Monday, 29 July 2013

An Enchanting Day at the Gyula Shakespeare Festival, 2013

I had the privilege to spend a long day (13th July, 2013) at the Gyula Shakespeare Festival, Hungary. It was an enchanting day due to three absolutely great programmes I could attend: a mini-conference focusing on Shakespeare’s monologues in general and the “To be or not to be” soliloquy in particular; Steven Berkoff’s solo performance about Shakespeare’s villains; and lastly a Measure for Measure in the Castle Theatre. All these programmes proved to be special in their kind, giving inspiration and food for thought since then.

The most interesting aspect of the mini-conference was what may be called its multidisciplinary approach, as the participant came from a variety of walks of (intellectual) life. The eight people who gave a talk at the conference included an actor, Steven Berkoff, directors, Csaba Kiss, Yuriy Butusov, Emil Boroghina, and from the academia Maria Shevtsova, Ádám Nádasdy, Gabriella Reuss and myself. I am not claiming that there was much communication between the disciplines and approaches, but at least many representatives of the fields of Shakespeare’s reception were together and could listen to each others’ talks and hopefully learned from each other—I learned a lot at least.

After the conference and some rest we could watch Steven Berkoff’s performance, representation and interpretation of Shakespeare’s most notable villains. The list included Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, Richard III, Hamlet (yes, Hamlet was also included, for being “a serial killer”). Although the villains were in the thematic focus of the performance, yet through and with them we saw the stage and the screen of Shakespearean performances, great actors with Berkoff’s eyes. Or more precisely the focus was on MAN, and indeed with capital letters: the mediocre, the fallible, the fallen, the happy, the frustrated and jealous MAN, who is there everywhere, over there and in here. It was professional skillfulness, self-indulgence and self-irony that made this performance memorable and enchanting.

The greatest surprise of the day was Measure for Measure by the Vahtangov Theatre, Russia. The performance cannot be unknown to the English audience, as it was staged during the 2012 London Globe World Festival. This very performance at Gyula really made my day, as this production was one of the very few theatrical performances that was composed and directed in an innovative and creative way, where from the large picture to every little movement was worked out and measured with a coffee spoon. The stage was located within the walls of the Castle, which created a special atmosphere for the production. The stage was surrounded by the high solemn brick walls of the Castle. These walls towering above the stage created the atmosphere of a suffocating area, a prison from where there is no escape. Or if there was some room for escape that was only upwards, as the stage was not roofed, which circumstance made Isabella’s prayers all the more powerful, credible and even moving.

I found the repetitions and doubling fantastic, when complete scenes were repeated during the performance. The most powerful repetitions were those of the opening and closing scenes where the same characters and the same litter filled the stage including the Duke’s immovable eternity, Mistress Overdone’s eroticism, the chaos of the Viennese people, the painful loneliness of the characters with the exception of Claudio and Juliet who represented through their dance some unity and harmony. Also the seduction scenes imitated each other with the long row of tables to separate Isabella and Angelo for the first time and Isabella and the Duke for the second. The initial separation was in both cases overcome by the aggression of chasing and catching and pinning Isabella to a table. Doubling was also really thought-provoking.

Besides the general features of the performance I was also enchanted by the skill and refinement of the actors, especially those of Evgeniya Kregzde (Isabella) and Sergey Epishev (Duke/Angelo). Evgeniya Kregzde’s Isabella was the most innocent, incredibly unhappy Isabella I have ever seen. In this production the question was not whether she is to be raped or not, but here the rape was an unavoidable fact, the question was rather who would rape her, when and where and how many times. Under these painful circumstances Kregzde could remain innocent with her adolescent eagerness to find her place in Vienna, looking for and accepting love. Especially her scene with her brother in the prison was most natural, the playful chasing of each other, the long brotherly embraces made us believe that they were really a loving brother and sister. Her small teenage stature was played upon really thoughtfully when during her first encounter with Angelo she was blown by the provost and Lucio, and she was running up and down like a feather, a butterfly energized and influenced by the male characters. Even here, she could avoid being seen as a lightweight woman, a butterfly of the night, the frail woman, but remained with her dance-like tiptoeing back and forth a woman who was both reluctant and eager to plead, who intends to remain herself even under the pressure of the unwelcoming circumstances. Kregzhde could represent through her refined and thought-over acting style the mystery of a woman, the irresistible attraction that does not emanate from hot eroticism but from charismatic innocence.

