Category Archives: Archives

Pointing at Gondibert

Couldn’t resist re-blogging this thoughtful post on manicules in a copy of D’Avenant’s Gondibert held at the Folger (via @Nicosia_Marissa)

marginal notes

As promised, this post analyzes the manicules that gesture from the margins of a Folger copy of William D’Avenant’s Gondibert (and grace the header of this blog). This post is adapted from a paper I gave at the SHARP conference in Philadelphia last summer and it focuses on a single opening in the book.


D’Avenant’s Gondibert is a rollicking heroic poem set in medieval Lombardy.[1] The narrative itself features stag hunting in the Italian countryside, power struggles in Bergamo and Verona, numerous yearning lovers, elaborate funerals for beloved warriors, and a detailed description of a gentleman’s library and scientific endeavors, among other things. But the work is perhaps best known for its lengthy preface in which D’Avenant proposes a model for heroic poetry. Despite the extended analysis of heroic poetry in D’Avenant’s preface, Gondibert has been variously discussed as an epic, a romance, and a drama. This generic…

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Digital Humanities and Archives @ ASECS 2012

I think it’s fair to say that this year’s annual meeting attracted more panels on digital humanities than ever before (and that doesn’t even include the pre-meeting THATCamp workshops: for a good review of that see Lisa Maruca’s post on Early Modern Online Bibliography). I’ve posted already on the use of digital technology in teaching 18thC culture, but there were still quite a large number of panels that included discussions of digital humanities – whether explicitly labelled ‘digital humanities’ or not. What interested me were the issues that kept cropping up about how digital archives design data to be searched and how they are actually searched.

I was especially intrigued, in the roundtable ‘Digital Humanities and the Archives’, by Randall Cream’s (West Chester) call for digital archives to try to mimic the joyful moment of “serendipitous discovery” in traditional archives: such “interpretive moments” produced through unexpected answers to “unthought” problems may be difficult to reproduce in digital archives which depend so much upon naming, cataloguing, and tagging. Michael Gavin addressed how one manages the digitization of plays, with the special nature of a play as text and as a theatrical performance. For Michael Gavin, this is not addressed in the current tagging models of TEI, and outlines how he modified the tagging to produce an archive whose searches can be sensitive to these two play-contexts. Clearly, all were agreed that the move towards semantic tagging would enable a more human and sustainable interaction with digital data (semantic tagging, using XML for example, has the ability to describe concepts and meanings; as opposed to HTML which describes the nature of the document and its relation to other documents. If anybody wants to, I’m perfectly willing to be corrected on this very rough definition). In the ‘Poetry and the Archive’ roundtable, questions of use and searchability were again implicit. Jennifer Batt’s (Oxford) description of how the Digital Miscellanies Index could be searched was a good example of a digital resource that, perhaps paradoxically, is a more open-ended research tool: since this is in index of first and last lines and not a digital archive of texts, researchers are perhaps left to their own intuition. It is, of course, arguable: both Andreas Mueller (Worcester, UK) and Kyle Roberts (Loyola, Chicago), in the panel ‘Digital Approaches to Library History’, outlined digital archives that were, in effect, archives with a thesis and so imagined ways of searching that would be directed towards research problems specific to their archives (in this case, library collections that are extant or are now dispersed). Roberts, on the Dissenting Academies Online project, aimed to create a “virtual library” system able to comprehend multiform library catalogues and records including author catalogues, short list catalogues, borrowing registers for 12,000 titles, 45,000 borrowings and over 600 borrowers. What was described was a process of tagging that enables the user to track borrowing by individual “borrower profiles” and the borrowing of individual books; profiling the development and use of a particular library collection over time; and to reveal shelving habits and systems. Mueller’s collaboration with the Hurd Library (the still-extant library of Bishop Richard Hurd (1720-1808)) also aimed at a “virtual” library, but by through digital visualization. Using shelving catalogues and the few surviving original shelf marks together with digital images of the shelves and a digital schematic loaded with data may enable users to research how this man of letters interacted, not only with the books in his collection, but also  with the space of his library. The data mapped into the visualization would be garnered from Hurd’s annotations, letters and entries in his commonplace books. While I have to declare an interest in the Hurd Library collaboration, it seems to me that these two projects have an important contribution to make in rethinking library history.

But design is only one half of the process, and while designing digital archives involves thinking carefully about the questions a user asks of the archive, two panellists on the ‘Digital Humanities and the Archives’ roundtable raised interesting questions about the ways and results of searching a digital archive for the user’s perspective (in both cases here, this was ECCO). Bill Blake (NYU) asked “what makes a good keyword search”, and produced a list of popular search terms (“slavery” coming top). He suggested that many users had an impulse to “retrieve” rather than “search” and that the poorest keyword search terms effectively reproduced what was in the archive (one of the most popular search terms “slavery” was a good example of this). He argued that the best searches operated on a conceptual level. Indeed, that is what I’ve been training my own students to do, many of whose first try at ECCO was using a broad topic-based search term: they discover that the results of such search terms are useless and relatively quickly begin to think about the processes involved in deciding on a better search term (a factor I thought Bill Blake’s paper rather underplayed). Sayre Greenfield (Pittsburgh) posed a rather different problem with search results: what about “interpreting lack of results”? He argued that one can only “confirm the validity of negative results” by comparison to positive results elsewhere. Using the example of a phrase search “Ay, there’s the rub” resulted in only two (!) hits in ECCO; searching the Burney Collection resulted in a much larger number of hits, evidence that in the eighteenth century this particular phrase of Shakespeare’s inhabited the “cultural micro-climate” of journalism and not literary discourse (ECCO doesn’t include journals and newspapers).

