E-research and methodological innovation in Dutch literary studies
First Monday

E-research and methodological innovation in Dutch literary studies by Wolfgang Kaltenbrunner and Paul Wouters

This paper studies the digitization of a well–established print bibliography for Dutch literary studies and its implications for the discipline. On the basis of qualitative interviews with users, we first compare three particular research practices in the field, and how they are affected by the digitization. Secondly we analyze the controversy that accompanied the digitization. We touch upon three prominent aspects of scholarly identity that recurrently surfaced in the discussion: research methodology, skills/tacit knowledge required on the part of the user, and the geographical/cultural space in which research is conducted.


1. E–science and the humanities
2. History of the BNTL
3. The BNTL in different research practices
4. Technological innovation and humanistic identity
5. Discussion and conclusions



1. E–science and the humanities

It is well known that innovations in data collection and analytical instruments have regularly spawned new scientific and scholarly fields (Beaulieu, 2001; Lemaine, et al., 1976; Shinn and Joerges, 2002), e.g., imaging technologies have led to radical innovations in medical, cognitive and neurosciences. Techno–opitimistic stories about the revolutionary potential of e–science applications (Atkins, et al., 2003; Hey, et al., 2009), meant to create momentum for respective initiatives (Hedgecoe, 2003), seem to fit the picture of a radically innovative research technology with far–reaching consequences for the cognitive, social and material aspects of the sciences (Joerges and Shinn, 2001). E–science promises to enhance and innovate research in three regards: by providing distributed access to very large datasets, by providing the computing power to process these amounts of data (e.g., through grid computing), and by enabling large scale collaboration and communication among researchers all over the world (Wouters, 2006). The concept of e–science emerged in natural and biological sciences such as particle physics, astronomy, meteorology, and DNA research, and the characteristic features we have just summarized are visibly tailored to the needs of quantitatively oriented, collaborative fields of research (Jankowski, 2007).

But what does e–science mean for interpretative social sciences and humanities? How are the dynamics in these fields influenced by technological and managerial innovations in research instrumentation and infrastructure? And how does this impact the identity of the field and its practitioners? To shed light on these questions we study the controversy around the recent digital innovation of the Bibliografie van de Nederlandse Taal– en Literatuurwetenschap (BNTL), a well–established bibliographical tool for Dutch literary studies (DLS). As we will show, the digitization of the BNTL is representative of many implications of e–research for the humanities.

The history of the BNTL is intimately connected to the history of DLS as a discipline, and many practitioners in the field used to regard the BNTL as an important tool for research. In 2004, the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW) decided that funding for the BNTL would be decreased by more than 50 percent. The KNAW also decided that the BNTL should be no longer published in a printed format, but as an online search engine. As soon as this plan became public, a number of individual practitioners voiced their concern about the implications of this decision on everyday research practice and the future of DLS as a discipline.

Our paper will try to understand the innovation and the discussions accompanying it on two analytical levels. First, we will analyze the real and perceived implications of the innovation for everyday research practice in DLS. Second, we will look for signs that the digitization is related to changes in the performance of scholarly identity in DLS. Analyzing the transformation of a key research instrument in an interpretative field as DLS on these two levels provides us with a first impression of the co–construction of scholarly knowledge, practices and identities through the implementation of technological, managerial and conceptual innovation. We derived the most important sources for our study from written documents and qualitative interviews with members of the BNTL editorial team, scholars in DLS and policy–makers, all of which were conducted between September and December 2008.



2. History of the BNTL

The BNTL was first published in 1970, following a grassroots initiative to identify and make accessible a canonic body of scholarly works in Dutch and Flemish literary studies and linguistics (Kamp, 2008). The composition of its editorial staff fluctuated over the years, but usually consisted of about five editors with a degree in DLS, and two university–trained documentalists (Baars, et al., 2004). The BNTL was a cumulative disciplinary bibliography in the traditional sense. Individual volumes usually covered periods between two and five years, ordering relevant secondary sources according to an elaborate decimal coding system. The time period covered by the print BNTL ranges from 1940 to 2004. From 1993 on, the BNTL database could be accessed via an online, fee–based retrieval system (Doorenbosch, 1993). Originally an independent organization unit within the Academy, the BNTL was in 2005 taken over by the Huygens Institute, a KNAW institute specialized in high–quality editions of historical texts of science, philosophy, and literature. Funding for the BNTL was reduced from 5,7 FTE to 2 FTE (Baars, et al., 2004). The KNAW furthermore decided that the new BNTL should no longer be published in print, but exclusively as a Web–based search engine. While coverage of secondary sources used to be provided by a human editor team, coverage is now limited to a list of particularly important core journals of DLS. The articles published in these papers are automatically added to the BNTL dataset. Registered users can moreover add material. According to the BNTL Web site, the editorial staff supervises user generated content on a weekly basis. Furthermore, the sophisticated categorization system of the print BNTL was replaced by full–text search in the whole available dataset. The Huygens Institute argued that this conceptual change of the BNTL was the best possible way to cope with the increasing number of publications in DLS, which would make it impossible to cover them all manually (Huygens Instituut KNAW, 2004a; 2004b).

