A Digital Education

Meredith Dabek, Maynooth University

Category: crowdsourcing

Reimagining the Audience for Digital Scholarly Editions

According to the Modern Language Association’s Guidelines for Editors of Scholarly Editions, a scholarly edition’s most basic task is to “present a reliable text,” one that can also contribute to academic research on a particular topic. Traditionally, scholarly editions have had fairly limited audiences, the final printed version intended primarily for other scholars conducting similar research. With the dawn of the digital age, however, the creation of digital scholarly editions is changing the nature of the audience for these works. The availability of scholarly editions online and the use of crowdsourcing to help create these editions are just two ways the digital world is blurring the lines between the traditional academic audience and a much larger, more public audience.

In 2009, at the Association for Documentary Editing Annual Conference, Andrew Jewell presented a presented a paper that explored new ideas around the reading of digital scholarly editions. According to Jewell, “the dominant model for distributing [scholarly] editions in the age of print [was] to sell large volumes at large prices” (1). But the advent of digital publication on the Internet has upended this model by amplifying the reach of a scholarly edition. Where they once would have been available only to a narrowly focused audience, many scholarly editions in digital form can now be accessed by anyone with an Internet connection.

A general audience, however, has different needs than a scholarly one, and may even approach the edition with different intentions. In fact, many casual readers of a scholarly edition may not have even specifically sought out the resource, but rather stumbled across it accidentally. Jewell offers the example of his own Willa Cather Archive, noting that a reader may find the archive “because search engines lead them to hidden bits of knowledge deep in the site” (3). A wider, more diverse audience for a scholarly edition also means the text and content will be consumed in new ways. A printed scholarly edition may follow a traditional, linear format; in a digital world, readers skim, search, scan and skip over parts that may not interest them.

Moreover, readers can access digital editions through any number of Internet browsers, mobile devices or tablets. Each option changes the experience of the edition in subtle ways, even when the content available remains the same. As Jewell correctly points out, “we cannot fully predict how readers will interact with digital publications…[and] we cannot expect every view of that website to be the same for each user” (6). The very nature of the Internet means each visit to a digital edition website will result in a different kind of engagement with the text, with the idea of “the audience” changing each time as well.

The evolving nature of a digital scholarly edition’s audience is not limited to reading and accessing information, though. Some scholarly editions are blurring the boundaries even further by actively involving the audience in the creation of the text itself. In 2010, Cathy Moran Hajo, Associate Editor of the Margaret Sanger Papers, wrote, “Web 2.0 tools are increasing in sophistication and enabling large amounts of people from all walks of life to participate in the creation of editions.” Hajo was, in effect, referring to crowdsourcing and in the years since, an increasing number of cultural and academic institutions have turned to crowdsourcing to complement and contribute to existing projects.

Crowdsourcing in the humanities (or, indeed, in Digital Humanities) aims, in part, to “expand the scope of the community membership beyond academics, and into the interested and engaged general public” (Siemens, et al.). Crowdsourced projects specifically reach out to the audience and invite them into the scholarly editing process, by having them either enrich existing materials or help create an entirely new resource (Carletti et al). In doing so, these projects are not simply looking for free labor, but instead, according to Carletti et al., are “collaborating with their public to augment or build digital assets through the aggregation of dispersed resources.”

Transcribe Bentham, one example of a crowdsourced scholarly edition project, has relied on volunteers to help transcribe thousands of manuscripts from philosopher Jeremy Bentham. The rationale behind opening up this project and scholarly edition to the larger public was due partly because the initiative hoped to “democratize the creation of, and access to, knowledge and humanities research” (Causer and Terras). Beyond opening access to the research, however, crowdsourcing connects passionate, interested individuals with these scholarly projects. The vast majority of crowdsourcing volunteers are not rewarded monetarily, and so many participate simply because they have a deep, personal interest in the subject. And as Ricc Ferrante, Director of Digital Services & Information at the Smithsonian Institution Archives points out, “passion breeds evangelists, breeds new volunteers, and new discoveries,” all of which can, in turn, lead to new knowledge.

There are some who may question the value of an open-access, online digital edition or the use of crowdsourcing to create such an edition. These individuals may maintain that scholarly editions should remain in the realm of the scholar. Ultimately, though, the blurred audience lines can be considered a good thing, as it expands the reach of a particular subject and opens up the humanities to new understandings. For Jewell:

“The defining feature of the broader audience that encounters free, online documentary editions is diversity: it comes from around the world, from a variety of perspectives and educational levels, and with a variety of goals.”

