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October 28, 2015

Summer School Experience: Digital Photography as a Research Tool

Summer School Experience: Digital Photography as a Research Tool

There is considerable debate surrounding the copy versus the original as a research tool. My position, and that of the speaker on the subject at DHOxSS (Daniel Wakelin, English, Univ. Ox.), is that digital reproductions are useful, but no replacement for the real thing. One is reminded of the arguments around Kindles.

So, when you write a (good) essay or article, what you are doing is telling a story. At least, that’s what I try and do. So shouldn’t photographs be used to tell a story as well? There are now a wide variety of digital images available online of medieval and early modern documents, provided by libraries and ranging from the poorest black and white of EEBO (Early English Books Online) to the high quality images of British Library flagship items (Magna Carta etc) sporting deep zoom and dazzling HD. But these facilities organise the material by some arrangement that is logical to the digital librarian and usually a traditional page by page (nb. not opening by opening) rendering, maintaining the books as discrete objects.

Yet, by taking your own digital photographs in reading rooms you can arrange the books or even individual pages into the story you are trying to follow or trying to tell. Clearly you MUST still ensure that each image has sufficient metadata recording its location within a particular codex etc., but this does not preclude interlacing items from various codices in order to find connections or comparisons which may have been obvious to their original creators but have been obscured by the practices of later binding. It is no different to creating a playlist on your iPod as opposed to listening to the radio. Both are valuable but they are different, and serve different needs. Furthermore, taking photographs when on research trips can save valuable time and money, and facilitate sharing your photos quickly and easily with a colleague or student. There is even a Bodleian Special Collections flickr page where visitors can upload the photographs that they have taken. The library were experiencing a large quantity of their material being shared illicitly, and so took the attitude that if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.

I must stress however that whilst photographs allow you to see differently, as the choice of shot directs the viewer’s gaze and as zooming can increase the visibility of features largely invisible to the naked eye, it cannot compensate for an appreciation of the text as physical object. There can be a tendency for reading rooms to become photography rooms. I was recently sat in the manuscript room of the British Library when someone came in, collected his book, and placed it on the desk beside me. Having retrieved his camera and run through the pages, he was off again without ever having sat down. I have my doubts that he read a word of the book he was given. Digital photography should be a supplement rather replacement for the experience of reading, since it would have been difficult for the researcher to tell from those pictures how the manuscript was put together or altered physically, or indeed to appreciate the original meaning of the text as encountered in the codex form. Perhaps I’m just an old stick in the mud, but I do believe in some respect for the object and its aura, particularly when such care and time was invested in them as with an illuminated manuscript. We can practice ruminatio at leisure over the photograph, but to understand the value original authors invested in the texts we are studying, we must likewise experience them as material objects.

But to return to photography at the DHOXSS, we also had talks on the more professional end of the digital spectrum. Matthew McGratton (Bod., Univ. Ox.) talked about IIIF (The International Image Interoperability Framework), which is a multi-institutional facility for interlinked image search and retrieval, and Judith Siefring (Bod., Univ. Ox.) discussed the Digital Manuscripts Toolkit supported by the Bodeian. This is an image viewer which is designed specifically with the researcher in mind, and facilitates some of the interactive arrangement and parallel viewing of documents which I have already mentioned in conjunction with one’s own digital photography projects. You can even upload your own photographs and view them side by side (with a little technical jiggery pokery) with institutionally digitised documents. Examples of projects which have made use of this facility are listed on their website.

So in conclusion:

  • Digital photography is a powerful tool, but no substitute for time in the library.
  • It ranges from that done on a phone to that using the most high tech multi-spectral imaging, and both have their merits. Your photos might be of a lower resolution, but you can use them to find a story that has been obscured by time, or to tell your own.
  • And finally, don’t devalue your images or 'Medieval Reactions' by decontextualising them. Record references accurately – if you don’t you WILL forget!

Finally I must repeat my thanks to Warwick Digital Humanities for making my time at the DHOxSS possible.

Emil Rybczak (English) Univ. Warwick.

October 21, 2015

Digital Humanities Databases: Help! There’s Too Much information!

Digital Humanities Databases: Help! There’s Too Much information!

Whilst at the DHOxSS those projects that we heard about most frequently involved databases. Databases are of course a significant undertaking and so whilst it is the desire of many scholars to organise their material into a database this is not always a practicable solution. Perhaps the first stage in your (my) database journey is to contribute to somebody else’s project in order to get a feel for what it is like.

One of the projects we heard about at length was the Incunabula Databasefrom Geri Della Rocca de Candal (Medieval and Modern Languages, Univ. Ox.). This incorporates 30,000 eds., in 450,000 copies, from 4000 libraries (more or less). Hence why these projects can be a major undertaking! If you are brave and have a big idea remember that the time and financial costs involve not only those of setting up the database but of maintaining it online.