The announcement of changes to the BNTL led to a controversy in which many practitioners in DLS as well as members of the editorial staff expressed their strong disapproval. One of the critics even called for a collective publication strike by Dutch scholars (Verkruijsse, 2005), and the Dutch Minister of Science and Education attempted to directly intervene at the KNAW by an open letter (Verkruijsse, 2004). Major objections raised against the innovation were the reduction and automation of coverage of sources. Another feature of the digital BNTL that met particularly emotional resistance was the plan to henceforth exclude publications in modern Dutch linguistics from the bibliographical dataset. The Huygens Institute reacted by setting up an advisory board of external users who were invited to collaborate in the project. Among those invited to join the advisory board were also some of the most outspoken critics of the changes. In response to the fierce criticism raised, the plan to exclude modern Dutch linguistics was finally abandoned. Other than that, the Huygens Institute did not diverge from its plan for the conceptual re–design of the BNTL. While one of the original critics who joined the advisory board reaffirmed his objections in the interview we conducted, another critic indicated that the advisory board meetings gave him a more in–depth view of the new concept for the BNTL, thus mitigating his original disapproval. The new BNTL Web site was officially launched on 24 April 2008.



3. The BNTL in different research practices

In this section, we explore how the digitization of the BNTL affected individual users’ research practices. The implementation of e–research in the Netherlands is linked to attempts by research policy–makers and individual researchers to stimulate a methodological innovation in Dutch literary studies. For one part, e–research is about enhancing humanistic scholarship by bringing together and facilitating access and usability of existing datasets in a centralized virtual environment (KNAW/NWO, 2004). Another benefit of e–research, characteristically formulated in a somewhat vague manner, is to enable scholars to pose ‘new research questions’. With respect to literary studies, policy–makers and e–research advocates often express the hope that the use of digital tools will encourage scholarship to move from narrowly circumscribed research topics (e.g., the production circumstances of a single literary work, or the way a classic literary leitmotif is treated by a single writer) to larger scale comparative research (e.g., a comparison of production circumstances of many literary works across different countries, or a comparative international history of a given leitmotif) based on a strong basis of hard empirical data. Henk Wals, the Director of the Huygens Institute, describes the advantages of a specific application as follows:

“We have recently developed a tool called eLaborate. On the one side of the screen you have a digital facsimile of a medieval manuscript, on the other side you can insert a transcription and annotations. That’s a Web–based tool, meaning that whole teams of researchers can simultaneously transcribe and annotate a text, and share their annotations. This allows not only to translate a text into machine–readable form quickly and efficiently, but also to create a research tool, a text which is constantly enriched, to which data are constantly added. (…) if you are a literary researcher dealing with a specific question in a project, which usually run for three or four years nowadays, then you can only do so much work on your own, only a limited number of texts at one time. In other words, it is always a sort of sample that you take. On the basis of a relatively small number of sources you try to draw a more generally valid conclusion. (…) But if it becomes easier to pose the same question to a larger corpus of texts then your research becomes much better grounded. If you then also take advantage of quantitative methods, measure word frequencies, etc., you take another step towards more objectivity.” (Wals, 2008)

The innovation of the BNTL is exemplary for this strategy, insofar as it transformed a traditional print bibliography into a collaboratively assembled digital database with full–text access to a large number of secondary sources. Databases have always been at the heart of talk about e–science. Lenoir (1998) argued that biology underwent a metamorphosis into an information science from 1970 on, thus realizing a vision of a fully mathematical science that uncovers the laws of a particular biological domain on the basis of readily established datasets. The decryption of the human genome was equally based on the use of globally shared databases.

