Reflections on creating a Digital Scholarly Edition

The process of creating a Digital Scholarly Edition with a team of my fellow MA students began in September of 2014. In preparation for the project ahead, a series of lectures and workshops were delivered by An Foras Feasa at Maynooth University, many of which are discussed in an earlier post to this blog. In January of 2015 the project began in earnest when the practical work began on the source material.

SOURCE MATERIAL

The diary which was to become the subject of this Digital Scholarly Edition is that of Albert Woodman. A Dubliner who had worked as a clerk in the General Post Office, Woodman joined the British Army as part of the Royal Engineers ‘L’ Signal Company and left for France in 1915. In 1917 Woodman married Nellie May Valentine Preston while back in Dublin on leave, and in the coming months (January – November 1918) Woodman wrote in two diaries detailing his time at war, his observations on the conflict surrounding him, and also his thoughts of home and in particular his new wife.

THE CONTENT FUNDAMENTALS

On initial inspection the diary is quite a simple entity, a traditional diary consisting primarily of text in the form of handwritten daily entries and some newspaper clippings and other imagery inserted by Woodman. The most fundamental aspects were text and images, however breaking the diary down revealed a significant amount of work would need to be carried out in order to make this a Digital Scholarly Edition. The text would need to be carefully transcribed, edited and proofed; the diary pages were to be digitally scanned at the imaging laboratory in An Foras Feasa and then carefully re-mastered, cropped and edited for digital presentation. Yet still this was just the tip of the iceberg. Simply to present the diary as a digitised transcription or high quality image would be to ignore the value which can be brought to the object by the many digital tools and methods available in creating a Digital Scholarly Edition; as such a series of more technical and contextual approaches and methods were added to the project.

ADDED VALUE

One such aspect of which I played a part was in expanding the value of the text as presented in a digital scholarly edition. The text was to be complimented by adding information in the form of annotation to particular sets of non-standard or notable terms; while named entities such as personal names, places and organisations were also to be assigned this added value. As such the text would have to be carefully examined to identify the terms and named entities to be annotated. This work was also further extended by research for the annotation, stylistic conventions and decision making on the extent of annotation. Questions arose in regards to what should be annotated as well as how much information should be added so as to contextualise the information without distracting the reader from the meaning of the primary source, which were the entries as written by Albert Woodman.

This aspect alone was a significant task, yet there were several other elements that were identified and explored for possible inclusion as being able to expand the value of the diary as a digital edition. Supplementary articles were sourced and written by team members, audio and video interviews with experts in related fields were taken, digital mapping technologies were examined for possible inclusion and related literature such as instruction manuals on World War I Signaller instruction and methods were sourced and examined.

TECHNICAL

While these ‘added value’ approaches were significant and utilised many aspects of the teams skills in the humanities such as careful reading, textual analysis, editing, proofing, research, contextualisation and styling, the technical aspects of building and styling the digital product were equally substantial. The decisions on the technical writing and construction of the digital project are what the digital scholarly edition is built on, and these methods are what would enable the content and shape the format and presentation of the edition.

With this in mind further departments within the project were identified that would contain the nuts and bolts of the final digital product. Methods and styles of schema, encoding, wireframes and design layouts were integral to handling both the core information and any ‘added value’ content the project team hoped to include.

TEAMWORK & PLANNING

In reflecting upon my experience of the process in creating a digital scholarly edition, the above topics may be described as a summary of aspects which were noted and addressed in the overall construction of this digital scholarly edition.

  • Understanding of the Source
  • Fundamental Content
  • Added Value Content
  • Technical Construction

Yet in entering the final stages of this project it is the importance of proper functionality in a project team and clear planning that is perhaps an even more striking lesson of note taken from the process. To illustrate this I would recommend recent blog posts by two of my colleagues in this project regarding the importance of teamwork and project planning relating to this project of which I am very much in agreement.

The creation of a digital scholarly edition was a new venture for the members of this project team and it was one in which each team member stepped into unfamiliar academic disciplines, furthermore the unfamiliar nature of the project posed regular questions within the team as to method. Yet the early identification of core goals, the assignment of responsibility without segregation, good communication and clear planning provided a structure which allowed progress and decisions to be made with team consultation on a regular basis.

SUMMARY

The process of creating this digital scholarly edition has provided a valuable insight not just into practical humanities-based techniques and digital methodologies, but the processes of a functional team project. In reflecting on this process the four summarised points (Understanding of the Source, Fundamental Content, Added Value Content, Technical Construction) are vital to first assessing the challenge ahead. Yet it is also imperative that good teamwork and project planning exist so as to properly drive forward a (projected) successful project.

