UVA Collaboration

Reconciling Shakespeare[’s texts]: Collation in a Digital World

[Enjoy this guest post by Sam Lemley and Neal Curtis, graduate students in English at University of Virginia. They came to W&L to give a workshop in Prof. Holly Pickett’s sprint-term “Othello, Ourselves: Race, Religion, and Reconciliation in Shakespeare” course through a Mellon-funded collaboration with the Scholars’ Lab at UVA. More information about this initiative can be found here. This post is cross-listed on the Scholars’ Lab blog.]

In some circles, collation is a word to conjure with. While we might all know what it means ‘to collate,’ the practice itself is too often confined to the rarefied world of bibliographical and textual analysis. In consequence, the word has come to connote a dark art. The OED fails to clear things up, telling us only what collation is rather than how it’s done: collation (that subtle science) is the “textual comparison of different copies of a document […] with a view to ascertain the correct text, or the perfect condition of a particular copy.”

During our recent visit to Professor Holly Pickett’s course, “Othello, Ourselves: Race, Religion, and Reconciliation in Shakespeare,” we sought to dispel this obscurantist view of collation. Working with Pickett and her students, we demo’d a suite of digital collating tools and instruments that anyone with a computer, two (or more!) texts to compare, and a little patience can put to use—often with startling results.

A course on Shakespeare is a fitting (and relatively safe) place to experiment with collation. In the 1940s, UVa graduate student Charlton Hinman developed an optical collating machine to assist in his comparison of extant copies of Shakespeare’s First Folio (1623). In fact, modern techniques of textual collation could be said to originate with Hinman’s work on the first collected edition of Shakespeare’s plays.[1] The eponymous collator that followed Hinman’s early prototyping resembles an electrical ziggurat that (when switched-on) emits clacking sounds and flashes of light. It is, for want of an analogy, kind of like a heavy-metal R2-D2, albeit without the Lucasian droid’s endearing chirps, wobbles, and bloops (see figure, below).

Despite its intimidating aspect, however, in its inventor’s hands the Hinman Collator revealed something incredible: no two copies of the famed First Folio were exactly alike. When examined through the collator’s all-seeing binocular lenses, each copy presented its own assortment of variants—in punctuation, spelling, and even entire lines of speech. These variants offered students and scholars of Shakespeare fresh fodder in the never-ending project of making sense of the inimitable Bard. While the intervening decades have not been kind to Hinman’s invention (approximately fifty-nine Hinman Collators were manufactured; only a few are still operational), optical collation remains an important tool in the textual scholar’s toolkit. {Incidentally, one of the original Hinman Collators is still in use at the University of Virginia.[2] To see it in action (ably demonstrated by fellow UVa English graduate students James Ascher and Ethan Reed), see:}

For obvious reasons (its heft and bulk), we could not bring the Hinman Collator with us to Washington & Lee; happily, then, digital humanists have developed a number of text analysis and collation apps that bring robust collational methods to the familiar scale of the personal computer and smartphone. While recent experiments in digital optical collation, including the recently launched ‘PocketHinman’ app, hold promise, in Pickett’s course we decided to focus on the collation of transcribed text—that is, rather than visually comparing two copies of a printed page, we would be comparing raw letters and words, transcribed into easily manipulable .txt files. To do so as a group and to compare our results, we introduced Pickett’s students to an online collation engine called Juxta Commons.

We first asked Pickett’s students to visit and create user accounts. That done, we distributed two versions of Act 5, Scene 2 of Othello (a scene Pickett’s students had just read) in .txt format. One version was from the 1622 Quarto printing of the play, the other was from the 1623 First Folio. Though separated by only a single year, these two versions contain one of the most intriguing and complex variants in Shakespeare’s works. The folio reads,

Of one, whose hand

(Like the base Iudean) threw a Pearle away

Richer then all his Tribe.