Having become an iconic symbol of e–science, databases in various scientific disciplines were subjected to a plethora of analyses in STS, information science, and computer–supported cooperative work (Beaulieu, 2004; Borgman, 2007; Bos, et al., 2007; Bowker, 2000; Bowker and Star, 1999; Hilgartner, 1995; Hine, 2006). Studies of e–science published in the information sciences have a tendency to descriptively record the undeniable increase of e–science projects all over the world. Research foci here are classic concepts such as publication cycles, peer review mechanisms, and issues of access to data (Borgman, 2007; Nentwich, 2003). In such a view, digital databases become readily black–boxed instruments that inevitably launch research onto a track of data–intensive collaborative work, without sufficiently contextualizing the use of specific tools in disciplinary cultures and sub–cultures.

In the perspective of the more ethnographically and anthropologically oriented approaches to e–science and virtual sites of knowledge production, the unit of analysis normally is the interaction of research culture, users, and technology (Beaulieu, 2004; Bos, et al., 2007; Davenport, 2001). This view stresses the embedding of tools in individual research practices, implying that the shaping of e–science technology follows a logic of social construction (Hine, 2006; Bijker, et al., 1987). It is the focus on the re–embedding of a generic research technology (Shinn, 2005), such as collaborative databases in a particular scholarly context, that makes the ethnographic approach useful for the case of the BNTL. The methodological features built into the concept of e–science are characteristic of the quantitative, collaborative research practices of various scientific disciplines. The popularity of e–science, however, led to its dis–embedding from these original contexts and to its exportation to other fields of reserach, such as literary studies. Whether the implementation of tools like the digital BNTL leads to enhancement and innovation in literary studies will depend on how individual practitioners integrate it with the specific cognitive and praxeological needs of their research.

As a theoretical framework for investigating how the BNTL is integrated in every practice of research in DLS, we take inspiration from Knorr–Cetina’s (1999) concept of epistemic cultures. Her theory was originally developed to study knowledge production in laboratory sites in the natural sciences, but can be applied to textual scholarship. It allows us to relate the use of technologies in everyday research practice to issues of heuristic interest and epistemology. In the framework of Knorr–Cetina’s concept, technology is not an autonomous agent affecting research but is embedded within shared patterns of knowledge production. In keeping with a strong tradition within STS literature (Bijker, et al., 1989; Wyatt, et al., 2002), this perspective cautions that actual use of technologies within shared patterns of knowledge production may turn out to be different from seemingly commonsensical assumptions.

The concept of epistemic cultures describes research practice in terms of three characteristics: the way researchers construct their epistemic objects; the way they experimentally validate knowledge; and, the way epistemic units in a research site are related to each other [1] A particular category of factors can only be analyzed with respect to the configuration as a whole. Epistemological systems for example shape technological instruments for research, which are used in turn to validate knowledge and thus reproduce the epistemological system. Thus symbolical, material, and social aspects of an epistemic practice are interrelated in a specific configuration. Changing one constitutive aspect (such as a specific research tool like the BNTL) may result in a reconfiguration of the epistemic practice.

We adapt Knorr–Cetina’s concept to our own case in the following way. Under symbolical aspects, we subsume epistemological assumptions such as research questions (e.g., “when, where, and by whom was this particular literary manuscript written?”), underlying theories (e.g., “linguistic analysis of texts allows to infer statements on its production process”), and methods (e.g., the comparison of different sets of empirical material) in Dutch literary studies. Material aspects comprise tools and empirical material for research, i.e., books, texts, libraries and specific instruments like the BNTL or tools for linguistic analysis. As regards the social aspects, research and writing in literary studies has traditionally been organized as a solitary endeavor, although one of the assumptions associated with e–research is that this will change towards a more collaborative undertaking.

DLS is a continuum of very different epistemic practices, rather than a methodologically and theoretically homogeneous field. Traditional ways of ordering these epistemic practices are to group them either according to the object of study (e.g., the writer investigated; the literature of a given histocial period) or according to the methodological approach taken (e.g., infuence studies; reception studies). We decided that it is most insightful for the purpose of this study to focus on a particular object of study, Dutch literature of the late medieval and early modern period. More specifically, we will discuss three distinct approaches to older Dutch literature as professed by three individual researchers. This approach allows us to give an overview of the bandwith of epistemic practices deployed to study a single object, and of the different functions of the BNTL in these epistemic practices.

