Letterbox diaries

On this rainy Wednesday in Oxford I’m sitting in my office in Pembroke College, which is right on the corner of Pembroke Square and St Aldate’s, a noisy by interesting little spot. I was working on a grant application when one of the college maintenance crew stopped by, asking if he could access the street door to do a repair. We went in search of the little keys labelled ‘secret door’ and ‘other secret door’ which allow us to get through the fire door without breaking the glass tube encasing the door’s bolt. 20150918_133328

My visitor’s mission?  To investigate how the street door letter box flap has come open, and how to close it, for the avoidance of kebab ‘letters’ courtesy of legless late-night patrons of McCoy’s kebab van.

While investigating the letterbox I came across some notes that I’m pretty sure were never received by the intended recipient, the tutor who occupied this office many years before me, and with a gap of some time in between, when the office served as overflow storage for the Development Office. Three hand written notes on lined paper, written in blue biro, and clearly torn from a smallish spiral notebook. I’d date them to 2000 or after, as the writer informs his/her tutor that they came for their tutorial but the tutor was not in, and that they would email to rearrange.

I didn’t read the letters in full, I confess, but I couldn’t throw them away either. I considered dusting them off and handing them in to the porters, but then I thought of Daniel Starza Smith‘s new project ‘Signed, Sealed, & Undelivered’, which will digitize 2,600 undelivered letters preserved in a seventeenth-century postmaster’s trunk, including 600 which have never been opened. True, my little find is hardly on the same scale, and the contents are a bit mundane, but there is something poignant in the thought that if I leave these notes in the locked letterbox now, someone may find them in the future, perhaps when the thought of a handwritten note telling someone you’ve emailed them is sweetly arcane or amusing, or even–who knows–when email itself has been superseded, and both the letters and the reference to email sound quite thoroughly, utterly, otherly.

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How is finding a consensus among citizen science transcriptions like aligning gene sequences AND textual analysis of medieval codices? Part 2

Great observation from the Notes from Nature team: ‘Citizen science approaches place us right between existing standards-oriented thinking in biodiversity informatics and edition-oriented thinking in the humanities.’ http://www.notesfromnature.org/

So You Think You Can Digitize

(cross-posted at SciStarter)

In our last post, we went through the mechanics of how to find consensus from a set of independently created transcriptions by citizen scientists — this involved a mash-up of bioinformatics tools for sequence alignment (repurposed for use with text strings) and natural language processing tools to find tokens and perform some word synonymizing.  In the end, the informatics blender did indeed churn out a consensus —  but this attempt at automation led us to realize that there’s more than one kind of consensus.  In this post we want to to explore that issue a bit more.

So, lets return to our example text:

Some volunteers spelled out abbreviations (changing “SE” to “Southeast”) or corrected errors on the original label (changing “Biv” to “River”); but others did their best to transcribe each label verbatim – typos and all.

These differences in transcription style led us…

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Academic Crowdsourcing Liberates Researchers and Resources

When I present about the academic crowdsourcing work my colleagues and I do at Zooniverse, one of the questions we sometimes get asked is: Does crowdsourcing take paid work away from people? The first few times I was asked this question I answered that the processing of relatively straightforward or simple data by a crowd frees the researcher, be they a top tier professor or a first year graduate student, to start asking more complex and interesting questions of their data sooner than they could otherwise. This, in turn, can lead to more interesting discoveries, faster, and can arguably create more jobs or at least make existing resources stretch further. This point generally goes down well, but I know that I haven’t convinced everyone I’ve spoken with about of the merits of academic crowdsourcing.

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The ‘Harry Potter Question’ and the ‘Fictional Palimpsest’ Solution

Well dear readers, it’s been a while. Since my last post I have completed, submitted and defended my dissertation (passed!) and been happily working with the academic crowdsourcing organization called Zooniverse in Oxford. But more on all of that another time. Today’s post is dedicated to a very exciting announcement made today by Christ Church College, Oxford, the place where I spent my visiting year abroad (nearly a decade ago)!

As an alum (of sorts) I recently had the hono(u)r of sitting in on a focus group, at Christ Church, dedicated to what can simply be termed the ‘Harry Potter question’. What do we do about the fact that the so many visitors to the college want to make contact with the magical world of J.K. Rowling’s acclaimed children’s books, and the films that helped bring them to life, rather than contemplating, say, St Frideswide’s legacy; Cardinal Wolsey’s dramatic rise and fall; Henry VIII’s appropriation of the college or Charles I’s use of the Deanery as his temporary palace in 1645, and the Great Hall as the site of his Parliament?

Almost every single participant in the focus group reported the experience of bringing a young child into the Great Hall, preparing to tell them of all the kings and queens and prime ministers that have graced the college over the centuries, only to be asked ‘Where are the candles?’ or told that the ‘ceiling is all wrong’? How many of us had been scorned by the same children, when we tried to point out the funny portrait of John Locke in what, I swear, is his bathrobe?

As anyone who knows me or my work can vouch, I am an advocate for the historical legacies of places and institutions, and sensitive to the ways in which the past exerts itself upon the present. Yet I am also a lover of fiction, including children’s literature, and so, in the course of the heated focus group convened to discuss the Harry Potter question, I advocated for a middle ground–a compromise–one that simultaneously acknowledges the eight hundred years’ worth of history of Christ Church, while also embracing the almost all-consuming power of J.K Rowling’s imaginative world.