With more diversity comes more readers, more perspectives, and more people discovering new content that they may not have before encountered. Digital tools and technologies create a larger audience for scholarly editions, providing an enriched, varied and dynamic way of accessing and experiencing humanities data. The challenge, then, for scholarly editors, is to “move beyond the ivory towers of research libraries to high schools, town libraries and even to the comfort of private homes” (Hajo). By extending the reach of a digital scholarly edition and blurring the line between a traditional audience and a more expansive one, researchers and editors can ensure that their work is truly open and accessible.


Works Cited:

Carletti, Laura, Gabriella Giannachi, Dominic Price, and Derek McAuley. “Digital Humanities and Crowdsourcing: An Exploration.” MW2012: Museums and the Web. 17-20 April 2013. Portland, OR. Paper. Web. 2 December 2014.

Causer, Tim and Melissa Terras. “’Many hands make light work. Many hands together make merry work’: Transcribe Bentham and crowdsourcing manuscript collections.Crowdsourcing Our Cultural Heritage. Ed. Mia Ridge. Ashgate, 2014. 57-88. Web. 2 December 2014.

Ferrante, Ricc (@raferrante). “@McMer314 @sandilo60 @phcostel #askletters1916 …and passion breeds evangelists, breeds new volunteers, and new discoveries = new knowledge.” 2 December 2014, 1:08 PM. Tweet.

Guidelines for Editors of Scholarly Editions.Modern Language Association. MLA, 2011. Web. 2 December 2014.

Hajo, Cathy Moran. “The Sustainability of the Scholarly Edition in a Digital World.International Symposium on XML for the Long Haul: Issues in the Long-term Preservation of XML, 2010. Paper. Web. 2 December 2014.

Jewell, Andrew. “New Engagements with Documentary Editions: Audiences, Formats, Contexts.Library Conference Presentations and Speeches. The Libraries at University of Nebraska-Lincoln, 2009. Web. 30 November 2014.

Siemens, Ray, Meagan Timney, Cara Leitch, Corina Koolen, and Alex Garnett. “Toward modeling the social edition: An approach to understanding the electronic scholarly edition in the context of new and emerging social media.” Literary and Linguistic Computing. 27.4 (2012): 445-461. Web. 2 December 2014.

Love Letters of 1916

Letters of 1916 ProjectLetters of 1916

In April 1916, during Easter Week, Irish republicans launched an armed rebellion aimed at ending British rule in Ireland. Though British forces quickly suppressed the insurrection, the event, now known as the Easter Rising, helped propel Ireland to independence.

To help preserve and document life in Ireland in the months before and after the Easter Rising, researchers at Trinity College Dublin and Maynooth University, led by Dr. Susan Scriebman, created the Letters of 1916 project. Launched in September 2013 as Ireland’s first crowdsourced (digital) humanities project, Letters of 1916 “aims to create a large scale digital collection of letters” written around the time of the Easter Rising, as well as create “an online archive of letters created by the public for the public” (Trinity College Dublin).

While many of the letters address the Easter Rising in some way, this diverse collection of correspondence includes a wide range of topics. From art, business and politics to family life and faith, Dr. Scriebman wanted to ensure that the Letters of 1916 would “bring to life…the unspoken words and the forgotten words of ordinary people during this formative period in Irish history” (Trinity College Dublin).

James and May

James Finn and May (Fay) Finn

James Finn and May (Fay) Finn

Among the thousands of unspoken and forgotten words of ordinary people catalogued by the Letters of 1916 Project are those of James Finn and May Fay. James and May were engaged sometime in late 1915 or early 1916, and between January and June of 1916, exchanged love letters as they continued their courtship and planned their wedding. The letters, donated to the project by granddaughter Tessa Finn, are filled with stories and anecdotes of everyday life in Ireland, friends and family of the couple and, in the weeks prior to and following Easter, the Rising.

James worked as a senior civil servant in Dublin, and lived in the city, while May remained at her family’s home in Mullingar, County Westmeath. They were prolific writers, exchanging the nearly 100 letters in just about six months’ time, and, in some cases, wrote and received replies on the same day – a testament both to their devotion to one another and a fairly efficient Irish postal service.

