For audiences, what happens when work, whether an e-book, a blog, or an elaborate database, simply disappears? How does such ephemerality affect our interactions with and feelings about these forms of scholarship? How does this phenomenon disparately impact marginalized groups?


Photo: University of Texas at Arlington Library, woman working at early version of computers. University of Texas at Arlington Photograph Collection