Monday, 26 March 2012

Digital Shakespeares: Features of a Database 2

This post is the second in the series describing and interpreting a set of questions that I have used when exploring databases containing Shakespearean texts. The last post presented and explained the first four questions. This time I shall cover questions 5-8 exploring documentation, purpose, fitness for purpose, and the quality of the text. Let’s start then with question 5.

  1. Is the documentation of the database clear and succinct?
Documentation of responsibilities and sustainability (even if theoretical) purposes and origins may well be a characteristic feature of a database. These should be explored in detail and even the problematic points may be clarified. It is also relevant here whether this documentation can be found easily or is buried at a location that can hardly be found. Naturally it is open to debate what is meant by “detailed” documentation, especially because I can hear the counterargument that a good project does not need documentation as the database and its usability speak for themselves, it is, thus, not needed to document this. There is much truth in this claim, since who needs the documentation for something that works properly and with considerable success, who reads the documentation of Twitter and Facebook. I reckon the case is different with applications and databases that if only partially but still would like to attract scholarly audiences as well. For the scholarly community to be able to take the results of a project and research or query seriously must be able to look behind what is immediately visible. What is going on behind the scenes is as important for a serious user as the results of a query provided by the database. So a clear and succinct documentation is indispensible for an intended audience that would like to be taken seriously.

  1. Is there a clear statement about the purpose of the database?
This question speaks for itself. It is reassuring to know what the database was built for. It does good both to the creator, because to have a clear purpose help one stay focused. Also this does good to the user, because then (s)he knows what to expect, be confident to use the database for what is was created for.

  1. Quality of the texts.
The quality of the text is one of the cornerstones of a database. Even if this is only one of the four aspects of a database, this is the first aspect that a Shakespeare scholar will enquire about, and if it does not live up to scholarly standards the database will not be used.

    1. Is the origin of the digital text documented?
This has two advantages. If the textual and editorial choice have been explained, it is very likely that the creator of the database has given thought to the choices made. In this case it is very unlikely that it can happen that someone created a powerful, fancy and interesting tool, and then feeds into it an unedited text found somewhere in the public domain without say checking that the King Lear under consideration was written by Nahum Tate. If a text is documented appropriately it is very unlikely that such a mistake is made. The second advantage of documentation is that the Shakespeare scholar does not have to spend or waste time with discovering slowly that the text is unreliable and useless for a scholarly purpose.

    1. Is there somebody responsible for the digital text?
The documentation should not only reveal the origin of the digital surrogate but also should name the creator of the text. Even in cases if the text was not created by the creator of the database but (s)he uses someone else’s text. This is important because even if a text is left without editing, when preparing the machine readable text there must be decisions made, and it is indispensible that somebody takes responsibility for these decisions. This is part of scholarly honesty.

    1. Are the editorial decisions explained and documented?
Of course, the expectation is not to explain every single editorial decision, because that would mean the creation of a documentation similar to a critical edition. The expectation, however, lies in the exploration of general editorial decisions with a few examples for the sake of clarification. Decisions are the ones that pertain both to the text and to the encoding of the text.

  1. Is there a harmony between the purpose of the database and the search engine, quality of the texts, level of encoding?
It can happen that the purpose of the database and the search engine, quality of the text and the depth of encoding have not been harmonized. It can happen that a database intends to serve scholarly purposes for which a powerful search engine has been installed, which should secure the scholarly outcomes of the queries. The search engine, however, cannot secure scholarly purposes in itself, if not accompanied with an appropriate text. The excellence of the engine cannot compensate for the weakness of the text. Unfortunately in this case there is no real compensation, the weakest part determines the power of the database. It can also happen that the search engine has not been tuned for the depth of encoding. It can happen that the level of encoding does not harmonize with the power of the search engine, or it can also happen that the text is encoded in more depth than what the search engine has been tuned for.

This time I focused on the aspects of documentation that should ensure the quality or at least the transparency of the database. These qualities may well attract or distract a Shakespeare scholar to or from the database. Next time I shall continue the list and explanation of the questions that help analysing a database focusing on Shakespearean texts.

