Archive for the ‘Public Humanities’ Category

Virtual Paul’s Cross Project website is now available for exploration!

May 8, 2013

st-paul

About a year ago, EMOB devoted a post to several NEH-funded digital projects. John N. Wall, Project Director and Professor of English Literature at NC State University, has let us know that the Virtual Paul’s Cross Project website is now available for exploration at http://vpcp.chass.ncsu.edu. We provide below the press release announcing its availability and invite EMOB readers to explore and comment.

The Virtual Paul’s Cross Project uses visual and acoustic modeling technology to recreate the experience of John Donne’s Paul’s Cross sermon for November 5th, 1622. The goal of this project is to integrate what we know, or can surmise, about the look and sound of this space, destroyed by the Great Fire of London in 1666, and about the course of activities as they unfolded on the occasion of a Paul’s Cross sermon, so that we may experience a major public event of early modern London as it unfolded in real time and in the context of its original surroundings.

The Virtual Paul’s Cross Project has been supported by a Digital Start-Up Grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

The Virtual Paul’s Cross Project has sought the highest degree of accuracy in this recreation. To do so, it combines visual imagery from the 16th and 17th centuries with measurements of these buildings made during archaeological surveys of their foundations, still in the ground in today’s London. The visual presentation also integrates into the appearance of the visual model the look of a November day in London, with overcast skies and an atmosphere thick with smoke. The acoustic simulation recreates the acoustic properties of Paul’s Churchyard, incorporating information about the dispersive, absorptive or reflective qualities of the buildings and the spaces between them.

This website allows us to explore the northeast corner of Paul’s Churchyard, outside St Paul’s Cathedral, in London, on November 5th, 1622, and to hear John Donne’s sermon for Gunpowder Day, all two hours of it, in the space of its original delivery and in the context of church bells and the random ambient noises of dogs, birds, horses, and crowds of up to 5,000 people.
There is a Concise Guide to the whole site here.

In keeping with the desire for authenticity, the text of Donne’s sermon was taken from a manuscript prepared within days of the sermon’s original delivery that contains corrections in Donne’s own handwriting. It was recorded by a professional actor using an original pronunciation script and interpreting contemporary accounts of Donne’s preaching style.

For John Donne’s Paul’s Cross sermon for November 5th, 1622 (in 15-minute segments), as heard from 2 different positions in the Churchyard, go here.

On the website, the user can learn how the visual and acoustic models were created and explore the political and social background of Donne’s sermon. In addition to the complete recordings of Donne’s Gunpowder Day sermon, one can also explore the question of audibility of the unamplified human voice in Paul’s Churchyard by sampling excerpts from the sermon as heard from eight different locations across the Churchyard and in the presence of four different sizes of crowd.

For excerpts of the sermon from eight different locations and in the presence of different sizes of crowd go here.

The website also houses an archive of materials that contributed to the recreation, including visual records of the buildings, high resolution files of the manuscript and first printed versions of Donne’s sermon for Gunpowder Day 1622, and contemporary accounts of Donne’s preaching style. In addition, the website includes an acoustic analysis of the Churchyard, discussion of the challenges of interpreting historic depictions of the Cathedral and its environs, and a review of the liturgical context of outdoor preaching in the early modern age.

To see the visual model in detail on a fly around video go here. This is especially dramatic if viewed in HD video and at Full Screen display.
This Project is the work of an international team of scholars, engineers, actors, and linguists. In addition to the Project Director, they include David Hill, Associate Professor of Architecture at NC State University; Joshua Stephens, Jordan Grey, Chelsea Sacks, and Craig Johnson, graduate students in architecture at NC State University; John Schofield, Archaeologist at St Paul’s Cathedral and author of St Paul’s Cathedral Before Wren (2011); David Crystal, linguist; Ben Crystal, actor; Ben Markham and Matthew Azevedo, acoustic engineers with Acentech, Inc; and members of the faculty in linguistics and their graduate students at NC State University, especially professors Walt Wolfram, Erik Thomas, Robin Dodsworth, and Jeff Mielke.

