Electronic Enlightenment

Old marketing material but I liked the design

This week the Digital Lunchtime Lectures resumed (though there is only one left now, boo!) and today’s lecture was delightfully technical; we were visited by Mark Rogerson, the technical editor of Electronic Enlightenment, the ‘most wide-ranging online collection of edited correspondence of the early modern period, linking people across Europe, the Americas and Asia from the early 17th to the mid-19th century’ (in their own words). It is distributed by Oxford University Press and sounds fascinating.

The project not only has keyed versions of the letters but some of the manuscripts as well; I am a sucker for letters and handwriting so the idea, to me, sounds perfect. The project is available on subscription (due to the copyright on some of the letters) and Universities from around the globe are already utilising it.

Mark is the only technical staff at EE, it is a small operation with only the project management, himself and freelancers.

The project takes the form of a website which takes collections of letters from about 1610 to 1840 and brings them into a web system for access online. Along with the copyright, the subscription has another purpose, EE have an aim to make a sustainable model for this type of content as most distributors put it online for free and then fade into obscurity as they lack the funds to continue the work. However, the letters are not the only content this project provides, the whole project is made up of:

  • correspondence and related documents
  • images of manuscripts where possible
  • biographies of authors and recipients
  • critical apparatus
  • source information
  • annotations

The sources of the letters is often critical editions (printed books from over 30 publishers which are normally copyrighted), Mark explained the digitisation of these often hardback books and I have to admit, the first step made me wince. Books are taken apart, spine first to enable scanning, each letter/page is scanned to PDF and then sent to India for keying. He emphasised the importance of keying when it comes to old texts, OCR would not work in this context due to the difference in language between that period and this. All of this results in XML, which is the backbone of the process. The process being going from print to digital to the web for subscribers.

Along with those sourced from critical editions, there is also born digital content which is created for them in Word with their style guide, converted into XML. They are currently working on web-based tools, like zoomable images of the manuscripts so that subscribers can really inspect the texts (and perhaps so they can cut down on the amount of annotations on the typed versions).

We were given a behind-the-scenes look at the database used in the editorial process and, to be honest, it was a little terrifying; it’s all because of the dates. Due to the age of the correspondence they are dealing with some function on different calendars, not only this but some of the dates are un- or partially-known, as such there are over 70 fields involved just to input the date. Another issue meaning that they need such a complicated database is the names – the long names.

Another behind-the-scenes type insight we were given was an explanation of the make up of the website itself, which I found particularly interesting and particularly helpful for NPD. (Miracles do exist and they exist in the form of guest speakers.) Something they are looking into at the moment is responsive design and I will be interested to see where they go with it.

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