Here Othello (metaphorizing after murdering Desdemona) likens himself to a ‘Judean’. In place of Judean, however, the earlier Quarto reads, Indian. This variant is interesting for a number of reasons, not least because the question of correctness is open to debate. Semantically at least, both ‘Judean’ and ‘Indian’ fit, though each colors Othello’s speech differently: is Othello Jew-like, or like a Native of the ‘New World’? Hence the beauty of these seemingly innocent textual variants; they force us to hold in mind multiple readings simultaneously, deepening our appreciation of the play and Shakespeare’s art. We’ll leave the interpretive heavy-lifting to Pickett’s brilliant students—our demonstration merely aimed to show both the speed with which variants can be detected using Juxta and the value of visualizing these variants with Juxta’s suite of tools. These tools—including theside-by-side viewer, which highlights points of variance between two textual ‘witnesses’, and histogram tool, which visualizes the relative density of variation in each witness—contextualize variants to assist in their interpretation. While discussing why a single word might have changed between the Quarto and Folio, we stressed that Juxta could be used to find similar scholarly cruxes elsewhere. Once found, these cruxes might complicate or add textual depth to students’ readings of a particular moment in any one of Shakespeare’s plays. We also encouraged Pickett’s students to view the words on the pages of their modern editions as the product of recent editorial choice rather than authorial fiat. This kind of textual skepticism—the refusal to take Shakespeare’s heavily-mediated words at face value—can be intimidating. Naturally, students want editorial certainty; they crave the ‘correct’ version to simplify an already complicated text. But textual variability and openness also hold vast promise: the detection of variants and errors reveals something about Shakespeare’s meaning, audience, and culture that modern versions often take pains to cover up. Juxta makes the discovery of these hidden clues easy, even (we think!) fun.

In short, the lesson we hope to have imparted during our time with Pickett’s students is simple: while expertise in Shakespeare’s world and words comes slowly, the familiarity of this technology (particularly to students who navigate web apps with ease) opens new and newly-accessible ways of reading. Reading Shakespeare for the first time can be an exhausting slog through archaic syntax and Elizabethan humor. Juxta and similar tools put the proverbial ball back in the students’ court. We hope, then, that these tools will become increasingly common in literature seminars—their availability spurring students to treat historical texts like datasets ripe for creative recombining and analysis.

We close by thanking Professor Holly Pickett (and her students!) for having us, Brandon Walsh of UVa’s Scholars’ Lab and Sydney Bufkin for facilitating, and the Mellon Foundation, whose grant program for digital humanities made our visit possible. For more information on Juxta—and a more detailed tutorial—see

Sam Lemley

Neal Curtis

[1] See Steven Escar Smith, “‘The Eternal Verities Verified’: Charlton Hinman and the Roots of Mechanical Collation,” Studies in Bibliography 53 (2000): 129–61. Hinman estimated that his work on the first folio would have taken decades of constant work without the aid of the Hinman Collator.

[2] For a census of surviving Hinman Collators, see Steven Escar Smith, “‘Armadillos of Invention’: A Census of Mechanical Collators,” Studies in Bibliography 55 (2002): 133–70.


Applications are open for the Post-Baccalaureate Fellow in Digital Humanities

Are you a W&L senior or recent graduate with an interest in the Digital Humanities? Would you like to build technical and professional skills, gain career mentorship, and help make DH programming at W&L even better? Are you excited about expanding opportunities for women in technology? Applications are now open for the one-year Post-Baccalaureate Fellow in Digital Humanities, a full-time job at the University Library starting in June, 2018.

Position description:

The Post-Baccalaureate Fellow in Digital Humanities is a one-year position designed for a recent college graduate who will assist the Washington and Lee Digital Humanities (DH) initiative in preparing undergraduates majoring in the humanities and humanistic social sciences for technology-based careers or graduate education. The position will give particular attention to developing activities, resources and workshops that encourage undergraduate women to expand interest in applying coding, software and digital research methodologies to their studies and careers beyond W&L. The Post-Baccalaureate Fellow will receive significant mentoring and professional development in preparing for future graduate study or career opportunities.

