Digital Texts @SussexUni: Reflection

On March 18-19 about a dozen students attended the Digital Text workshop at the University of Sussex, organised by Cornelis J. Schilt and fellow Newton Project members. And a workshop it was: by the end all participants left with a firm grasp of XML, TEI and what can be done with digital texts in general. Moreover, many had already started working on their own digital editions, and expressed both understanding and creativity. Participant Michael Falk (“it was such a great couple of days”) sent us the following testimonial:

I suspect that most people who study humanities begin with the same romantic image of their craft. Reading tattered paperbacks in cafés. Browsing endless shelves in massive, dusty libraries. Ferreting through manuscripts in secretive archives. Holding the past in the tips of the fingers.

In other words, the world is a vast library, and all knowledge lies in its pages.

We all know, of course, that this idea is difficult to reconcile with the new medium of digital text. Lots of people cling to the thing that they know. “But books smell so nice!” “Computer screens hurt my eyes.” “I hate reading things on pdf.” “You can’t browse a document the way you can browse a book.” “You can’t wander the shelves of the internet like you can in a library.” Others go in quite the other direction. “Digital texts are portable, flexible and dynamic.” “Books are limited, digital texts aren’t.” “The internet is democracy.”

In the Digital Texts workshop held at Sussex this week, we learnt to find a middle path between book-loving Luddism and Silicon-Valley techno-propaganda. We heard a range of speakers involved in digital editing projects such as the Newton Project, the Casebooks Project, the Old Bailey Online, London Lives and Locating London’s Past.

 What are the aims of projects like these? What can you do with digital texts that you can’t do with printed or written ones? And how do you digitise the things in the first place? were the questions we posed throughout the workshops and seminars.

We learnt a great deal in particular about the Newton Project, which takes full advantages of the possibilities of digital editing. Their online editions are free to access, and edited to an extremely high standard. It is possible to view all the variant versions of a manuscript in an interactive interface, with full annotations, or, at the click of a button, switch to a readable, normalised version for the usual kind of readerly experience. We got a behind-the scenes view, and an insight into the daunting barriers the editors have had to overcome in the nearly 20 years the project has been running.

We all know that the only way to learn something is to do it. Thus we spent a good deal of time learning to tag text in TEI-compliant xml. This is the industry-standard software solution for turning any kind of text into something digital.

I had a lot of fun editing a number of romantic sonnets. Using the TEI guidelines, it is possible to encode the rhyme, meter, rhythm and even the metaphorical structure of a poem, along with metadata (authorship, place of publication, the history of the book the poem is from, what the poet was eating for breakfast the day they drafted the poem…) and the words themselves.

Once a text is in digital form, new kinds of analysis become possible. Scholars at Newton’s Chymistry, for instance, have been able to use Latent Semantic Analysis to locate variant versions of the same manuscript scattered across archives around the world, work that would have required an inhuman feat of memory to complete using only the printed texts—not to mention an impossibly large research grant.

It was a fun and informative experience. Learning to code at a Humanities workshop, with a bunch of literature and history students, has a certain quirky romance to it. Discussing georeferencing, polygonisation, and Google Earth wrappers as an element of presenting digital text on the web was a new level of technical excitement. (The “Spatial Humanities” workshops taking place this spring in Canterbury will doubtless complicate this even further.)

At the end of a hard day’s coding, some of the old methods of humanities scholarship creep back. We retired to the pub, for a good face-to-face conversation, without an email, Facebook, Twitter or Skype server sitting between the people involved. And the following day, at home in Canterbury, I got up as usual, took my book to the café, and read it sequentially, as I’ve always done. The spine is half-detached, the pages are a lovely pale yellow and the smell of must wafts up as I read. In the afternoon, I’ll open my laptop, but for now, there’s a solar eclipse to miss and a coffee to finish while I read George Canning’s surprisingly insightful comments on another old and increasingly digital technology: the novel.

Thanks, Michael, for sharing your experiences with us! And a big thank you to the participants, the Newton Project staff, Tim Hitchcock and everyone else that made this event a real success.
Cornelis J. (Kees-Jan) Schilt



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