REFERENCES

Dabek Meredith. “Creating a Digital Scholarly Edition: Lessons from The Woodman Diary Project.” A Digital Education, 19 April 2015. Web. Accessed 20 April 2015.

Groome, Noel. “Primary Source Images & Editing: A Case for Caution!.” Noel Groome Blog, 12 December 2014. Web. Accessed 20 April 2015

McGarry, Shane. “Perils of Project Planning.” Getting Out of the Book and Into the Digital, 19 April 2015. Web. Accessed 20 April 2015.

A digital scholarly edition: Digital mapping

georef

In this blogs previous article, posted on the 20th March, a single semester module was discussed which incorporated practical Digital Humanities research under the supervision of an academic institution; yet which was essentially an individual project allowing this student to take full ownership of the projects development and workload. In contrast to that module, Digital Scholarly Editing is a module of two parts, running over two semesters, developing into a group-work project aiming to produce a finished product in the form of a digital scholarly edition.

TECHNICAL DEVELOPMENT

The first semester of this module examined many technical aspects which could be incorporated into the production of a digital scholarly edition.

Methods and tools relating to the encoding of a DSE such as XML, XSLT, HTML, CSS, metadata and the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI), were examined along with platforms used to host the same, such as Omeka and WordPress.

Practical workshops relating to the technical methods and theory behind the digitisation and presentation of primary source documents were held at An Forsa Feasa in Maynooth, and the National Archives of Ireland. The workshops demonstrated the use and benefits of advanced digital imaging equipment and accessible software tools such as Photoshop and GIMP, elements of which are discussed further in an earlier post on this site.

We were also introduced to the primary source document that would become the subject of our second semester group project and the object around which many of the above technical aspects examined could be put into practice.

THE PROJECT

This object around which this project is constructed is the World War I diary of Albert Woodman, an Irish soldier from Dublin stationed in Dunkirk in 1918 with the Royal Engineers.

In the process of making a digital scholarly edition from this diary, which at the time of writing is still a work in progress, the class group with responsibility for this project have been able to utilise many of the technical aspects studied in semester one. Encoding of the diary has taken place using XML methods and editors, while guidelines set out in the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI) have been used across the board in text markup, annotations and named entities.

In making a digital scholarly edition of a fragile ninety seven year old paper diary, careful imaging has also played a big part, with the pages of the diary being digitised to a high standard at the Imaging Lab in An Foras Feasa. Responsible manipulation of the images such as cropping or realignment using imaging software also took place when required, so as to present them as well as possible without altering their simplicity in the digital format.

Yet in this diary Albert Woodman also included a great number of other material including personal photographs, drawings, newspaper articles, clippings and a significant number of maps, cut out of contemporary newspapers or other periodicals documenting news relating to the War around him. These materials were also digitised at An Foras Feasa, however as the diary was being put together the idea of using the maps in a more interactive way began to be discussed which led to the arrangement of a further workshop on the technical aspects of digital mapping by Martin Charlton of the National Centre for Geo-computation, also based at Maynooth University.

DIGITAL MAPPING WORKSHOP

In approaching Martin Charlton the group had hoped that more context could be added to the black and white maps taken from newspaper clippings by potentially overlaying them onto a modern digital map, allowing users of the digital scholarly edition to view the small and localised Woodman maps in the larger context of how they relate to Europe today and as a whole.

In the workshop led by Martin Charlton we were first given a brief introduction to geographical co-ordinates and the issues regarding the presentation of the earth, a spherical object, onto a flat surface, a process which is known as projection. It was explained that several of these projections exist which may produce differing outcomes. The most appropriate for the Woodman diary maps was identified as the ‘Lambert Azimuthal Equal Area projection’, which is a projection onto a flat surface (a plane) which touches the earth at 52N 10E.

The software used to proceed with the mapping was introduced as QGIS, an open source geographic information system (GIS) and it was vital to identify the projection method that had been chosen in QGIS, which is EPSG:3035.

DIGITAL MAPPING SAMPLE

Having chosen a map by which to follow on from the workshop, my next step was to crop the image (below) as required. As this was a sample, focused on the map but not wishing to lose any of the clipping, I limited this to removing the outer diary page using GIMP software.

