The McNeil Center is honored to collaborate with inaugural Contemporary Publishing Fellow Cosette Bruhns Alonso, working with Penn Libraries’ Center for Research Data and Digital Scholarship and Penn Press. Bruhns Alonso is collaborating with the McNeil Center, as well as Annenberg School for Communication; the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books, and Manuscripts; the Penn Museum; and other campus partners. We spoke with Bruhns Alonso about her Fellowship and how she sees digital publishing contributing to the work and scholarship of early Americanists.
Q: Digital humanities is an ever-evolving field. When someone asks you, what is Digital Humanities, what do you say?
Bruhns Alonso: I view digital scholarship as a capacious field that continues to evolve and expand alongside emerging technologies and interdisciplinary research. Scholars working in digital humanities tend to deploy digital research tools and methods to explore or express their scholarship in a digital platform, in research and/or in pedagogy. The range of tools and approaches can include text analysis, GIS and mapping, data visualization, digital archives, virtual and augmented reality, public digital humanities, and minimal computing, to name a few of the main areas students, faculty, and staff at Penn have been using to develop projects in recent years.
An emerging area of digital scholarship involves digital multimodal publishing, which entails the development of monographs that integrate unique digital affordances and media-rich enhancements alongside a scholarly narrative. Still peer reviewed and published by libraries and university presses, digital multimodal monographs offer a unique opportunity for authors to embed video, audio, and interactive digital resources in their publications that would otherwise be flattened in a conventional print format. Rather than ancillary components, such multimodal sources are essential to the narrative and in some cases, may even produce the scholarly argument. Given the potential for interactivity, some authors producing digital publications have explored non-linear structure to their monographs and others have included tools for downloading images, as well as annotating or highlighting the text, expanding what it means to author, contribute, interact with, and read scholarship.
Q: You’ve helped launch the McNeil Center’s first podcast series. Tell us a little bit about your role in that collaborative process.
Bruhns Alonso: It has been a pleasure to work with the McNeil Center and Penn Press to develop the Early American Conversations podcast. I’m grateful to Emma Hart and Anders Bright at the McNeil Center for involving me in this podcast, in addition to Robert Lockhart, Penn Press Senior Editor, for his insights and contribution to developing the series. I am an avid podcast listener; however, this series is the first that I have contributed to in the planning and production phase. It was an intriguing challenge and an experience I learned a lot from, especially in terms of thinking about how to produce scholarship in an audio-based format.
Q: What are some of the other digital publications that you are currently working on as part of your Fellowship?
Bruhns Alonso: As part of my fellowship, I am working with a number of faculty and students across campus to develop multimodal digital publications in their areas of research and pedagogy.
One project I particularly enjoyed working on this year is a digital publication, A Case Study of the Sephardic Heritage Cookbook, developed by Professor Heather Sharkey and students in her spring 2023 course, “Food in the Islamic Middle East,” through the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations. It was a great experience working with the students and Professor Sharkey to develop the publication and to have conversations around writing for an open access publication.
I’m also looking forward to a forthcoming digital publication being developed in the Italian Studies department at Penn, PRIMA (Pedagogical Repository for Italian Media Activities), authored by Julia Heim, faculty at Penn, and Samantha Gillen, a recent Penn Ph.D. graduate, with development by Andy Janco, Digital Scholarship Programmer in Penn Libraries and design by Cassandra Hradil, Digital Humanities Specialist working with Penn Libraries and the Price Lab for Digital Scholarship. PRIMA uses media clips to introduce language and culture in classroom discussion that is more inclusive and diverse and offers a perspective of contemporary Italy and will be fully bilingual. As a project that touches on my research background, it’s been really special to help conceptualize and plan this publication with the team, and for this to be one of the first digital publications I’ve been involved with at Penn.
Q: You do a lot of work around antiracist digital practices. What does that look like?
Bruhns Alonso: Anti-racist practices underpin my research and teaching as well as my approach to developing multimodal publications. I am Mexican and American, and I grew up in a multilingual and multicultural home. This background has informed my interdisciplinary perspective in my own scholarship and has enabled me to find points of intersection across my identities as a scholar, fellow, editor, mentor, and as a Latina working in predominantly white academic environments. It has been meaningful to me to work on digital projects and publications that support multilingual and multicultural perspectives, increase access to resources and collections within academic institutions, and that elevate and increase visibility for underrepresented voices.
