DH Project Update Undergraduate Fellows

Lasso-ing the Laisses: A Digital Journey Through Annotations, Javascript, and More!

Guest post by Sarah Schaffer ’16


Hi, my name is Sarah and I am a senior Business Administration major with a French minor. This past semester of independent study I worked with Professor McCormick on his current Huon d’Auvergne project. You may be wondering: “What is a business major doing here?” but in the spirit of a liberal arts college I’ve taken advantage of the wide variety of classes offered here. My journey with Digital Humanities began Winter 2015 when I registered for Professor McCormick’s class French 341: La Legende Arthurienne, which included a Digital Humanities lab. It was in this class that I became fascinated with TEI and how Digital Humanities have transformed our interactions with various works.

Before Digital Editions

The first step of research was to understand the importance of the work itself, before it becomes a digital edition. Through reading both the books Introduction to Manuscript Studies and On Editing Old French Texts, I began to better understand the work that Professor McCormick was doing. As someone without much background knowledge of historical manuscripts, it had never crossed my mind to consider even half the elements discussed. Each element, such as the writing support it’s written on, the manuscript errors, corrections made, and annotations, add to the way the document is understood and interpreted. Every new edition of the work needs to take into account the editor’s personality and what they chose to include or exclude. Each component plays such a huge role in editing and choosing what to display on the digital edition that is being presented. This makes choosing what to include even more important in the way that the text is being displayed and available for interpretation.

Theory of Digital Editions

As I moved from my readings about the physical documents themselves, Professor McCormick and I discussed Peter Robinson’s article “The Theory of Digital Editions.” Digital editions in their infancy tried to include everything, but quickly found that resources are limited which restricted what could be included. However, what digital editions can do is include a new level of involvement with the document between both the reader and the editor, something that is not possible with a printed document. Unlike a primary document or editorial text, a digital edition allows the reader “to see the text of the document construct itself, layer by layer, from blank page to fully written text” (Robinson 110). The article and discussion with Professor McCormick opened my eyes to the idea that the text-as-document is intimately linked to the text-as-work within the digital edition.

Putting Ideas Together

While learning about digital editions, I researched the different ways other digital editions included annotations, the platforms they used, and the way their works were displayed. I spent a large amount of time looking through various digital editions and searching through DIRT for tools we could use for the final website. We looked into using as an annotation tool, but it didn’t quite provide the functionality that we were looking for. Eventually after researching and working with various different platforms, we decided to build our own system, using Ruby on Rails. Instead of trying to tailor an already made platform to the project’s needs, creating a new system allowed for the upmost customization.


If I could look at different examples of digital editions and click through them all day, I would, but at some point I needed to come up with some ideas on my own. Based off of various other editions, understanding the history and theory of digital editions, and being aware of what Professor McCormick was looking for I got to work. The best way to begin prototyping is just sitting down with some blank sheets of paper and a pencil and draw out what to design. So, I got to work sketching out several ways the website could be organized. Once I had one or two ideas down, I found more ways to organize the various laisses and show functionality as well. A laisse is best defined as a narrative unit, similar to a stanza but varies in length. Each version of Huon d’Auvergne has a large number of laisses, which makes the organization and display of them even more important. Below you’ll see some basic prototypes created for the display of different versions of Huon d’Auvergne laisses and the annotations.
Screen Shot 2016-04-11 at 9.56.27 AM


The final step of my project was to begin building the prototypes that I had created. Luckily, I’ve had some experience coding in Professor McCormick’s class before, as well as during some business classes so the task didn’t seem too daunting. I got to work on learning javascript and jQuery through the courses on Codecademy – a website I highly recommend if you’re trying to learn a new coding skill. Once I learned the basics, I did a quick review of HTML and CSS to prep myself for creating a mock-up website. I forgot how intimidating it is to stare at a blank text editor, but once I got started it didn’t seem nearly as daunting.

Gif of frustrated woman staring at laptop

I worked with basic text generated from Lorem Ipsum in order to more easily put my new coding skills to work. After setting up basic structural parts of the website to work with, I added some CSS styling. I then continued with the javascript portion of the website and worked through hiding and revealing the different laisses. I struggled with this part the most because it was such a new skill. Much like learning a foreign language, every new programming language takes time and effort to work through figuring out a solution.

