When I was in high school, I did some work transcribing unpublished sonnets of Fernando Pessoa, a Portuguese poet who left behind a profusion of notebooks, papers, letters, and other manuscripts covered in his hard-to-read handwriting. Naturally, then, I was drawn to the ambitious Newton Project, a project aiming to transcribe and make available online all unpublished writings of the prolific Sir Isaac Newton. It was very thought-provoking to apply Miriam Posner’s “reverse engineering” approach to digital humanities projects to a project whose beginning steps resemble the work I did in high school.
In her video “How Did They Make That?”, Posner outlines three parts to a digital humanities project: the sources, processes, and presentation. Sources are essentially the data used for the project, processes are what’s done to the data to make them machine-readable, and presentation is how that processed data is made accessible to people.
In the case of the Newton Project, the sources are the many writings, notebooks, letters, and papers left behind by Newton. A few of these come from previously published editions of his work, but the vast majority are transcribed from images of the manuscripts. This transcription is the first process the sources go through. It’s a lengthy endeavor that requires deciphering what’s written, noting what’s been edited, determining how to present edits or illegible words, and reviewing transcriptions. Next, in order to present the writings in a manner that made various edits and illegible passages transparent to the reader, they had to code the text in a way that included symbols that made the changes clear. The About page of the site has some helpful screenshots showing the “back” and “front” of an example text:
These processes result in the presentation of the site seen on the “front”. The similarities and differences between the manuscripts and the final pages on the website really intrigues me. The words, where the transcribers could read them, are the same (except in the “normalized” texts that have gotten rid of some abbreviations etc.), but they are presented in Times New Roman with a standard left alignment, making it far more legible than the original writing. But in this process you lose the visual of the page–how the words were oriented, what materials Newton used, and the manner in which he wrote. For matters of accessibility, this is a reasonable tradeoff, but I do appreciate that alongside some texts they have linked to the original manuscripts. They also did an excellent job of incorporating diagrams, drawings, and other images from the manuscripts into the texts. I recommend look at the text “Certain Philosophical Questions” as an example that combines transparency in transcription, inclusion of images, and a link to the original manuscript.