Wall’s team is now planning a second stage of this Project, with the goal of completing the visual model of Paul’s Churchyard, including a complete model of St Paul’s Cathedral as it looked in the early 1620’s, during John Donne’s tenure as Dean of the cathedral. This visual model will be the basis for an acoustic model of the cathedral’s interior, especially the Choir, which will be the site for restaging a full day of worship services, including Bible readings, prayers, liturgies from the Book of Common Prayer, sermons, and music composed by the professional musicians on the cathedral’s staff for performance by the cathedral’s organist and its choir of men and boys. They will be competing for our attention, as they did in the 1620’s, with the noise of crowds who gathered in the cathedral’s nave, known as Paul’s Walk, to see and be seen and to exchange the latest gossip of the day.

Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) Is Launched

April 17, 2013

About a year ago, Anna reported on plans to launch the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) by April 2013 in a post that can be found here. While launch dates are often delayed, it is an auspicious sign that the DPLA will go live Thursday, April 18th, at 12 noon (ET). The festivities slated to take place in Boston in honor of the DPLA’s going live, however, have understandably been canceled due to the tragic bombings earlier this week (see the message from Dan Cohen, the DPLA’s Executive Director).

Since he first championed the idea for the DPLA several years ago, Robert Darnton has kept us abreast of progress and plans “to make the holdings of America’s research libraries, archives, and museums available to all Americans—and eventually to everyone in the world—online and free of charge” through articles he has written for The New York Review of Books (NYRB 25 April 2013). Thus, it should come as no surprise that he has marked the launch of the DPLA with another informative piece. Framing the DPLA as a convergence of the American strands of utopianism and pragmatism, Darnton sees the project as one deeply rooted in the eighteenth century and as holding the potential to “realize the dream of Jefferson and Franklin.”

Darnton’s article also offers a pithy summary of events that led to the development of DPLA, basics about how the software works, plans for sustaining the DPLA’s growth, notes about the well-respected foundations funding the first three years of the DPLA, and a description of the distributive management model DPLA has embraced in which operations are spread out across the country. As emob tweeted two weeks ago, Darnton sees legal obstacles as the key hindrance to the growth of the DPLA.

The DPLA has already attracted a host of impressive partners including Harvard, The Smithsonian Institution, ARTstor, University of Virginia libraries, the New York Public Library, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Library, Biodiversity Heritage Library, and the National Archives. It is with great interest that we will be tracking its progress.

Digital Humanities and Archives II: ‘Archival Effects’ of Digitization

April 29, 2012

In an earlier EMOB post, “Digital Humanities and the Archives I: Economics and Sustainability”, we discussed the varied connotations that the term “sustainability” evokes. Yet the concept of “archives” also engenders a multiplicity of meanings as does the word “database.” In some circles “archive” and “database” are used interchangeably, while for others the terms signal distinctions between the past and the present. As Marlene Manoff has observed,

When scholars outside library and archival science use the word “archive” or when those outside information technology fields use the word “database,” they almost always mean something broader and more ambiguous than experts in these fields using those same words. The disciplinary boundaries within which these terms have been contained are eroding. Scholars use the terms metaphorically, appropriating them from the professional experts. (Manoff, “Archive and Database as Metaphor: Theorizing the Historical Record.” portal: Libraries and the Academy, 10.4 [2010], 385)

