CENDARI Summer School Day Five: CENDARI and Final Discussions

The final day of the CENDARI summer school perpetuated the concept of interoperability that was introduced by Dr Toby Burrow’s paper the previous day. Emiliano Degl’Innocenti described the current situation of today’s medieval digital ecosystem as being fragmented or “full of walled gardens”.

Emiliano’s description recalled the closed nature of traditional research methods; the current practice of storing information within closed files and databases. This emphasised the overall lack of interoperability in medieval studies and stressed the importance of developing a more open and share-focused mentality towards our own research. Resources such as the CENDARI Virtual Research Environment are perfectly positioned to realign our perceptions towards our research within a more open and networked framework, as it enables researchers to work within an environment that is specifically designed to be collaborative.

After brief student presentations on our own experiences with researching within the CENDARI Virtual Research Environment infrastructure, participants of the CENDARI summer school volunteered to share other digital tools and resources that they found benefiting their own research. I found this session of the day especially useful as it introduced further relevant resources that could be use to me in the future. The first resource to be presented was Regesta Imperii, a large international database of valuable articles and periodicals spanning from late antiquity to the early modern period and encompassing a number of disciplines including, archaeology, literary studies and history. This will undoubtedly be an invaluable resource for supplementing my bibliography.

I was also introduced to William Whitaker’s Words, a simple yet accurate online Latin to English and English to Latin online dictionary. I am expecting to undertake an undergraduate Latin module when term resumes in Autumn, a resource such as this will be of great assistance while familiarising myself with a new language. The fact that this resource has now been made available as an iPhone or smart phone application makes it more accessible and therefore more appealing to researchers such as myself.

Another useful database that was recommended was BREPOLiS, the online database for all material belonging to Brepols Publishers and their partners. Again, this will be another beneficial resource for augmenting my bibliography.

Interestingly, a researcher explained how we could use the styles in Microsoft Word to fully exploit the embedded XML tagging in the .docx file format. When you create a Word document, you are unconsciously writing in XML, hence the x in the .docx file format. The becomes obvious when you open a saved Word Document with Open Office, convert it to a zip file, extract the file and open it in XML Editor; the XML tags that are embedded in the Word document will show up. By using a Clean Up Style Sheet, you clear out the superfluous XML tags from Open Office and are left with the XML of the saved Word document. Since XML continues to reoccur as an important tool for the purposes of my research, and since I have not got a strong basis in coding, I and several other researchers interested in using XML found this revelation incredibly exciting.

Digitised Medieval Manuscripts app or DMMapp is another online resource that was put forward to the CENDARI summer school. This particular resource links researchers to more that three hundred library institutions that have digitised medieval material such as maps and manuscripts.

The final resource that was commended was DigiPal a digital resource which was developed by the Digital Humanities department in King’s College London to assist researchers in the study of palaeography and manuscript studies. As an Anglo-Saxonist with a strong research interest in Anglo-Saxon palaeography and manuscripts I was already aware of this valuable resource, but I was surprised to learn that one of DigiPal’s recent developments is the Virtual Machine which allows users to download the DigiPal framework onto their own machines to work with their own images from manuscripts that they are researching.

Ultimately I found the CENDARI summer school to be a thoroughly engaging and rewarding experience. Attending the CENDARI summer school benefited my research enormously as it introduced me to a range of innovative digital tools and technologies, but more significantly, it was instrumental in helping me make important international and national research connections within the digital humanities discipline.

CENDARI Summer School Day Four: The Classical Text Editor, Virtual Research Environment and Dr Toby Burrows.

The fourth day of the CENDARI summer school started with a practical session led by Libor Svanda using the Classical Text Editor.

The Classical Text Editor was one of the main tools that I was looking forward to learning how to use at CENDARI as I hoping to producing a critical edition of the marginalia from the manuscript witnesses of the Old English Bede. The Classical Text Editor is an ideal apparatus to employ in my own research because it is specifically designed for scholars who are engaged with creating critical editions. Furthermore the Graphic Viewer feature of the Classical Text Editor allows researchers to view the manuscripts. This feature will help ensure that my critical edition remains grounded in its codicological focus. The fact that the Classical Text Editor enables me to position text in the header, footer, inner and outer margin sections is the greatest attraction to me, precisely because the marginalia of the Old English Bede and is a crucial aspect of my research. One manuscript witness in particular, Cambridge, Corpus Christi College 41 has an extensive amount of marginal texts which frequently occupy the top, bottom and outer margins of the manuscript. The Classical Text Editor is the first easy to use software that I have encountered to date that has the flexibility to replicate the complexity of the Old English Bede‘s textual relationships. I look forward to becoming more familiar with the Classical Text Editor as I incorporate it into my research.

Emmanouil Giannisakis assisting us with the Virtual Research Environment.

Emmanouil Giannisakis assisting us with the Virtual Research Environment.

