I spent the past week at the Digital Humanities Summer Institute at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, learning (among other things) how to use the Text Encoding Initiative guidelines to create digital editions of manuscript documents. I practiced on a set of seventeenth-century manuscript newsletters from the Bodleian Library’s Carte collection, which I took photos of during a research trip last summer. I’m hoping to use these samples to develop a grant proposal for a larger scale project for archiving newsletters, which are totally unavailable in digital form. Most researchers of early news circulation misunderstand these incredibly rich historical sources because they are so hard to access—located in often distant library archives and sometimes misclassified as personal letters.
In addition to this exciting future project (add it to the Future Projects List!), the course got me thinking about the role those in the digital humanities should play in changing definitions of reading and literacy within English departments. The documents I produced are supposed to be digital transcriptions of an existing hard-copy text, and I did my best to encode all the features of my source, from alternate spellings to shifts in handwriting. At the same time, I was both adding significant information to the document and providing my own interpretation of it. TEI allows users to create lists of people and places (to take two major categories) associated with texts. Therefore, my digital edition of just two four-page newsletters includes biographies of people from Thomas Carte, the eighteenth-century collector of the documents, to King Charles II, who appears as a topic of news. I also encoded a list of places mentioned in the news articles, providing coordinate points for the cities. This information clearly offers the researcher much more than does the original document.
It seems that code literacy—whether in TEI (which is based on XML), HTML, Java, or other coding languages—will increasingly be accepted as a new form of linguistic competency. Already, some graduate programs are allowing these skills to take the place of the traditional foreign-language requirement. And we could do more to connect our existing pedagogical technique of close reading with such new literacies. An insightful investigator could draw out many of the interpretive choices I made in marking up this document just from carefully reading the code. For example, I decided that it was important to correct archaic spellings—”haue” to “have,” “kingdome” to “kingdom”—but not to regularize capitalization. A student might ask: Why did I make this decision? What does it say about my goals for the markup and its application? (Answer: I would want the digital edition to be easily searchable, which is generally not affected by capitalization). As literature departments become more interdisciplinary and linguistically diverse, it should be a priority to marry our traditional pedagogical and methodological techniques with these emerging forms of literacy.