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When history goes digital

Researchers are increasingly seeing the value of digitizing old manuscripts, texts, and other documents. By poring through these digitally archived records using advanced visualization and data mining techniques, scholars can create new teaching tools and develop research projects that reveal fascinating insights into culture, history, science, health trends, you name it.

A founding tool of such work is the Text Encoding Initiative, which establishes language and guidelines for digitizing and curating scholarly data. Yet while text encoding allows for publishing, preserving, and sharing this information, many potential users—including scholars, archivists, librarians, teachers, and students—lack access to and understanding of TEI resources.

That’s why a team of digital humanities experts at Northeastern University, Wheaton College, Brown University, and other institutions is developing a project known as TAPAS. The project—which stands for TEI Archiving, Publishing, and Access Service—will provide low-cost publishing and storage services for users at all levels and fields to create, curate, and share high-quality data using open-source tools. Funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Institute of Museum and Library Services since 2008, the project is scheduled to launch in fall 2014.

“You can do amazing things with this data once they’re digitized,” said project co-director Julia Flanders, who runs the University Libraries’ Digital Scholarship Group and is a Professor of the Practice in the Department of English at Northeastern. She also directs the Women Writers Project, a long-term research initiative devoted to early modern women’s writing and text encoding with a particular focus on making texts by pre-Victorian women more accessible for teaching and research.

The Digital Scholarship Group supports digital modes of research, publication, and collaboration at Northeastern and is part of a wider range of digital scholarship services at the library. Those services include GIS and digital mapping resources, tools for creating digital projects, and the recently opened Digital Scholarship Commons.

Through TAPAS, users could create and upload their projects, explore the work of others, and foster new collaborations. Over time, the digital repository would house collections of work on a variety of topics. There would be interdisciplinary benefits beyond these projects’ original scope, as well. For instance, whalers were known to jot down weather and water temperature data in their logs; by bringing this data under a common system, that information might collectively be useful to climate change researchers today.

Northeastern recently received a three-year, $300,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to develop a full-scale digital repository for TAPAS, which will anchor the project’s long-term storage and visualization services.

TAPAS began as a multi-university initiative and is now fully housed at and run by Northeastern. The first phase of the project dates back to 2009, when collaborators began planning and laying the groundwork for how the service would be structured and implemented. In the following years, the team collected digital projects to begin testing the site and developed a first working version of the service. Now in Phase III, the team is further refining TAPAS and working to ensure its long-term sustainability after its launch this fall.

Following the launch, project leaders will host workshops on text encoding as well as a series of “code-along” events to help faculty and students create their own projects and integrate collaborative coding activities into the classroom.