Reflecting on the Semester

Overall, this past semester has been a great learning experience. Beyond the new skills that I learned, this opportunity allowed me to take my liberal arts education beyond the classroom and apply it to a really unique project It was an honor to work with Professor McCormick’s team and be a part of such an incredible project.

Work Cited:

Robinson, Peter. “Towards a Theory of Digital Editions.” The European Society for Textual Scholarship 10 (2013): 105-31. Web.

Event on campus Project Update Undergraduate Fellows

A Whole New World: Digital Projects with a Global Perspective

A Whole New World

Thursday, April 7, 2016
Center for Global Learning
Room 211

Join us for project updates from three students conducting independent digital humanities research this term. In this poster presentation-style forum, students will present on the content of their research – 1920s Africa through Western eyes, the refugee crisis in Germany, and a Franco-Italian romance epic – as well as their methodology – HTML, CSS, PHP, Ruby on Rails, and Javascript. Refreshments provided.

Lions, Jungles, and Natives
Arlette Hernandez ’18
Mellon Digital Humanities Undergraduate Fellow

The Refugees of Germany
Matt Carl ‘17
Mellon Digital Humanities Undergraduate Fellow

Huon d’Auvergne Digital Edition
Sara Schaffer ‘16
Independent Study with Prof. Steve McCormick

This program is sponsored by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and a Dean of the College Cohort Grant.

DH Project Update Tools

Embedding COinS Metadata on a Page Using the Zotero API

[Cross-posted on my personal blog]

This year I am working with Mackenzie, Steve McCormick, and his students on the Huon d’Auvergne project, a digital edition of a Franco-Italian romance epic. Last term we finished TEI-encoding of two of the manuscripts and put them online, and there is still much left to do. Making the digital editions of each manuscript online is a valuable scholarly endeavor in its own right, but we’ve also been spending a lot of time considering other ways in which we can enrich this scholarly production using the digital environment.

All of which brings me to the bibliography for our site. At first, our bibliography page was just a transcription of a text file that Steve would send along with regular updates. This collection of materials is great to have in its own right, but a better solution would be to leverage the many digital humanities approaches to citation management to produce something a bit more dynamic.

Steve already had everything in a Zotero, so my first step was to integrate the site’s bibliography with the Zotero collection that Steve was using to populate the list. I found a python 2 library called zot_bib_web that could do all this quite nicely with a bit of modification. Now, by running the script from my computer, the site’s bibliography will automatically pull in an updated Zotero collection for the project. Not only is it now easier to update our site (no more copying and pasting from a word document), but now others can contribute new resources to the same bibliography on Zotero by requesting to join the group and uploading citations. The project’s bibliography can continue to grow beyond us, and we will capture these additions as well.

Mackenzie suggested that we take things a bit further by including COiNS metadata in the bibliography so that someone coming to our bibliography could export our information into the citation manager of their choosing. Zotero’s API can also do this, and I used a piece of the pyzotero Python library to do so. The first step was to add this piece to the zot_bib_web code:

zot = zotero.Zotero(library_id, library_type, api_key)
coins = zot.collection_items(collection_id, content='coins')
coin_strings = [str(coin) for coin in coins]
for coin in coin_strings:

fullhtml += coin

Now, before the program outputs html for the bibliography, it goes out to the Zotero API and gets COinS metadata for all the citations, converts them into a format that will work for the embedding, and then attaches each returned span to the HTML for the bibliography.

Now that I had the data that I needed, I wanted to make it work a bit more cleanly in our workflow. Initially, the program returned each bibliographic entry in its own page and meant for the whole bibliography to also be a stand-alone page on the website. I got rid of all that and, instead, wanted to embed them within the website as I already had it. I have the python program exporting the bibliography and COinS data into a small HTML file that I then attach to a <div id="includedContent"> inserted in the bibliography page. I use some jQuery to do so:

<script type="text/javascript">


Instead of distributing content across several different pages, I mark a placeholder area on the main site where all the bibliographic data and metadata will be dumped. All of the relevant data gets saved in a file ‘zot-bib.html’ that gets automatically included inside the shell of the bibliography.html page. From there, I just modified the style so that it would fit into the aesthetic of the site.

Now anyone going to our bibliography page with a Zotero extension will see this in the right of the address bar:

Screen Shot 2016-02-08 at 1.07.04 PM

Clicking on the folder icon will bring up the Zotero interface for downloading any of the items in our collection.