In her presence both Angelo and the Duke lost control, which was acted out with utmost precision by Sergey Epishev. What Epishev’s acting pointed out was that Angelo and the Duke were both dangerous men, dangerous but in different ways. Angelo seemed to be dangerous because of his repressed frustration that surfaced in his mania for order in the smallest details. This display of repression appeared when meeting Isabella, in his uncontrollable shaking which turned into an iconic long and mute shriek that he kept until he staggered backwards throughout the whole stage. The danger in his Duke was rather the danger of the cunning, indifferent man of power for example when dressed as a monk, he played with heads as if they did not belong to living human beings, when he did nothing in the midst of chaos, aggression and filth of his dukedom, when he arranged the tables in the same way as Angelo had done and chased Isabella and nailed her down like Angelo. Epishev with his superb skills brought out form his characters what was the most frightening in them with incredible subtlety.

So if I say I was enchanted that very day in Gyula, there is not much exaggeration in this. The conference, the two performances opened worlds to me that I still fight to digest. And for this enchantment I owe many thanks to the Gyula Shakespeare Festival, the conference speakers, the actors and directors of the performances and ultimate organizer of the Festival, József Gedeon. So, I can hardly wait for the enchantment that is to come next year! Are you going to join me?

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Happy Birthday, Will Shakespeare!

It was a beautiful and hot afternoon in June, 2012 when the idea of re-establishing the Hungarian Shakespeare Society was conceived. The narrative about the conception and what has followed from it is the topic of this blog post, which in turn is my contribution to the celebration of Shakespeare’s birthday (#hbws) in the blogosphere.

On that beautiful and hot afternoon I was writing a paper in my office, and as always Twitter messages kept popping up—a peaceful afternoon indeed. I was just about to fall asleep, a post-lunch biorhythmic problem so to say, when a Direct Message from Stanley Wells woke me up. Kindly he asked if we were going to meet in Gyula, Hungary at the annual Shakespeare Festival where he was an invited guest. As the office happened to be in the US, at the University of Notre Dame, where I was fortunate enough to act as a visiting fellow, I had to respond that it was rather unlikely that I could make it.

Having agreed on this, he—by the way—asked which one of his books I think should be translated into Hungarian, as the organizers of the Festival could have it translated. I was about to respond with a book title when it occurred to me that this would be a great opportunity to practice what I preach, i.e. the power of collaboration. So instead of sending the DM immediately, I sent a circular out to a dozen Hungarian colleagues to enquire about their opinion. I thought that a day-or-two delay would cause no problem. To my greatest surprise after two hours emails started pouring in, and five hours later my fellow Shakespeareans from all over Hungary voted for a book, so my task lay in channelling the winner back to Stanley Wells.

Now, four considerations followed from this chain of events. First, there exists a sense of belonging to each other among Hungarian Shakespeare scholars. Second, it is worth asking about the opinions of others, because together we are cleverer and wiser—the title I sent over to Prof. Wells was not the one I voted for. Three, modern technology can be deployed to overcome distance: inspiration came via Twitter and the rest could be solved through email. Four, all of us proved to be enthusiastic about forming general opinion, or, in other words, shape Shakespeare’s Hungarian cult, as the choice was made with an eye on what the reading public may need.

These four considerations formed the premises for a conclusion: this collaboration and belonging together may well be institutionalized. Not pondering too much, when letting my colleagues know about the winner of the poll, I also asked a further question about re-establishing the Hungarian Shakespeare Society. Actually, I was not really surprised at the fast and enthusiastic responses. The idea, thus, was in the air before asking it, but somebody had to phrase the timely question.