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Having cropped accordingly, ground control points needed to be identified within the map. These are points visible on the map which can be identified by Easting and Northing co-ordinates that relate to the same point on a modern map, in this instance Google Maps.

Crop 090-June13-W

In the case of this sample four towns which form a solid block structure that may adjust the Woodman map to sit at an appropriate angle on Google maps were identified as Chantilly, Villers Cotterets, Meaux and Chateau Thierry. The Easting & Northing co-ordinates relating to these towns, or ground control points, were then found and noted for use in QGIS.

Proceeding to QGIS a series actions allow the user to upload the map, choose the ground control points and assign these geo co-ordinates to the points on the map. Further running of this information through QGIS adjusts the map from a front on view to its actual geographic position based on the projection and co-ordinates used. Once this is complete it is then possible to bring into the QGIS workspace, which is now displaying the map in its correct geographic position, a second map such as Google Maps to sit in the same position in the workspace.

The final action allows the user to overlay the Woodman map over Google Maps and fade the Woodman map. When all is complete the result is the ability to see that the Woodman map now sits exactly overlaid on a modern Google map image, with the fade function allowing the user to see that the towns from the Woodman map sit precisely as they should over the Google map.

Image 090 geo-ref

The above image shows the Woodman map clipping cropped to show just the map and the notes from the article. Using QGIS it was realigned slightly to its accurate geographical position, was overlaid on Google maps, and the chosen ground control points of the four towns mentioned above match exactly from the Woodman map to the Google map.

What this tool shows is how technical work on these analogue documents can allow a greater context to a simple paper map clipping, utilising digital tools and methods to place a historic document in a modern setting and allowing greater reference. The digital scholarly edition of the Woodman diary will utilise many technical aspects studied within this module and digital mapping has been identified also as another potential addition, as work on the diary as a digital scholarly edition continues.

Primary Source Images & Editing: A Case for Caution!

As I approach the end of my first semester as a Masters student in Digital Humanities, it is possible to reflect on many technologies, tools and resources, which can form a significant part of the Digital Humanist’s toolkit. Many of these are later 20th century developments in computing and coding such as XML, CSS, TEI and Dublin Core which assist in the coding, structuring and presenting of Digital Scholarly Editions. Yet it was perhaps my experience of the modern digital methods of handling an older technology which reminded me of the importance and responsibility of Digital Humanists for presenting source material in a digital format which is true to the original.

In October of this year a tour of the imaging laboratory of An Foras Feasa in Maynooth University was given, where a demonstration was given on the use of high-end digital imaging equipment. Great care and importance was placed on creating a digital image that would represent as close as possible the original document, its content and presentation. This was followed on by a workshop held by Karolina Badzmierowska of the Letters 1916 project on the use of technologies such as Photoshop and Gimp, which included the photography and post processing of letters selected for inclusion in the Letters 1916 project. Again this workshop demonstrated the importance placed on creating a high quality, authentic digital images of fragile source materials.

Alongside these demonstrations there was also a lecture held in the National Archives of Ireland wherein archivists described the amazing conservation and preservation work which could be carried out on damaged materials; bringing back to life primary sources for use in humanities research which may have been lost through age, damage or neglect of the materials.

The work of those responsible Digital Humanists at An Forsa Feasa and Letters 1916 demonstrated the ability and commitment to producing authentic digital images to enhance access, and preservation to fragile sources, while those in the National Archives demonstrated what modern techniques can do in restoring materials. It is with this in mind that I was reminded of an instance, contrary to this best practice, whereby a now historic photograph pertaining to the Easter Rising of 1916 was originally edited, an action which altered the accuracy of the image, event and source material.

On Saturday the 29th of April 1916, the Eater Rising was coming to an end. The rebel leaders, having retreated from the GPO to a terrace of houses on nearby Moore Street had decided to surrender. By that afternoon, Padraig Pearse would meet General Lowe to present his sword in an unconditional surrender that brought the Easter Rising to an end. This significant moment in Irish history was captured, or perhaps staged, by a photographer at the time and appeared in what has been described as ‘Britain’s oldest tabloid’ The Daily Sketch.

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In the photograph can be seen Padraig Pearse, standing alone wearing what appears to be a long coat, surrendering to General Lowe and Lowes’s son, who served under him at the time. It might suggest looking at this photo that Pearse walked forward alone to meet and surrender to the British Army, it may suggest that the Rising was a male dominated affair. Yet subsequent versions of this photograph have shown that it was in fact altered before publication and that Pearse was not alone when he met General Lowe to surrender.

pearse

The un-altered photograph which later emerged, clearly shows that the first published image was altered to produce an all-round tidier image, one centred on what the publisher may have perceived as the central figures in the narrative.

