ESR2: Three Years In
Three years. They seem to have flown by in a hurry.
This post looks back at the distance covered within my fellowship and closes with a few words on the overall, amazing experience.
I initially started with little more than a curious mind and a handful of ideas which, admittedly, hadn’t yet taken any clear shape. I knew that I wanted to study digital facsimiles and gain a better understanding of the impact that they have had and were having on the orientations and practices of digital scholarly editing. Perhaps because my background extends also to the more technical side, I was especially intrigued by the computational affordances of digital facsimiles for textual scholarship. This focus soon led me also to consider at length the information that is encoded within material or documentary texts (e.g. graphically encoded in the interplay of typography, layout arrangement, and the visual marks of the linguistic code) the aspects of which often end up being captured in and represented by digital facsimiles, and thus also inscribed within their image data in a form that is computationally tractable. It seemed like there might be meaningful connections to be drawn between the computational affordances and the questions and practice of digital scholarly editing.
I started the study with an extensive legwork of interdisciplinary readings into relevant topics within digital scholarly editing, digital humanities, and image processing and computer vision. This included, for example, surveying the already long history of image-based humanities computing, the various viewpoints from which digital facsimiles have been discussed in editorial literature (e.g. questions of representation and of their relationship to the material originals) and the roles within which they currently serve in editorial work and within editions, as well as trying to gain a level of understanding of the ideas about the structures and interpretation processes of the human visual system (e.g. the geometric Gestalt theory and the feature integration theory of attention). But the readings importantly also led me to the computer science area of document image analysis and understanding (see here for a related blogpost), where I found a good deal of relevant research and whose conceptual and practical toolbox I would later borrow.
At around midway into my fellowship, I went on a research secondment to the Huygens ING (The Hague) where I had an opportunity to put some of the readings into practice. The institute had an editorial challenge in the editing of a vast archival series, the Resolutions of the States General 1576–1796, and was carrying out several concerted small-scale pilots to explore means alternative to traditional editing for the series’ digital opening. As part of these efforts, I found a case study for my PhD with the series’ digital facsimiles in exploring the computational use of their visual information and its usefulness within the overall efforts to digitally open the series. The study, designed as an extensive modelling and tooling exercise, focussed on the printed Resolutions for the year 1740. In the end, the case study resulted in insights gained within the process (more to come on this shortly), but also in a highly tailored tool capable of ‘reading’ information from the document’s layout arrangement in conjunction with the OCR-based extraction of its textual content; you can find out more about the instrumental part of the work here.
The DiXiT network excelled at bringing together people with diverse professional backgrounds and interests and in so doing also offered a great opportunity to advance this PhD work. Overall as a professional experience, it is fair to say that DiXiT far surpassed my expectations: not only because of the training camps and events offered by the network itself on a wide range of topics relating to digital scholarly editing (see the useful bank of training materials here), or the wide-ranging training opportunities I gained because of my placement at King’s College London, but also because the network’s generous funding allowed for attending workshops and conferences wider afield. During the three year stretch I was introduced to and was able to learn from numerous scholars many of whom were contagiously enthusiastic about their own areas of interest and expertise. Here, a special mention needs of course go to the DiXiT supervisors who made themselves readily available and who often uttered words of wisdom about scholarly editing and about the academia at large, among other settings, over pints of beer.
But more importantly and building on top of the professional experience, the DiXiT network brought me into contact with an amazing lot of people: at King’s (there were many an evening well spent at the Plough), within the active digital humanities scene in London, and at the conferences all across Europe. Thinking back, if I tried to count all the good people who I had the pleasure to meet and who, in one way or another, influenced my thinking, I would quickly exhaust my fingers and toes. Once again a mention needs to go to the network’s supervisors, but especially so to the other DiXiT fellows together with whom we ended up sharing quite an experience. In hindsight, it seems that already from the early days the fellows took to DiXiT and to working with each other like ducks to vodka; and from then on, the last three years have etched into my memory almost as a stop-motion movie: what keeps constant is that I’m with dear friends, talking about editing and raising a glass; and what keeps changing are the surroundings and the seasons in the background.
I know I will look back at this fondly in the years to come, but I also have an inkling that the network gave a start to something that will carry on.
Next up: write-up.