My colleague Mike Serafin and I are both interested in digital scholarship, and we wanted to learn more about building and implementing digital research projects. To this end, we decided to collaborate on an design-oriented research project, with the aims of digitizing a primary text and building an interface that would facilitate its study. We wanted to see what it took to build a digital humanities (DH) prototype and find out what we could learn from engaging in this kind of prototyping process.
In order to maximize our learning, we decided we should try and digitize material that did not seem easy to encode. This project was our first attempt at working with XML and TEI guidelines, and we wanted a substantial challenge. We knew that setting ourselves a difficult task would force us to engage more deeply with the source material and as well as our digital tools. We found an excellent candidate for digitization in the handwritten revisions that Samuel Johnson made to the “B section” of his Dictionary of the English Language. As a primary source comprised of both printed text and handwritten revision notes, this material presented unique challenge that would require in-depth research into text encoding best practices, as well as a solid understanding of the life and history of Johnson’s Dictionary.
The resulting experiment culminated in a prototype we called, very simply, Revisions. We wrote a paper that describes our process and approach in detail. We also developed an encoding guide.
Throughout the difficult but rewarding process of building a digital reading and research interface we learned just how valuable it is to combine research and practice when thinking through issues in the digital humanities. We found that engaging in a DOR framework provided the unique opportunity to bring together theoretical concepts relating interface design with robust tools like XML mark-up and Drupal modules. Our prototyping project helped us understand some of the key features of a successful interface, helped us recognize what is and is not possible to technically implement, and helped us posit models for a more open and flexible digital research ecosystem. In addition, contributing to a design exercise helped us better understand the materials we were digitizing because this work required us to read closely, as well as consider larger questions that may be asked of this document by other researchers. We had to think both broadly and deeply about this material. Additionally, this exercise helped us better understand theories of the interface and consider the implications of various digitization practices on the study and transmission of texts. Ultimately, we found that the task of designing an interface is, indeed, as Johanna Drucker (2013) suggests, one of the best exercises one can engage in to unpack the implications of digitization for reading and research practices.
On March 6, 2015, Mike and I presented on this project at the iSchool Student Conference. Below you will find our presentation slides.