On the one side of the continuum of epistemic practices in research on medieval/early modern Dutch literature is analytical bibliography, as professed by Piet Verkruijsse. Analytical bibliography studies the genealogy of texts as material artifacts. By comparing (collating) variant, i.e., unauthorized or corrupted, editions of an early modern printed text, analytical bibliography aims to establish the original textual shape as intended by the author (Verkruijsse, 2008). Bibliographical tools, especially old library catalogues, potentially index forgotten copies and can thus help to lead the way back to the original shape or edition of a text. For the researcher to stay on top of things, relevant bibliographical databases need to be timely updated and as comprehensive as possible. This goes also for bibliographies of secondary sources like the BNTL, insofar as they trace the scholarly progress towards the original textual shape. Verkruijsse welcomes the perspective of increased accessibility of secondary sources worldwide through online search engines like the BNTL. At the same time, he is strongly concerned with the fact that automatic coverage of scholarly publications in the digital BNTL will be limited to a list of core journals, and that it will no longer be provided by a human editor team. The BNTL does in his perception no longer fulfill the function of delineating and identifying a body of relevant knowledge. The human editor team was by Verkruijsse obviously perceived as a better provision for best possible coverage and control of content. He currently drew a comparison between the innovated digital BNTL and Google to summarize the combination of facilitated access to sources on the one hand, and of less rigid structuring and control of content on the other.

Another way of studying old Dutch literature is to look at its reception. The research of Paul Wackers aims to reconstruct the reception of medieval texts by historically contextualizing them in medieval social and aesthetic norms. Texts as material artifacts constitute an essential part of this epistemic practice, insofar as individual copies and editions of texts may give hints about the social status of readers, their reading habits, or the way they received iparticular texts. Wackers emphatically stresses the difference between his own research and more normative nineteenth century approaches to reception studies, which based the study of reception on the idea of an allegedly ideal way of interpreting a specific text. This idea of reception studies as a cumulative, teleological endeavor neglects, in the view of Wackers and most modern researchers, the specific hermeneutic labor individual readers put into the reading of texts.

“(…) Nineteenth century philologists thought that there was a general human quality expressed in cultural artefacts that could be discovered by a good researcher. All medieval things were valued according to the standards of nineteenth century aesthetic ideals, because those were held to be a general standard. That has changed. We have abandoned the idea that there is one standard for literature and culture and we are now trying to investigate the mindsets of medieval people in a more unbiased way.” (Wackers, 2008)

Wackers assumes that it is ultimately impossible to assess whether the reconstructed reception of a text in a remote historical period is correct. While it is in his view thus not possible to give an exact answer to research questions about how specific text were received by individual readers, Wackers tries to create as much intersubjectivity as possible by being explicit about the sources and research methods he uses in his scholarly publications. Compared to analytical bibliography, bibliographical tools like the BNTL play a different role in reception studies. Analytical bibliography seems to depend to a greater degree on constant updating and comprehensiveness of bibliographical datasets for identifying a touchstone of relevant knowledge, and for validating research results. Research on text genealogy also implies a stronger concern with source criticism and standards of reliability in bibliographical work. In reception studies, the BNTL is considered one way among others to collect secondary sources. Utmost coverage of secondary sources is not as important an issue for Wackers’ reception research as it is for Verkruijsse’s analytical bibliography. While Wackers was initially opposed to the changes to the BNTL, he has since tended to accept the changing features: “I’ve seen a list of journals they wanted to cover and I would say that 95 percent of what is important is automatically covered. I can live with that.” Without being able to describe what digital biliographical search practice in the future might exactly look like, Wackers furthermore expects the full–text search function to bring about a more associative, but potentially productive, way of combining information (Wackers, 2008).

The research of Karina van Dalen–Oskam, the programme leader of the innovation, is aimed at linguistical analysis of old Dutch texts. Digital tools allowing for customized linguistic analysis of rime structures, word frequencies, and comparison of syntactical structures, are particularly useful in this epistemic practice. While linguistic analysis can also be provided without computers, ICTs expand the scope of research by making large quantities of text processable. Increased empirical scope in turn provides a powerful source of epistemological legitimacy for research results (van Dalen–Oskam, 2008). The BNTL does not fulfill a particularly importent role in this epistemic practice. The validation of knowledge is predominantly provided by reference to quantified linguistic data, rather than to a body of canonic national knowledge such as provided by the BNTL.

In her role as leader of the Huygens Institute e–research division, however, van Dalen–Oskam perceives the changes to BNTL as part of a larger initiative to encourage more empirical, collaborative, and ICT–based literary research in the Netherlands. Some critics of the innovation contended that the decimal coding system of the print BNTL was vital in providing a bird’s eye view on the research conducted in particular subfields of Dutch studies, placing the same information in different conceptual contexts and thus encouraging creative combination of information (Verkruijsse, 2008). Referring to Voorbij’s (1999) survey, van Dalen–Oskam on the other hand argues that since the implementation of online access to the BNTL most users have relied on full–text search anyway. She also argues that many users’ trust in the manually maintained decimal coding system as a guarantee of optimal accessibility of data was a psychological bias rather than objectively justified. While the categories of the old decimal system may have been invented by bibliographic experts, this does not in itself guarantee better ordering and searchability of datasets.



