A Letter From the Front: Days Two and Three of the Digital Humanities Oxford Summer School

War poetry has weighed-in heavily in the Digital Humanities Oxford Summer School. It’s appropriate, since Oxford University has been a guiding light in digitising archives and teaching resources relating to World War One. I’m going to concentrate on today’s (Wednesday’s) lectures and seminars because I have found them the most interesting of the past two days.

Today, I kicked off my day (after a strong coffee and a refreshing cycle beneath the dreaming spires), by listening to Kate Lindsay, of Oxford IT services, talk about ‘Re-Imagining the First World War’. What struck me about this talk was its emphasis on how achieving impact, by disseminating research and knowledge beyond academia, should be by no means a one-way transaction. Rather, public engagement can actually feed into academic research and provide it with extra fuel. To make this clearer, Lindsay showed how Oxford University had organised ‘digitisation workshops’ around the UK, where members of the public were encouraged to bring family heirlooms relating to World War One, which would be scanned or photographed on the spot. In this process, the public were making resources available for research that may have been sitting in the draw of a bureau for almost a hundred years.

Not only would the team digitise these items (letters, medals, tobacco tins etc), but they would simultaneously share their academic knowledge with the attendees. In return, these members of public would feed the academic team information that they might not have known – because, as Lindsay pointed out, when it comes to wartime experience, the public often knows more than any academic.  These workshops were replicated in Germany and Ireland, where such research might be avoided because of perceived disinterest or war guilt. Surprisingly, attendance by the public at the workshops was much greater than in the UK: people evidently wanted to talk about experiences that have been neglected. I will end my account having not even scraped the surface of what Lindsay discussed, but a lot of the resources that were digitised through the workshops are available on the Europeana 1914-18 website, and the World War One Centenary page.

German Propaganda - together we can beat hunger! http://www.europeana1914-1918.eu/en/contributions/118

German Propaganda – together we can beat hunger! http://www.europeana1914-1918.eu/en/contributions/118

The early morning and afternoon saw the continuation of the workshop ‘streams’ and so I continued with the Introduction to TEI workshop. I found today’s workshops particularly engaging, because we focused on what I (and most of the other people in the room) love: manuscripts. Because TEI was designed specifically for humanities and social sciences research, it has layer upon layer of specific language for representing text. So, we spent many a joyful minute discussing the intricacies of how to represent scribal emendments in TEI. We debated the uncertainty that can arise from transcribing texts from facsimiles and how this can be signaled in TEI. Believe it or not, there is not an ounce of sarcasm when I describe this as ‘joyful’ – I thought I had died and gone to heaven today. It is really satisfying to learn how to convey the structure of a manuscript in TEI, in a way which could eventually feed in to a digital database of manuscript transcriptions.

I am afraid that I opted out of the evening lecture in favour of a pint of cool real ale at the pub, but even the most eager digital humanist needs to wind down now and again.


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