Some Thoughts on Digitizing the Stage

I attended the Digitizing the Stage conference, jointly between the Bodleian libraries and Folger Shakespeare library. A basic storify exists here for the various tweets.

A mix of performance, textual, makers, and doers, this was a chance to consider the needs of archives, scholars and the data for ongoing scholarship.

I noticed a disenchantment with what digitisation has become. Where it may show the image of a page, the practise does not deal with the physicality, materiality or context of the object being converted into an electronic form. Books, certainly Medieval or Early Modern ones, and manuscripts have a physical heft to them. They also exist in a context not as unrelated objects to the world. Practices of providing an isolated image or text files calls into question the context of the image; scholarly needs and requirements may go beyond this. The final keynote at the Digital Humanities Oxford Summer School echoed this as well as did Tiffany Stern’s opening key note.

The issue of search came up repeatedly. In part, interoperability and federation with other searches and data sources was brought up. While I see the desire and need, the practicalities need to be considered for the creation and maintenance of such a system. Sadly, I have seen similar approaches be constructed but then come apart when the funding ran out.

There is also the issue of how does one describe search in visual terms if searching for images within images. This issue came up as part of Research Uncovered talk at the Bodleian’s Weston library with someone who worked in the area and commented that the way search is described for a visual object is somewhat lacking. It requires a conceptual shift to translated what the eye is seeing to being typed to be discovered.

Theoretically, we had many references to Moretti’s work on distant reading. I’m still going reading through the underlying theories and digging into their roots so my grasp is not as deep as I’d like but it does appear to have some uses and genuine output. The RusDraCor project presented at the project demonstrates the use of technology as tools to make lives easier and faster to create and update editions and tools to work with them.

Brett Greatley-Hirsch’s use of quantitative analysis was impressive as it pulled out the real strength of the approach. I’m slightly frustrated that the book will only out in hardback it appears but I hope that a paperback may appear in due course.

Sarah Ellis’s talk on how the Royal Shakespeare Company used digital techniques for The Tempest, including gyroscopic capture for Ariel and the use of snapchat, with the argument that theatre is the original virtual reality was a show stopper. They may have budgets that other theatres might not but there was a real engagement with the digital as part of the theatrical practice. It may also have been inspired by the Masque, a Seventeenth Century wonder, showing a deeper thought into what is required.

I was slightly surprised that Oxford didn’t implode when Pip Willcox and David De Roure did their talk about the First Folio within a metres of the book itself. One of the many points was that methodology should be mentioned in papers to help scholars understand the process and provenance of a piece of work.

There was so much more which will come bubbling up to the surface at some point. It enthused me for the forthcoming PhD work which might use some of the data sources mentioned here. On a more general note, I learned new things and came away reconsidering things that I thought I knew. For me, the sign of an excellent set of sessions.