4. Technological innovation and humanistic identity

Research instruments like the BNTL potentially mediate the performance of scholarly identity. In her 2008 study of cyberscience, Hine (2008) claims that the large–scale implementation of ICT in the research infrastructure of systematic biology over the last years has been linked to a self–reflective repositioning of the discipline. Systematic biology has attempted to get rid of the image of an “arcane” and/or “archaic” field of research to save itself from neglect and underfunding. Instead, efforts have been made to re–imagine systematics as a technologically sophisticated and competitive modern science. This process of disciplinary repositioning is linked to the international political discourse on biodiversity. Institutions in systematic biology have presented themselves as providers of crucial information for the preservation of botanical and zoological species, with ICT providing an ideal means to make this information widely accessible. Instead of stressing the scientific objectivity of its taxonomic methodology, systematics is now eager to prove its relevance for enlarged lay and professional audiences (e.g., interested amateurs, other biological sub–fields, museums, biodiversity–rich developing countries). Hine emphasizes that e–research is a malleable concept that does not straightforwardly determine a discipline’s research practice and the exact shape of its research technology. E–research rather figures as a sort of prism through which policy–makers and individual researchers re–imagine the goals, methods, and also the history of the discipline. Similarly, the implementation of e–research infrastructure in Dutch literary studies takes the shape of a negotiation of disciplinary identity, for which the controversy around the digitization of the BNTL is representative.

In this section we operationalize the notion of performed scholarly identity as a way of speaking and thinking about oneself as a researcher in DLS along three dimensions: cognitive (research methodology), practical (embodied skills), and spatial (the cultural and geographical situatedness of research). The BNTL mediates identity by representing and enabling certain research methods, by requiring certain skills on the part of the user, and by mediating the cultural and physical space in which research is conducted. As we will show, the digitization of the BNTL has affected all three of these aspects.

Earlier we made the point that Dutch e–research initiatives are embedded in a narrative envisioning the future of humanistic research as characterized by a data–intensive comparative approach and increased international and interdisciplinary collaboration. But while the digitization of the BNTL is part of the attempt to induce a methodological innovation, a strong motive for resistance against the project was precisely the representative value of the print BNTL for the methodological tradition of DLS. Originally, the plan for the changes to BNTL aimed to exclude modern Dutch linguistics from the future digital database (Baars, et al., 2004). This raised the controversial issue of the unity of DLS. While language and literature were in the nineteenth century assumed to naturally spring from the essence of national character, thus providing a powerful reason to subsume the study of both under one discipline, linguistics and literary studies have since differentiated into methodologically and theoretically neatly distinct fields. A survey by Voorbij (1999) found that the BNTL is of subordinate importance to most researchers in modern linguistics, providing an argument to exclude this subfield from the renovated BNTL. Fierce protests on the part of Dutch literary scholars, however, led to an agreement that the revised BNTL would continue to cover sources also on modern Dutch linguistics (Huygens Instituut KNAW, 2006). The BNTL continues to guarantee at least formally the traditional methodological unity of Dutch literary studies and linguistics.

The strong symbolic value that many researchers still attach to the BNTL can be explained by the important role it occupied in academic education. Training in the use of the print BNTL traditionally formed an important part of the curriculum of DLS. The ability to use the print BNTL was thus a form of embodied knowledge useful for and distinctive of an academic career in DLS. Knowing how to use the print BNTL was part of being a researcher in DLS. One of our interviewees, Paul Wackers, indicated that older generations of scholars have internalized the decimal coding system of the BNTL, and that these categories influence the way they intuitively order and combine information. The relative vagueness with which Wackers explained this point is characteristic for the kind of tacit knowledge this involves.

