“We have to meet the computer halfway”

Posted by on Apr 9, 2013 in Blog, Modeling/Prototyping, Projects

[Submitted by Stephen MacNeil]

I’ve spent most of my time this term helping conceptualize and design interfaces for NewRadial, but within the last few weeks I shifted gears somewhat in the development process. Fundamentally, NewRadial requires a source document to work with which is ideally in XML format. Surprisingly, to me at least, there are not a whole lot of XML coded files available for literature online, whether it’s prose novels, poetry, or drama. So, due to sheer necessity, I took it upon myself to venture into uncharted territory and code some poetry and novels available within the public domain.

Admittedly, I am not accustomed to computer coding, but thankfully, there are automated methods for coding XML which have made the process for myself much easier.  The Text Encoding Initiative (TEI) offers a filter for OpenOffice which streamlines the process so that I can save any textual document in an XML format. The filter works by recognizing formatting marks and attributes XML markup to them. Of course, I just used this as a starting point because the filter does not know if you’re working with particular textual genres such as poetry and therefore the corresponding markup still needs to be applied. That being said, it still created an invaluable framework for me to start from.

Interestingly, when it comes to NewRadial, the XML files require minimal markup. The program is only interested in displaying the text within its unique interface and does not require a heavy amount of coding which some other programs make use of.  For instance, in NewRadial’s prototype phase we have been using the The Shakespeare Quartos Archive (http://www.quartos.org/) XML version of Hamlet. The XML markup in the Quartos’ versions are relatively simple and therefore more usable for NewRadial’s purposes. The Folger Library, on the other hand, also offers Shakespeare plays in XML format but with extensively more markup. On the Folger Digital Text’s site they state that “each play in Folger Digital Texts is rigorously encoded: every word, every punctuation mark, every space, within a sophisticated, TEI-compliant XML structure” (http://www.folgerdigitaltexts.org/). Of course, the flexibility and potential for such heavily encoded texts is invaluable, but ultimately NewRadial requires little of the markup used here. It’s interesting because it indicates that while NewRadial is designed to be a program which maps out textual files within a visual field, it can also be used simply as a tool for users to interact with text at its most basic level – the words. With NewRadial there is little need for large amounts of markup encoded into a document. Because of this it was in my best interest to keep the code as simple as possible, which is not only helpful to the program, it also made it easier for me to code the files since my coding knowledge is quite basic.

What this process of coding textual documents helped me see is the scaffolds of digital literature. It also helped me acknowledge the hard work that goes into some of the markup that people are putting into different works as well as make me think about NewRadial more in terms of coding language. While Digital Humanities tools often facilitate a more flexible access to the familiar code of language (in this case literary language), we can’t forget that these tools (and the literary sources that they feature) need to be encoded in a way that computers can understand.  We have to meet the computer halfway.

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