The submissions for the “Digital Humanities and the Archives” roundtable at ASECS 2012 attest to the varied meanings scholars ascribe to “archive” as a digital entity. While some proposals viewed commercial textbases such as ECCO or EEBO as archives, others considered non-commercial digital projects (some of which were designed to perform additional roles beyond being a repository), as falling under the “archival” designation. Still others proposed topics that were not tied to specific digital collections or projects. Reflecting this diversity, the selected presentations featured two papers on the nature of searching within digital environments (Randall Cream, West Chester Univ., and Bill Blake, New York Univ.), another on the coding issues encountered in building a performance history database (Mike Gavin, Rice University; University of South Carolina, Fall 2012), a fourth on the potential evidence that can be derived from negative results (Sayre Greenfield, Univ. of Pittsburgh, Greensburg), and the last on a digital archive aimed at facilitating exchange between scholars facilitating exchange between scholars and those outside the academy (Jessica Richard, Wake Forest Univ.). In his post on the many Digital Humanities sessions at ASECS, Stephen Gregg offers a fine overview of this roundtable, so the following comments supplement his summary. In addition, they serve as a springboard for discussing digitization’s broader “archival effects,” a term coined by Marlene Manoff to “suggest the ways in which digital media bring the past into the present” (386).

Contrasting the old and the new, Randall Cream noted that unlike traditional archives whose contents are not always fully known, digital archives and databases afford more certainty because their creation involves detailed and defining–an encyclopedic naming of their various parts. For Cream, this difference has also meant that searching the digital archives lacks the serendipitous discovery that scholars often experience when working in brick-and-mortar archives. He suggested concept-linked searching as a possible means of fostering chance discoveries within digital environments, a suggestion that provided a fitting segue to Bill Blake’s talk on crafting more effective digital searches. Blake argued for thinking beyond topical keyword searches aimed solely at retrieval. Instead, he called for adopting more quality, conceptually-based searches that will yield better results; such searches will counter the drift and spread that occur when the aim of retrieval replaces the goal of discovery. (Given earlier EMOB discussions of semantic- or meaning-based searches, it should be noted that Blake was referring to the ways users select and fashion search terms and not to the new search platforms that enable semantic or meaning-based searching such as Mimas used in JISC’s Historic Books collection.)

Cream’s and Blake’s remarks point to what could be termed a remediation of research practices as print and digital interact, and both their talks highlighted searching as perhaps one of the most significant reconfigured practices. And indeed the concept of searching has undergone major reformulations in the digital environment. While accessibility and quickness of obtaining results are often seen as digital archives’ main advantage over print, a key benefit of digital collections resides in their enabling users to traverse immense areas of texts multi-directionally. Put another way, what seems radically different about searching in the digital world is not merely unprecedented access and speed, but rather the ways one can alter search strategies instantaneously, shifting not only the search terms employed at a moment’s notice but also the temporal and spatial coordinates in which those terms are placed. This capability expands the ways we are approaching the search as a strategy, opening up new conceptualizations even as we retain the habits and training we acquired working with print. As Wired magazine’s Kevin Kelly has observed: “What search uncovers is not just keywords but also the inherent value of connection…Search opens up creations. …As a song, movie, novel or poem is searched, the potential connections it radiates seep into society in a much deeper way than the simple publication of a duplicated copy ever could” (Kevin Kelly, “Scan this Book!” New York Times, 14 May 2006).

The searching enabled within digital archives reorients our thinking about what constitutes relevant information and exposes the kinds of connectivity that we would likely miss or overlook working with print and manuscript in traditional environments. This reorientation, moreover, possesses its own opportunities for serendipity. While serendipitous discoveries made when working in a traditional archive or even browsing in the stacks typically occur within a bounded space and a pre-selected range of call numbers, digital archives and databases enable virtual movement throughout their holdings to uncover relevant but unforeseen connections not bounded by categories of expectations. In short, capable of serving as far more than text delivery systems and repositories, these digital archives and databases function as “discovery aids.” Fostering a culture of connectivity, these intellectual laboratories of sorts can provide access not only to individual titles but also to a larger, dynamic field of textual and sociocultural activity.

