Author: Holly Gilbert

Folger Digital Texts

Folger Digital Texts is a project undertaking a very traditional humanities aim – preserving, organizing, and making available Shakespeare’s collection of works – but breaks newer ground with digital tools and a great contribution to the collaborative, open source nature of digital humanities initiatives.

Shakespeare can be found everywhere, to be sure, but these editions are unique because they offer a highly readable, navigable, and interactive text to users. Physical books, PDFs, and simpler websites containing Shakespeare’s work are limited when it comes to these features, which is why the digitals tools the Folger Shakespeare Library implements really shine. Public domain texts with the widespread cultural impact that Shakespeare has are always going to be available, but a project like this ensures a quality reading experience to those who might otherwise lack access to a reliable physical edition or digital file.

For instance, once you open a play of your choice – let’s say, Hamlet – you are immediately shown a few displays. In the center of the website is the play itself, formatted much like a physical book with a clear, attractive layout. On the left, you have a display of information about the text, which is present throughout the reading experience. You can switch between a synopsis, a character list, and the table of contents of the work. If you have forgotten who Reynaldo is, for instance, you only need to slide your eyes to the left to see that he is Polonius’ servant. If you have been reading Act III for what feels like an eternity and want to know exactly how many scenes are left to get through, again, look to the left. There is no flipping between pages or scrolling endlessly to find what you need here; the tools exist for you to find background information, lines, and scenes immediately.

Furthermore, the text is marked at various points to indicate some of the changes between versions of the play; wherever there is a square bracket one can hold their cursor over, a note will appear with information about the version this word or phrase came from. This illustrates how scholarly work has been carefully encoded into the edition, although this feature is fairly limited in this project – it would be fantastic to have more complete scholarly notes strewn throughout the text. For a free online resource, however, this may be a tall order.

Projects such as this can be achieved through the use of TEI (Text Encoding Initiative), a language developed from XML that presents humanists with a general set of guidelines for digitally encoding texts. A thorough explanation of TEI can be found here, but you can see the process that may have been undertaken to encode Titus Andronicus in one of this website’s examples, including some important elements:

Source: TEI by Example

Outside of creating an accessible and dynamic collection of Shakespeare’s works, Folger Digital Texts also has another purpose, one that marks it as even more unique from traditional humanities projects. For every play, there is an option to download the complete, edited text in seven different file formats: XML, HTML, PDF, DOC with line numbers, DOC without line numbers, TXT, and TEI Simple. This turns the project into an excellent, centralized source for those accessing Shakespeare’s work to use in further digital projects – maybe humanists can pull a file to perform textual analysis of a play, examine relationships between Shakespeare plays and more recent works, or develop a digital edition with a different aim.

This spirit of open collaboration is a bit different from the type of collective work traditionally done through scholarly references, panels, and journals. Scholars can use this project to build many others simultaneously, freely, and easily (at least to the extent that they can begin with a reliable text file). There is no need to build a digital edition of a Shakespeare play from scratch for further initiatives when a TEI Simple file can be accessed at the click of a button. The Folger Shakespeare Library has recognized a need to share its labor with other digital humanists, and this focus on the growth of the field is very promising for those of us just getting started.

Building a Thoreau Timeline

The Thoreau Timeline

Henry David Thoreau was a busy man, and our group was tasked with listing and detailing his many lectures, publications, journal entries, and general biographical facts along with his work on A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers and Walden. We were provided with a rough outline of what such a timeline should encompass from Stephen Adams’ and Donald Ross’ Revising Mythologies: The Composition of Thoreau’s Major Works, as shown below.

A valuable resource but not the most intuitive.
A valuable resource but not the most intuitive.

Our main goal was to expand upon this information and put it in a more visual, interactive format. To do so, we used TimelineJS. This service allows users with little technical knowledge to create an attractive, intuitive timeline complete with media and layered information. TimelineJS provides a template for a Google spreadsheet, then generates a code for the published timeline that allows users to embed it into a website.

An example of what entries in the spreadsheet look like.
An example of what entries in the spreadsheet look like.