While the majority of James and May’s letters focused on their wedding plans and their future life together, several of the letters – James’ in particular – offer glimpses into the political climate of Dublin leading up to and following the Easter Rising. There are no letters between James and May during the days of the Rising itself; instead, James wrote about his plan to visit May in Mullingar for Easter, after which there is a gap of more than 10 days before he wrote again to reassure May of his safe return to Dublin.

Part of the reason for the gap between letters is that James was likely with May, visiting as planned. However, it also underscores the confusion and uncertainty that reigned in the days and weeks after the Rising, when accurate information was difficult to obtain, particularly for those outside of Dublin:

… News was so very scarce and uncertain that I very soon began to look out for another letter, it’s sickening not to know how long that suspense would last… (Fay, 7 May 1916)

In James’ case, he may have been wary of appearing to openly support the Irish Volunteers, especially as a civil servant. Many of his letters to May were sent from his office, on National Health Insurance Commission letterhead, and on 8 May 1916, he specifically mentioned his concern that his letters may not have gotten through due to the censors (Finn).

In later letters from the spring of 1916, James and May demonstrate a deliberate carefulness with the content they included in their letters. After sharing some of Patrick Pearce’s writings with May on 26 May 1916, James assured her that he “received the copy of [the] letter quite safely” (Finn), implying that possession of Pearce’s correspondence might be dangerous.

Their caution was not unfounded. In her contributor profile on the Letters of 1916 website, James and May’s granddaughter Tessa Finn wrote, “Many people they knew were either actively involved or suspected of…involvement” in the Easter Rising. On 18 May 1916, James’ letters informed May that one of his colleagues had been arrested because he “spoke Irish continually in his home and played Irish and German music on his piano” (Finn).

Due to his position as a civil servant (as well as the arrest of his colleague), James was probably questioned about his knowledge of the Rising events, a possibility May contemplated with a bit of humor:

We are always looking out for the paper & news we manage to get an odd paper now & then but I saw where all Civil Servants were to render an account of their Easter holidays… You need not be afraid to mention our names anyway; we are not very rebellious characters. (Fay, 10 May 1916)

Despite the heightened political atmosphere of Dublin (or, perhaps, because of it), both James and May’s letters suggest an increased appreciation for each other. In times of turmoil and upheaval, these two lovers naturally turned to one another for comfort, and to give thanks for what they had:

You remember how often I told you that both by letter and by mouth: that I might not have the good fortune or the grace from God to be married to you. Now somehow I feel that I may be thought worthy although why it should be so I cannot understand when I think of all the fine spirits that this calamity has called to their eternal account. Things are gradually getting more like their usual way and people generally are beginning to rebuild and restore all that has been shattered but it will be many a long day before Dublin is anything like its old self. (Finn, 8 May 1916)

In the aftermath of the Easter Rising, James and May’s letters illustrate a timeless fact: political uprisings can undoubtedly and irrevocably change a country, and yet life – and love – continue on. Thanks to the Letters of 1916 Project, the words of these everyday, ordinary lovers have been preserved and brought to new audiences, nearly 100 years later.

[Photo Credits: Letters of 1916 website; Tessa Finn’s contributor profile]

Works Cited

Fay, May. Letter from May Fay to James Finn. 7 May 1916. Web. 8 November 2014

Fay, May. Letter from May Fay to James Finn. 10 May 1916. Web. 8 November 2014

Finn, James. Letter from James Finn to May Fay. 8 May 1916. Web. 8 November 2014

Finn, James. Letter from James Finn to May Fay. 18 May 1916. Web. 8 November 2014

Finn, James. Letter from James Finn to May Fay. 26 May 1916. Web. 8 November 2014

Tessa Finn.Letters of 1916. National University of Ireland Maynooth. 2014. Web. 8 November 2014.

Trinity College Dublin. Letters of 1916 Research Project Calling on Public to Contribute Family Letters. 24 September 2013. Trinity College Dublin Communications Office. Web. 8 November 2014.

Crowdsourcing in DH, Part 2

When Jeff Howe and Mark Robinson coined the term “crowdsourcing” back in 2005 in an article for Wired magazine, the term referred primarily to practices operated by for-profit businesses, particularly within the tech world, whereby a large group of contributors undertook a number of small, often routine and mundane tasks. Nearly 10 years later, crowdsourcing has changed and evolved to a point where, like Digital Humanities, a standard, agreed-upon definition is difficult to find.

