Today I set out on a week-long trip that will take me to familiar places to meet lots of people doing new things with old stuff. In many ways, I have been doing new things with old stuff for a while. Working with manuscript materials all my academic career, I have always wanted to find ways to make what had been stored away in acid free boxes on shelves in archives more accessible to the public. And print publishing has not always been the answer. For example, no-one was interested in publishing a parallel dual language text of the memoirs back in the 90s, and so I tried on-line publishing (see the Moravian Women’s Memoirs experiment that I started back in the days of HTML in the late 1990s). More recently, I have been able to discuss and publish the 18th century maps of the Susquehanna River I have found in archives in both print media (the Journal of Moravian History and the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography) and also through some of the online work I have been doing with students on the river. To accomplish the latter, we are in the process of building an “atlas” of the river that will include its historical and critical cartography (the subject of Steffany Meredyk’s Honors thesis, for example).
In all of these first attempts, I have been extremely fortunate to work with archivists who share the desire to make what was stored away visible to the public (believe me, not all archivists do). Paul Peucker at the Moravian Archives in Bethlehem, Pa has been in many ways a trail blazer, both during his tenure at the Unity Archives in Herrnhut, Germany and certainly now in his position as Archivist of the Northern Province in Bethlehem. And now I am exploring new ways (to me) of working with these old things.
The first stop on this trip is a visit to Dr. Melissa Terras, the Director of University College, London’s Centre for Digital Humanities. One of the many fascinating projects housed there is “Transcribe Bentham,” a daring project to transcribe all of Jeremy Bentham’s manuscripts through crowd-sourcing the work. My first reaction to the notion of crowd-sourcing scholarly transcription was a sort of academic panic! Arghs! Where are controls? How can just anyone be trusted to do this? And then, the more I delved into the process of crowd-sourcing this transcription process, the more hooked I became. The discussion of the scholarly method is actually part of the goal of the project. This is where we learn what it means to make editorial decisions, how we set scholarly standards, how we can make critical decisions about what the future of humanities scholarship might look like. So now I want to set this up for deutsche Schrift, for the old German handwriting that I learned to read 25 years ago at a seminar at the Moravian Archives in Bethlehem and that has produced scores of scholars who want to, as Paul puts it, do more.
Reading, transcribing, translating “deutsche Schrift” is satisfying. I always liken it to unraveling a tangled ball of yarn, creating a smooth space from a striated one (sorry, Deleuze and Guatarri). But you can move in the opposite direction with manuscript text, too. You can take that smooth(ened) space and turn it into an intentional visual complexity. Another step I am taking is to learn TEI (text encoding initiative), which is an international standard for encoding methods for machine-readable texts, chiefly in the humanities. This might sound deathly for some, taking us back to a time of 19th century philology. But encoding a text allows us to do some really cool things with it that expand its dimensionality. I have started, under the expert tutelage of Diane Jakacki, to mark up the Shamokin Diary, making decisions about how to construct a placeography and a personography, how to mark up time, duration, emotion, movement, encounters. The text suddenly jumps off the page, allowing me to think of creating representations of this place that far more accurately encapture its dynamism. So, thank you, TEI by Example! And off I go!