Monday, 10 June 2013

Digitising Information in the online era... 21st Century Plath!

One of the main advantages of having office space based in the Belfast Art School is that I often get to indulge an a long-time interest - art! Sometimes when reading or writing is driving me up the wall, I take a walk through the many different floors of art students and observe sculptures, paintings, fashion exercises and weird artistic installations. It really is a breath of fresh air to see so many individuals express themselves creatively.

Paul Klee's 'The Seafarer' - inspired the Plath poem of the same name.
Another perk of being on the periphery of such a vibrant artistic community is that sometimes, certain events or conferences will come up that reach through disciplines, into the Humanities field. I am a firm believer that English Literature cannot be properly studied unless a person has a keen knowledge and interest in many disciplines ranging from art, history, philosophy and critical theory. Because of this then, it's only to be expected that certain art-based events resonate with my work as a literature student.

So, when I heard of an upcoming museum based day-event entitled 'Engaging Visitors Through Play', I immediately signed up. The premise of the conference was to explore digital technology and "play" in museums, and the day was filled with excellent speakers from Tate London, the Wellcome Trust as well as local curators from Belfast. It was an interesting conference, and I learned a lot about what goes on behind the scenes of popular websites, like Tate Kids. Many of us go to museums, or go online and see these wonderfully designed websites but don't really take the time to understand the psychology and development that is integral to a "successful" visitor experience. For more information on this conference and "play" in general, follow Oonagh Murphy, a fellow Ph.D. student at University of Ulster.

Personally, I feel that the mechanisms employed to produce "successful" visitor experiences and the integration of technology with knowledge are hugely important and should be impacting academia. The internet age has seen the development of online museums - while the Tate can afford to maintain a physical museum and an online museum - many other online exhibits attract a valuable niche audience. The brilliant Women's Museum of Ireland, pioneered by young Irish women is an excellent example of the growing popularity of online museums, digital interaction and a new type of visitor engagement.

Coupled with the growing sector of online museums, the emergence of MOOC's as an important component of University life (agree or disagree with them as you wish!) - I think that young Humanities academics have a responsibility to take their research out of the library and make it available (and presentable) to the outside world. Some really worthwhile collectives have recently sprung up - such as The C21 Scholar, which seeks to promote digital engagement for postgraduate scholars. I believe that these digital skills are so worthwhile, transferable and vital to keeping the arts alive.

Sitting at the Engaging Visitors through Play conference, my thoughts obviously centred around this blog. The day I received my Ph.D. funding, I registered my "handle" on blogspot. I try to tweet articles and Plath news - but the main objective of these digital endeavours is for me to talk about the work I'm doing in a way that isn't obnoxiously pretentious - rather, I want to relay my thoughts about Plath and generate discussion. During the conference, I wondered what more I could do to try and engage "visitors" to my little space on the web. Really, there is so much more I could be doing - videos, podcasts, photo-diaries, to mention but a few options. I think though, when I finish my Ph.D. I will be able to share more information - like chapters, ideas, bibliographies. Looking at it pragmatically, I haven't got an "exhibit" yet, I'm just setting it up. But when the Ph.D. is complete I really want to try and utilize digital technology and bring what I think about Plath into the 21st Century. How can I engage people (through "play" perhaps?) and encourage readers to be interested in Plath?

Over the weekend, I hosted fellow Plath scholar, Dr. Amanda Golden (a Modernist scholar who is currently teaching Digital Humanities classes) for a few days here in Belfast. We had a lovely time, talking about Plath, poetry in Northern Ireland and enjoying ciders in the sunshine. We briefly discussed the future for archives - if there's one aspect of my Plath research I've found people respond most to, it's her archives. It would be absolutely wonderful if you could just log on to the Smith College or Indiana University websites and click through the Plath papers digitally. I'm sure anyone interested in Plath who has visited Sylvia Plath Info can attest to the value of that website! Of course, nothing compares to real life sight, touch, smell.. But in this era of economic downturn, I think digitisation of all archives would be so valuable for those of us who live oceans away from the papers we require.

Sylvia Plath embracing the technology of her era!
The online era is so exciting. There's so much information available at our fingertips. On one hand I'm a Luddite - I don't have a Kindle or Nook (the idea of it doesn't appeal to me at all!), nor do I use Endnote (though I have been trained in it, and Zotero) or any other kind of referencing system - all of my footnotes and bibliographies are done by hand. But at the same time, I think that having an online presence is really important. I believe that knowledge should be for everyone and that even the most difficult theories can be broken down into readable and understandable sentences so that the public can appreciate and think about theories and arguments themselves. Digital engagement, e-learning - it's all the future!

In the spirit of maintaining an active online persona, here are some of my recent writings about Plath:

'Recent Plath Biographies': a review of the most recent biographies in Sylvia Plath studies.
'Something in me said, now you must see this': Reconciliation of death and 'the empty benches of memory' in Sylvia Plath's 'Berck Plage': an essay looking at unremembered memory and trauma - where I try to offer a new interpretation of 'Berck Plage'.

Plath Profiles 6 can be viewed in its entirety here. There are many brilliant essays and photographs, poems and reviews included in this issue. As always, The Plath Diaries is actively on Twitter and Pinterest so keep in touch and if there are any topics you would like me to post on, tweet or pin - get in touch!

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