Monday, 19 March 2012

Digital Shakespeares: Features of a Database 1

In the previous post I launched a series of post that are going to deal with digital databases presenting Shakespearean texts. I also promised that this time I would list the questions I have used for the analysis. Back then I though it was sufficient to list the questions, but then I had to realize that without some explanation questions cannot fulfil their purpose. So I explained them and found that the explanation would exceed the thousand-word limit of a blogpost, so again I have to chop the meditation up into pieces. Out of the sixteen questions this time I shall explore the first four.

The first three questions gather basic facts about the database. Basic facts or data can, however, be revealing about the agenda of the project, its concept of the user, and, thus, play their significant part in the modes a database processes its cultural signification.

  1. Is it open access or behind the pay-wall?
I am first and foremost interested in databases that are non-profit, Open Access. The reason for this special interest has two reasons: a pragmatic and a somewhat more theoretical one. The pragmatic reason is that my home institution does not have access to most of the profit-oriented databases, or if it does have then the subscriptions are occasionally left without renewal after their expiration. The theoretical reason is that I am very much in agreement with the Open Access movement among digital humanists, and actually act accordingly: with a British colleague we created a very modest OA academic, digital journal (e-Colloquia), I also blog—as you can see—about my research both in English and Hungarian so that colleagues be informed about what I am working on, and those also who do not belong to the guild of scholars but are interested in these matters. Research, experimentation are all about openness, why to bury them behind the pay-wall?

  1. Is it an online or offline database?
Most of the databases are located in the cloud. Nevertheless, there are some that either partially or completely reside on the users hard-drive. Both solutions have advantages and disadvantages, which qualities do not depend on theoretical considerations, but rather depend on the database and its purposes. It is no good to force somebody to download terrabites of information, but it sounds great if there is neat and clever software without fancy display that one can download and manipulate, or even develop on ones laptop.

  1. Is it possible or is it necessary to register, or can it be used without registration?
Again this may be appropriate or useless, but this is also a fact about a database. Occasionally, however, the impression is that if there is a need for registration, the database and the project that lies behind it seem more serious. Sometimes it is more advantageous to be able to register, as there may be more facilities for registered users. Also registration filters users, as the user has to take the trouble to register, and thus implies that it is important for her or him to be a visible member of the community of users.

After the basic information about a database, the next set of questions explores aspects of Transparency. Out of this set, this time I am going to deal with the first and leave the rest for the next post.

  1. Who built the database and who takes responsibility for it?
For a database to be taken seriously as a scholarly, reliable and useful one two considerations seem adamant: responsibility and sustainability. For a database, if expecting serious users, it is of crucial importance to have either a scholar or a team of scholars behind it. An Open Access (not to mention for-profit) project does not mean that anything goes, projects do not need reviewing, should not be open to criticism. All these lead to the concept and virtue of responsibility. Without real human beings shouldering responsibility for their activity, even if it is a noble project of passing on Shakespearean texts and information and features of those texts free of charge to an unknown but yet foreseeable target audience, a project cannot be taken seriously. Scholarly discussion, accountability, expression of critical opinion are vital for a project to be worthy of scholarly attention. If there cannot be found an individual or a team who can participate in a discussion, or whom questions can be addressed to, the air is withdrawn from scholarly objectivity.

As far as sustainability is concerned a nameless enthusiast as the creator and builder of a database will very likely miss the financial resources to create a strictly speaking reliable project. Eagerness burns out after awhile, interest can be lost in a hobby-like project. Institutional affiliation, funding processed by committees all secure reason for believing that the project will survive even after the disappearance of the first love for the project. From the users perspective making use of, thus relying on the outcomes of a research in a database, and the criteria of repeatability are all parts of the problematics surrounding a database. Sustainability seems to be less of a problem for a profit-oriented project, but is not a mission impossible for a project that has institutional and affiliations and opportunities to have a share from national or other funding.

Unfortunately this time I could only cover these first four questions. But even this post may have been beneficial because this could either function as an appetiser or something that will tell you that it is superfluous to read one. Either case is just fine. Time and energy are valuable.