The position is full-time and will start in June, 2018. The application deadline is Feb. 1, 2018. Apply here.

DH Pedagogy Trip Report

Digital Pedagogy at LACOL

It’s my first blog post for DH @ W&L! Hi, everyone! I’m Sydney Bufkin, the new Mellon Digital Humanties Fellow. I have been—and will continue to be—a Visiting Assistant Professor in the English Department, so if I look familiar when you drop by my office, that’s likely why, especially if you’ve taken WRIT 100 in the past two years.

Photo of one of the Vassar academic buildings
The Vassar campus isn’t terrible in June

I moved over to the library last week and immediately hit the road for the Liberal Arts Consortium for Online Learning (LACOL) workshop at Vassar College. LACOL is a consortium of nine liberal arts colleges formed to share resources about online learning, blended learning and digital pedagogy, and to collaborate on projects across the consortium campuses. The consortium has held three workshops since beginning in 2014, as well as a number of hack-a-thons and mini-workshops on topics such as adaptive learning, language instruction, social annotation and others.

Washington and Lee joined LACOL this year, so this was the first workshop not only for me, but for the other W&L folks, as well. I was particularly excited about the workshop because I’m all about digital pedagogy, especially using technology to make the liberal arts classroom even more active and engaged than it traditionally is. I’m also interested in the future of higher education (for both professional and philosophical reasons), and I’ve watched with some trepidation as for-profit tech startups like Udacity and EdX have shifted the trajectory of higher ed in recent years. I like that the folks at LACOL are thinking about smaller educational units like the SPOC (small, private online course) rather than the MOOC (massive, open online course), while still exploring ways to make higher education more equitable and more accessible.

One of the highlights of the workshop was a keynote by Bryan Alexander, an “internationally known futurist, researcher, writer, speaker, consultant, and teacher, working in the field of how technology transforms education.” Bryan opened his talk with an image from Jonathan Edwards’s “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” just in case there was any confusion about his assessment of the direction higher ed is heading. His talk raced through a long list of hard truths, from the growing inequality in the United States to decreased enrollments and increased financial pressures on nonprofit, four-year colleges. He noted that small liberal arts colleges represent just 5% of college students in the US, but have an outsized profile and visibility relative to that market share. He called on those colleges to meet the changing landscape of higher education by adapting in ways that improve access to education not just for students from privileged backgrounds, but for everyone.

Bryan’s fire and brimstone was set in opposition to the beautiful Vassar campus, especially the breath-taking library. I only had a little bit of time there, but I spent several minutes taking in the arches and stained glass.

I attended working group sessions for LACOL’s Active and Engaged Reading group and came away with lots of ideas about what reading looks like in our screen-saturated moment. Once question the group considered was why we don’t generally teach the reading process in the way we teach the writing process. We often think of reading as something you either can do or you can’t, sort of like riding a bicycle, but it’s much more akin to writing—you have to identify different disciplines, genres and situations and know how best to read for each case. And like writing well, reading effectively is neither magic nor something you soak up through intuition; it’s a set of steps and processes you learn to apply and adapt.

The working group surveyed some tools and technologies that can help us be better readers, from low-tech approaches like group read-ins in the library and professors modeling their own reading practices to annotating tools like Lacuna and I was excited share the Critical Reader’s Toolkit, a project I worked on when I was at the University of Texas that helps demystify the reading process for literature students.

We had opportunities to hear from other people, both formally and informally, who are working on digital pedagogy at colleges around the country. Bryn Mawr just introduced a new digital competencies framework that emphasizes a number of key skills, including “Digital Survival Skills.” Lots of people were interested in questions of digital citizenship and digital competencies, and we had a lively brainstorming session about how we might collaborate across institutions to address digital fluency.

I always come back from conferences and workshops with my brain buzzing, and this was no exception. I’m excited to see what LACOL does next.