“The old BNTL was created by people who indexed titles with keywords. The new BNTL does not do that. It searches full–text everything that can be found in abstracts and titles and so on. And I think this is one of the major differences between older and younger scholars. I have been trained in working in the system of the old BNTL. I have a grid of knowledge in my head and I know that for this I have to use this bibliography, and for that I need to use another bibliography. I think my way of researching and writing is informed by these men–made criteria.” (Wackers, 2008)

The relation between the use of the BNTL and scholarly identity in DLS however, was first destabilized when the BNTL became accessible online in 1993. Within the following few years, most users had switched to using the online BNTL (Voorbij, 1999). The recent revisions in the BNTL made training in the proper use of the print BNTL completely superfluous. The ability to use the BNTL is no longer a skill by which members of the scholarly community of DLS can distinguish themselves from “outsiders”. Interestingly, a BNTL documentalist we interviewed indicated that many lay users already make use of the possibility to add publications to the BNTL dataset, in stark contrast to professional academic users. We were not able to get hold of more specific information on individual contributors, but our interviewee told us that those lay users are typically amateurs interested in contemporary and historical Dutch literature. It is not uncommon though that our interviewee has to reject user generated content for reasons of poor quality or because it simply does not pertain to the field of DLS.

A major topic of inquiry in social studies of science have been the implications of e–science for the spatial organization of research (Bos, et al., 2007). Lenoir (1998) has for example argued that the use of digital global databases may replace the laboratory as the main site of knowledge production in biology. Hine (2006) concluded that biological laboratories and digital databases can peacefully co–exist as different frameworks for organizing particular aspects of research, complementing rather than replacing each other. The case of the BNTL shows that the displacement of research tools into virtual space potentially creates problems specific to literary and humanistic research. Bibliographies for a national philology mediate the geographical and cultural context in which research is conducted, and this context in turn is an important factor in determining what counts as valid objects and activities of research in that discipline. The digitization of such a material bibliographical tool, and the creation of e–research applications in virtual space, seems to be related to a change in the established distribution and hierarchy of research goals and activities in DLS.

A crucial point made by Pierre Bourdieu in his Homo academicus will serve to introduce this argument. Bourdieu argues that humanistic disciplines such as French or Dutch national philology are characterized by an inherent methodological tension between “softer” and “harder” conceptions of research, which are related to different societal functions [2]. On the one hand, literary studies have been expected to produce original knowledge according to disinterested scientific standards. On the other hand, literary studies have had the function to conserve and transmit knowledge about a national literature. This “conservatory” function implies a more panegyric attitude of researchers towards national writers and literary texts which potentially contrasts with the “scientific” function of the discipline (Bourdieu, 1988). While national philology as an agent in the conservation and reproduction of national culture is geographically situated, national philology as the scholarly pursuit of understanding of literature is an international endeavor.

However, Dutch humanistic research has witnessed an overall internationalization over the last years. The need to publish at least partly in international journals and to participate in international conferences and events has become an imperative. Research is increasingly evaluated in comparison to the international context. Also, funding is more often provided by bodies of the European Union. E–research is by many practitioners perceived to promote the internationalization of DLS by strengthening the “scientific” function of the field.

The project leader of the BNTL revision at the Huygens Institute, Karina van Dalen–Oskam, points out a relation between the particular geographical/cultural context in which research is conducted, and the research goals and methods appropriate for that context. Dutch literary scholars, van Dalen–Oskam argues, should tailor their approach according to the audience they want to address. Researchers on Dutch literature addressing a national audience may reasonably presuppose readers to be familiar with Dutch literary history, and can hope to attract attention by interpreting the content of the works investigated. The cultural value of Dutch literature for a Dutch audience thus serves as a justification for a rather interpretive and subjective approach. Researchers on Dutch literature addressing an international audience on the contrary will not be able to legitimize their work simply by virtue of the cultural value attached to their objects of study. In comparison to writers of ‘world literature’ (van Dalen–Oskam named Shakespeare and Dante) Dutch literature and language are relatively little known abroad. The work of W.F. Hermans for example, one of the most important Dutch writers of the twentieth century, and a focus of van Dalen’s personal research, has for the most part not yet been translated into English. When addressing international audiences, Dutch scholars of literature, in van Dalen–Oskam’s view, should make up for the lack of cultural capital of their objects of study by capitalizing on international “scientific” virtues of empirical exactitude and objectivity, and through the use of the latest technology (van Dalen–Oskam, 2008). Van Dalen–Oskam explicitly advocates a stronger participation of Dutch literary scholars on the international level, and in her view the potential methodological enhancement of literary research through e–research, as well as the progressive image of those tools, provide a means for advancing the internationalization of DLS.

The digitization of the BNTL was on the other hand perceived as a potential threat for the conservatory function of DLS. Apart from the possibility to implement new features such as full–text search and access, an important reason for transforming the BNTL into an online search engine was of course to save costs. Replacing manual bibliographic work by an automatic coverage system allows for the database to be maintained by fewer and less–skilled personnel (Interviewee A, 2008). Two members of the BNTL editorial team consequently lost their jobs. Furthermore the Huygens Institute decided to get rid of the expensive PICA contract and to implement a simpler, BNTL–specific metadata file format, thus decreasing interoperability with other PICA databases.