Sayre Greenfield’s paper demonstrated the kind of discoveries that this rethinking of relevant information can yield. Noting that assessing negative findings requires caution, Greenfield explored the ways in which a lack of search results—negative evidence—can translate into meaningful information and concluded that “absences are most useful when measured against positive results found elsewhere, in different genres or different periods.” In offering examples of the different hits obtained from performing the same search in ECCO and Burney, he drew attention to the importance of knowing the scope of a given database and the value of working across databases.

Mike Gavin’s paper also underscored the importance of understanding the operation of digital archives and the rethinking that such understanding can prompt. As Gavin recounted, creating a digital archive of dramatic works that incorporates their performance history has necessitated adapting TEI coding to facilitate searching. While his comments reflect the perspective of those constructing the archive, they also hold significance for users of digital archives. The tagging examples he provided illustrate the significant intellectual labor that goes into the creation of digital databases and archives; encoding a document, after all, is an interpretive practice requiring careful thought and subject expertise. His illustrations are a cogent reminder that the archives–whether traditional or digital–are never neutral but always are rooted in the views and principles of their creators. In the case of digital archives or databases, users benefit from being cognizant of their “constructedness.” Having an awareness of a digital archive’s creators, the circumstances surrounding its creation, the quality of its metadata, and the idiosyncrasies of its search engine will almost certainly enhance a user’s search process and, in some cases, even his or her analysis of results. Unfortunately, it is not always possible to uncover such details about digital archives and databases. Plus, even when there is transparency and one can familiarize oneself with a digital archive’s encoding principles and information architecture, the tagging can still limit the what results searches return. On a different note, it seems worth mentioning that the tasks of coding and organizing the contents of a traditional archive will, in turn, often enrich knowledge of its physical material. And this physical material remains important, for the digital and the material are not one and the same.

Unlike the first four papers that focused on either existing archives or ones nearing completion, Jessica Richard’s paper dealt with the early planning stages of a digital project. The incarnation for the project was a desire to foster exchange between eighteenth-century science studies scholars and a non-academic readership; creating a web-based site seems an ideal medium for the public-humanities thrust of this project. Notwithstanding its differences from the other talks, Richard’s topic very much reflects how the digital is transforming our traditional conceptions of archives. The project’s rethinking of audience, attention to wide access, and desire to translate scholarship for an interested general public all exemplify aspects of this transformation.

As these five talks illustrated, digital media are transforming our theoretical conceptions of “archives”; creating new paradigms and inspiring shifts in existing models as the digital and traditional archival cultures interact; and shaping the kinds of archival projects being undertaken, the methodologies used, and the types of research questions posed. Early in her essay Manoff suggests that “our current moment reflects the convergence of two phenomena–new technical capacities and an age-old impulse to gather and preserve. The ease of capturing digital data is an incitement to archive” (386). In light of the linguistic history of “archive,” connections between new technical capacities and the desire to collect and preserve have perhaps an even longer history. The word “archive” does not appear until after the invention of hand-press printing. While its use as a noun to denote either a historical document that is preserved or the place in which such documents are kept dates from the late 1630s/early 1640s, its verbal form–to archive–does not enter the lexicon until the twentieth century. Whether coincidence or not, this verb does not gain wide currency until the 1980s, a timing that corresponds with the growth in the use of computers and related technologies. In the past two decades the extensive adoption of digital technologies has dramatically spurred efforts to assemble large-scale collections of visual, verbal, and even oral materials and make them virtually available, either freely or commercially.

For Manoff, metaphorical appropriations of “archive” are not only useful for theorizing the ever-increasing growth of these collections but also for theorizing the digital in terms of its archival effects on our conceptions of history and the cultural record (385-6). As Manoff observes at the close of her essay, “archive” especially lends itself to such theorizing because the concept “carries within it both the ideal of preserving collective memory and the reality of its impossibility” (396). The musings about traditional and digital archives presented here touch upon only a few of the archival effects that digital transformations are exercising on our research practices and broader relationships with the history and knowledge. I hope others will add their thoughts about these changes and the explanatory power of “archive” to address our cultural moment.


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