This way there began the meditation about organizing the Society, which took some time. We pondered about what the aim of the Hungarian Shakespeare Society should be, what kind of an institutional structure would foster this aim. Many emails were sent around, many Google spreadsheets were filled, analyzed by the time the new Hungarian Shakespeare Society could elect a president and a steering committee, could decide on what the Society should do, who should be involved and why. This time of thinking, brainstorming and discussions proved not only fruitful but joyful as well, scholarly friendships came into being and old ones got stronger, so this phase was really beneficial. As a result, eight months later, on 26 January, 2013 during the biannual conference of the Hungarian Society for the Study of English we could announce the (re)establishment of the Hungarian Shakespeare Society.

The identity of the Hungarian Shakespeare Society was fashioned with an eye on the previous ones, as there had already been three. The first HSS came into being in 1860 as a project committee overseeing the translation of Shakespeare’s works into Hungarian. This committee worked within the Kisfaludy Society, and the head of the committee was János Arany, poet and Shakespeare translator. When the committee ran out of money, it slowly dissolved. The next Hungarian Shakespeare Society came into being at the beginning of the 20th century to help the study of Shakespeare, e.g. a Shakespeare Library section was founded in the University Library at Budapest. After decades of silence HSS no. 3 was founded by Tibor Fabiny and late István Géher. The objective then was the inclusion of the theatre and fostering foreign cooperation. The years of political changes in the 1990’s, however, brought an end to this Hungarian Shakespeare Society.

The new, i.e. no. 4 Hungarian Shakespeare Society learned from the previous ones and took four steps forward. The present HSS keeps the objectives of its predecessors insofar as it fosters research, communication among scholars, theatre people and translators. In contrast, however, with the previous ones the present Hungarian Shakespeare Society has opened its gates to another stakeholder in the Hungarian Shakespeare reception, namely secondary schools. Also we have tried to balance Budapest centeredness, and have made use of digital technology, such as mailing lists, a website and a Facebook page were created. We organize public lectures twice a term, the first was by Prof. György Endre Szőnyi about filmic versions of Henry V, the second is due on 10 May and József Gedeon will talk about the history of Gyula Shakespeare Festival that he organizes with great success. We have also announced a blog post writing competition. Furthermore we have plans about books to be written and creating a database for the Hungarian translations of Shakespeare’s plays to help theatre people and translators.

So, Will Shakespeare, on behalf of the new Hungarian Shakespeare Society let me wish you a happy birthday! And if your followers come to Hungary, tell them that the Hungarian Shakespeare Society will be happy to provide the opportunity for them to give a talk to your Hungarian followers.

Sunday, 17 February 2013

The materiality of a digital edition

In what sense can one talk about the materiality of a digital edition? This question sounds rather odd, as a digital edition, a digital text does not have, is not constituted by matter in the straightforward and simple manner. A digital text is processed through electronic, digital signs, i.e. signs that can hardly have tangible physical qualities. And if they had, to what extant would they be relevant for the reading of a text? In this sense, thus, the question addressing the materiality of the digital text sounds erroneous. Hopefully, there is more to this question, however, than mere refusal.

In a more pragmatic context the question may well make sense. Materiality can be conceptualized not only as an ontological category but rather as a category that is deployed for the sake of exploring layers of meaning constituted by the container and carrier of the linguistic aspect of a text or an edition. This seems to be a viable solution, as when the materiality of a printed text is referred to in the context of literary studies most of the time it is used in a pragmatic manner. Materiality in this pragmatic context denotes the sum of those qualities of a book that influence the reading process and thus the construction of meaning beyond the linguistic aspect of a work. Without believing that the forthcoming list may be comprehensive, these qualities include the size of the book, the binding, the quality and size of the paper, the letter size and typeset, the width of the margins, decoration, marginalia. This pragmatic concept of materiality, i.e. an exploration of a list of qualities and features that influence the reading process can be applied directly and indirectly to a digital edition as well.

In the case of a digital edition there is clearly a visual aspect that influences the reading process in a more flexible way than in the case of a printed book. In a digital edition the text is made up of letters that have visual qualities that can be anchored in size and type, these letters fill the “page” so even here one may meditate about space between the letters, lines, about the width of margins. Nevertheless, in some cases, depending on the encoding of the edition and on the file format these qualities can be changed by the customer, or reader: the type, the size can be open to modification, one can zoom in or out in certain cases, one can read the text on the screen of a laptop, a tablet pc or on a smartphone qualifying the physical, visual aspect of the edition. All these are there for the sake of influencing the reading process, as much as in the case of a printed book, although in a different manner. But what seems relevant is that it is only the manner that has changed and not the extralinguistic means: they are present but in a different way.

