All things Bede

As of this moment, I’ve been a member of the Digital Humanities team for seven sometimes challenging, frequently exhilarating and always rewarding weeks. I’ve learned a whole lot – from how to write good documentation to using tools like Omeka and ArcGIS to valuable cultural lessons such as being introduced to the 60’s Batman show.

I spent a good portion of my time this term focusing on the Bede Project which aims at creating an online commentary to the Ecclesiastical History of the English People by Venerable Bede. Three Carleton professors – Rob Hardy, Austin Mason, and Bill North – are collaborating on this project. Once finished, it is going to be part of Dickinson College Commentaries. I started working on this project over a year ago and since then have grown fond of Bede and his clear if occasionally funky Medieval Latin.

This term I’ve been focusing on two aspects of the project – vocabulary lemmatization and mapping. Lemmatization is a fancy word for mapping every inflected word form to its dictionary form, or lemma. Most of it was done automatically using a lemmatizer script, so what was left for Bard and me to do was to fill in the words for which the lemma for some reason wasn’t found. That would happen either when the inflected form was ambiguous, in which case I went back to Bede’s text to figure out which of the umpteen possible things it meant, or because the word wasn’t found in the word list the lemmatizer pulled data from (that would be true for Medieval Latin vocabulary, names, or words that had an alternative spelling). While slightly monotonous, this is a great refresher for my rusty Latin, and there’s a fun problem-solving aspect to figuring out which of the many possible meanings a word has in any given context.

The other part of the project I was focusing on is collecting all the data necessary for creating an interactive map of Bede’s England. I created a spreadsheet with a list of all the places mentioned in Bede using Plumber’s index of place names and found coordinates of the corresponding modern places. This process had its own challenges: sometimes it would not be clear where a place mentioned by Bede was located. When that was the case, I engaged in extensive googling and searching through various commentaries to Bede’s text hoping to find a note on the corresponding modern location (sometimes the name mentioned in Bede and the modern English name of the place don’t sound at all alike – for instance, Verulamium is now called St. Alban’s). After that I verified the coordinates of each of the places and added links to Pleiades and/or PastScape for the locations that have an excavated medieval site. The spreadsheet was then uploaded to ArcGIS, resulting in the following map (pretty cool, right?):

The next step I will be focusing on is adding a layer with all the rivers.

Organization: Yes, it really works.

Seventh week is beginning (did anyone else just go into fight or flight mode after reading those words?), which means that I’ve now had well over a month to settle in to my first term as a DHA. Initially, I was going to write that I had spent the first several weeks of this job learning the ropes and getting the hang of how it goes (because I have indeed learned a great many things about a great deal of stuff), but then I realized that that’s not really true. More accurately, I’d say that I’ve jumped in headfirst, taking a “sink or swim” approach to this new job, so now seems like a great time to come up for air and do a bit of reflecting.

In short, I think I can confidently say that I have not utterly failed (I joke, I’ve actually done quite well). I owe this success in large part to the people I work with, who are intelligent and always helpful. But there’s another tool that has been key in learning quickly how to tackle a new project: the documentation.

The nature of student jobs and participation in organizations is that the turnover is fast – jobs and organizations are looking for new employees and members every year, so making training efficient can be essential. I’ve participated I some student organizations where it seems like every week we’re saying, “I’m pretty sure so-and-so did a project like this a couple years ago, but then they graduated…do you have idea how we could get their contact information to see if they’ve still got that information? Or maybe I still have an email about it from freshman year…” Yes, sifting through emails from 2014 is one of the warning signs that something went wrong…

Student turnover can be a logistical nightmare, but this job has been proof that it doesn’t need to be. It’s been so easy for me to access project history, familiarize myself with all the relevant tools and information, and then quickly jump into new projects. Not all of it is perfect, but the effort was made and I am reaping the benefits. If better (or any) documentation is something you think your job or organization could benefit from, here are some tips I’ve gleaned from my experience:

  1. Be specific and consistent when naming documents. “Meeting 3/5/15” is not helpful. “Initial Meeting with Web Developer” is helpful.
  2. Note specifically who has done what. If you need to contact someone about work they’ve done, you don’t want to be guessing between 10 different people.
  3. Take the time to organize. The point of documentation is that it makes everyone’s lives easier down the road. Make everything easy to find using section headers and bulleted lists.
  4. Note things that did and didn’t work. For example, if you’re reflecting on how an annual event went, a note that says “Next year get catering order in 1 week before event” can save planning time and prevent disasters in the future.
  5. Keep everything in one place. This seems obvious, but it can be very easy to for things to go missing, especially if there are a lot of people working on one project. For example, having one big Google Drive folder ensures that everyone knows where and how to access everything.

Now go forth and document!

Something to Think about When You Work on DH Remotely

The past winter break I was in China where some websites and web services are not available. My days were a little bleak without Youtube and Facebook. The worst part was that I had no access to my Carleton Gmail account or Google drive. This made my task of uploading articles to Journal of Historians of Netherlandish Art (JHNA) particularly challenging – it was hard to contact my supervisor and the authors, and it was impossible to view the JHNA articles, figures and upload guide since they are all stored on Google drive. I was glad that I realized this problem before I left campus. I tried to resolve this issue by giving my supervisor an alternative email address and installing Carleton GlobalProtect VPN. However, the VPN didn’t work for the first few weeks of my break. Here’s a rundown of the problems I faced, and how I solved them:

 

(the ones marked with [FAILED] have failed and thus not recommended):

First 2 days of my break

  1. [FAILED] Sat and cried

Week 2

Using my personal email account, 

  1. contacted my supervisor, explained the situation
  2. [FAILED] filed an ITS report, which was automatically rejected because it was not sent from a carleton account
  3. given that (2) had failed, reached out to all my friends who work for ITS for help

Week 3 – 4

  1. VPN troubleshooting with tremendous help from ITS
  2. [FAILED] Experimented some random free VPNs found using Baidu (a Chinese search engine), which brought my laptop some virus problems
  3. Switched to Yahoo (relatively more reliable than Baidu) and found a few highly ranked VPNs in IOS app store
  4. Tried one of the VPNs, “Betternet VPN”. It’s free, and though slow, it works! *Note: This app can only be found in the American app store. An American Apple ID is required.
  5. ITS made some backend updates and GlobalProtect started to work for me!

 

To summarize, if you are traveling outside of the United States and are likely to have similar problems, consider doing these in advance:

  1. Install Carleton GlobalProtect VPN (or other trusted VPN software)
  2. Friend and bribe ITS workers
  3. Give people you need to contact an alternative email address that you have access to in any network environment
  4. Save as many things you might need from Google drive to….your hard drive?…as possible
  5. Download other reliable VPNs to your tablets just in case GlobalProtect fails you

And lastly when you are on your trip and find out that none of above helps, please be patient and stay positive – there’s always going to be a way out; otherwise, enjoy your days free of digital distractions!