The loss of funding also had a powerful psychological effect. Practitioners perceive it as a proof that their work, with respect to research and cultivation of national literary culture, was not valued as it should. Two of the practitioners we interviewed declared that they do not consider it part of their job to upload their publications to the digital BNTL, if those publications were not automatically covered. Updating the BNTL is in their view part of the maintenance responsibility of the editorial team, and ultimately of the Dutch state, the BNTL being the bibliography of Dutch national philology.

Dutch book historian Piet Verkruijsse refers to the changes in the BNTL in terms of a metaphor of economic globalization — an established, national quality product is replaced by a cheap replica manufactured in low–wage countries (Verkruijsse, 2005). In contrast, South African scholar Wannie Carstens connected the internationalization of DLS to an increasing recognition of scholarship conducted on Afrikaans language and literature (Carstens, 2008). The changes to the BNTL thus mirror opposing views on internationalization of scholarly research as a fruitful stimulation of exchange on the one hand, and leveling homogenization on the other. Apart from concern with specific features of the digitization of the BNTL, such as a reduction of funding and editorial control, the views on the revision of the BNTL correlate as well with the cultural and geographical space in which research in DLS takes place: central, such as Verkruijsse (Amsterdam) or decentral, such as Carstens (Potchefstroom/South Africa). The geographical relation between Amsterdam and Potchefstroom is co–extensive with a cultural hierarchy between a former colonial state and a colony, a hierarchy that the digitization of the BNTL seems to weaken.



5. Discussion and conclusions

Popular accounts of the e–science “revolution” suggest that the processing of vast amounts of data in large computer networks will enable science to tackle research problems in a qualitatively new way (e.g., Atkinson, 2006; Nentwich, 2003). While social studies of science have rightfully pointed to the sometimes hyperbolic quality of these spectulations (Woolgar, 2002), it is important to take seriously its performative quality in shaping research policy initiatives (Hedgecoe, 2003; Hine, 2008). E–science has become such a popular concept that it has started to pervade research strategies in the humanities. But while the perspective of processing greater amounts of quantitative data collaboratively through ICT merely extrapolates methodological precepts of most natural scientific disciplines, it implies a conflict with the strong grounding of most humanistic research on qualitative methodology (Wouters, 2006; Wouters and Beaulieu, 2006). As an exemplary case for the implications of e–research in the humanities we have analyzed the recent digitization of the BNTL, a long–standing bibliographical tool for Dutch literary studies and linguistics.

Our first point of interest was the question as to how e–research tools will be embedded in and potentially change everyday research practices in DLS. Adapting Knorr–Cetina’s (1999) concept of epistemic cultures, we operationalized the notion of “everyday research practice” as the interplay of research questions, epistemological assumptions, and the use of the BNTL as a research tool.

Our comparison of epistemic practices in the field of old Dutch literature has revealed a plurality of methods, and the plurality of uses for a bibliographical tool in its printed or digital states. This is surprising, since the abstract decimal coding system of the print BNTL, and the long training that was necessary to use it efficiently, would have seemed to make it a tool with rather narrowly circumscribed number of potential uses. Still, the purposes the print BNTL fulfilled in individual epistemic practices ranged from providing a way to collect sources to an epistemological function in validating research results. Extrapolating the case of the BNTL, we can speculate that rather than streamlining epistemic practices in DLS towards more collaborative and data–intensive research, e–research might very well affirm or even increase in the variety of co–existing goals and methods. Even though the comparative use of large amounts of data is a central feature built into most e–research applications, this might only be one aspect of future practices in literary research, and one that will perhaps not be taken advantage of by all users of those tools.

Epistemic practices in literary research thus depend very unevenly on technological instruments for research. The degree of dependence correlates to the degree of exactitude researchers aim for in the results they produce. Epistemic practices aiming to provide 1:1 answers to research questions (e.g., Which one of a range of surviving copies of an early modern printed text is the oldest one?) use technological instruments such as bibliographies or tools for linguistic analysis in an experimental way, i.e., to corroborate or refute hypotheses. Epistemologically softer epistemic practices such as reception studies pose questions that cannot be answered with the same claim to exactitude, and bibliograhical instruments such as the BNTL provide one way among others to collect secondary sources. This observation implies that the implementation of more e–research applications will unevenly affect the different epistemic practices in literary research. The rather exact, technologically dependant epistemic practices are more likely to be affected by e–research than the ones leaving larger leeway for interpretation of results.