Nadia Boukhelifa dealing with queries about the Virtual Research Environment

Nadia Boukhelifa dealing with queries about the Virtual Research Environment

The afternoon session saw us resuming our exploration of the CENDARI Virtual Research Environment with Nadia Boukhelifa and Emmanouil Giannisakis. As we experimented further with the basic functions of the CENDARI Note Taking Environment, Nadia and Emmanouil explained that the primary objective of the resource was to facilitate investigation by creating an environment within which scholars can browse, search, and most importantly visualise and analyse their research. The advantages of visualising your research was emphasised in this session as the visual system of the CENDARI Note Taking Environment is designed to immediately convey the inherent patterns and correlations in the user’s data. The tagging feature of the Note Taking Environment also gives the scholar the ability to generate thousands of entities. The frequency-based visualisation system of the Note Taking Environment tracks the frequency with which entities occur and implies a certain hermeneutics in its visualisation of this data.

Dr Toby Burrows from King's College London

Dr Toby Burrows from King’s College London

The penultimate day of the CENDARI summer school concluded with guest speaker Dr Toby Burrows’ presentation “Medieval Studies and the Digital Turn”. Dr Burrows discussed the advantages and limitations of digitisation in relation to medieval studies. The main purpose and implied advantage of digitisation is the ability to bring together disparate sources in a more convenient way for research. In his presentation Dr Burrows argued against the idea of building individual and separate institutional digital collections and advocated instead for interoperability. Interoperability relies on individual institutions standardising their digital procedures, that is to say that libraries will need to conform to publishing their digital images in a certain way. The advantage of standardising the publication of these institutional images is that instead of having to move between different institutional websites, a researcher can bring the desired images together on one screen.

The limitation of digitisation extends beyond the image; Dr Burrows identified what is yet lacking in medieval studies and hinders the discipline from optimising its full potential in the digital age. Currently there are no identifiers for medieval manuscripts, medieval people or places. This makes it more difficult to situate medieval studies within a linked open data framework. Addressing this lack will reinvigorate medieval studies by allowing individual researchers to create the relationships between different manuscripts as well as linking manuscripts to the texts within them. More importantly adopting a linked open data approach to medieval studies will foster research on an unprecedented scale through linking scholarly activities to the manuscripts and objects they reference. It was clear from Dr Burrow’s presentation that medieval studies and the humanities in general have a lot to gain from staying attuned to emerging developments in the digital domain.

CENDARI Summer School Day One: XML, TEI, T-Pen and Tradamus.

CENDARI Summer School: Day One

CENDARI Summer School: Day One

The CENDARI summer school commenced with an introduction to the CENDARI project and a general discussion of the burgeoning trend in digitisation by Jakub Benes. The morning’s discussion highlighted important concerns that would resurface throughout the week, namely who decides what gets digitised and more worryingly, how our decision to digitise certain materials subsequently creates “blind spots” or casts shadows over non-digitised items, causing them to fall further from notice.

The first workshop of the day was lead by Roman Bleier from TCD, who demonstrated how using XML (Extensible Markup Language) and adhering to the TEI (Text Encoding Initiative) could make medieval material relevant for today’s digital audience by transcribing medieval documents into a language that is machine-readable.

Roman Bleier discussing XML and TEI

Roman Bleier discussing XML and TEI

In his workshop Roman explained that this is currently being achieved through XML, which is a Descriptive Markup Language that adds semantic value to the data by allowing the user to describe the content.

XML adds semantic value to the content

XML adds semantic value to the content

The advantage of using XML documents over creating a basic text file is audience. Creating XML documents for medieval materials extends their reach considerably as the content preserved in these items can be understood and searched by computers. Incorporating this digital language into our research not only reinvigorates our methodologies but increases accessibility to the resources themselves.

The advantages of embracing digital technology resumed with Kathleen Walker-Meikle from CERL (the Consortium of European Research Libraries). Kathleen’s workshop introduced two free online transcribing softwares, T-Pen (Transcription for Palaeographical and Editorial Notation) and Tradamus (the software which supports T-Pen). The T-Pen software allows researchers to upload images from the manuscripts that they are studying and to add a transcription to each line of the manuscript. The website provides a video tutorial on how to use T-Pen, which can be viewed by clicking on the following link: An Introduction to T-Pen.

I found T-Pen incredibly useful, the software allowed me to rearrange the columns on the folio I was transcribing as well as readjust the lines so that I could accurately transcribe each line. I was impressed with the flexibility of the software, one of the functions of T-Pen enabled researchers to add additional special characters by inputting the Unicode number. I found this aspect of the software particularly appealing as an Anglo-Saxonist, since I will need to be able to transcribe Latin, Old English and runic characters for my own research.

Kathleen Walker-Meikle guides the CENDARI summer school participants through T-Pen.

Kathleen Walker-Meikle guides the CENDARI summer school participants through T-Pen.

It was an auspicious start for me at the CENDARI summer school, the first day alone introduced me to two tools that would benefit my research enormously. Conforming to the TEI standard for XML would make my research machine-readable and accessible to a wider audience, while using T-Pen would facilitate my research by allowing me to transcribe online and to export my transcriptions in PDF or XML format. The remainder of the summer school promised to be just as beneficial.

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.

Thijs Porck

Scholar of Old English, Early Medieval England and Tolkien

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