Thought Cloud

by Rebecca Stuhr


Beginning to think
Microsoft Office Clip Art

It is a hot day to be thinking. At 9:33 pm it is 92 degrees and humid. As I took the trolley home, I planned out my evening. First get out of the clothes I’ve been wearing all day, second, take care of the cat, and third retreat to the air-conditioned room with a large glass of ice water and begin a blog entry. Sitting in the sweltering trolley station at 19th Street (I always thought underground should be cooler, but apparently it can also be a giant trap for hot, unbreathable air) I thought about what I would write. Thinking Digitally, the title of this blog, has to do with the fact that in my work as a librarian, I am deeply analog and deeply digital.  I think many others are as well. Digital is in the ascendent; we are dependent on it for identifying and finding the content we need for ourselves or for those we are assisting.  Sometimes we complete our search with the knowledge we’ve identified wrapped up in a digital wrapper and sometimes we take a walk to the stacks to pull it off the shelves.  We might click a few times on our computer until we can request what we want from another library or we might purchase it from a bookstore that we get to by walking down the street. The whole concept of digital versus analog is an emotional thing for someone who grew up loving to read and loving books–their look and feel. Reading a book is ingrained in the way my brain works. I like having a pencil or pen in my hand as I read and think. I like to write notes, if not in the book, in a little booklet. I have a stack of them. The act of writing solidifies my thoughts and helps me take in the book more slowly and in more detail and more permanently.

Certainly I read online and I like getting my journal articles online just like anyone else. But I’ve trained my brain over all of these many years to work around the structure of the book. It is physical, it is aesthetic, it is pleasing intellectually and emotionally.

The real, the virtual; knowledge and its manifestations.

I am reading a book that considers all of this. It is called Virtual Knowledge: Experimenting in the Humanities and the Social Sciences. Edited by Paul Wouters, Anne Beaulieu, Andrea Scharnhorst, and Sally Wyatt. Published by MIT Press, 2013. [Find a copy in a library near you. ]

The book is made up of discrete chapters, but many of the authors have participated in something called the Virtual Knowledge Studio located in the Netherlands. It supports scholars in “the creation of new scholarly practices and in their reflection on e-research in relation to their fields.”

The writers look at knowledge, its creation and use, and analyze how it might change as the tools used to acquire it change. The writers also address how the way scholars work and collaborate evolves with the continuing development of digital work spaces and digital tools.

I like the three dimensionality of this book. It isn’t a list of tools or description of how tools work. The writers take ideas and stretch them, fold them, re-fold them, bend them to ferret out the meaning in the process and product of scholarly work.

The first chapter examines the concept of knowledge and learning within the academic world. Beginning with the simple definition of knowledge as “a complex, highly structured set of practices and interpretations” (1), the authors emphasize that the new manifestation of knowledge in the digital environment is not just a matter of tools, but that there is a cause and effect and cause again between knowledge and the infrastructure within which it is created. Change is a constant –not only in how research is conducted but in what constitutes research.

The editors point out that after World War II, the growth in universities and opportunities for attending universities created a growing and diverse student body including initiatives to make these opportunities accessible, such as  affirmative action and the GI bill. At the same time technology was changing at the household level with the increasing popularity of television, and then, of course, the development of the desktop computer. New media led to new disciplines that study the media, its impact, benefits, and consequences. The greater diversity of people in the academy led to a growing diversity of disciplines. And so post war era was an era of newness including media studies, cultural studies, women’s studies, ethnic studies, and more. New people brought a diversity of identities and backgrounds and perspectives, and new technologies have provided opportunities to work with new topics in new ways, and, as is almost already a cliche, to ask new questions.

The authors of this book, in each chapter, consider e-research. Less data centered than e-sccience, e-research includes the study of new media and digital networks and is sensitive to disciplinary practice. It is about more than just the tools, but also about the changes that the tools bring about and the way new technologies stimulate reflection about objects, methods, and practices.

Chapters in this book look at authority and expertise, scholarly collaboration, uncertainty, visual rhetoric and geographic information systems, data-intensive research in the social sciences, openness in scholarly communication and research agendas.

I’ll have to return to my thought cloud to reflect further on the ideas in this book, but next time, just to mix it up a bit, maybe I’ll reflect on Jeeves and Bertie Wooster. What ho!

William Blake etching of a mother and her child

Be calm, my child, remember that you must do all the good you can the present day.

Blake, William, 1757-1827 — Engraver
Wollstonecraft, Mary, 1759-1797 — Author