Staying True To The Source

As I mentioned in an earlier post, my Digital Scholarly Editing class is working to make a digital scholarly edition of the diary of World War I soldier Albert Woodman. That previous post went into some detail about our TEI encoding schema, the decisions that we made regarding how to render the text using a machine-readable format. For this post, however, I would like to take a step back and look at the larger digital scholarly edition that we are creating, and how we strove to create something that is faithful to the original source material—not only in content, but also in the “feel” of the site that we built. Those decisions all have a place in the broader context of the digital scholarly edition as an academic medium, and in how such editions fulfil the role of representing individual objects in the digital realm.

Patrick Sahle, who maintains a catalog of: Digital Scholarly Editions, v 3.0, defines a scholarly edition as “a critical representation of historical documents” (Sahle, “About”). He goes on to say that a digital scholarly edition is more than just a digitized print edition, it contains elements that cannot be rendered in a printed medium without a loss of data. In other words, a digital scholarly edition presents a document or closely related group of documents, and accompanying scholarly material such as annotations and critical articles, in a way that a printed edition cannot. That difference can include audio or video material that cannot be included in books, or functionality such as rendering the text in different ways or cross-referencing links in a manner that printed editions are unable to match.

A digital scholarly edition does not have to be a massive, large-scale project. Our edition of the Woodman diary falls under the category of what Anne Burdick and others call “‘lowercase’ Digital Humanities projects”, which “are typically carried out by individuals or small teams in consultation with experienced staff” (Burdick et al. 124).  The fact that digital scholarly editions can be created by small teams such as this is a boon to objects such as the Woodman diary, which, as small snapshots of an individual’s life, may not be seen as having a sufficiently large potential audience to justify the expenses associated with traditional print publication. The diary is an important object, however, and Woodman’s story has as much right to be told as anyone’s. The fact that a digital scholarly edition of the diary can be produced without much expense, while simultaneously providing more flexible options for its presentation than can printed media, make electronic publication an ideal venue for the Albert Woodman diary.

However, as Sahle’s definition suggests, creating a digital scholarly edition of the diary involves more than just taking snapshots of the diary and throwing them up online. Creating such a digital facsimile, while perfectly functional in terms of preservation and accessibility, does not a scholarly edition make. In creating the digital scholarly edition of the diary, therefore, we made an effort to take advantage of the opportunities that our medium afforded us, including adding videos of interviews, contextual articles, maps, and annotations.

The added flexibility that the digital platform affords, however, is also a danger. In our meetings discussing what we would do with the edition, it was very easy to get caught up in ideas about what we could do—creating geo-referenced versions of the maps in the diary that highlight areas that Albert Woodman visited, for instance, or writing the history of the locales mentioned in the diary and pinning them on maps, or including videos of historical re-enactments.  Now, these are all ideas that have merit, and many of the ideas that we came up with are reflected in the final product in some form, but the critically important key is moderation. The physical artefact that we are building our digital object to showcase is Woodman’s diary, and we kept coming back to the same point: nothing should pull focus from the diary.

Our precept that the diary should always have centre stage went on to inform how the site itself was built. I’ve already written about how we handled the text itself, but it bears restating that one of our important decisions in deciding how to display the content of the diary was to include the ability to view the encoded text alongside a facsimile image of the diary, in which the layout of the typed text mirrored that of the written text. That layout decision is perhaps the most obvious example of our making choices that respected the original object, but the physical diary is reflected in other elements of the digital scholarly edition as well, including in the overall design.

While each member of the digital scholarly editing class has a hand in all elements of the object that we are building, the overall design of the site was primarily my responsibility. In creating the site, I chose a flat design over skeuomorphism (replicating the look and feel of an object in one medium in order to improve familiarity and ease of use in a different medium) for reasons similar to those driving my decisions in the redesign of Susan Schreibman’s Versioning Machine, which I have already discussed in depth in my blog post on the topic.  While the Versioning Machine is a born-digital object, however, our digital scholarly edition is very closely linked to a physical object, and so while our object is not laid out or navigated like a physical book, it does take its visual cues from the original diary, most notably in its use of colour. The buttons, logo, background, and text of the site are all rendered using various browns. These colour choices were far from arbitrary: rather, I pulled the colours directly from the images of the original object. The heading text, the background, the colour of the button for the current window—all owe their hues to the cover, the ink, and even the mottled, ageing paper that Woodman originally used to write his words. Pulling colours from the diary not only makes the site more representative of the original object, but it also makes the original facsimiles, which we include throughout our edition, more cohesive with the site as a whole. If the site were bright red, for example, the browns and yellows of the journal would look quite jarring, but because their colours are subtly reflected in the larger page, the images of the original diary feel consistent with the larger digital object—as well they should, since they are the heart of the edition itself.

Then there is the site’s main identity, the logo itself. A logo is, in essence, an encapsulation of an identity, something that should reflect the object it represents while being flexible and recognisable. A logo or header can be useful for introducing a digital scholarly edition and giving it a distinct character. In the digital scholarly edition of the Diary of Mary Martin, a woman living in Monkstown in Ireland in 1916, the site’s identity is established by a detailed header that includes photographs of Mary Martin and her family superimposed on images of her diary itself (“A Family at War”). By way of contrast, another edition, Electronic Beowulf, uses a simple, modern logo in hues of blue-green, using colours mirroring those of a small illustration from the text that is featured at the top of each of the edition’s main pages (“Studying Beowulf”). In this case, while the logo is entirely modern, it maintains its tie to the original work through a visual connection to the original material.

In making a logo for our digital scholarly edition, I wanted to stay true to our philosophy that the diary is the centrepiece around which the entire digital object was constructed. Therefore, I searched through the diary in order to render our title using Albert Woodman’s own handwriting, piecing together the words from different pages, rendering them as vector images, normalising their colour, and then placing them back on a vector-rendered image of Woodman’s original diary paper (I used vector images not only so that the logo could be rendered in any size without sacrificing fidelity, but also so that the logo text could be used without a background if necessary, affording us more flexibility). The end result is, in essence, reflective of the overall digital scholarly edition itself—it is created from an analogue object, deconstructed, and rebuilt in a way that takes advantage of the capabilities of modern technology, all while staying true to the original source. Because the source is, after all, what the digital scholarly edition is all about.

And so, the Woodman diary becomes The Woodman Diary.

The Woodman Diary

References and Further Reading:

“A Family at War. “The Diary of Mary Martin. Trinity College Dublin, No date given. Web. 19 April 2015. <http://dh.tcd.ie/martindiary/>

Burdick, Anne et al. Digital_Humanities. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2012. PDF. 14 November 2014. <http://mitpress.mit.edu/sites/default/files/titles/content/9780262018470_Open_Access_Edition.pdf>

Sahle, Patrick. “About.” a catalog of: Digital Scholarly Editions, v 3.0, 2008ff. 4 November 2014. Web. 19 April 2015. <http://www.digitale-edition.de/vlet-about.html>

“Studying Beowulf.” Electronic Beowulf. Ed. Kevin Kiernan. British Library Publishing, No date given. Web. 19 April 2015. <http://ebeowulf.uky.edu/>

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