Digital Skills for Research Postgraduates

The “Digital Skills for Research Postgraduates in the Humanities and Social Sciences” Digital Arts and Humanities module consisted of a one-day intensive workshop that highlighted the advantages to be gained through the application of digital skills to humanities research. The workshop was predominantly theoretically based and commenced with a presentation from module coordinator Paul O’ Shea, which introduced the following four concerns facing students of the burgeoning discipline of Digital Humanities:

  1. How does the ‘digital’ reshape traditional research skills in the Humanities?
  2. How will the digital age shape the contours of cultural and historical memory?
  3. Will digital storytelling coincide or diverge with oral and print-based storytelling?
  4. In the networked world we live in, what is the place of humanitas?

After the presentation these questions were addressed at length in a group discussion. I was placed in group two and we transcribed our answers  into the following Google document which can be viewed here: PG6011 In-class Discussion.

The practical element of the workshop involved participating in the Letters of 1916 crowd-sourcing project. The Letters of 1916 project is the first humanities project open to the public in Ireland, which seeks to create an online collection of letters written during 1916; specifically from 1st of November 1915 until 31st October 1916 (Letters of 1916). This online archival project is created by the public, in that it allows interested parties to register as a transcriber to encode its extensive epistolary evidence following the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI) compliant XML (Extensible MarkUp Language), which is the accepted standard for coding documents in the humanities. This aspect of the workshop held the greatest appeal for me as I was eager to add coding, which transcribes content into a machine-readable format, to the traditional transcription skills that I had acquired and refined throughout my MA. More importantly however, becoming familiar with these standards of coding is integral for my own research because of its potential to facilitate future research by allowing a more advanced searching of texts that encompasses not only individual words or phrases but codicological information as well.

The assignment for the workshop required that I attempt to transcribe two separate letters from the Letters of 1916 project. I chose two letters from the Official Documents category and quickly came to appreciate the fact that the Letters of 1916 project actively assists the transcription process by providing a transcription toolbar that is clearly explained in the Instructions. The presence of the toolbar and accompanying instructions was immensely reassuring for me as a first time digital transcriber. It was user-friendly and easy to get familiar with because the tabs in the toolbar already had the markup text for the frequently occurring features. This not only greatly sped up the transcription process but gently introduced novice transcribers such as myself, to the language of XML.

Despite these user-friendly measures, I quickly encountered problems completing my first letter: A Letter from William J. Thompson to Robert Chalmers, 6 June 1916. This particular letter is a three page document, that not only includes a letter but two comprehensive tables that contains numerical data referring to native Irish emigrants. My experience in transcribing this document revealed that the transcription toolbar was equipped to encode the features found in the opening letter, such as the address, date, salute, line breaks, paragraphs as well as the additions, marginalia and handwritten signature. The transcription toolbar was incredibly useful in this instance as although this letter was predominantly typed, it contained a considerable number of handwritten or stamped additions and marginalia to render the transcription process quite challenging. However, as I progressed through the document I quickly realised that the toolbar or the instructions manual had not specified how to encode the tabular material within this document. As I was encoding a document from the Official Documents category I assumed that there was a strong possibility that other letters would contain tables as well, so I emailed the editors of the Letters of 1916 project to bring this to their attention. Fortunately, as this was part of an assignment I could contact the module coordinator for assistance, who subsequently drew my attention to the TEI Guidelines. It became apparent that successful completion of this assignment would depend upon my own initiative to learn XML following the TEI guidelines for marking up tabular material. Thankfully these guidelines were easy to understand and I had little difficulty in applying the XML mark up to the tables contained within this letter.

The content of the second letter that I had selected, A Letter from Henry Arthur Wynne to Philip C. MacDermot, 27 July 1916, was more in keeping with the mark up that is generously provided by the Letters of 1916 project. In this letter Henry Arthur Wynne advises Philip C. MacDermot to “proceed with cases against as many of the persons charged as have been arrested” (Letters of 1916). In comparison with the first letter this document was simpler to encode as the toolbar was equipped to mark up its content. The letter itself was typed except for Henry Arthur Wynne’s handwritten signature and included a date, salute and concluded with the recipient’s address, all of which I could mark up easily using the transcription toolbar tabs.

In conclusion, the Digital Skills for Research Postgraduate Students workshop was intensive but incredibly beneficial to any student interested in integrating digital skills with traditional humanities research. Personally, I enjoyed participating in the Letters of 1916 crowd-sourcing project and found the experience incredibly exciting and rewarding. I appreciated being given the opportunity to acquire invaluable practical experience in encoding documents for future humanities’ research. Especially when one considers that if the Letters of 1916 project adhered to traditional practices only candidates with an extensive knowledge of this period would have been considered eligible to assist. Crowd-sourcing however, democraticises the project, by encouraging participation from all levels of society, thereby fostering a wider research network.

For a more comprehensive overview of the topics covered in the workshop check out #TEACHTEI or this Storify from workshop coordinator and media mogul Donna Alexander.

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