Another aspect that influences the reading process is the way the digital edition can be “read.”A digital edition can be read as a book, i.e. in a linear manner. Also a digital edition can be read in two nonlinear ways. First, as a hypertext through clicking in diverse directions enriching the reading experience in a way that the sequence of the parts of the reading material is created during the act of reading itself. Second, digital reading involves machine reading, that is making sense through queries, exploring algorithmic patterns and a variety of visualizing techniques. Furthermore, it is also relevant in the case of a digital edition what kind of colours, shapes and frames surround the text itself, what kind of note-taking techniques can be applied, how one may share these findings, notes, observations if it is a web-based edition. All these possibilities, opportunities, tools and methods influence the act of making sense of a digital edition beyond the strictly speaking linguistic aspect of a digital text. And thus all these contribute to the process of the construction of meaning, the signifying process of a say literary work.

A further aspect of the change from print to digital that contributes to the understanding of digital materiality concerns the shift from the fixed to what Hayes terms as procedural. A printed text through its materiality is present for anybody almost objectively. This material fixity is constituted by the technology of printing: if a work is published the result is there for a long time, and in a way that was constructed by the publisher, printer. Along with this every modification to the book—pages torn out, damaged, written on it—will be seen as either contribution to the signifying process or as corruption. In the case of a digital edition, however, what matters is the ever-changing quality of the visual appearance of the work.  What lies behind what is perceived is a series--complicated though—of digits. This series then is translated with certain software into different signs that are interpreted by further programmes; the results are further made readable for other programmes until the desired effect is reached. Because of the great number of translations, and the number of programmes that make these translations there is a heightened effect of fluidity in the case of these digital editions.

This fluidity is further complicated by the fact that the process of translations takes place not only once and for all but every time the digital edition is opened. To account for the fluid aspect of a digital edition it is also to be added that the hardware that underlies these procedures also influences the reading process, insofar as the speed and resolution of the visual effect are concerned. In this respect what counts are the quality of the processor, of the hard drive, the graphic card, maybe the internet connection and the quality of the monitor. All these result in such a diversity of the possibilities of difference that instead of the discourse of fixity and corruption it is only the procedural quality that one can meditate about. This lack of fixity is part of the material aspect of a digital edition.

Thus, it seems to me that exploring the materiality of a particular digital text is not entirely futile. In this respect it is not the traditional physical quality that is at stake but rather whatever there is from coding to hardware that influences the reading process besides the linguistic aspect of a text.

Thursday, 27 September 2012

Sabbatical with Question Marks and Wodwo

I am back from my sabbatical term, which I liked so much that it is rather difficult to get back on the teaching track. Not that this was an ideal sabbatical, because being a member and a chair of a variety of committees at my university, I could not leave behind all the duties I have, and these distracted me from pure research and writing to some extant. Nevertheless, even with this limitation I just loved to be free from teaching responsibilities to be able to read and learn. Also I wrote as much as I could, for the record and for my bosses who may read this post, I finalized a volume of essays on Tudor cultural issues, an article on a fascinating early modern book, started another one on the decorated initials in the early prints of Hamlet and some blog posts on the critical assessment of digital textabases of Shakespeare.  Also I could attend some conferences in Sevilla, in Budapest, in Edinburgh and at our university, and these conferences occasioned meeting good scholarly friends, and making some new friends from the UK, through the US to the Czech Republic. The climax of the sabbatical was the month I could spend at the Nanovic Institute, University of Notre Dame, a place ideal for the scholarly hermit.

