Friday 16 December 2011

Father Busa's Last Christmas Card

2011 was a big year for Digital Humanities, but we also saw the loss of Father Roberto Busa (1913-2011), who pioneered the discipline of Humanities Computing by organising the work of Saint Thomas Aquinas in the Index Thomisticus.

I've been given permission to share with you the image above, and the story below, about Father Busa's last Christmas card. It came through on email last week and made me well up - and I asked permission from Marco Passarotti (on behalf of the CIRCSE research centre)to share it here so it reached the wider Digital Humanities community. Enjoy the last Christmas card from Father Busa.

Dear friends of father Busa,

For many years, our beloved father Roberto Busa entrusted the painter and caricaturist Marina Molino to illustrate his message of Christmas greetings with a caricature representing him along with St. Thomas.

Over the last years, the drawing (each time suggested by father Busa himself) had one recurring element: father Busa climbing a mountain with increasing difficulty, but with undiminished enthusiasm towards the ultimate goal, where St. Thomas was waiting for him.

On August 9th father Busa has reached that goal, giving, until his last day, large and clear testimony of peace on the ground of his faith and certainty of eternal life.

The research center CIRCSE - which pursues the work of its founder - has asked Marina Molino to realize once again the traditional drawing. In a moving caricature, the artist has represented father Busa, finally come on top of the mountain, while meeting his St. Thomas. We send you the drawing as a nice memory of father Busa, with our best wishes for a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all who have loved him.

Cari saluti,

With best wishes,

(on behalf of CIRCSE)

Marco Passarotti
Head of the ‘Index Thomisticus’ Treebank
Secretary of CIRCSE
Largo Gemelli, 1
20123 – Milan

Tel. 02-72342380

Marco tells me they are planning to publish a book in 2012 which collates all of Father Busa's Christmas Cards. I look forward to seeing it.

Wednesday 14 December 2011

Digitisation Studio Setup

I was asked recently about guidelines for setting up a digitisation suite. I'm a bit rusty on the very latest guidelines for this, so turned to the twitters, where a discussion surround #digstudio quickly happened, mostly co-ordinated by Simon Tanner who is an expert in digitisation and frequently advises institutions on their digitisation processes. Now, we all know the fragility of twitter feeds, so I thought I would post the main points here (indeed, it was Simon who suggested I post it here). The bullet points below were all made by Simon - thank you!
  • The JISC Digital Media - Still Images: Setting up a Workspace for Digitising Images document is a good overview on how to set up a digitisation suite
  • Use standards: comply with the ISO 3664:2000 "Viewing conditions - Graphic technology & photography"
  • Replace fluorescents in the room. CIE Standard Illuminant D65 tubes correspond roughly to mid-day light in Europe
  • LED Lighting is the way to go. They are small, portable, with extremely high control. The top place to get these is here
  • However, you might have price issues! Simon suggest's procuring a standard LED. There is a good guide here:
  • Complying with the ISO 3664:2000 "Viewing conditions - Graphic technology & photography" standard also allows for good colour management
  • The Colour of the workspace should always be NEUTRAL grey - no tones or colours & doesn't screw with camera's white point settings
  • AVOID post-it notes & other colourful things round the working areas - it distracts the eye, and messes with calibration
  • The same goes for clothes - avoid overly colourful clothes & shiny things for the operators.
  • Control light: think about if can exclude daylight/control light (with curtaining for instance) for a stable lighting environment
  • Remember: think lots of space & look after the operator!
  • Simon's paper on the Dead Sea Scrolls includes content on the studio: (PDF)

@fletcherdurant pointed out that the Federal Agencies Digitazation Guidelines Initatives' main set of guidelines gives some (if limited), set-up advice on page 5

@ernestopriego pointed out that the New Opportunities Fund has some guidelines - these were written by ... SimonTanner!

Tuesday 13 December 2011

Multi-Spectral Connections

One of Alejandro's many test images, looking at the characteristics of multi-spectral document imaging. Used with Permission.

Another interdisciplinary research project I am currently working on is with Adam Gibson, from The Department of Medical Physics and Bioengineering at UCL. Adam and I started at UCL at the same time, and met on the teaching training course that all new staff have to do. At one point he remarked that he did some work in multi-spectral imaging, to which I replied "oh yeah, we look at documents sometimes using that technique" - although I described our usually laissez faire approach of sticking things under the filtered lens and seeing what you can see, which turns out to differ greatly from tried and tested benchmarked multi-spectral methods used in medical physics to, for example, measure blood flow through the body.

