This post was authored by Suzanne Raybuck, Intern with the Office of Digital Research and Scholarship in the Fall of 2019. Suzanne recounts her experience working with Special Collections Materials and creating a digital publication interface to display it online. The final version is not yet live, but this post contains previews of the interface.
When I originally was brought on as the Digital Publication Intern for the Office of Digital Research and Scholarship, I had virtually no concept of what I would be doing in my new internship position. But, very early on I knew that I wanted to work with the Robert E. Hancock Jr. Collection at FSU Special Collections. The Hancock Jr. Collection is a collection that “contains materials regarding military operations in the Antarctic, primarily focusing on the Operation Deep Freeze II mission.” Based on that description, it’s a safe conclusion to assume it contains lots of important and scholarly documents and artifacts. However, it also contains various memorabilia from Robert E. Hancock Jr.’s time in Antarctica (including many, many, tiny penguin figurines, a drawing of Mickey Mouse shaking a penguin’s hand, model navy destroyer ships, lumps of coal, emergency lanterns, and military rations). This wonderful collection of artifacts is endlessly fascinating because it provides a series of vignettes of life at the South Pole in the form of really fun random objects.
I found this collection while searching through Special Collections for a fun series of documents to use as guinea pigs for a new publication system we were testing. Essentially, I needed a bunch of documents in similar formats that we could transform into digital objects and then use to test out different publication tools. After spending maybe an hour with a variety of fun models and pictures, I found the Operation Deep Freeze Newsletters nestled into a box of other periodicals from Antarctica. The Newsletters were published by the army to send to the families of servicemen who were in Antarctica to let them know the news from the various bases. The Newsletters were mostly written by incredibly bored servicemen just trying to pass the time in their freezing posts. This boredom resulted in the inaugural newsletter detailing the long and involved process of how a band of grizzled soldiers tried to hatch live chicks from commercial eggs for the upcoming Easter Holiday. I had definitely found my guinea pig documents.
After finding the newsletters, I was tasked by our Digital Humanities Librarian, Sarah Stanley, with first encoding these newsletters in a data-rich .xml format called the Text Encoding Initiative, or TEI, and then figuring out how to publish them online. To accomplish this, we had to take into consideration three key factors: maintaining the format of the newsletters, good display functionality (e.g. tables of contents, hyperlinks, page view/scroll view), and how easy it would be to use. With these in mind, I started trying out different publication methods such as eXist-db’s TEI Publisher, which proved to be a challenging introduction into digital publishing.
eXist-db is an XML database tool that can be used to build web applications. We used the TEI Publisher package to create a digital collection that would use our TEI data format and present it in a clean and simple interface. The process of generating an application was intricate and required lots of specialized knowledge of both TEI files and their accompanying customization files. Additionally, we had no idea how the digital edition would look before we generated an application and viewed it, so if some small part of the display of the edition was off, we would have to delete the app, minimally adjust our code and generate a new app from the very beginning. Once we did get a finalized version generated, the overall look and feel of the page was exactly what we had hoped: very clean and easy to read. However, because we were using a program to generate the app for us, we had a very limited capacity to tweak the website interface and design or add our own custom parts to the whole thing. Ultimately, the the functionality of eXist-db did not quite meet our needs, and we tried to find a solution that would let us get a bit more hands-on with our edition.
Another possible publication tool didn’t arrive until the next semester, when I was working on publishing a collection of poetry translations online. Sarah pointed me towards a Jekyll (static website generator) template for minimal editions called “ed”. After looking at the examples, the display was again very clean and easy to interact with, so we decided to give it a shot. After deploying some quick test sites, we found that it was incredibly easy to work with and consistently generated beautifully designed websites that intuitively displayed our editions. It also had a built-in search function and annotation, which we were looking for in our poetry project. The only problem was we had to translate our TEI format into markdown, which caused us to lose huge amounts of metadata and information about textual styling that would be useful to other researchers. We made a judgement call and decided to keep looking for something that would preserve our format while giving us all the functionality and display options that we found with ed.
Though this project was long and frustrating, it ended up teaching me one of the most important points of digital publishing: digital representation of texts adds to the work, rather than merely representing it. Digital publishing is at a unique intersection where we have to negotiate the appearance of the facsimile, the functionality the editors want, and the demands of a digital medium. With all of these competing agendas, it’s hard to remember that a digital edition is a creative opportunity. With the vast array of tools offered by the web, developers can take advantage of things like interactive elements, user input, and different types of media to create editions that can only exist in digital spaces. In a way, digital editions represent a new kind of edition that acts more like an archive; where researchers can explore a digital space to find artifacts that are curated through organization and interface.
We plan for our iteration of the Newsletters in Pilot to allow for full-text searching, public annotation, different readings, and interactive displays. With these new features, we hope that the Newsletters will be read and understood in entirely different ways than their paper counterparts, and allow readers to interact with such an engaging yet little known collection.
¹ As an homage to CETEIcean (a pun on “cetacean,” which means “of or relating to whales”), we decided to keep with the whale theme and name our project after the pilot whale.