Even though I had such ideal circumstances I did not achieve everything I intended. Before the sabbatical I prepared for a really beneficial leave during which I intended to complete, or at least draft a monograph on the 21st-century digital reception of Shakespeare. First and foremost I read and considered when preparing for the term whatever has been written about a sabbatical at ProfHacker. I also made plans, e.g. how many words are to be written every day so as to achieve the desired objective. And actually I think I could keep to that and yet not even the first draft of the volume has been completed. So in a word, planning was not enough. Throughout the leave I wrote for immediate requests, for coming conferences, did editing, because these were obligations I could not postpone. Although all or most of these activities formed steps towards the writing of the volume, reconsiderations of the general topic from a variety of angles, for a variety of purposes and audiences and all these did good to the future volume but were and are not identical with the generation of pages for the book itself. This is so even if the pages written in English and Hungarian will all be part of the book in the long run. Thus, from the perspective of the ultimate aim of the sabbatical, it turned out to be something less successful.

Beyond the successful and the disappointing tangible outcomes of the sabbatical leave there was a more complex result as well, which can hardly be placed on the measurable hierarchical scale. This complex outcome was the result of having the time and opportunity to step back from the hurly-burly of the works and days of everyday life. This step occasioned thoughts to surface, thoughts that were always lingering at the back of my mind. These thoughts have been formed in the Wodwoian manner: “What am I?” or “What am I doing here..?”, which questions boil down to the general problem with English Studies, or to doing research in my particular field, i.e. Renaissance English Studies. Most of the time I write and publish in English, most of the time I read papers at conferences in English. So I can hardly reach out to Hungarian people who do not take the trouble to read in English (and why would they?). Research in this field as far as my experiences with funding are concerned is not encouraged because of limitations in financial resources—whether it is an individual grant or one for a team the result was the same in the last five years. I or we received top grades, 90-100% in project evaluations, and finally our project was turned down, and others focusing on Hungarian literature won. This is all understandable, because ultimately we are in Hungary, there are poor financial resources, and taxpayers’ money should end up in projects that are relevant for more people in Hungary.

“What am I, then?” OK, my research is not marketable in Hungary, but then the Anglo-American world should be fine. And it is so, but it is precisely the sabbatical, and the trip to the University of Notre Dame, that taught me that it is very difficult to play on the same field as my American or British colleagues. Not that they (you) are not kind and friendly enough, far from it, but rather that because of the limited access to sources—primary and secondary as well—sometimes I felt that the paradigms we were caught up in are not necessarily identical. More precisely what is natural to them (to you), and seems to be part of the everyday discourse on Renaissance or early Early Modern phenomena sounds far from natural to me. And this is so even though I use twitter and I read blogs and search for books that they (you) published recently. What is the most tragic about this is that this gap becomes only visible when there is time to read, reflect and meet people (you) in person. When functioning as a screw in the large machine of the Hungarian higher education I don’t even notice this distance.

The next Wodwoian question is “what am I [to do], then?” A likely response may be that my next move could be the comfortable turn of the screw, i.e. accepting that the fact of life is some sort of isolation until the next sabbatical. Or the other solution is this: I try to do my best to obtain grants for a month visit to places either in the UK, or in the US where I can efficiently work. One month must be sufficient for writing up an article that might be published, if I go to the target place well-versed in the topic with some background research and a 0.2 version of the paper. At least this seems to have worked during my visit to the University of Notre Dame. [And another fruit of this last visit to ND was that my family could survive without me nicely enough. First and foremost because my children are getting more and more mature (between 10 and 18), so they do not miss me so much—and there is skype and google talk to keep in touch. And my wife is just hyper-understanding—how lucky I am!] So, "I’ll go on looking…."

Monday, 23 April 2012

Digital Shakespeares 5 and HBWS12

This is the final post in the series exploring the databases containing Shakespearean texts. From Stoppard I have learned that “there is an art in delay.” In this series of posts dealing with digital databases of Shakespearean texts I have constantly postponed revealing the collection of these databases. I have done this through introducing the topic and then for four posts I posted a list of criteria that I think helps to assess digital databases. Originally I thought it would be enough to post the sixteen questions I found relevant in meditating about databases, but then realized that these criteria formulated as questions without explanation would be less beneficial, so I pasted a paragraph-long explanation to each of the questions. Last week having finished the posting of these questions, I had to admit that the delay is not righteous any longer. So this time, I should present the list of databases on the one hand.