Managed serendipity anyone?

The present and future of digitisation projects: an interview with George Williams and Seth Denbo

I was very lucky to have the chance to talk to two of the leading voices on digital humanities when they very kindly agreed to take part in a filmed discussion at ASECS annual meeting, in San Antonio, March 2012. George Williams is an associate professor of English (specialising in the 18thC) at the University of South Carolina and will be familiar to many from the ProfHacker pieces in The Chronicle of Higher Education; Seth Denbo is a historian of eighteenth-century England and involved with MITH, Project Bamboo, the IHR Seminar in Digital History and is on the faculty of the Maryland Institue for Technology in the Humanities. (Using iMovie to film the discussion in my hotel room was a bit of an experiment – which is by way of an apology for any impairment in sound and /or visual quality. The interview is split into two parts).

Best Practices in Digital Pedagogy ASECS panel 2012

“This is the future. Oops – that’s now!” Lisa Maruca’s phrase that emphasised the immediacy – necessity, even – of our students’ engagement with digital technology made the point well. The panelists – Tonya-Marie Howe (Marymount), Kate Parker (Bucknell), David Slade (Berry) and Lisa Maruca (Wayne State) – presented their experiences of using digital technology in their teaching. Actually ‘teaching’ is perhaps the wrong word, since the key-note of the panel was ‘research’ – digital technology in the service of student-led research, either as individuals or collaboratively.

Tonya-Marie Howe, in ‘Student-created web archives and the practice of public scholarship’, detailed her experiences using Omeka. As an open-source software designed with archives in mind, Tonya argued that it was particularly useful to enable students to create collaborative (and, indeed, impressive-looking) digital archives, focused on the digitisation of around 200 pages of an eighteenth-century text. The course involved collaboration with other faculty members and support for digitisation and an essay (to be incorporated into the final archive) that reflected on the processes and creation of the archives. Kate Parker, in ‘Reconstructing literary ephemera in the classroom’, asked what it would be like to teach a course formed solely around digital texts and detailed her experiences of leading a module on eighteenth-century ephemera, what she termed the “literary dregs” of eighteenth-century literary history. Ephemera, Kate argued, posed especially productive challenges and questions regarding literary value. Getting students to engage with digital resources such as ECCO, EBBO and English Broadside Ballads was the first step in a collaborative production of an online anthology of ephemera. David Slade’s paper on ‘Teaching and building the digital archive in eighteenth-century Spanish-American studies’, examined his students’ engagement with the varied – and it seemed, neglected – digital archives of Spanish-American history including those from Columbia, Guatemala, Spain and Mexico. His aim as for students to create their own critical editions, thesis-driven archives, lists and compilations. Lisa Maruca, in ‘Re-thinking Web 1.0, or, low-skillz digital humanities for Newbies’, directly addressed the myth of the so-called ‘digital native’ by encouraging students to use easy to manipulate software such as Weebly to create their projects. Students were required to write a rationale for their resource and all projects were peer reviewed  – arguably very appropriate for the openess at the heart of online resources.

Significantly, all the papers underlined that the engagement with, and creation of, digital resources means that students are, as David Slade pointed out, “participants in the production of knowledge”. But all the panelists also agreed that one of the most important aspects of such courses was that they, as Tonya Howe said, make the processes of the production of knowledge visible. This, I think, was the most impressive potential in these courses. Even in the traditional written dissertation, for example, we hope that students are self-conscious about the decisions they make; yet the creation of original archives of various sorts involves a much more conscious set of decisions in which students become, in effect, curators, editors and scholars.

Improving ECCO part 2

Part of the excitement is the further option to create – and be credited as editor of – an entire text from your corrected OCR text. Gale’s release of the texts though 18thConnect to be corrected by TypeWright aims to have those texts re-imported in Gale’s database. But it seems Gale is also offering the chance for those corrected texts to be published either (possibly via 18thConnect or at least peer-reviewed by them) as digital editions or via Gale as a print text.

Now this is the odd point – what does Gale get out of releasing into the wilds of the open-access world its texts? ECCO isn’t cheap and a number of universities have spent a considerable amount of money for it; even JISC’s one-stop interface for both EEBO and ECCO isn’t much cheaper. Gale’s income would presumably suffer. One might be tempted to think that both of those moves to wider access suggest Gale’s anxiety over the continuing authority of ECCO (with its old OCR software, its reliance on microfilmed texts and small images) and the sustainability of this kind of database publishing model. One need only look at databases such as London Lives, or the William Godwin’s Diaries or the Digital Miscellenies Index to see where digital resources are going. It looks as if Gale is trying to maintain ECCO’s relevance by opening it up to wider access, paradoxically undermining potential income. Perhaps they figure that the market for ECCO is saturated and that there is nothing more to loose: they would reap the kudos from keeping up with the general thrust of more recent digital resources towards open access (there’s probably a buzzier-sounding phrase than that, I’m sure). As for those texts that would be released for publication outside of ECCO, they might figure that this would amount to only selected areas or authors and that the vast majority of texts on ECCO (non-canonical and found only through specialist searching) would be unaffected and so would continue to be the USP of ECCO.

Interesting times.