5 years later, Adam won a very prestigious EPSRC Challenging Engineering grant on "Intelligent image acquisition and analysis". He got in touch to wonder if we could use a small slice of money to investigate the potential crossovers between the medical physics methods of multi spectral analysis, and the approaches we used in document imaging analysis. Can the robust, tested, techniques used in medical physics be used in document analysis? Can we benchmark the process of multi-spectral imaging of documentary material?

Our PhD student working on this is Alejandro Giacometti. Alejandro has a background in computer science, and came highly recommended from the MA in Humanities Computing under the supervision of Stan Ruecker at the University of Alberta. Alejandro is really well placed to carry out this research, having the technical background as well as appreciating the Humanities angle. Simon Mahony from UCLDH has also joined us on the team, and he brings his knowledge and expertise in Digital Classics.

Alejandro is now almost half way through his thesis work - and as well as being really eye opening, this project is turning out to be so much fun. We are now in the phase of starting to test our hypotheses on real world examples, and building up our practical expertise in multi-spectral document imaging. It also turns out that we have a lot in common with both the work of Tim Weyrich from UCL Department of Computer Science (who I also jointly supervise a student with) who uses multi-spectral imaging to model skin surfaces, and Stuart Robson from the UCL Department of Civil, Environmental and Geomatic Engineering (who I also jointly supervise two students with, but shall talk about them at some later point) who is interested in a huge variety of image capture techniques both for industry and heritage. We're talking between teams, departments, and disciplines, now, and learning a lot from each other, while cooking up plans for future work.

I feel very lucky to work in an institution such as UCL which has such diverse expertise - but also such interested colleagues, willing to work together across disciplinary boundaries. Its also great to have such an opportunity for PhD study, which could potentially contribute to many fields.

Monday 12 December 2011

Me under the spotlight at DISH

Here I am, giving my pitch for Transcribe Bentham in the opening session of DISH. Thanks to Inge Angevaare, of the digitaalduurzaam blog, for sending this, and others, onto me. You can see the size of the crowd here.

Thursday 8 December 2011

Greetings from DISH

Hullo from Rotterdam, where I am at DISH2011, "the conference about digital strategies for heritage". There are over 550 delegates at the Rotterdam WTC, across a wide range of libraries, archives and museums, predominantly across Europe. Its a really interesting mix of people, and not so many of the usual suspect academics here (one of the key notes yesterday did a show of hands, about who was here from libraries, who was here from museums, who was a student, who was in industry, and.... no show of hands for who was at a university. Nice to be in the minority for once, and to meet lots of heritage professionals!) Its been really enjoyable, so far.

Yesterday was a fairly big day: Transcribe Bentham was one of the 5 international projects nominated for the Digital Heritage Award 2011 (you can see our specific nomination here). I had to give a 3 minute pitch in front of the entire crowd on behalf of the project team, bright lights and all, in the opening plenary session, followed by manning an information booth, above, in all the breaks to solicit votes. You can see the voting system above - people had to place a sticker on our sheet. By the end of the day we had filled quite a few of these - fantastic to have such support, and I talked to a lot of very interesting and interested people about the project. The winner of the award was Digital Koot, well done all! - a little bird tells me we came a close runner up. But to be honest, having the opportunity to pitch to such a large audience, and meet so many interesting people, was wonderful, and it was an honour to be nominated. All good fun.

Today I am actually giving the proper paper about Transcribe Bentham! 45 minutes rather than 3. So another big day, but standing up in front of a normal lecture hall in daylight is nothing compared to 3 minutes with the cameras and lights on you, so it will be fine.

I hope to visit DISH again. Its usually difficult for me to travel at this time of year due to the teaching schedule, but its definitely been a useful conference for me so far. And now to go and tackle another conference day...

Tuesday 6 December 2011

On Killing Metaphorical Birds with Statistical Stones

All this talk of DH stats (and the many emails and tweets I am firing off to gather up the evidence DH can muster) has both distracted me from posting anything from the back catalogue, and reminded me of a paper I wrote trying to articulate what Digital Humanities is by analysing the conference attendees and abstracts of the ALLC/ACH conferences (which is now known as Digital Humanities).