Stuart Dunn, a Digital Humanities lecturer at Kings College London, describes crowdsourcing as a “loaded term,” since the historical definition of the word connotes “the antithesis of what academia understands as public engagement and impact.” Yet, even with a variety of potential definitions and blurred boundaries for what might be considered a crowdsourced project, many Digital Humanities projects still rely on the term, if only because the larger population has developed a collective – if vague and overgeneralized – understanding of what “crowdsourcing” means.

As I mentioned earlier this week, my classmates and I recently presented on a number of crowdsourced projects. Listening to the other presentations and conducting my own research clearly revealed the depth and breadth of just what “the crowd” can accomplish. Below, I’ve shared a selection of some crowdsourced projects I found particularly interesting.

(There are, of course, many more examples than I’ve listed here. On my Links of Interest page, you can find a link to more DH crowdsourcing examples.)

  • What’s the Score at the Bodleian? – The Bodleian Library at Oxford University launched this project in collaboration with Zooniverse (a larger crowdsourcing project), to increase access to the library’s music collection and collection of printed musical scores. Volunteers transcribe the scores and add metadata tags to help categorize each score. The project initially attracted my attention as I’m a music fan and one-time musician myself, but further thought has me wondering: most online crowdsourcing projects are geared towards sighted volunteers – that is, volunteers need to be able to see something on a website. With What’s the Score?, there’s the potential for the Bodleian to add an audio component, allowing sight-impaired volunteers to offer tags or transcribe based on what they hear. Currently, the Bodleian does have some audio files uploaded, though these appear to be examples of the collection, rather than opportunities. I’d love to see the Bodleian – and other DH crowdsourcing projects – expand their accessibility so that more volunteers could contribute.
  • Reverse the Odds! – Another Zooniverse-affiliated program, Reverse the Odds! is a mobile game developed by Cancer Research UK. While the game is designed with bright colors and an easy-to-use interface, it also incorporates real cancer research data. By playing the game, participants help researchers recognize the patterns of various cancer cells, which, in turn, is used to find real solutions to cancer and cancer symptoms. There are other citizen science projects that have created games to further research; Reverse the Odds! is just one such example.
  • Tag! You’re It! and Freeze Tag! at the Brooklyn Museum – Though now retired, these two projects intertwined games with crowdsourcing in a new way. The Tag! game had volunteers providing collection tags to items in the Brooklyn Museums’ collections, with an interface that volunteers “playing” against each other for points. The Freeze Tag! component then gave volunteers the ability to revise and correct others’ tags, ensuring a built-in verification and moderation process. The project was a success for the museum and the use of game names that referenced clear childhood memories (at least for those of us who played the school yard game Tag) no doubt helped draw more volunteers to the project.
  • What Was There – Finally, a project not associated with an academic or nonprofit institution. What Was There was created by Enlighten Ventures, LLC, a digital marketing agency. The platform invites participants to upload old photos of their local community, then tag those photos with location and year. Once uploaded, the photos can then be overlaid with Google Maps Street View, providing a real-time visual example of how cityscapes and landscapes have changed over time. According to the website, the project hopes to “weave together a photographic history of the world (or at least any place covered by Google Maps).” That’s a fine goal, but there’s the potential for historians, architects, urban planners and conservationists to use the data gathered by the project for further research. Enlighten doesn’t (yet) mention what is done with the tags gathered, nor make it available to the public, but should they decide to open up the data, there are possibilities here.

Crowdsourcing in DH, Part 1

Earlier this afternoon, myself and my classmates in the Digital Humanities Theory and Practice course gave brief presentations on various crowdsourced projects, most of which related to Digital Humanities and/or citizens science in some way. I’ll write more later this week on crowdsourcing in DH in general, but for now, a bit of information on my chosen project:

The What’s on the Menu? project at the New York Public Library launched in 2011 and aims to transcribe and geotag the library’s entire collection of restaurant menus (approximately 45,000 menus dating back to the 1840’s, making it the largest menu collection in the world). The NYPL had some great early successes (its initial goal was reached within the first three months of the project’s launch) and while it seems to have stalled a bit since then, the data compiled by the project provides a fascinating look at America’s culinary and nutritional history.

Visit the project website for more information.


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