That compromise is twofold, and, I am delighted to say, has been accepted! First, Christ Church will commission a new audio guide for visitors with which they can take a self-guided tour of the college–roaming more freely than they currently can–but still without stepping on the grass in Tom Quad. Secondly, and most importantly, the College has decided to gently remodel the Great Hall, which features in the first two Harry Potter films (directed by Chris Columbus), and which is thus a central draw for visitors, despite the creation of a whole Harry Potter universe at Warner Brother Studios in London.

Using cutting-edge technology, the college will install approximately one thousand ‘floating’ electronic candles which will hover over diners in the great hall. The candles will actually be small hovering drones with eco-friendly flickering bulbs. Designers of the technology will be nominated after an open call.

As for getting the ceiling to transform into an exact replica of the sky above, that’s currently out of the reach of the college’s budget, and it is not clear whether the ancient ceiling could actually be altered in any way (e.g by staging a series of mirrors to capture and reflect the sky). Because the candle-drones do not alter the fabric of the building itself, the project meets the stringent code that protects listed buildings.

It is hoped that these planned changes will satisfy the hundreds of thousands of visitors to the college each year, and meet with the general approval of fans and history buffs alike.

It was an absolute delight to be involved in the Harry Potter question focus group, and to have my proposal for the ‘fictional palimpsest’ accepted. This term has been on my mind for years, ever since the child of a friend asked in wonderment about the ‘all wrong’ ceiling. By fictional palimpsest I mean fictions that come to erase or overwrite other historical realities, often because their emotional force is so overwhelming, so compelling to our imaginations, that the historical thing becomes a vessel that encases and thus fleshes out or makes real the imagined thing. Fictional palimpsests give us the opportunity to explore make-believe environments and thus make them real. Christ Church College’s willingness to embrace this concept demonstrates how and why the great institution of Oxford University has weathered the centuries–by adapting and changing with the times, while remaining sensitive to the past.

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Convent archives

Exactly one year ago today I travelled to Bruges to conduct a two week archival research extravaganza at the English Convent of Nazareth, and the Diocesan archive in Bruges. I wanted to consult every document relating to the English convent between 1629 to c. 1830 for evidence of nuns’ literary activities in the period. I had the generous support of the Society for Renaissance Studies and the University of Sheffield, without whose assistance this trip would not have been possible. This is a little reflection about how that work shaped my doctoral thesis. Continue reading

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Citing and Contributing to Digital Resources

How should we cite digital resources in our scholarly work? If we consult a book in EEBO or ECCO, for instance, should we cite the database or the physical book? Does it matter? And what of democratically-constructed resources, like Wikipedia? Should we cite them? Should we contribute?

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‘What is Early Modern English Catholicism?’ Durham 28 June-1 July, 2013

There are big conferences and then there are epic conferences. The ‘What is Early Modern English Catholicism?’ conference was the latter sort and centred around a weighty question. According to the CFP the aim was to bring together an interdisciplinary body of scholars who would ‘change perceptions’ of early modern English Catholicism by ‘questioning perceived notions of what is actually meant when Early Modern Catholicism is mentioned in the English context.’ The conference addressed English, Irish, Scottish and Welsh Catholic practices amongst laity and professional religious; convent history; devotional writing by and for laity; periodization; book history of many kinds, and many aspects of national identity.

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Colo(u)r me waterproof

Call me a nerd. Go on. Ok. Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let me tell you about ink. When I was eighteen and college-bound I noticed that the first few signatures on my parents’ Quaker wedding certificate (signed by all present who act as witnesses) had faded a bit. It was just the first few, and then the rest stood out clear and bold on the page because the guests had used a different pen. Perhaps by some lucky accident, the last of the faded-ink signatories pocketed the pen with the ink that would fade over time, and the next person then rootled around and found another pen, which everyone else used. Or perhaps someone realized that pen number one was bound to fade, and they intervened. I suspect the former.

From the age of ten I have been an avid journal writer (I am a slightly less conscientious journal writer now…). For the first eight years I had used any type of pen or pencil I had to hand. I particularly loved erasable pen, even though it wasn’t terribly erasable, and col(u)red ink delighted me. None of these inks holds up very well over time, as I’ve already discovered. When I began to think about note-taking and studying, and (in my dreams) referring back to my school and college notes when I was a teacher/lecturer/professor, I began to think seriously about finding fade-proof ink. I realized that if I wanted my journals, notes and letters to be legible in a decade or three, I’d need to change my ways. Continue reading

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Into the Wild

How do you gain access to a private library? This post is about a particular archival adventure I had in 2011, and offers some tips to readers on how to track down and gain access (or at least try!) to archival holdings in private libraries.

My editors for the English Convents in Exile, 1600–1800 (see: The Genuine Article) wanted to include the original text of some letters located at a convent in Gloucestershire. One editor had seen modernized versions of the letters, and hoped (and assumed) the originals were held at the convent, too. Before embarking for the convent, I wrote to the nuns (by snail mail) to ask if they did indeed have the originals. They did not. The modernized copies had been sent from a distant relative of the original sender (Clare Conyers (1749-1833) to the nuns of Much Birch in 1952. I did not have high hopes of finding the modernizer-genealogist alive.

However, I traced the sender’s name on the National Archives website. Luckily, he or one of his descendants had registered their collection of family papers with the NA. The NA archivist had a note on file with contact details for the current owner of Clare Conyers’ original letters. As luck would have it, Mr Y, the present owner, lives a twenty minute walk from my home.

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The Genuine Article

A little over three years ago I started gathering primary material for my doctoral thesis. I began by transcribing the letters of the seventeenth-century nun, Winefrid Thimelby (1618-90), and her family members, the Astons and Thimelbys, many of whom were poets and writers. These family letters had been studied before I started my work, but there was (and still is) plenty to be done. For one thing, the letters need to be edited again.

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