Digital Humanities

BAND, Digital Humanities, Uncategorized

Why we should be talking more: office chat and DH

When I look back over many of the most recent blog posts—Rachel’s about how to use notes with a sense of audience, Oishani’s about Blake’s quirky punctuation, my own about the differences between red wax seals and wafers, and other posts from the past several months—I am not surprised to realize that many of these posts began in the William Blake Archive office as informal conversations about digital editing. I remember Oishani asking my input about how to encode a period under a superscript, and I recall spending the better part of an hour with Laura and Lisa discussing why and how we decide that a letter is sealed by wax or wafer. These conversations are illustrative of one of the greatest benefits of digital humanities projects: the opportunity to collaborate and work with a team of scholars from a variety of backgrounds.

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Reflections on the material consequences of image processing

For my most recent task as one of the project assistants digitizing Blake: An Illustrated Quarterly, I had to resize and rotate images from the journal that are blurry, crooked, or otherwise aesthetically displeasing. This task is about as complex as it sounds. I enter width values into XML documents or slightly rotate files, finessing how the pictures appear on the page until I am satisfied with the result. The images that require attention are not the materials from the William Blake Archive, which appear as high quality scans in the articles with links to objects in the archive, but instead are images the archive does not have, either because they are not Blake’s work or they are unavailable, and so have been cropped from PDFs made from scans of the printed editions that include grey-scale photos of the originals. Which, as that convoluted sentence suggests, means these cropped PDF images are fairly removed from their origins. And as a nascent book historian fascinated by materiality, in relation to both print and digital editions, I am reminded of the significant consequences of editorial choices even when they are as minor as adjusting how images appear on a page. Along with the other graduate students completing this project, I am leaving fingerprints of yet another mutation on the material.

Bibliographers and digital humanists have an ongoing debate about the effects of transmission and reproduction, especially in relation to technological advances. Thomas Tanselle, writing in 1989 before the digital boom, argued that “every reproduction is a new document.”[1] Albeit he was considering reproductions in terms of Xeroxes as replacements for original materials, but as scholars like Matthew Kirschenbaum and Bonnie Mak have persuasively argued, the materiality of digital objects also necessitates each reproduction to be considered unique, believing like Tanselle that “with characteristics of its own […] no artifact can be a substitute for another artifact.”[2] Each modification leaves traces behind. For Mak, a palimpsest serves as a useful metaphor to comprehend this layering of meaning through mediation since “Palimpsests, by definition, are evidence of an effacement that is incomplete; they transmit vestiges of their former lives […] [and] digitizations may be recognized as vibrant and historically situated sources in their own right that offer alternative points of entry into enduring debates about the production and transmission of knowledge.”[3]

According to these definitions, even the minute changes in size, which are mostly arbitrary and based on aesthetics, add another layer of meaning that both changes the object and affects readers’ experiences of it. This dilemma is nothing new—it’s one that has been raised by the editors from the project’s beginnings—and it reveals the issue of theory versus practice. In theory, each action made by editors and project assistants alters the material. But in practice these many of these changes occur below the threshold of human vision. There are alterations that meaningful and discernable, and there are ones that are not.

Of course the adjustments I make on these images are not to efface the original, but rather to better represent the articles in a different medium. The main goal is to improve the appearance of image quality. By shrinking the scans, grainy pictures become sharper. My tinkering is well-intentioned and never purposefully distorting, instead done with an eye to clarify what appears blurry. But these modifications do have consequences, perhaps inescapable in the transition from print to digital. For instance, the size difference online prioritizes the images from the Blake Archive, and rightfully so in a journal that emphasizes Blake’s illustrations. To look more closely at the cropped scans requires more engagement by the reader, who must click on the image if they want to see a larger version, or open the link to the full PDF of the issue (though again, they will download a reproduction). So I can’t help but wonder about the effects of medium on interactions with the journal, and what is enabled and lost in the process of editing it, even when making the smallest of changes. As to how meaning changes with difference in image size, however, is up for readers to decide.

[1] Thomas Tanselle, “Reproductions and Scholarship,” in Literature and Artifacts (Charlottesville: Bibliographical Society of the University of Virginia, 1998), 70.

[2] Ibid., 70.

[3] Bonnie Mak, “Archaeology of a Digitization,” JAIST 65.8 (2014): 1516.

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BAND, Digital Humanities

Building better ‘Bus Projects’

I learned a great new phrase at Blake Camp this year: ‘Bus Project’. This is a project that you are in charge of, but that anybody else could take over in the unlikely (and of course, tragic) event that you get squashed by a bus. Usually, this means that you keep comprehensive notes, talk to your colleagues and generally leave a long and detailed paper trail everywhere you go.

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BAND, Digital Humanities

Blake In Photoshop, Part 3: Recovering Overwritten Text

This fall I’ve been blogging about forensic experimentation with Blake Archive images in Adobe Photoshop. The idea is that Photoshop can be a [relatively] cheap, easy, and fast way to either answer transcription questions or allow editors to model alternate views of manuscript images for Archive users. In the last two posts, I’ve used examples of faded, hard-to-read text to illustrate the potential usefulness of digital image manipulation.

Interesting stuff, but also pretty conservative in terms of total image manipulation and Photoshop’s technical abilities. This week, we’re going to push the envelope . . . just a bit.

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BAND, Blake Camp

Blake Camp 2015

In the world of the Blake Archive, Blake Camp is one of the highlights of the year. We talk about it as a magical place where tricky problems will be solved and difficult decisions finally made, and even use it to measure time, referring to events as happening “before” or “after” Blake Camp. This year, I was going for the first time. 

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Digital Humanities, XML

DHSI and the Four Zoas: Part 1

In June, I went to the Digital Humanities Summer Institute (DHSI) in Victoria, BC. I have a whole other post in my head about the ferry journey from Seattle to Victoria (beautiful!), the fish tacones at Red Fish Blue Fish (delicious!) and the nineteenth-century architecture of the city (magnificent!), but for now I’ll stick to the subject at hand: encoding the Four Zoas.

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BAND, Digital Humanities

“dance & sport in summer”: overhauling the transcription guidelines

We’re approaching the end of semester here, and, as you all know, “summer vacation” in the wonderful world of academia doesn’t mean time off but time to actually try and get work done. Accordingly, over the last few weeks, I’ve been putting my ducks in a row and trying to organize my projects for the summer. The task at the top of my list is to update our transcription guidelines and tag set, and (hopefully) to put them into some sort of format that we can eventually make public for users of the Blake Archive. This project isn’t as snoozeworthy as it sounds: I’m actually looking forward to incorporating the transcription decisions that we’ve made over the last few years and seeing what kind of editorial rationale emerges (assuming, of course, that there has been some method to our madness).

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BAND, Digital Humanities

Stopping to smell the roses: more thoughts on DH and collaboration

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.

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