Blog Post

Digging up Treasures

Last Thursday, Apr 21, was the soft launch of San Francisco State University's Poetry Center Digital Archive. With the Poetry Center's long history in San Francisco's poetry scene, we were all very excited about the unveiling of the Digital Archive, because it means that we now have access to the wealth of materials that the Poetry Center has garnered over the years (from the 1950s on). Audio recordings of the likes of Langston Hughes, Marianne Moore, Allen Ginsberg, and many others are now digitized and made accessible to the world, allowing readers and researchers to gain new meanings to a poem when they listen to the readings and commentaries of a particular poem -- readings that happened at specific times and moments, with many of the nuances, jokes, and anecdotal stories captured in these recordings. 

What struck me on Thursday's soft launch of the Poetry Center's Digital Archive echoes how I (and, undoubtedly, many others) felt when news were unveiled about Professor Ken Price's amazing discovery of 3,000 documents in Whitman's handwriting. I was (and still am) in awe of the pivotal role that Professor Price plays in unearthing these documents and in opening up the spaces in which we can continue to learn more about Whitman as the poet and individual that he was, and as Jennifer Howard points out, in "bring[ing] to life an underappreciated side of the poet: his life and work as a bureaucrat." A pre-eminent Whitman scholar, and also known for his work with the Whitman Archive, Prof. Price inspires us not only because of his determination and his hard work at the Archives, but also because his work points to the beauty of digital humanities: humanists not only dig into data, but they also dig into archives; it is a process of uncovering histories and new stories, and of bridging connections to our literary past. Additionally, when we think of the digital archives that we are so fortunate to have access to today, this discovery reminds us of the fact that digitization efforts do not happen overnight in just a few clicks of a few buttons; digital humanities is diligent work that depends on the dedication and talent of the people behind the research. 

This is how I felt last Thursday at the Poetry Center's Digital Archive Reception. When Steve Dickison, poet and Director of the SFSU Poetry Center, gave a brief history of the Poetry Center and the progress it has made over the years, he emphasized the fact that these digitization efforts were slow and laborious, involving the work of numerous individuals (the poets themselves, funding from the NEA, student volunteers, the programmers, etc.). Dickison himself handselected and retrieved materials from the Poetry Center's vault, a process that was described as "finding treasures." The materials are now out of the room and made accessible to the public, and the Digital Archive will only continue to grow (it has been referred to as a "post-war poetry mother lode" by @ProfHanley). 

"Finding treasures": this is the beauty of digital humanities. These are what continue to inspire me as a scholar: how these discoveries, inquiries, and disseminated materials open up numerous scholarly possibilities, and allow us to ask and discover new questions. 

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