Johanna Drucker is busy. The Bernard and Martin Breslauer Professor of Bibliography in the UCLA Department of Information Studies and member of UCLA’s Institute for Digital Research and Education’s Humanities, Arts, Architecture, Social and Information Sciences Collaborative, she is pursuing a wide range of academic and creative projects that include an online project documenting the history of the book as well as a database memoir.
Drucker — whose academic underpinnings include a Ph.D. in interdisciplinary studies from UC Berkeley with the dissertation “Ecriture: Writing as the Visual Representation of Language,” a master’s degree in visual studies and a B.A. in fine arts — described herself as someone who is not always at the cutting edge of technology (she’s had her smart phone for less than a year). Yet that has not stopped her from becoming deeply involved in the increasingly popular field of digital humanities. In 1999, with a body of work around digital art and electronic writing, she received an invitation to become a faculty member at the University of Virginia, where she received a National Endowment for the Humanities grant to develop a curriculum for digital humanities classes. At the time, the digital scene at Virginia was centered around a collection of projects made by humanists who had little background in computer science and library and information studies, recalled Drucker, who later played a part in crafting the school’s M.A. program in digital humanities.
“I got into it because it was intellectually exciting and art history wasn’t,” Drucker said. “I love art, I make art. But art history, like a lot of academic fields, felt very inward-looking. It was all one conversation about certain issues and theories, and digital humanities, like information studies, seemed oriented toward trying to solve some problems in the world.”
In 2004, Drucker began Artists’ Books Online, which presents a collection of artists’ books in digital format along with descriptive metadata. While she remains director of that project, which is based at the University of Virginia, she felt it had become too narrow in scope for her by the time she joined UCLA’s faculty in 2008.
“I know a lot about artist’s books and I wasn’t learning that much because I already know what I know,” she said. “I wanted a project that would be useful pedagogically in a long sense and in an inexhaustible way.”
Thus began the History of the Book Online. The project functions as an online coursebook, a kind of academic Wikipedia for the history of the book, with entries produced by students in Drucker’s classes — a approach in line with Drucker’s belief that active pedagogy is better than passive pedagogy. Making use of materials from the UCLA Library’s Special Collections, students produce short research papers and, from these, construct coursebook entries in HTML, a markup language, along with XML, that is used for creating web documents. It is important for humanists today to have an understanding of HTML as well as its sister markup language, XML, to help grasp the concept of data as something that is “made” in order to make claims, rather than something that is “given.”
“Data as a concept is so prevalent in the culture, it’s part of literacy to be able to unpack what that means, and how it’s made, and how it’s structured,” Drucker said. “I don’t need to know the technical details of my fridge, but I do need to know what to plug and unplug so I don’t get electrocuted. The metaphor is we are kind of getting electrocuted by our lack of knowledge about data.”
Drucker is also currently researching alphabet historiography and working on ALL, a database memoir that combines her previously unpublished writing — some, including her first attempt at writing a novel, dating back to the 60s — with commentary about what she thought she was doing and what she thought writing was at a given point in the past.
This story is adapted from one published by the Institute for Digital Research and Education.