Tuesday, June 16, 2009


New technologies promise to support collaborative research and other interpretive activities, and so it's really good when you see a well-structured example appear on the internet.

In an 'experiment in close-reading', seven critics, scholars and creative writers were invited to participate in an online discussion of Doris Lessing's novel The Golden Notebook. With the approval of the author and publisher Harper Collins, the full-text of the novel is provided so that those outside of the chosen group can consider the 'readings' provided by each contributor with easy reference to the page or pages under discussion. The concentration of discussion on particular pages can also be examined in a section that arranges comments per page in descending order.

The 'reading' of the novel began on 8 November 2008 and continued for approximately six weeks. Observers have been invited to comment in a Forum and the chosen readers reflected on their experience in a blog. This is all arranged in a very simple interface that enables visitors to concentrate on the text of the novel and the attached comments.

Comments in the Forum show a mixed reaction to the experiment, some questioning the veracity of the 'reading' being done online and others suggesting the need for readers outside of the English-speaking world. But, despite this criticism, most people who have added their voice to the discussion have been positive. For an online experiment, the small numbers who have posted comments might be disappointing to the organisers, but one might wonder how this could develop as more people become aware of the site's existence.

This experiment in close reading provides a very good model for similar initiatives using full-text through the AustLit portal. Agreements with authors and publishers will have to be made for contemporary works, but those works out of copyright provide the possibility for trial and experimentation.

The Aus-e-Lit Project will develop new annotation tools to support experiments like The Golden Notebook and will soon invite contributors to participate in an annotation event that centres on The Bulletin Story Book which contains a number of well-known Australian short stories, including Henry Lawson's 'The Drover's Wife', Barbara Baynton's 'The Tramp' (a version of 'The Chosen Vessel') and Arthur Hoey Davis' 'On Our Selection' among many other well-known and long-forgotten stories.

This event will inform the development of collaborative annotation tools by inviting wide participation and feedback on the technical and conceptual delivery of such a service to researchers in the field of Australian literature. The release of this development model will be announced here and through other AustLit networks in the near future. The prototype will be discussed in a special session at ASAL 2009.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Aus-e-Lit Project Update

Over the last six months Aus-e-Lit team members have been busy with technical and conceptual development and have appeared at a number of events to spread the news about the tools that will soon enable greater engagement with AustLit data.

Papers have been presented at
eResearch Australasia 2008, International Digital Curation Conference 2008, International Conference on Asia-Pacific Digital Libraries 2008, International Conference on Open Repositories 2009 and Digital Humanities 2009. Copies of these papers have been posted on the Project site - here.

The Project's goal is to help AustLit users to discover, organise, describe, analyse, collaborate and communicate in a networked environment. This will be achieved by providing a federated search of selected databases, an annotation service and a new tool, LORE, that will enable users to create and publish compound digital objects in a variety of presentation forms. You can view a video of these tools in use that was prepared by Anna Gerber for Open Repositories 2009.

In addition to conference presentations, these new tools have been demonstrated to members of the Austlit user community based at the University of Queensland. AustLit personnel and staff members from the School of English, Media Studies and Art History have been asked to comment on prototypes of the Aus-e-Lit tools. Feedback on the prototypes has been positive and comments have informed the preparation of a demonstration and workshop at the annual conference of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature.

In consultation with members of research communities active in the field of Australian literary studies, the project team is preparing several examples that will be used for demonstration at ASAL and beyond.

The project has attracted the interest of Professor Paul Eggert who has a considerable international reputation in the field of scholarly editing. Professor Eggert is currently working on a major scholarly edition of the works of the colonial Australian poet, Charles Harpur. Harpur's poetry exists in manuscript, periodical and book versions that reveal significant variation due to the poet's constant revision towards a collected edition that failed to appear during his lifetime. An edition of Harpur's poetry was prepared after his death, but severe editorial intervention created texts that depart significantly from the last known manuscript versions. The Aus-e-Lit project is using the case of 'The Creek of the Four Graves' to develop tools to assist collaborative scholarly editing. You can see a video of the basic structure of the prototype here.

Discussion with teachers of Australian literature in EMSAH has isolated a few texts that can be used to develop tools that assist collaborative analysis of literary works. Henry Lawson's well-known short story 'The Drover's Wife' will be used as a test-case to investigate the benefits of collaborative annotation. Published in The Bulletin Story Book in 1901, its appearance in this book enables discussion of other texts such as Barbara Baynton's 'The Tramp' and Arthur Hoey Davis' 'On Our Selection' and an exploration of the literary culture of the 1890s that centres on writers whose work appeared in the Bulletin during that decade.

The project team has also been investigating the benefits of online text analysis tools like those offered by Tapor or demonstrated at the Willa Cather Archive. Over time and in consultation with AustLit users we'll be testing these tools and will direct users to the best of them so that AustLit research communities can take full advantage of the increasing amount of full text freely available on the web. In the near future the project will also offer data visualisation tools to support 'distant reading' of Australian literary history by drawing on the rich data source collected by AustLit.

Such visualisation will potentially help projects such as Professor David Carter's 'America Publishes Australia: Australian Books and American Publishers, 1890-2005.' Evidence accumulated during this project could potentially enhance AustLit records by providing information not normally indexed by AustLit: literary agents; publisher's representatives; editors; print runs; dustcover images; comprehensive bibliographical descriptions etc. Examples from this project will be developed to demonstrate how the accumulation of such data might be analysed and re-used for other research questions.

The potential for the re-use of digital objects is being explored with the help of AustLit's Black Words Research Community. Black Words team members are drafting a variety of thematic trails that can be created by using LORE to collect, organise and present web-based digital objects. These trails will eventually be delivered through the Black Words page and will inform the development of style sheets for other types of presentations from slide shows to illustrated essays. Of course, our thinking is often influenced by the exhibits now accumulating at NINES.

Following the forthcoming demonstration and workshop at ASAL, we hope to enagage more users with the various prototypes in order to prepare for a full usability study in 2010. We welcome comment at any time via this blog or by email to the project manager, Roger Osborne: r.osborne@uq.edu.au.