On the other hand this post is not just a post directing attention to databases that might come in handy when doing some research on Shakespeare, but also a contribution to another project, i.e. the celebration of Shakespeare’s 448th birthday. The Happy Birthday Shakespeare website can be found here. This is not the first time that a blog post functions as a gift to the long dead and still living Bard. Last year I wrote up a post in the same project about the given theme: “How did Shakespeare shape my life, my intellectual life?” That said it may be clear that this year if I intend to take part in this festive event again, I cannot retell the same story. Of course, hermeneutics would remind me that a year later—having changed (hopefully for the best)—the same story would not, could not be the same, yet I think this year I should do something else. So this year, as I guess Shakespeare would be interested in what happened to his texts, I present him and anybody else interested in this, the list of databases that contain Shakespeare’s texts.

So this time, both as a gift and a conclusion to my previous posts I am going to lists databases, not unexpectedly in an indirect way, making the experience interactive. There is a simple way for whoever is interested in this list, as following the link to my Delicious stack, “Databases of Shakespearean texts” one may well go to the list directly, and check out the items immediately without reading the rest of this post. Those, however, who would like to stay here for longer, I shall give some explanation on how these otherwise different types of databases can be classified as databases. I am quite sure that a lot of databases have been left out, but as I promised it in the introductory post, I have only dealt with databases that have some either institutional basis, or scholarly references or both.

There are seven ways the individual databases can be classified. Some of the databases can be downloaded, or at least the text analysis software, such as WordHoard or WordCruncher, the rest of the databases can be used via a web browser. Most of the databases are dedicated to Shakespeare studies, while two of them are rather text analysis tools demonstrating their power on the Shakespearean corpus, i.e. WordCruncher and Wolfram|Alpha. Most of the databases are Open Access but some are massively behind the pay-wall, such as Gale Catalog: The Shakespeare Collection, XMAS, and one project though not behind the pay-wall yet it needs a password which may or may not be granted is The Shakespeare Electronic Archive. Most of the databases are dedicated to Shakespeare, while there are two that include texts by Shakespeare and many others as well: Project Gutenberg, The Internet Archive. Most of the databases include a text analysis tool, but there are a few that only contain digital texts, such as The Project Gutenberg, the Internet Archive, the Shakespeare Quartos Archive, the Shakespeare in Quarto, etc. Some of the databases deploy either an unreliable corpus or a somewhat questionable one from a strictly philological point of view, while some others use either the digital versions of reliable early prints (Shakespeare Quartos, Shakespeare in Quarto), or even modern critical editions (Internet Shakespeare Editions, The Shakespeare Electronic Archive). Most of the databases are device independent, while there is at least one that has been built only for the iPad: Shakespeare's The Tempest for iPad.

The lines of this classification create a rather complicated matrix upon which the individual databases can be located. This complexity is both an advantage and a disadvantage. It is an advantage as it demonstrates the interest in Shakespeare in the digital space, that scholars use digital technology in studying and thus representing the Bard’s texts in the 21st century in a great number of ways and modes. But this variety also demonstrates that enthusiasm towards digital scholarship is also dispersed, funds are scattered instead of uniting forces and resources to create a database that would be equally useful and beneficial for a variety of scholarly approaches, number of levels of interest from the scholarly to the general. Do you like this, Will? Anyway, I wish you a happy birthday in the heavenly theatre with this multifocal symphony of textual databases.

PS. The advantage of checking my Delicious stack is that it may well be improved in the long run. I can imagine, however, that somebody would like to see the list here as well, so here it is:

3.      Hamlet Works
4.      Internet Archive
6.      MONK Project
8.      Open Shakespeare
26.  WordCruncher
27.  Wordhoard
28.  XMAS 3.1

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Digital Shakespeares: Features of a Database 4

This post is number five in the series of posts dealing with working out a possible methodology for assessing and accounting for databases containing Shakespearean texts. After an introductory post four other ones have been dedicated to listing and explaining, contextualizing questions that might come in handy when pondering about these databases. So far areas of basic facts, transparency and flexibility were covered in the first three posts, and now, as I have promised I am going to meditate and present questions pertaining to what I would like to term as “interdisciplinary openness.”