The first image is very clean showing very clean lines in the path, buildings to the left, and three central figures. Yet the second image, although grainy by todays standards, still shows a more realistic image of a path with items on the ground behind General Lowe, depth to the buildings on the left, and most significantly a second pair of feet below Pearse’s coat.

feet

The obscured figure standing next to Pearse was not one of the rebel leaders of 1916 but was someone highly involved with the independence movement before, during and after the Rising. She was identified as a 32 year-old Dubliner named Elizabeth O’Farrell, who plays a significant role in events surrounding the surrender, not just of Pearse, but all the rebel leaders. It was O’Farrell who left the house on Moore Street waving a white flag to approach the British garrison with talk of surrender. It was O’Farrell who escorted Pearse back to meet Lowe, and it was O’Farrell who was sent to the remaining rebel outposts to inform them to lay down their arms.

Furthermore while her presence is pivotal due to her involvement in facilitating the surrender, with her presence she may also represent not just the many rank and file men, who are acknowledged as having took up arms, but the significant and less celebrated role women played in the revolutionary movement in this period (Mac Curtain 46-7). Yet without the emergence of the original photograph, her role in this event and her status as a representative of the many unknown participants of the Rising at the time of surrender may not be acknowledged.

Further examination of this photograph, revealed in episode four of an RTÉ documentary series titled Réabhlóid, shows even further evidence that our visual perception of the surrender may be inaccurate. In the earlier images it may be understandable to suggest Pearse is wearing a ‘long coat’, however this triangle shape is in fact the outline from Elizabeth O’Farrells coat in the background.

Seá¡n-McLoughlin-the-boy-commandant-of-1916-7

The intention however, of The Daily Sketch in altering this photo, may not have been to purposely omit Elizabeth O’Farrell, the volunteers, or womens participation from the events of Easter 1916. In the documentary Réabhlóid it is explained that a technology known as photo-montage was used to ‘tidy-up’ photographs at this time. This involved placing a sheet of paper around what was deemed important in the image and re-drawing a clean version of the background. Yet in altering this image and not recognising the importance which seemingly small details may have to later research and perceptions of an event, The Daily Sketch, using technologies to alter an original document, may very nearly have lost evidence of an important figure in the history of the 1916 surrender.

In the modern technologies and laboratories of Digital Humanists and Archives we possess great digital and scientific resources to document, preserve, restore and present physical source material. Fragile or inaccessible material can be digitally documented for easier research, damaged or altered material can be restored or read by new science and technology. This is work which is vital and performed to the highest standard by An Foras Feasa, Letters 1916 and the National Archives. Yet in the example shown regarding Elizabeth O’Farrell’s omission from a source document by those using, what were modern technologies, we must always be aware how editing in any form has the potential to cut away an invaluable part of history.

Bibliography

BBC News Online. ‘Britain’s oldest tabloid closes’. Web. Accessed 10 December 2014.

Dictionary of Irish Biography: Elizabeth O’Farrell. Web. Accessed 10 December 2014.

Letters of 1916: Creating History. Web. Accessed 10 December 2014.

Mac Curtain, Margaret. ‘Women, The Vote and Revolution’, in Margaret Mac Curtain, & Donncha Ó’Corráin (eds.), Women in Irish Society: The historical dimension, (Dublin, 1978).

Réabhlóid Episode 4: Elizabeth O’Farrell. Web. Accessed 10 December 2014.

The National Archives of Ireland: Conservation and Preservation. Web. Accessed 10 December 2014.

Letters Of 1916: The forgotten sources

old letter

The course of Irish history has, like nations all across the world, experienced events which can be identified as pivotal moments for that nation’s story and identity. These events are in many cases well documented by monks, scribes, diplomats and government officials in the retinue of the pivotal figures in society who wish to record their personal or official establishment version of the event for posterity. These official records of history, whilst extremely valuable, should therefore always be read with the potential for bias at the fore, the well-known phrase ‘history is written by the victor’, springs to mind in these instances.

In time professional historians became more prevalent but even their histories are susceptible to bias, influence and motive which can be challenged by their peers. How would Ireland’s perception in popular history as an ‘Island of saints and scholars’ read if the Scottish saint-stealer Thomas Dempster’s version of history had not been challenged and rebuked by the Irish historian James Ware in the 1600s (Empey).