Its a bit of a right of passage that those working in DH attempt, at some time or other, to write a paper on what is Digital Humanities, or Humanities Computing as then was. My attempt was prompted by the fact I had to achieve a Postgraduate Certificate on Learning and Teaching in Higher Education as part of my probation when I first joined UCL. We had to write a 10,000 word dissertation on some aspect of learning and teaching. I have to say, undertaking that course in the first couple of years of an academic role was a bit of a millstone - it used up huge amounts of time at a time when I was writing whole courses from scratch and trying to turn my thesis into a monograph. I'm not one for wasted effort, so I tried to see if I could write a dissertation that would then become a publication. Killing three birds with one stone, I got the PGCLTHE, a conference paper, and a journal paper out of it. Bingo. To be honest, I would never have written the "what is humanities computing?" paper without having to do a dissertation for my teaching qualification.

I looked at trying to define the scope of our discipline, and therefore what we should be teaching, with the available evidence to hand. This was the conference abstracts from 1996-2005 of ALLC/ACH, plus the archive of postings to Humanist. I then number crunched them using the usual statistical methods that we teach as DH. Heh heh. Using DH to analyse DH! Again, birds with one stone. Why teach a methodology if you cant use it for your own dissertation? It was a quick win for me.

We can see, from the graph above, that Humanities computing research up to 2005 was pretty much text-o-centric. So we should be teaching that in our programs, goes the theory. Discuss. And you have the paper.

I wonder how much has changed now, actually. It would be fun to do another analysis.

This year I missed DH2011 as I was on maternity leave with the boys. I woke up one morning to find lots of new followers on twitter - always a sign that someone has been talking about you - to find that Lisa Spiro had cited this paper and methodology in her Making Sense of 134 DH Syllabi paper. A nice surprise - you never know if what you are working on is ever useful to anyone else.

And here it is:
Terras, M. (2006). "Disciplined: Using Educational Studies to Analyse ‘Humanities Computing'." Literary and Linguistic Computing, Volume 21. 229 - 246. PDF.

Thursday 1 December 2011

Imaging the Great Parchment

Image © City of London, London Metropolitan Archives. Used with Permission.

One of the things that I am enjoying most in my current incarnation is the interdisciplinary work I am doing with various doctoral students, scattered across many of UCL’s computational and engineering science faculties. I’m delighted to be working as secondary supervisor alongside, as primary supervisor, Tim Weyrich, from UCL’s Department of Computer Science, on an EngD project that is sponsored by London Metropolitan Archives, to aid in reading one of their unique holdings: The Great Parchment Book.

The Great Parchment Book contains a survey of forfeited Irish estates claimed by Charles I in 1639, consolidating all contracts and particulars of all rental lands in the county into one volume. The resulting book holds invaluable information about the County of Londonderry in the early 17th century. The book was apparently passed to the Irish Society in London when it was reconstituted by Charles II in 1662, but a fire in 1786 at Guildhall caused extensive damage to their historical collections, destroying a large proportion of the 17th century material entirely, and causing dramatic ‘shrivelling’ and fire damage to the vellum pages of the Great Parchment Book. 165 folios of the volume survive, in 6 boxes such as the one featured above. This hugely important document has therefore been unavailable to historians since the date of the fire, as the pages cannot be handled because of their state of conservation.

Our task is deceptively simple – can we use image capture and processing techniques to make the rippled, twisted, and buckled text readable? Can we produce digital image surrogates which scholars can use to access the content of the document? A ever, the devil is in the detail. Our EngD student, Kazim Pal , has started (after a one year taught component of the course) to investigate approaches that can be used to digitally reconstruct the manuscript. We hope to work with the online edition team at King’s College London’s Department of Digital Humanities to produce an online, transcribed edition of the text in time for the 400 year anniversary of the incorporation of the Irish Society by the Corporation of London in 1613.

It’s really useful for me to work on the development and application of technologies in this area: it keeps pushing the limits of my understanding of the way we can use imaging with documentary material. I’m learning a huge amount from working with Tim and Kazim, and it is really great fun to step from beyond the textbooks/computer screen back into a real archive, to work on a real document, with real archivists and conservators, on approaches that will potentially benefit many scholars in the future. For me, personally, this is the joy – and excitement! of Digital Humanities.