Most of the databases reduce texts to their linguistic aspect. Queries focus on words, strings of words, linguistic units, grammatical units and verbal statistics. They can also visualize tendencies, create diagrams in a variety of formats about the linguistic construction of the text. All this is fine, as most of the time when reading a Shakespearean play the reader will be interested in the ways a text communicates its layers of meaning through verbal means. There has been, however, a tendency in scholarly circles claiming in a great number of ways that a text does not only reveal layers of meaning via its linguistic construction but that meaning is also a social construct embedded in the material ways a text functions in the world.  So, scholars claim that bibliographical data from the date of publication to publisher, from the typeset to the type of paper, from decoration to page size play their part in the process of constituting meaning. Here, a long list of authors, theoretical and pragmatic may be presented from David Scott Kastan to John N. King, from Woudhuysen to McGann, from Shillingsburg to Hayles, from Marshall McLuhan to Andrew Murphy to mention a few authorities in the field. It is beneficial if a database allows for research other than ones pertaining to the linguistic aspect. The next three questions, thus, explore ways in which a database may cater for interests in aspects other than the linguistic one.

  1. Format of the digital text (txt, xml, jpg, tiff etc.)

Interdisciplinary research presupposes the complexity of possible questions to be asked, and this complexity can only be provided through presenting the texts in a variety of formats. Sometimes the best choice is to have a rather unmarked list of words, e.g. in a txt file, this is sufficient and even more fruitful for some queries, especially when it is not clear how the file is read by a text analysis tool. For another set of questions encoding is needed, say for tokenised or lemmatised queries, other times it is the best if there are images only that may be analyzed in ways unimaginable before. It is the format of the file that enables these differing approaches, so it is fine if the same text is accessible in a variety of formats.

  1. Is it the linguistic, digital or bibliographic aspect that is emphasized?
The linguistic aspect refers to the language, linguistic elements of the digital text. The bibliographical aspect refers to the material aspect, but in this very case, this does not define the digital text, as  digital, but as an outcome of the visual aspect of some original printed material. The digital aspect refers to the computational coding of a text that enables the visual aspect and also the searchable quality of these texts. It is clear that builders of databases have to decide on what they intend to achieve. Unfortunately there is no such database that would/could lay equal emphasis on every aspect of a digital text. Databases vary among paying special attention to the text as a linguistic unit, or to the text as a deeply encoded entity that allows for complex and intelligent queries, or to aspects that are relevant for the historian of the book.

  1. Which aspect of the text is open to queries?
If it is possible to present the text in a variety of formats, thus a variety of disciplinary approaches may be occasioned within the database. If this is so, it is also relevant which aspect of the text is open to queries, as it is a query that makes computer enabled research fruitful. It is the query that makes research faster and more accurate, so it is great if the image file is there that enables research related to the history of the book, but if this aspect of the text is not open to queries, computation is like a disabled giant: it is there but the scholar cannot make use of the power of computer technology. The Text Encoding Initiative enables marking up a text for queries about the visual aspect of a work, and there are even free image mark-up tools, so technologically it is not impossible to prepare a database in which the bibliographical code is open to queries.

* * *

This time, thus, we have seen the remaining three criteria for assessing a database. These questions covered practically an area that I have labeled as “interdisciplinary openness.” The interdisciplinarity of a database manifests itself in the variety of formats of the files, the types of queries that a user may conduct. Naturally, these criteria may or may not be true for each and every database and can only be used as a means of orientation. So neither these three criteria nor the other thirteen should be thought of as complete and compelling ones, but rather as means to be able to discuss critically a database or databases. What follows form this is that a positive assessment does not necessarily mean that one can give the highest possible scores for each and every criterion, as it can easily happen that a database can fruitfully be used even though reviewing it with the help of the above sixteen criteria should suggest that the database is less good. Assessment at its best relies on criteria relevant to the individual database. Having thus finished the meditation about the criteria of assessment, next time I shall start a new series of posts exploring databases one by one.

