Database discontents

Overlooked in the excitement about the possibility of “digitizing everything” is the day-to-day manual—and often menial—labour demanded of volunteers, student workers, devoted enthusiasts, scholars, and professionals. Theirs is important work, and supports the lofty promises to save the cultural heritage of the world.

This paper sheds light on some of the very human efforts that underpin the production of digitally-encoded materials. Drawing upon Bruno Latour and Steven Woolgar’s work on the social construction of scientific fact, the paper scrutinizes the processes by which information is generated and marketed in the digital environment. An analysis of materials from the database, “Early English Books Online,” among others, will help lay bare the dynamics by which the status of transcriptions and facsimiles of texts and books shifts from interpretation to fact as they are recontextualized and remediated online.

By investigating the production and circulation of digitally-encoded materials with this critical lens, the paper seeks to develop a richer understanding of information and knowledge in the twenty-first century.

The Database and its Discontents was presented by Bonnie Mak, assistant professor of Library & Information Science and of Medieval Studies at the University of Illinois.

A version of this paper has been published in the Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology (JASIST). A pre-print of the article may be downloaded here.


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