Screen Shot 2016-02-08 at 1.13.09 PM

And to update this information we only need to run a single python script from the terminal to re-generate everything.

The code is not live on the Huon site just yet, but you can download and manipulate these pieces from an example file I uploaded to the Huon GitHub repository. You’ll probably want to start by installing zot_bib_web first to familiarize yourself with the configuration, and you’ll have a few settings to update before it will work for you: the library id, library type, api key, and collection ID will all need to be updated for your particular case, and the jQuery excerpt above will need to point to wherever you output the bibliography file.

These steps have strengthened the way in which we handle bibliographic metadata so that it can be more useful for everyone, and we were really only able to do it because of the many great open source libraries that allow others to build on them. It’s a great thing – not having to reinvent the wheel.

Event off campus Project Update

Professor Rebecca Benefiel presents on the Herculaneum Graffiti Project

Professor Rebecca Benefiel recently presented on the Herculaneum Graffiti Project at the Classical Association of Canada annual conference on the panel Let’s Get Digital:
She also presented at the Inaugural Institute for Digital Archaeology conference in Oxford:
DH Incentive Grants Pedagogy Project Update Tools

Raw Density & early Islamic law

Professor Joel Blecher received a DH Incentive grant from W&L for the course History of Islamic Civilization I: Origins to 1500. A pedagogical DH component of that course is for students to produce a set of visualizations of data that they have collected about the transmission of early Islamic law. The students will be using two tools for the visualizations: Palladio and Raw Density.

In this post we’ll examine the use of Raw Density. Separate posts will explore the use of Palladio and the data collection process. This post will provide one example of a data visualization of early Islamic law.

 Raw Density

Raw Density is a Web app offering a simple way to generate visualizations from tabular data, e.g., spreadsheets or delimiter-separated values. Getting started with Raw is deceptively simple: just upload your data.

The complicated part is deciding which of the sixteen visuals is best for your data. While an entire course could be taught on data visualizations, the purpose within this course is for the students to develop familiarity with visualizing historical data. Not all types of charts are appropriate for every type of data.

Our sample diagram uses the first option in Raw Density, which is what the creators behind Raw Density call an “Alluvial diagram (Fineo-like)”. (Fineo was a former research project by Density Design, the developers of Raw Density.) We’re using this type of diagram to show relationships among different types of categories.

Transmitters of early Islamic law

This diagram is based on 452 transmitters of early Islamic law. A transmitter is classified either as a companion or a follower. A companion is one who encountered Muhammad in his lifetime. A follower is one who lived in the generation after Muhammad’s death.


The data collected consists of 17 fields but for the purpose of this diagram we used only 4 categories: gender, transmitterStatus, Converted (Yes/No), priorRelgion. When the transmitterStatus was unknown then the transmitter was grouped into either other or undetermined.

In the diagram you can see how the colored ribbons visualize the data flow from the general category of gender to the more specific categories. The right-side of the diagram divides the transmitters into those that had converted from a prior religion (marked as ‘Yes’) and those that did not (marked as ‘No’).

Visualization allows for a clearer understanding of the data than is possible through a simple examination of tabular content in a spreadsheet. Visualization makes it easy to spot data collecting errors. For example, is there a distinction in the transmitterStatus field between Other and Undetermined or could we have collapsed that into a single field in our data collection form? Also, the visualization identifies where further research is needed, e.g., other data sources should provide details about whether the transmitters with undetermined/other status were companions or followers.

The students in this course will produce various visualizations using Raw Density.

Conference Event off campus Project Update

Members of W&L DH Working Group to present at Five College Consortium’s DH Panel

Two members of W&L’s Digital Humanities Working Group, Brandon Bucy and Alston Brake, will participate in the Five College Consortium’s Digital Humanities Panel to be held at Smith College, MA on June 18, 2013.  They will discuss the evolution of Digital Humanities at W&L and campus initiatives to support faculty and staff in this work.  The panel will focus on what it means to do Digital Humanities work in liberal arts colleges. Click here to see their presentation.

Event on campus People Project Update

W&L Faculty to Present Collaborative Project at LAWDI Institute

A story about classics professor Rebecca Benefiel and computer science professor Sara Sprenkle’s Ancient Graffiti Project: W&L Faculty to Present Collaborative Project at LAWDI Institute