Our group split the categories into six parts, and we initially created six different spreadsheets of data. Alexa had the biography, Cassie had the journal entries, Gabe had the lectures and articles, and Holly had A Week and the Walden versions. Our text was drawn from a variety of sources (the most helpful to us being Walter Harding’s The Days of Henry Thoreau), and the images were generally licensed for use under Creative Commons and gathered from Flickr or Wikimedia Commons. If possible, Gabe linked articles and essays written by Thoreau into the timeline using PagePeeker, which provides an image and link of the website he found the essay on. Our main obstacles were working with TimelineJS itself – figuring out how to enter dates without knowing specific days of  month, where to source our information, dealing with invalid image links, and tagging information that fell into different categories.

We tagged our entries in order to create a six-layered timeline.
We tagged our entries in order to create a six-layered timeline.

In the end, we combined our six timelines into one monstrous spreadsheet dubbed “The Master TImeline.” Once this was published and fine-tuned, we had a visually intriguing and well-organized timeline that allows readers to easily connect different areas of Thoreau’s life to a certain time period. Building this timeline not only pulled together some of the technological skills we had learned over the semester, but gave each of us insight into Thoreau’s life and work.

(Holly) A Week and WaldenThe timeline allowed me to pull together various aspects of the class – the various readings, the fluid text edition, the significance of the manuscript changes – and really illustrate the development of Thoreau’s literary works. Tracing the progress of Thoreau’s two books showed me how much Thoreau’s writing was impacted by his life experiences and the ups and down of his literary career. What struck me most was how prepared Thoreau seemed to be for the publication of Walden after finishing and working on publishing his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. As we know, it would be many years and manuscript changes later before Walden was actually published, and this was (arguably) partially due to the failure of A Week. What would Walden be had Thoreau’s first book sold well on the market? The timeline is a valuable tool that offers a big-picture perspective on how Thoreau’s life experiences interacted with his writing. Studying the intertwining nature of some of the entries, for example, can show how certain events may have shaped others, as is the case with A Week and Walden.

From the Walden timeline.
From the Walden timeline.

(Alexa) Biography: When creating my timeline on the biography of Thoreau’s life, I certainly found that Thoreau was a very exploratory person. He had taken multiple visits to Cape Cod and Maine, as well as Hill & Plymouth in Massachusetts for exploration purposes and to gather information for his journals. He also had taken an opportunity to travel to Canada mainly because the train ticket was very cheap. Along the course of Thoreau’s life, I found dates in the biography relating to what we found through reading Walden: when the cabin was being built at Walden Pond, when Thoreau lived at Walden Pond, the date Thoreau spent the night in jail, and when he returned to his home in Concord. I also found it interesting that this timeline helped show a different perspective on Thoreau not really seen when you read Walden. There was an event on the timeline dealing with the Burns Affair, for example. After researching this, it turns out this had to do with an escaped slave on trial, Anthony Burns, and Thoreau was protesting the return of Burns to his slave owner. I found some great detail about Thoreau’s opinion on slavery.

(Cassie) Journals: This task was challenging because it required me to organize the two journal sections from the original timeline, and then figure out where each entry recorded is located in the journal. The journal entries ended up being separated into two different sections, the 1906 and the Princeton/Mss versions. Although there was a bit of overlap, for the most part, where one journal ends, the other journal begins. In both of these versions, Thoreau manages to stay consistent with narrating the little things that go on in his day-to-day life. By organizing these entries, I was able to learn more about Thoreau’s thought process. When Thoreau was deciding to leave “high society,” for example, I was surprised to learn that he had much more going on in his life than just this desire to “live deliberately.” I also found that he left to “cure” his writer’s block. He talked about his fear that if he did not leave, he would never be able to finish his writings. In some ways, Thoreau may have surprised himself with how much his departure from society changed him. This realization made it easier for me to be able to connect the writing with the human. This is partly why the timeline itself is important; it connects all the parts of Thoreau’s life to give an impression of the real man, not just a series of disjointed writings. While reading these entries and figuring out a timeline of the feelings, thoughts, and emotions reflected in them, I was better able to understand not only the premise for Walden but also the way that Thoreau’s brain works.