Monday, 2 April 2012

Digital Shakespeares: Features of a Database 3

This is the last but one post in the series “Digital Shakespeares: Features of a Database. The previous posts presented and explained the first eight questions of the list that I used when assessing databases containing Shakespeare’s texts. The first eight questions explored some basic facts and the documentation of the database. This time the focus will be on another aspect that I label as flexibility. This is an important aspect, as it makes a database more usable if it can be bent to the researchers’ expectations and interests. Before this larger area of questions there are two extra ones that pertain to the ease of the usage of a database.

  •  9.  Is the interface clear and logical?

    The question about whether the interface is clear and logical does not invite an answer in a form of a subjective aesthetic judgement, but rather reflection about the pragmatic aspect of the interface. What I am interested in here is whether one could without much thinking and many mistaken steps navigate from one action to another with relative ease. Nevertheless, I am aware that this feature of a database is a rather subjective one, as something that seems illogical and complicated for one user may well be straightforward and simple for another. Yet hopefully the response to this question will not reflect on the interface in isolation, but will keep an eye on other databases and even other applications, and then subjectivity can be avoided via experience and comparison.

    1. Is it possible to create a researchers room?
    A researcher “room” is a handy opportunity if the database is an online one. It seems handy if one can stop working whenever it is necessary without losing the findings of the then current research, and can continue working when it is possible again. This feature is also important as this may be the cyber-spatial “room” where one may share the results with colleagues and may expect some reaction from them to her/his work. A researcher “room” can be a place that anybody can, may customize to her/his expectations, work-method and needs, can leave notes and reflections on where one is in the process of research.

    The theoretical problem that is addressed by the following questions seems to be the following. A database most of the time is built for one type of research, which is no problem as how can one foresee what other researchers would like to do with a particular database. One may well argue that the virtue of a database is that it does what it promises in the best way, and I agree with this argument. An equally powerful claim could be, however, that if a database is tuned for only one type of research, naturally the one that best suits the builder, then why and how could it be used by other researchers with either slightly, or completely different purposes? So in this Kantian or Pyrrhonian situation, where there are two equally powerful claims in opposition, I would like to vote for some sort of a flexibility providing more opportunities than the ones envisioned by the builders. I can imagine that a database that can be adapted to a variety of purposes will be the one that will attract researchers’ attention.

    1. Can the digital text be downloaded?
    Sometimes it seems beneficial to be able to download the text that one works with. This adds to the usability of a database, as it can easily happen that the analytical tools of a database do not harmonize completely with the needs of a researcher. It is then beneficial if the text, or texts can be downloaded and fed into another search engine. This may well be the case with absolutely cleansed texts to be used with independent text analysis tools, or with deeply marked-up texts, when the mark-up is deeper than what the facilities of the database allow to explore. In this latter case it is also possible that queries tuned for specific aspects can be executed elsewhere than within the database.

    1. Can the results of the query be saved, downloaded?
    It may well be fruitful if the findings can be saved and downloaded to be deployed elsewhere than within the application. This may be appropriate if results in one database are to be compared with the findings in another one, or if to be arranged in another way than what is occasioned by an application. A third scenario when saving, downloading is fruitful may be when one intends to insert, or copy-paste the results of the query into an article, paper, blogpost. (Only between round brackets do I dare to insert here, that as a Zotero fan, it would be nice if a database could be linked to Zotero, and then referencing would be a matter of clicking here and there. I am aware that this is only the lazy researchers dream…)

    1. Is the source-code open, i.e. can the search tools be modified?
    This attribute is something that is both beneficial and nice. It is beneficial because the tools may be tuned for the analysis of texts from another database without starting the building of the search-tool from nothing. Naturally it can happen that it is easier to start from nothing, but it can happen as well that coding means just fine-tuning. The open-source code is nice too, as it tells the user that the builder trusts his/her users, shares with them everything, admits that the application can be developed, used elsewhere and in other ways than first envisioned.

    To sum up, this time I pondered about the features of a database that I labelled “flexibility.” Flexibility of a database lies in whether a researcher can or cannot adapt the texts included in the database, the analytical tools to her / his needs. Flexibility is not only important because the database then will be one that may serve a variety of purposes but also because this way it will attract more users. Having, thus, accounted for this feature of a database what remain for the next post are the attributes that I classify as “interdisciplinary openness.”