Thursday, 7 February 2013

Unpacking the draft page: time, space, and computer games

A few weeks ago, I went to a seminar organised by the King’s College Centre for E-research. It was delivered by Elena Pierazzo who is a lecturer and researcher at the Department of Digital Humanities at King’s College London. 

The focus of the seminar was modern draft manuscripts and how to represent these digitally. These are texts such as notebooks, first drafts of monographs, or other texts which are initially produced by authors for personal reasons. As specific examples, she pointed to the notebooks of Kafka, Proust, da Vinci, Austen, Nietzsche, and many of the manuscripts which are kept in the British Library’s Treasures gallery. 

The difficulty with these texts is that they are quintessentially human and quintessentially print commodities: the layout of the writing is messy, incoherent, and idiosyncratic. They feature ‘exploded notes’, doodles, separate blocks of writing running in various ways in various places on the page. They can be read geographically (traditional left-to-right, up-to-down reading) or chronologically (in terms of how the author put them together followed by revisions, corrections, etc.). Although they are complex and beautiful print commodities, they cannot hold the interest of the average reader for longer than a few seconds. 

Various attempts have been made to represent these draft manuscripts digitally (see the British Library’s Turning the Pages™, for example) but these usually involve either marking-up a print reproduction or mimicking the print version in digital version. Often these are poor representations which focus on structure and syntax rather than layout of the text. Though they are attempts to mimic the print, they essentially look like different objects. 

A page from the Lindisfarne Gospel
The solution of Dr. Pierazzo’s team is to use TEI and gamification to create digital versions which accurately represent the semantic content of the draft manuscript and engage readers to explore that content. TEI (the Text Encoding Initative standard) is the de facto standard for transcription of texts in digital humanities. Pre-2011, TEI focused on transcription based on structure and semantics rather than appearance. This failed on certain texts such as medieval manuscripts in which the layout can be as important as the text’s semantic content (see, for example, the Lindisfarne Gospel). 

At the end of 2011, TEI P5 v2.0.1 was released which offers support for ‘genetic editing’. The new version can transcribe manuscripts based on layout rather than solely on semantics. It can recognise complex writing phenomena such as notes that aren’t part of the main text, metamarks, scribbles under doodles, etc. 

The team was also interested in using aspects of gamification in the design of new digital editions. Gamification involves using the engaging elements of computer games in other areas such as scholarly research. It’s about making activities engaging by setting achievable goals, making activities task-oriented, and enabling the tracing of progress. For example, one throws angry birds at evil pigs in order to achieve a goal, in order to earn points, in order to create achievements towards which one can point. The team was keen to use these principles to engage readers with draft manuscripts. 

To produce a prototype, they took a draft manuscript by Proust. They divided the digital reproduction into distinct blocks of text and then tracked two separate sequences: the writing sequence (in what order Proust wrote the text) and the reading sequence (in what order the text should be read for the reader’s understanding). From 5 days of work and processing using TEI, XML, XSLT, and some JavaScript for the animation, they created the Proust Prototype which is a dynamic, animated way of viewing the manuscript page digitally (which unfortunately doesn’t appear to work in Internet Explorer). All the details and code that was used are available on the website

The Proust Prototype showing some markup.

The limits of this prototype include visualising sequences across separate pages, visualising sequences across separate notebooks, and micro-interactivity with small blocks of text (metamarks, stage directions, comments, etc. which were all encoded in TEI but not intuitively interactive in the prototype). 

Dr. Pierazzo ended by making the point that computers can help us to do something new in this area. Computers and computer technologies have permeated so many areas of scholarly research particularly in the natural sciences, the social sciences, and mathematics: the humanities however, with their particular focus on human interpretation and subjective judgement, have been the last subject area to properly use computers to advance the discipline. Digital humanities represent the exploration of the last frontier for computer interaction in the intellectual domain. If computer technology can be used to analyse something as essentially human as a messy notebook, then there is no limit to their application in academic research.

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