Furthermore, because of the potential quantity of information that you can be handling, you need to think very carefully about exactly what information you want to include. More might usually be better, but what is practical and what are your priorities? What is most likely to be used and what is already available from other resources? Information which you might wish to include could be:

Very few catalogues include everything, although many more are now able to be interlinked and source information from each other, thus minimising the need for extra work and facilitating better or more uniform updating. Likewise it is your integration of data from a variety of sources that makes for good research. MEI (Material Evidence in Incunabula) is an especially useful resource since it contains many copies identified from other sources (sales catalogues etc.) that no longer exist, so you won’t find them in the library however long you search.

Why might you use these catalogues, and which catalogue is best for your needs? Although there is no substitute for visiting the library in person (the smell alone is usually worth a train journey), the above catalogues might be used from the comfort of your own desk to research any of the following:

  • distribution networks and cost (economic history)
  • reception and use (social history)
  • reconstruction of dispersed collections (intellectual history)

Which catalogue(s) are best for your needs depends on which of these fields, or any other, you are most interested in.

Remember that even if you never decide to build your own database, or become a card-carrying contributor to a project, you can still do more than simply make use of these catalogues for your own research (for mine, up-to-date and accurate archival catalogues are invaluable). People will always be happy to receive your corrections if you notice an error in the information they provide. They are putting the information up there because they want it to be available in an accurate and accessible form, so don’t be scared to say something.

Another major database project that we heard about at DHOxSS was Early Modern Letters Online, which is a pan-European endeavour, from Howard Hotson (History, Univ. Ox.). This project has a core of permanent staff supplemented by doctoral and postdoctoral interns and the smaller contributions of individual interested academics. I myself may contribute some of the letters of Thomas Johnson to this database. Letters particularly benefit from the database form of recording since the nature of epistolary documents is the disparate location of items belonging to a single exchange. This is something that can be rectified digitally without libraries having to give up their collections. The stated objectives of EMLO are:

  • to assemble a network
  • to design a networking platform
  • to support a network
  • studying past intellectual networks.

This database also incorporates the facility of users to comment on documents, facilitating further networking.

A final, smaller, but in some ways more challenging database that we heard about was Ociana from Daniel Burt (Khalli Research Centre, Univ. Ox.). That is, The Online Corpus of Inscriptions of Ancient North Arabia. I would draw your attention to the particular challenges of making this database searchable when the characters of the inscriptions are not currently available on any digital platform. The producers are in the process of creating their own digital keyboard, and of tagging the individual characters of inscriptions, in order to resolve this. The database is also linked to google maps in order to see the geographical position of the inscriptions being viewed, particularly useful since so many are in their original location (ie. on a cliff).

So remember:

  • Databases are HARD.
  • But that doesn’t mean they’re not useful, and possible!
  • I already find such resources essential to my research.
  • A good next step for getting to grips with them is to look at contributing to an already existent database, and in doing so learn more about how they work, are managed, and the objectives that are targeted in their creation.

Emil Rybczak (English) Univ. Warwick.

October 14, 2015

Summer School Experience: TEI: What? How? Why?

TEI: What? How? Why?

So what is TEI? TEI stands for the Text Encoding Initiative and is a consensus-based means of organising and structuring your (humanities) data for long-term digital preservation. It is well-understood, widely used, and prepares your data for presentation in a variety of digital formats. Originally developed in conjunction with manuscripts but flexible in application it can be used as a means of creating meta-data for an item, ie. title, author, provenance etc., or for transcribing the item itself. The excellent talk I heard at the DHOxSS on this topic was by James Cummings (ITS, Univ. Ox.).

You can tag elements such as <HI>this</HI> to control the presentation of your document on screen, or names such as <name>James Cummings</name> in order to make the document searchable. Another benefit is that compared to other computer languages it is easy to read as a human, and thus easy to work with if it is your first time behind the scenes of a ready-made document. The TEI handbook weighs more than a conference lunch, but one of the most attractive aspects of the language is that if when describing your text you find that what you want to describe isn’t in the handbook (which when you consider how fussy academics are is quite likely, and furthermore is why the handbook is so thick to begin with) you can simply invent your own tags:

<p><l><noun clause><definite article><capital>T</capital>he</definite article> <adjective>key</adjective> <noun>thing</noun></noun clause> <verb clause><unidentified grammatical element>to</unidentified grammatical element> <verb>remember</verb></verb clause><punctuation>.</punctuation></l></p> … is that you don’t have to tag everything! Creating a TEI document is not an end in itself, tempting as this may be to the more <gap/> amongst us. It is a means to preserve and describe your document in order to accomplish specific predefined ends. Are you interested in social awareness of the new world? If so, tag places. Are you interested in the regional creation of manuscripts? If so, tag local spellings. A recent project which has made extensive use of TEI in my field of early modern drama is Richard Brome Online as discussed by Eleanor Lowe (English and Modern Languages, Oxford Brookes) at the DHOxSS. In this resource there are particular tags for speakers, stage directions, proprs, or acts and scenes (TEI privileges sense over physical arrangement of the text in the source, ie. paragraphs over pages). These provide information both for displaying the text online, and making it searchable by the user.

