Learning XML and Transcription Skills

Our last class of the semester was all about Transcription and learning how to write XML Markup Language in order to categorise data for cataloguing. Although I have used other languages such as CSS, HTML, JSON and Python I have never practised using XML until then, and I found it interesting and enjoyable to try and figure out. What I particularly enjoyed about it was the ability to create new tags while also adhering to strict rules in order to make the XML function.

However, I am very familiar to the transcription side of things, due to my work working with the Freedmen Bureaus Paper for Douglass Day over a year ago. For people who are not knowledgeable in markup languages then using Transcription software as seen on the Smithsonian Transcription website,  makes it very simple for people to get involved and helps to create a kind of digital community who want to help to transcribe these records and documents. I have a blogpost detailing the system that was used for the event, so I won’t be repeating myself here. However, I will say that it is not only the Smithsonian have websites for this, there is also Zooniverse where there are multiple projects featuring items needing transcribing, such as Anti-Slavery Manuscripts which entails, ‘turn our collection of handwritten correspondence between anti-slavery activists in the 19th century into texts that can be more easily read and researched by students, teachers, historians, and big data applications’(‘Anti-Slavery Manuscripts’ n.d.) and the Scribes of the Cairo Geniza which aims to ‘ unlock the secrets of one of the greatest archives of the middle ages. Hidden for centuries in an attic in Cairo, over 300,000 fragments of pre-modern and medieval Jewish texts—from everyday receipts to biblical works—have yet to be fully deciphered’ (‘Scribes of the Cairo Geniza’ n.d.).  Closer to home, Ireland has created a similar website but for a stand-alone project known as Letters 1916 – 1923 which is ‘Ireland’s first participatory digital humanities project. Begun in September 2013 as Letters 1916, it expanded its collection period to the end of the Civil War through a generous grant from the Irish Research Council. Join us in creating this unique resource by sharing letters with us or helping to transcribe previously deposited letters’ (‘Explore Letters 1916-1923’ n.d.). The project is a combination between different organisations and requires the transcription of letters during 1916 – 1932 some of the most historically important years in Irish history. It is interesting that this is the second large scale digital project in Ireland over the last number of years, along with the Beyond 2023 initiative which I have spoken about in a separate blog post. This makes me feel very positive about how Irish organisations are seeing Digital Humanities as a viable way to help restore and transcribe the past in order to make it accessible for the future. It’s only a matter of time before we see more smaller scale projects being completed with a DH lens here in Ireland which makes me very excited about the future of Digital Humanities here in Ireland.

How to combine Heritage and Culture in the Digital World.

I am a student of both Digital Humanities and Global Gallery Studies, which means that I have the ability to look through both the digital and the physical lens, seeing both sides of arguments that ask, ‘Why do we need to digitise everything?’, when the truth is, we don’t. If we went ahead of attempted to digitise every little thing from the past, then we would have excess of information that we don’t really need to tell the story of the past. Which is where the idea of curation comes in, in order to decide what should/shouldn’t be digitised. Which in turn opens a whole other debate as to who is qualified to decide what pieces of our history and culture should we hold onto and what should we erase? This is not a new debate by any means, but it is a growing question that we are still no where near close to finding the correct answer if there in fact is a straight answer. There are some places in Ireland that manage to combine the worlds of the Heritage/Cultural and the Digital World, such as the Beyond 2022 initiative set up my the Irish Government and Trinity College Dublin (TCD) and is a

‘an all-island and international collaboration. Working together, we will launch a Virtual Record Treasury for Irish history—an open-access, virtual reconstruction of the Record Treasury destroyed in 1922’.

(“Beyond 2022 | Ireland’s Virtual Record Treasury” 2019)

This initiative helps to complete and image of Irish History which was thought to have been destroyed in the fire. For someone like me, this is a perfect example of Digital Humanities in action, using technology and communities with the knowledge and skills needed  in order to salvage what data or records we have from that time.

One local example of this is Nano Nagle Place which is a heritage space in the centre of Cork City which is dedicated to the life of Nano Nagle and the work of the South Presentation convent. Nano Nagle herself was the founder of the Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, otherwise known as the Presentation Sisters, Nagle also dedicated her life to the development of Catholic Education in Ireland (“The Story Of Nano Nagle – Nanonagle” 2019). The heritage centre details Nano’s life in Cork while also talking about the Order of the Presentation Sisters including records and photographs from when the school was in operation. They also use a mix of traditional and modern ways to tell the story of the convent from videos to digital maps highlighting Nano Nagle’s trips. The centre is considered to be highly innovative in its use of digital tools and other venues around the country are hoping to adopt similar systems in newer heritage sites, which is what makes Nano Nagle place so unique. While also showing how important and vital digital skills are in order to keep the heritage sector evolving to cater for the next generation of budding curators and historians.