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When history goes digital

Julia Flanders

Researchers are increas­ingly seeing the value of dig­i­tizing old man­u­scripts, texts, and other doc­u­ments. By poring through these dig­i­tally archived records using advanced visu­al­iza­tion and data mining tech­niques, scholars can create new teaching tools and develop research projects that reveal fas­ci­nating insights into cul­ture, his­tory, sci­ence, health trends, you name it.

A founding tool of such work is the Text Encoding Ini­tia­tive, which estab­lishes lan­guage and guide­lines for dig­i­tizing and curating schol­arly data. Yet while text encoding allows for pub­lishing, pre­serving, and sharing this infor­ma­tion, many poten­tial users—including scholars, archivists, librar­ians, teachers, and students—lack access to and under­standing of TEI resources.

That’s why a team of dig­ital human­i­ties experts at North­eastern Uni­ver­sity, Wheaton Col­lege, Brown Uni­ver­sity, and other insti­tu­tions is devel­oping a project known as TAPAS. The project—which stands for TEI Archiving, Pub­lishing, and Access Service—will pro­vide low-​​cost pub­lishing and storage ser­vices for users at all levels and fields to create, curate, and share high-​​quality data using open-​​source tools. Funded by the National Endow­ment for the Human­i­ties and the Insti­tute of Museum and Library Ser­vices since 2008, the project is sched­uled to launch in fall 2014.

You can do amazing things with this data once they’re dig­i­tized,” said project co-​​director Julia Flan­ders, who runs the Uni­ver­sity Libraries’ Dig­ital Schol­ar­ship Group and is a Pro­fessor of the Prac­tice in the Depart­ment of Eng­lish at North­eastern. She also directs the Women Writers Project, a long-​​term research ini­tia­tive devoted to early modern women’s writing and text encoding with a par­tic­ular focus on making texts by pre-​​Victorian women more acces­sible for teaching and research.

The Dig­ital Schol­ar­ship Group sup­ports dig­ital modes of research, pub­li­ca­tion, and col­lab­o­ra­tion at North­eastern and is part of a wider range of dig­ital schol­ar­ship ser­vices at the library. Those ser­vices include GIS and dig­ital map­ping resources, tools for cre­ating dig­ital projects, and the recently opened Dig­ital Schol­ar­ship Com­mons.

Through TAPAS, users could create and upload their projects, explore the work of others, and foster new col­lab­o­ra­tions. Over time, the dig­ital repos­i­tory would house col­lec­tions of work on a variety of topics. There would be inter­dis­ci­pli­nary ben­e­fits beyond these projects’ orig­inal scope, as well. For instance, whalers were known to jot down weather and water tem­per­a­ture data in their logs; by bringing this data under a common system, that infor­ma­tion might col­lec­tively be useful to cli­mate change researchers today.

North­eastern recently received a three-​​year, $300,000 grant from the National Endow­ment for the Human­i­ties to develop a full-​​scale dig­ital repos­i­tory for TAPAS, which will anchor the project’s long-​​term storage and visu­al­iza­tion services.

TAPAS began as a multi-​​university ini­tia­tive and is now fully housed at and run by North­eastern. The first phase of the project dates back to 2009, when col­lab­o­ra­tors began plan­ning and laying the ground­work for how the ser­vice would be struc­tured and imple­mented. In the fol­lowing years, the team col­lected dig­ital projects to begin testing the site and devel­oped a first working ver­sion of the ser­vice. Now in Phase III, the team is fur­ther refining TAPAS and working to ensure its long-​​term sus­tain­ability after its launch this fall.

Fol­lowing the launch, project leaders will host work­shops on text encoding as well as a series of “code-​​along” events to help fac­ulty and stu­dents create their own projects and inte­grate col­lab­o­ra­tive coding activ­i­ties into the classroom.

– By Greg St. Martin

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