From the journals timeline.
From the journals timeline.

(Gabe) Lectures and Publications: My portion of the timeline was dedicated to recording the dates of the lectures that Thoreau would give on his various works across the Northeast, as well as the publication of those works beginning with his first lecture in May of 1835. I think the thing that most interested me about this reconstruction was how it demonstrated how hard it is to reestablish the past – so much of what I inputted was only known about from an off-handed mention in a journal entry of Thoreau’s, and because of that we often know that a lecture on a subject occurred but cannot give an exact date, or know Thoreau lectured on a certain date but are unaware of what it was on. I think that really demonstrates the necessity of linking the digital world with the humanities, so that in the future we do not have to piece together fragments in order to gain only the shadow of an understanding of our context, but can preserve it whole for the future.



How Coding is Affecting Citizenship

Digital tools, as we’ve been learning, are a valuable asset when it comes to studying the humanities. With this in mind, I wondered, what other unexpected areas are similarly touched by technology? As it turns out, there’s a concentrated effort to transform the government – in all its massive, extensive, and inefficient glory – with open-source programs and teams of everyday coders. Code for America, founded in 2009, is a nonprofit organization that seeks to change the government with the use of technology.

This organization focuses on working with local governments. It enlists technologically-apt “fellows” to work in partnership with various local government for a year, in an effort to improve health, economic development, and safety & justice. In addition, they sponsor volunteer brigades, a network of interested government workers, and a few other groups in order to make the government more technologically-minded.

In this TED Talk video, Jennifer Pahlka talks about the vision Code for America has for government and citizenship. She makes it clear that embracing open source technology and creating apps that encourage people to take on more civic responsibilities can have a huge impact on the relationship between government and citizens.

While I was browsing through some of the applications Code for America has created, I found a few great examples of the different ways in which technology can impact us. For instance, take the “Public Art Finder” app, which is currently available in five U.S. cities. It allows users to find and learn about public art using a map interface, thus supporting local art and bringing interested citizens to it. I also looked at Boston’s “DiscoverBPS” app, which offers parents information on the admittance requirements, data, and test scores of area schools they might consider for their children.



What really stood out to me was how open all of these resources are. While I don’t know nearly enough about technology to understand how these apps work and how they can be spread, it is clear that this organization provides anyone looking at these programs with their codebases and instructions (albeit complicated ones) on how to employ them in your area. All of the information is accessible and open, serving as an example of the kind of change that can be made with the use of digital tools.


Music as a Fluid Text

Non-percussionists may even find some comments disturbing.
Non-percussionists may even find some comments disturbing.

 In music ensembles, I’m given pages of marked-up, wrinkled pieces. People cross out entire measures, add in parts that didn’t previously exist, or change the  dynamics and tempo of the piece without much explanation. When the piece gets to me, possibly after years of use, I get to see the many different interpretations of one musical composition and add my own comments.

 As Casey has posted about in reference to Shakespeare, edits can change the meaning of a single text, and this is true with music pieces too. Take these two videos of cellists taking on the same piece, for instance – one performer uses a traditional approach, while the other incorporates beatboxing. Who is to say that one version is more valid than another?

Every time a piece is performed, it’s likely to be interpreted slightly differently by each individual conductor and player. Often, we learn about the composer’s original intent before playing the piece, but so many small changes and revisions are made each time it’s performed that you could say there are countless versions of every musical “text.”

In my opinion, the collaborative nature of a music score is comparable to digital humanities. I think of a music score as a fluid text, much like the digital Walden texts we use that allow readers to trace the various manuscript changes or leave their own thoughts in the margins. As Jack Stillinger argues in “A Practical Theory of Versions,” textual pluralism (what he calls the idea that every version of a work should be considered) is becoming more possible with digital efforts such as these. With music pieces, glancing at a marked-up copy of sheet music or listening to different performers can show you a wealth of interpretations that you may not have considered on your own. Working with digital literature seems to have similar benefits – I not only learn from Walden itself, but from the record of its changes over time and my fellow classmates’ varied thoughts about the text.