As I work with authors to conceptualize and develop a digital publication, we spend significant time discussing audience, the sources being digitized or embedded in the narrative, accessibility, and positionality, and regularly communicate about these considerations at different stages of the project, from early design to copyediting and discoverability after publication, that is, who has access to the final publication. It’s really important to me to create space for critical reflection and discussion in all of these areas in the digital publications I contribute to, and that the digital media or tools embedded in the publications likewise invite audiences to reflect critically on the content that is being shared and their access to it, through the use of critical metadata descriptions, extended captions, increased representation in terms of authorship and sources, implementation of accessibility guidelines for screen reader compatibility, and more bilingual publications.
As scholarship becomes increasingly public-facing and global, especially in light of rapid technological advances and emerging digital tools and platforms, I think it is important to be intentional about making project decisions, establishing relationships outside of academia, and creating sustainable access to digital projects and publications, especially those that are representative of a particular community and its traditions. I look forward to continuing this work through the development of multimodal digital publications at Penn and for broader audiences beyond Philadelphia.
Q: With technological advances coming at record speed, the sustainability of any digital publishing project is important. How do you look at sustainability?
Bruhns Alonso: Sustainability is a rapidly changing area of digital scholarship and also one of the most important. There are really wonderful experts working at university libraries, including at Penn, who develop new preservation strategies every time a new digital tool or platform emerges. Not all digital projects can last forever though, so I think it’s interesting to consider that some digital projects or publications may be intended to be ephemeral and the ways that temporality might change how scholarship is produced. However, for the most part there are several established strategies, like flattening projects or web archiving that can preserve a version of a digital project or publication that can provide long term access.
Q: Where do accessibility concerns fit into digital publishing? What do you do to ensure accessibility?
Bruhns Alonso: Accessibility can be approached from a number of different ways for digital publishing. Penn Libraries has established guidelines for ensuring that digital publications are accessible for audiences with diverse abilities, including through screen reader compatibility, the use of alternative text (descriptive text for media), font size and style recommendations, and checking that a digital project or publication is equally accessible from a computer screen, tablet, cell phone, or other device, regardless of internet connectivity. For a digital publication, accessibility also includes considering who has access to the publication, especially if it is behind a library or publisher paywall.
Q: What advice would you have for graduate students interested in pursuing digital humanities? Are there any resources you recommend to people who are interested in learning more about digital humanities and digital publishing?
Bruhns Alonso: For graduate students and scholars interested in pursuing digital scholarship and/or a multimodal digital publication, I would recommend exploring many digital projects or publications in your research area to acquire a sense of the landscape and identify the particular tools and/or approaches taken by people working in your field. Although digital scholarship can be applied broadly to many academic fields, specific tools have been developed to lend themselves to conducting particular kinds of research that might be more unique to one area of study. Digital tools can also facilitate interdisciplinary research though, so there are certainly a wide number of options available for those working in a multidisciplinary field like early American studies.
For both students and scholars embarking on a digital publication in particular, I would advise taking time to think about the relationship between the narrative and the digital tool and/or platform. I would also recommend taking time to carefully consider the ways in which the audience will navigate and interact with your project or publication, for example, how they will find the table of contents, how footnotes will (or will not) appear in your text, and how the integration of media or other digital tools will alter the experience of reading linear text.
There are many workshops in digital scholarship and publishing held regularly at Penn as well as virtually at institutions in the US and abroad. A great place to begin exploring digital humanities is the Debates in the Digital Humanities series, published by University of Minnesota Press, with series editor Matt K. Gold at CUNY. This open access publication series includes a number of volumes that address a wide range of digital scholarship considerations in both research and pedagogy, and is a great place to start in order to get a sense of the landscape. To learn more about digital publishing considerations I would recommend taking a look at Penn Libraries Digital and Multimodal Publishing Libguide. There is also a growing community of practice around digital scholarship and publications across Penn. Penn Libraries is a great place to begin to get connected or join a listserv. Please reach out to be connected.
Cosette Bruhns Alonso is the Contemporary Publishing Fellow at Penn Libraries and Penn Press. Penn staff and faculty interested in getting connected with Penn’s digital scholarship resources can contact Bruhns Alonso at email@example.com.