Orientation: technology in the Homer Multitext project

We are living through the most rapid and far-reaching changes in the technological infrastructure for scholarship that human history has seen. This can be disorienting, but it is also a unique opportunity for scholars to reflect on the fundamentals of our work. What common values and goals persist across technological change? Intensive engagement with digital work through today’s rapidly changing circumstances can give us a unique perspective on these fundamental questions; our reflections on fundamental questions can in turn guide us to make effective and responsible choices about not only technology, but the many other dimensions of scholarly work that technology is inseparably implicated in. Who can participate in scholarly work, and how? What decisions about the legal context of our work make scholarship possible? What roles do traditional institutions like universities and libraries have to play, and how can they relate to new groups, such as self-organized distributed communities of interest on the internet?

However theoretical these questions may sound, they are worked out in the routine practices we adopt, consciously or unconsciously, so it is appropriate in our first orientation to the technologies we will use to explain why we have chosen those specific technologies.

Our scholarly work on the Homer Multitext project is both collaborative, and, like any scholarly project involving editing and writing, iterative. In order to track the history of our work from one revision to the next, to facilitate collaboration and sharing with others over the internet, and to integrate automatically contributions from team members who may have simultaneously edited material, we will use a distributed version control system. Specifically, in 2014 we are using the git version control system, and hosting our work on the free hosting service at github.com. (The HMT project previously used the very similar version control system, mercurial. Participants with previous experience with mercurial will find that routine work patterns are nearly identical with git.) Once we have installed git on your computer, you will be able to clone repositories of material managed on github, edit or add to the repository, and push your changes back to the github host where your work can be integrated with others’ contributions.

Like any scholarly project, we aim to make our work replicable. How to accomplish this has, for decades, been a difficult challenge for projects in the humanities with interactive components that cannot be adequately represented by static data sets. In 2014, we have adopted a new approach for the Homer Multitext project by using virtual machines, defined by a simple text description that an intermediate “provisioning” system can use to create the specified virtual machine. When we have installed a Homer Multitext virtual machine on your laptop, you can simultaneously run a second virtual computer alongside your regular operating system (whether that is Mac OS, Windows, or Linux). Sharing a Homer Multitext virtual machine is as simple as sharing the text file(s) that define(s) it. A replicable computing environment offers new ways of thinking about publishing digital scholarship; it also allows us at our seminar to ensure that, in a fast paced and intense seminar, all participants are working in an identical environment.


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