But also in the case of the more exact, technology–dependent epistemic practices, the implementation of e–research does not necessarily equal enhancement of established ways of doing things. The digitization of the BNTL replaced extensive manual data collection through a human editor team by a system automatically covering a list of core journals. While fast continuous updating and full–text search of content is an undeniable benefit for all users, this automatic system implies a slightly reduced coverage that is very detrimental for some epistemic practices. Trustworthiness and comprehensiveness of data stored in e–research applications continue to be crucial issues (Jarvenpaa and Leidner, 1999; van House, 2000).

A second point of interest was the question as to whether and how the implementation of e–research in a humanistic discipline is related to changes in the performance of scholarly identity. Much like the case of systematic biology presented by Hine (2008), the implementation of e–research tools in Dutch literary studies does not take the shape of centrally controlled process with a predetermined outcome, but rather of an emotional, if sometimes implicit, argument by policy–makers and researchers about what research in Dutch literary studies should be all about. The controversy around the digitization of the BNTL touched upon three aspects of scholarly identity: research methodology, skills/tacit knowledge, and the geographical/cultural space in which research is conducted.

On the one hand, the implementation of e–research in the Netherlands is shaped by the vision that digital tools will stimulate a methodological innovation favoring the use of large comparative empirical datasets and interdisciplinary/international collaboration in literary research. Well–established research tools, however, may represent methodological tradition in ways that clash with the intended innovation. The initial digitization of the BNTL formally acknowledged the differentiation of Dutch literary studies and linguistics over the past 150 years by excluding linguistic publications from the dataset. This prompted fierce resistance of many practitioners, who considered it crucial that the bibliography of national philology continue to formally represent the methodological unity of the two fields.

The digitization of a well established research tool like the BNTL also entails a change in the necessary skills on the part of the users. In the past, young researchers in DLS were trained in the use of the print version of the BNTL. The ability to use it was a skill distinctive of disciplinary culture. The digital BNTL on the contrary can be used and contributed to by anybody familiar with Google. The BNTL has thus become a site of collective knowledge production that weakens the boundary between specialists and laymen. The fact that lay users have so far taken more advantage of the collaborative element than academic researchers would imply that the former are more enthusiastic about this ‘opening’ of knowledge production than the latter.

The digitization of the BNTL was also perceived as a means to accelerate the process of internationalization of Dutch literary research, which is related to a change in the hierarchy and distribution of research goals. Some practitioners embrace the implementation of e–research applications for encouraging research that is more collaborative and empirically more strongly grounded. Such a methodological profile emphasizes internationally valid ‘scientific’ virtues and may therefore be useful to promote Dutch literary research in an international context. Critics of the changes associated with the digitization and reduced budget of the BNTL in turn claim a subordination of the disciplinary function of conservation and mediation of knowledge about Dutch literature. They feel, for example, that updating the dataset of the national bibliography should not be their responsibility, but should be provided by the Dutch state. The case of the BNTL thus illustrates a tension specific to the implementation of digital tools for humanistic research in countries like the Netherlands. Researchers understand that they need to participate in an international scholarly community, for which the distributed use of digital resources seems to be ideal. The displacement of research tools into virtual space, and the increased focus on research per se, may in turn conflict with the pronounced need to cultivate a national literary heritage for an otherwise little studied and small language community. End of article


About the authors

Wolfgang Kaltenbrunner is a PhD. student at Erasmus University Rotterdam/Virtual Knowledge Studio Amsterdam. His research focuses on how innovations in text technologies are related to changes in the epistemological and social configuration of literary scholarship in the early modern period and today.
E–mail: kaltenbrunner [at] fsw [dot] eur [dot] nl

Paul Wouters is programme leader of the Virtual Knowledge Studio Amsterdam, an institute of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences. He also holds a professorship in the Dynamics of Knowledge at Erasmus University Rotterdam. Paul is particularly interested in the design and analysis of new scholarly practices in the humanities and social sciences.
E–mail: paul [dot] wouters [at] vks [dot] knaw [dot] nl



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Editorial history

Received 27 July 2010; accepted 3 September 2010.

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“E–research and methodological innovation in Dutch literary studies” by Wolfgang Kaltenbrunner and Paul Wouters is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution–NonCommercial–NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

E–research and methodological innovation in Dutch literary studies
by Wolfgang Kaltenbrunner and Paul Wouters.
First Monday, Volume 15, Number 9 - 6 September 2010

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