We have been fortunate to have a series of visiting Digital Humanities scholars at the University of Rochester over the last few months, and while all of their projects and approaches have been very different, most have still emphasized the importance of collaboration in their work. We’ve written a post about the topic before, but this time I want to focus more generally on the different kinds of group work we engage in at BAND.

Looking back over the last few years, the letters project has changed the way that we work, at once promoting the collaborative spirit that is such a positive part of DH, but also eroding some of the skills that group work encourages. I think that this is because of the specific nature of the project and the workflow that we have developed to handle it. Here’s a quick summary:

  1. A BAND Assistant will take responsibility for transcribing and putting together the editorial apparatus of a single letter;
  2. Nick (who has been managing the project) will resolve any outstanding queries and bank the finished letter;
  3. When a batch of a dozen or so are ready they are re-distributed for proofreading.

Often this third stage of the process happens many months after the letter was originally worked on — which means that, at best, the transcriber has forgotten most of their decision-making process, or at worst, has left the Archive and fled the temperate climes of Western New York.

Milton in his old age

This is certainly the most efficient way of dealing with a project that is made up of many shorter works, but has a major drawback in that the editorial process becomes rather opaque. By that I mean that an awful lot of decision-making happens when an Assistant is sitting all alone in an empty office, probably sipping a lukewarm cup of coffee and wondering why the heater is making a clonking noise. This is not to cast doubt on the editorial choices that are made by individuals working on their own (and indeed, I’m immensely proud of the letters project as a model of accuracy and hard work) but this kind of system does not lend itself to collaboration. Aside from a few especially tricky questions that are brought to our weekly meetings, the impulse is to try and solve problems individually, often meaning that the completed transcription becomes the priority, rather than the learning process of transcription itself.

On the other hand, focusing on a large number of works simultaneously has vastly streamlined our work flow and standardized our methods. We now have precise wording for specific kinds of editorial notes, ways of transcribing and tagging common Blake-isms and a huge body of work to draw upon when facing a new challenge.

So the question is, how can we use these lessons when embarking on other kinds of projects?

Two particular instances come to mind.

  • Lisa and Hardeep have been team proofreading Andrea’s transcription of Tiriel. Proofing can be hard, repetitive work and so sharing the task is a great way of preserving your sanity and ensuring a better final product. Their subsequent exchange with Andrea (which I hope they will reproduce on the blog at some point – nudge nudge) is a tremendous insight into their separate transcription and editorial processes, and I learned a lot from their observations.
  • Team Color Code’s experiments with The Four Zoas would quite simply have been impossible to reproduce without the support of a group. The separate sets of eyes, different skill sets and individual approaches have been central to our headway — and yet, recording our progress and spending time over the new encoding standards that we are developing will ensure that good teamwork will not devolve into chaos.

Our next group task is Blake’s marginalia, as Lisa discussed a couple of weeks ago. In some ways, progress feels quite slow, since the bulk of the work happens when we have a free twenty minutes in BAND meetings. However, being able to spend time in the process, thinking through everyone’s different approaches instead of rushing towards a finish line is so very welcome! Maybe that sounds like a nightmare to you, but Humanities work can be very lonely: why not take advantage of the carte blanche that DH gives us to collaborate with others? Sometimes you just have to stop and smell the roses — especially when you’re with a group of people.