In May, I attended the Digital Humanities Summer Institute at the University of Victoria, a campus famous for its rather large and adorable rabbit population. While I’ve only been to a few national academic conferences, the atmosphere at DHSI seemed especially relaxed and collegial.
As a digital humanities novice, I was in one of the two introductory workshops offered, “Text Encoding Fundamentals and their Application” with Julia Flanders and Syd Bauman. My project for the week was to encode the first page of Blake’s MS “An Island in the Moon.” This is our current project for the University of Rochester division of the Blake Archive, and while it has already been encoded, I wanted to practice all of the concepts and skills I was learning from Julia and Syd. My encoding experiment was fairly straightforward, as this particular page didn’t have any of the complex revisions that appear later in the MS.
Immersing myself in the TEI P5 guidelines, however, was a life-altering experience. As I read through the sections devoted to manuscript description (supplemented, of course, by Syd and Julia’s lectures and slides), I started to realize that the work of encoding is really an amazing thing. I started the workshop naively supposing that encoding a text, especially an 18th century manuscript, was this objective, data-entry-like process of preservation. This workshop set me straight: encoding is an editorial act of interpretation.
Encoding a text has nearly limitless possibilities, but the limits of the project must be determined – and it’s this process which can be so grueling. Choosing exactly which features of the physical object to describe, such as the material, dimensions, waterkmarks, ink color. Deciding whether it’s useful to map the text’s content with analytical apparatuses that can track shifts in tone, language usage, or rhyme scheme. Thinking about the audience for the project, and the information they might search for or find totally irrelevant. And finally, how all of this might be ultimately determined by the time and financial constraints which just won’t allow an enthusiastic scholar to describe every possible feature of her beloved text.
I came home from the workshop armed with a much better sense of how text encoding works, and subsequently can ask much better questions about the work we’re doing at the Blake Archive.