Digital Humanities Oxford Summer School 2013: Day One

‘How would you go about coding this page in XML?’ Sebastian Rahtz asks, pointing at the covering leaf of our summer school booklet, with its array of university branding, titles, geographical information and website URLs.

Silence.

‘What do you think is important about this page?’

Someone bravely responded from the audience, pointing out that, maybe, the title and the date would be most important. The date, 2013, because it conveys the fact that the summer school is one of a sequence – that other summer schools have come and gone before it. Well, this date is important to me too, because it is the first year that I have felt the need to undertake formal training in the digital humanities, and, if I’m honest, it’s the year in which I’ve seriously begun to consider myself truly interested in digital scholarship. I have used digital resources for years, but it is only in the past year that I’ve been part of their production. In the process of helping to producing them, I have felt a desire to learn more, and to build upon my technical abilities. I’ve become really excited about the ideas that I’ve seen springing out of various academic departments and libraries. I’ve felt a need to become part of ‘it’ even more than I already am. Having learnt some XML on the job at the Digital Index of Middle English Verse, I have decided that I want to learn how to code ‘like a pro’. Not just mark-up manuscript transcriptions, but really know how the marking up and transformation process works.

The DHOx Summer School, which runs at Wolfson College at Oxford University is a combination of lectures and intensive workshops, which focus on different elements of the digital humanities. As Day One draws to an end, I thought I’d write down some of my reflections.

The opening keynote speech was by Mike Pidd, from the Humanities Research Institute at the University of Sheffield, and was entitled “What is the Value of the Digital Humanities?” Interestingly, his talk had similar issues at its core to the speech given by A.S.G. Edwards at the (Re)Presenting the Archives conference at Sheffield back in May. However, though Pidd told some of the dark cautionary tales of badly-manage projects and obsolete resources, he also pointed us to those burning lights – those excellent digital resources that have already appeared, and that are in the process of being developed. He showed us websites with properly-curated pages which were designed using open source standards. He pointed out that the Courtauld Gallery website shares design features with those used by John Lewis and Sainsburys. And, let’s face it, supermarket  customers will not stand for websites that are difficult, slow, or cumbersome. Pidd pointed out that the secret to the success of these initiatives is good project management, by those who are experienced in costing projects, judging their time scales, and planning them from start to finish and beyond.

Aside from the keynote lectures and parallel lecture sessions, there are workshops. I, forcing my wandering eyes away from the more exciting workshops (eg. the one on “IMPACT!”), opted for the practical “An Introduction to XML and the Text Encoding Initiative”. Having only been to one session, it is hard for me to say whether I will struggle to keep up with the pace, or whether I will storm ahead with strength of my existing experience in coding.  Sebastian Rahtz, who is Director of Academic IT at the University of Oxford, is leading the workshop, and begun with taking us through coding a transcription of a manuscript from beginning to end. The hope is, at the end, we will have a publishable TEI text. The mornings and early afternoons are filled with lectures on the basics of the coding language, and then we are unleashed on computers for the remainder of the time to try out our new skills. Being in a computer lab has catapulted me back into my school days, but it is very useful to put the instructions in to practice.

Bring on the rest of the week, I say!

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