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Digital Shakespeares: Introduction

Having finished editing a book for CSP on Tudor authors belonging to the period C.S. Lewis labelled as the “Drab Age,” I am going to focus on a somewhat different area for the next period. This shift of focus lies in turning to new aspects of reception studies and histories, something I worked on in my Tudor research as well. What is new, however, is that instead of dealing with how certain ideas and trends of thoughts or authors were received in England and in English in the long Tudor era, now I shall ponder about how Shakespeare’s reception has witnessed a change with the digital area.

The 21st century has brought some change in the reception (history) of Shakespeare, as digital projects by individuals and teams, the use of digital tools in social media contribute to a turn in how Shakespeare both as an icon and as a literary figure acquires a mode of signification in present day digital cultures. This new mode of signification consists first, in the accessibility of the digital texts of his works in a great variety of formats, reliability and purposes. Adjacent to the availability of texts, social media also affect how Shakespeare figures in the contemporary world. Social media—relevant to a variety of degrees in this research—include micro-, meso- and traditional blogging services, Facebook, LinkedIn and Google+ insofar as they open the gates between academic and popular cultures, blur the technical distinction between academia and widening circles of enthusiasts and the interested, change the concept of peer-review. The accessibility of texts and the relaxation of the demarcation lines among so far segregated circles of readers present a new phase in the way Shakespeare is perceived.

Naturally the claim is not that there is a revolutionary and dramatic change going on nowadays. Many aspects of reception are not necessarily affected by the digital shift that I deal with, as theatre, filmic adaptations, printed editions etc remain, or may remain unaffected, and circles of the academia remain as closed as before. What, however, the claim asserts is that for a growing number of Shakespeare scholars and for a growing number of other people (the numbers can hardly be estimated but because of openness of the internet I dare to believe that this is not an insignificant set) the world of Shakespeare is in change. This change—both present and future—cannot, should not go unreflected, and it is the task of humanities, maybe digital humanities, to ponder about and account for this phenomenon that pertains to the first decades of the 21st century. This is true even though Michael Best is right when explaining the academic resistance to web 2.0, especially to open Shakespeare databases in his “Shakespeare and the Electronic Text” (151).

I am aware of the problems, mainly theoretical ones that lie at the heart of this type of research. At the moment the theoretical framework hovers around cultural semiotics, or more precisely the phenomenology of signification in culture. This phenomenology focuses on how meaning is constructed in the digital context relying on material—whatever this means in cyberspace, linguistic and computational aspects. But this theoretical background is still in its sedimentation phase, so I have not assumed or forged an ultimate stance. What, however, is rather clear is the steps that I am going to take here. I am going to devote posts first to reflections on digital databases of Shakespearean texts, and then I am going to meditate about how Shakespeare is present in digital social media.

The forthcoming first set of posts, thus are going to deal with databases devoted exclusively or not exclusively to presenting digital Shakespearean texts in a variety of formats and with a variety of purposes. Now, of course, it is far from clear what expectations one may have towards a Shakespearean database, and as far as I can see in the literature, especially in two seminal issues of journals, i.e. Shakespeare 4.3 (2008) and Shakespeare Quarterly 63.1 (2010) there is no absolutely theorized and standardized protocol to follow in the assessment of what is going on in the world of Shakespearean digital texts. Although a widely accepted protocol is missing I am still inclined to meditate about the individual databases with addressing the same questions to each one of them so as to be able to help a compare-and-contrast analysis. The objective of this analysis is not to place databases into a hierarchical order, naively claiming that one is better than the other, but rather to explore their virtues, and to establish trends.

The questions I shall ask reflect my preferences towards a Shakespearean digital textual project, but hopefully these questions will not be classified as merely subjective preferences and naïve essentialist assumptions, but assumptions that explore the possible heart of a textual database. The template of the questions covers three areas that I find essential for a database: first, transparency, i.e. whether there is an individual or a team who shoulders responsibility for the database with clear and detailed documentation about ontologies and purposes; second, flexibility, i.e. if the database allows the user to temper with anything in the project or if it is open to collaboration; third, interdisciplinary openness, i.e. what kind of approaches to the texts these databases enable. The next post is going to cover the questions themselves with explanation.