What can be lacking in the official records which are recorded from the top down, and even many well respected histories of momentous events, is the personal story of the common man, the everyday lives which carried on whilst all around them great periods and events of historic change were taking place. Whenever we consider a great event in history, it must be remembered that the majority of people carried on their daily routines whether or not they were directly involved in the event. The official histories which document and discuss diplomatic actions, government policies, troop movements, lockouts, and pivotal historic figures comprise the bulk of many histories and chapter headings, yet the common man was arguably more affected by historic events than many of those who were highly involved.

What the Letters 1916 Project aims to do is to rectify that anomaly of the forgotten people, who in most cases were not significant figures of the period but fought, died, survived or simply lived through the period around the Easter Rising of 1916. It is the aim, according to Susan Schreibman of the Letters of 1916 Project, ‘to “unforget” those who have been forgotten by bringing their stories into a public discourse.‘ (Schreibman).

At the time of writing this blog, over 1600 letters have been collected by Letters 1916 which are separated into sixteen categories. While this may seem at first glance an overly broad number of categories, it is in the category titles themselves that the scope and value of the project to examining the many facets of life during this eventful period becomes apparent. Not only are the expected, but necessary and equally valuable, topics available such as Politics, World War I, Easter Rising and The Irish Question, but categorised also are letters on Art and Literature, Children, Country Life and Love Letters.

The Letters of 1916 home page states that ‘Through these letters we are bringing to life the written words, the last words, the unspoken words, and the forgotten words’, and it would seem it is also bringing the everyday words. What many of the letters bring to life is not only opinions and matters directly involving the Rising and its main protagonist, of which there are many, but how people lived their lives before and after, and that in some instances the Rising may have had very little effect on daily life.

One such example of how life carried on is demonstrated in the correspondence between Susan Fitzgerald of Stradbally in Queens County (now County Laois) and Michael Gorman who was attending Albert College in Glasnevin, Dublin at the time of the Rising. The letters, which dated throughout 1916, are essentially quite unremarkable letters from a seemingly young girl to her suitor. Yet they show the innocent life that a young girl from what would seem a prosperous middle class Irish family lived, and how her language, lifestyle and interests were in fact very much akin to the popular perception of this class during the period, evident in drama such as ‘Downton Abbey’. In a letter dated 23rd of May 1916, the first since the Rising occurred just a month earlier, and just eleven days after the last execution of rebel leaders, there is no evidence of caution or concern for Susan’s suitor in Dublin, her own position or her family, for whom life including trips to the recently ravaged city of Dublin continue. She begins:

My dearest Mickie

I have been threatening to write to you all last week and I made several attempts on yesterday but didnt succeed.  Mother & Fannie went to Dublin for the day. I was asked to keep an eye on the kids so I had a very busy time trying to keep them out of mischief. (Fitzgerald, 23 May 1916)

The letter continues in this light-hearted vein whereby discussion includes exams, photography, weather, holidays, friends, hobbies and clothes, but no mention of this recent event which is considered a pivotal event in Irish history. It is not that I would suggest that this is a nonchalant middle class girl and her family unconcerned by the recent turbulent national event however. What this letter can in fact portray is that life in the aftermath of the Rising for many continued as it had before, life then as now continues for many as normal throughout great periods of upheaval. In the midst of the official histories which chronicle the high level political aspects of the time, letters such as that by Susan Fitzgerald can show that life went on, Dublin was still vibrant, people continued to conduct business and pleasure even within Dublin City in the immediate aftermath of 1916.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Empey, Mark. ‘‘Value-free’ history?: the scholarly network of Sir James Ware’ in History Ireland. vol. XX, issue 2, (March/April 2012). Web. Accessed 14 November 2014. http://www.historyireland.com/early-modern-history-1500-1700/value-free-history-the-scholarly-network-of-sir-james-ware/

Fitzgerald, Susan. Letter from Susan Fitzgerald to Michael Gorman. 23 May 1916. Web. Accessed 14 November 2014. http://dh.tcd.ie/letters1916/diyhistory/items/show/489

Letters of 1916: Creating History. Web. Accessed 14 November 2014. http://dh.tcd.ie/letters1916/

Schreibman, Sausan. “Public invited to co-create 1916 letters project.” Irish Times. The Irish Times 4 August 2014. Web. Accessed 14 November 2014. http://www.irishtimes.com/culture/heritage/public-invited-to-co-create-1916-letters-project-1.1887075?page=1