If you’re not creating an online edition, which most of us currently aren’t, it is still helpful to understand TEI when one encounters these texts, as it is useful to understand what choices went in to the creation of the text you’re reading. It is furthermore useful to have some working knowledge of TEI for the small scale preservation of original manuscripts. It allows for accurate representation of the document for perusal after leaving the rare books room. The focus of your transcription might be on text or physical pre<stain “type=coffee”>sentation,</stain>but in either case the key to success in using TEI is consistency.

Clearly the tags I have been using are not necessarily ideal for all projects. Comprehensive guidelines are available at webpage (above). The ElEPHãT project, as discussed by Pip Willcox (Bodleian Libraries, Univ. Ox.), has with the Text Creation Partnership combined data from HathiTrust, ESTC (English Short Title Catalogue) and EEBO (Early English Books Online) in an extensive TEI project. Various transcriptions of the texts that they have worked on are available online at EEBO. Their work can be utilised via basic searching in order to find places or people of interest to your work, or developed by the user in order to conduct more particular research of their own devising. In a workshop session where we were left to play with the TEI documents available from the TCP I suggested that one could devise numerical tagging across their strong collection of alchemical texts in order to investigate the prevalence of sacred numerology in these works. Unfortunately this may have to wait for another day.

In conclusion:


  • TEI is a language which can be used to preserve the data and metadata of early manuscripts and texts.


  • The text is inputted manually or, if you’re lucky, via OCR, and marked up (tagged) according to a pre-considered range of purposes to which the data is likely to be put.


  • TEI separates the data from the interface and so ensures that the hard work put into digitising the documents won’t be made redundant once the interface becomes obsolete.
  • It is flexible and so can be tailored to the needs of any project.
  • It is widely understood allowing for sharing of data.
  • It can be read by both computers and humans and so is relatively easy to get to grips with.
  • It can be used for the smallest and largest of projects.
  • Trust me, its fun!

Emil Rybczak (English) Univ. Warwick.

October 07, 2015

Summer School Experience: Digital Approaches in Medieval and Renaissance Studies

Richard II of EnglandSummer School Experience: Digital Approaches in Medieval and Renaissance Studies

This is the first of a short series of posts inspired by my time at the Digital Humanities at Oxford Summer School 2015. This Summer school occurs annually in the beautiful setting of Oxford and runs a variety of different educational strands. These cater for all tastes, from those who are already technical adepts to those aimed at beginners. I, of course, attended one of the latter: Digital Approaches in Medieval and Renaissance Studies. Be warned! Choose carefully! Once you’ve committed to the Text Encoding Initiative, Digital Musicology, or as I did, digital monks, there’s no going back.

Fortunately, in my experience, there is no reason why you’d want to. Each day is organised with a series of classes or workshops around a particular theme in the strand which you are taking. Thus my days were focussed on:

  • Digital Imaging
  • Databases of early documents
  • TEI (computer code for manuscripts and early documents)
  • Oxford’s digitisation projects
  • Miscellaneous marriages between the medieval and digital.

These sessions frequently follow the problems encountered and addressed in the course of other people’s projects, which are presented as examples as to what digital tools you may wish to implement in your own research. Again, be warned! The Medieval and Renaissance classes give you far more exciting ideas and blue-sky plans for transforming your work than you learn the practicalities of how to implement. However, since these can be learned at a later date once you have identified what you want to do, this is not a bad thing.

In my following posts I shall provide a short digest of some of the lessons I learned at the DHOxSS, with examples from a variety of projects. My topics are:

  • TEI: What? How? Why?
  • Digital Humanities Databases: Help! There’s Too Much information!
  • Digital Photography as a Research Tool.

Of course the most important thing that happens at a conference or summer school is meeting so many potential colleagues; picking their brains as well as stealing their biscuits. Of all areas of research the digital humanities is one where it is more vital than ever to realise the importance of collaboration. You simply don’t have enough time (or in my case, skills) to be a master of both Richard II’s morning routine and create an app to identify which Plantagenet King enjoyed the same breakfast as you. If you are going to make a digital humanities project work it needs to be developed by a variety of people with a variety of skills – but remember: the project also has to be interesting to everybody involved. Techies aren’t there to facilitate your project; your project’s there so that techies can develop software that they find new and interesting. Well ideally both will be true.

I must thank Steve Ranford and Digital Humanities at Warwick for facilitating my attendance at this summer school. I have learned a lot, particularly how much I have to learn. Be inspired; devise a project; discuss it and panic; revise that project; try it out!

Emil Rybczak (English) Univ. Warwick.

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  • Thanks for this short blog by Dave on this entry

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