Some Thoughts on TILE Partner Projects

Newton, Swinburne, Kirby: One of these things is not like the other?

TILE is a community-driven effort, with many partners. As one of those partners, my role, at least as I see it, is to provide use case scenarios that help guide the development of the TILE tools, to implement the tools in the context of some projects that we hope will provide challenging testing environments, and to provide feedback that will lead to evolution and improvement of the TILE tools. I have other roles and responsibilities in TILE, related to earlier phases of tool design, metadata modeling, and such, but the bringing the tools to bear on my various projects is to me the most interesting and exciting part of TILE.

The projects I bring to the table are The Chymistry of Isaac Newton, The Algernon Charles Swinburne Project, and Comic Book Markup Language (or, CBML). Three projects, one on early modern science; another on Victorian poetry, fiction, and criticism; and a third on twentieth-century popular culture. Three admittedly diverse research projects. Given the range of topics covered by these three projects, folks sometimes wonder, and sometimes ask, What the hell do these projects have to with one another? How do they cohere as part of a unified research agenda.

In this blog post, I’ll try to begin answering that question in a general sense and then look more specifically at what the projects, as a group, have to offer the TILE enterprise.

The larger research agenda is not about Newton, Swinburne, or Kirby. (That’s Jack Kirby, by the way, one of the most influential creators in the history of comics. Working at Marvel comics, along with Stan Lee, Kirby transformed the comic book industry in the 1960s with a new “Marvel method” of creative collaboration and the development of characters such as the Fantastic Four, the Hulk, the Avengers, and others.) The larger research agenda is about exploring the digital representation of complex documents, not just texts, but documents—manuscripts; printed books; comic books; the original, annotated artwork for comic books—documents in all their glorious materiality. The various, often fading and messy inks of Newton’s manuscripts that make us wonder when or if Newton is using his own recipe “To make excellent Ink.”

Newton's Excellent Ink

And then we have Swinburne’s poems. His Atalanta in Calydon, with a binding designed by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The large blue foolscap paper on which Swinburne composed most of his works. The visual documents, artworks, by Whistler, Rossetti, and others, that inspired many of Swinburne’s poems (“Before the Mirror,” “A Christmas Carol“, “Hermaphroditus“). Comic books with their yellowed newsprint held together by rusty staples, the panels of artwork and word balloons and narrative captions, the Sea Monkey advertisements, and fan mail.

sea monkeys advert

Any research into the many theoretical, technical, practical and other issues related to digital representations of complex document types would be seriously disadvantaged by a focus on a homogenous set of documents from any one particular historical period or genre. By examining 17th-century scientific manuscripts, 19th-century literary manuscripts and published books, and twentieth-century pop culture artifacts, I bring to the problem a reasonably diverse set of documents with a large and varied set of issues and challenges. And in the context of TILE, a Text and Image Linking Environment, these documents provide a rich suite of text-image relationships. In all cases, transcriptions of text need to be linked to facsimile page images. Newton’s manuscripts have additional graphic elements, in the form of alchemical symbols, diagrams, and Newton’s own pictorial illustrations. As mentioned above, Swinburne has poems inspired by visual art. Swinburne wrote a book-length study of Blake’s poetry, critical remarks on the Royal Academy Exhibition of 1868, “Notes on Designs of the Old Masters at Florence,” and a famous defense of Victorian artist Simeon Solomon. In these works, Swinburne’s texts share complex relationships with external, graphic documents. Comic books intricately weave together textual and graphic elements, and digital representation of these documents requires mechanisms to link these elements and describe the relationships.

Rich textual-graphic relationships are one feature shared by these diverse document types. Many documents in these three projects also share a richness of authorial and editorial annotation.

So with Newton, Swinburne, and CBML, we have three diverse projects being pursued under the umbrella of larger investigations into the issues related to representation of complex documents in digital space and in the context of larger, linked information environments. Our other TILE partner projects bring similarly complex documents. We hope this community of people and projects will provide a robust foundation on which to develop a widely usable suite of open source text-image linking tools.

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