5 years ago, on the 23rd October 2017, after many months of planning and construction work, the Digital Humanities Lab officially opened. Since then we’ve supported teaching and research through a pandemic, collaborated with academics and cultural heritage institutions on research projects, created many exciting digital resources and websites, worked with 28 undergraduate interns, digitised 100s of cassettes to preserve recordings for future use, worked with Exeter City FC, developed websites and databases for research projects, taken 1000s of high quality photographs of rare books and manuscripts including the Exeter Book and the University of Exeter archive, supported podcast and film recordings, created RTI and 3D printed models for archaeology and a whole lot more.
To celebrate our 5th birthday we will be running open day events throughout the term – keep an eye on our upcoming events or twitter to join us!
In the meantime, lets look back to where the lab began!
In the summer of 2016, this corner of the Queens building featured an archaeology equipment store, a bike rack and some very exciting recycling bins. And then the diggers showed up…
Hi, I’m Heide, a second year English Undergraduate. I first encountered the Exeter Digital Humanities Lab during the Festival of Discovery after my first year, but I had already unconsciously experienced Digital Humanities throughout my degree, through online resources such as EEBO (Early English Books Online), The Hardy Correspondents and many other archive websites that I used to research primary sources.
My first hands on experience with digital humanities was during my year one Rethinking Shakespeare module (EAS1041), where we used TEI text encoding to combine differences in Folio and Quarto texts for scholarly consideration. The digitally encoded text provides a more interactive text for study, as different textual variants can be easily seen and more equally considered. The accessibility of the digital texts and the significant scholarly applications inspired me to look further into the previously unknown field of digital humanities by applying to be an intern.
At the start of my internship, I had little technical knowledge about digital photography and technology, however, the DH Lab provided all the training basics. Every week I enjoyed learning new things: Basic Camera skills, Photogrammetry, RTI (Reflectance Transformation Imagery), 3D Modelling and Printing, Photoshop, Audio and Visual recording and editing… The list really does go on! I loved all of the training across the lab and attempted to partake in as many varied projects as I could throughout my internship. One of our training sessions was on photogrammetry, where we brought in our own objects to produce a model. I brought in one of my crochet projects – a kind of awkward looking rabbit (who can be found on one of the Digital Humanities information slides in the Breakout space!). The software wasn’t a great fan of the object, and fabric itself is not the best suited to photogrammetry, so it turned out a little bit wonky (as seen below).
My first projects consisted of 2D digitization in Lab 1, using the A0 copystand. I digitized many letters , and I still enjoy discussing the adorable wax seals to this day. The experience of touching and reading documents and artefacts that would commonly be sealed away in a private collection or museum is such an amazing and interesting experience. I also helped to digitise a collection of Arabic postcards and documents and the Exeter University Fine Art Committee documents. I also used Lab 1 to photograph and reverse negatives of Arabic documents for study in the Lawforms project. Alongside the other interns I helped with inbox and reception management, as well as social media contributions for the Lab and university projects, such as promotional material for the Famine Tales Project.
I also worked on digitising cassette tapes of interviews with Devonshire farmers to convert them into a digital format using the Audio-Visual Lab (AV Lab, Lab 3). As someone who grew up in Devon it was very interesting to hear personal interviews of the locals, and often quite entertaining.
I worked on a larger RTI project to digitize archaeological arrowheads for a university colleague at Exeter. RTI (Reflectance transformation imagery) is performed by capturing images of a static object with a static camera but with changing light angles (check out the DH Lab RTI demonstration page here: https://humanities-research.exeter.ac.uk/rti/). These images are then put into a software called RTI_builder and the process is followed to create an interactive RTI model. Here is a “normals” (the colours correspond to the direction of the surface) of one of the arrowheads:
And a regular screen capture of the object’s other side here:
I also worked on several of my own digitisation projects, including handwritten letters from my Grandma as well as wedding photos from my Aunt. I worked on this alongside all of the projects at the Lab, and it was nice to digitise some of my own family history.
I found working as an intern at Digital Humanities an invaluable experience and recommend it to anybody looking for any experience in the field for job opportunities and personal experience. Don’t let lack of digital experience daunt you – the lab is very welcoming and provides all necessary training help to all interns!
What a year! I have loved working at the Digital Humanities Lab over my third year at Exeter – I have had the opportunity to try so many different activities and have seen a side of the History Faculty and Department I would not normally get to experience as a student. Most enlightening has been the gradual process of understand just how much work goes into conserving and storing the documents we use in our daily studies, and it has given me a new appreciation for the feat of achievement of many of our digital archives. I have particularly enjoyed working with the Drama department’s new Podcasting studio; its accessible format and set-up making it really easy to create podcasts with other students and friends, and I hope to continue this project in my career as a way of enjoying more public debates on history. The most useful advice I could give to someone applying to the Lab or who has already got a place on the internship team is to try everything – and to not be afraid to ask questions. All the staff are super friendly and helpful, and it’s always a great idea to start off slow, learn the techniques properly and learn how to best use and approach each type of archival material, giving you the skills to work more efficiently as the year progresses.
A typical day in the Lab starts with me digitising the most recent documents, photographs or journals that have been brought in – I have partially loved digitising a collection of journals written in the late 1800s by local Devon women, to showcase their artistic, literary and poetic skill. Working with this was challenging, especially as the books were often badly bound or produced on thin, cheap paper, and so they had to be handled slowly and carefully. I used my training from the Special Collections team to plan how to approach each challenge in digitising such a varied type of document. I have also enjoyed seeing the various people and departments who use the Labs photography and recording equipment on a weekly basis to improve course delivery and structure. Learning how to integrate these technologies into future education approaches and lesson planning is the future of education, and will open up the Humanities to a much greater variety of abilities, learning approaches and stages- and as a protective future teacher this has been truly exciting to experience first-hand and have a ‘hands on’ impact on digitisation delivery at the University.
I have really enjoyed my time at the Lab, and can’t recommend enough applying for an internship – you’ll lean so much about the complex and intriguing world of document preservation, and get a new-found appreciation for our brilliant archives and libraries.
Hi, I’m Isabel, a second-year history student and intern at the Digital Humanities Lab.
I have been interested in the Digital Humanities Lab since my first open day before coming to Exeter. What inspired me was the idea that modern technology could expand our understanding of history and build on our current knowledge of the past in brand new ways. I wanted to find out what the Lab had to offer and what opportunities might be out there in the changing world of historical research.
The biggest project I’ve been a part of this year has been working with the Disability Namibia Team (@NoBODYexcluded). I’ve led, recorded and edited interviews, ran website design and supported the social media outreach of this wonderful project which aims to build a network of disability activists, scholars, clergy, artists and political representatives to explore religio-cultural narratives of embodiment and disability in Namibia. It’s been wonderful to be a part of such a multidisciplinary project and something I would never have been able to do as an undergraduate outside of the internship.
Alongside this has been my work with Dr Charlotte Tupman, Research Fellow in Digital Humanities. The project has mainly focused on exploring the OCR – Optical Character Recognition – capabilities of the ABBYY FineReader software when it is presented with a book’s text and measuring its abilities to transform early modern script into computer-readable XML format. My favourite aspect of working on this project has been its investigative nature, finding out how best to use this technology and what might soon be possible as the project advances.
Other than this, my favourite parts have been working with special collections and with the Lab’s 3D printer. As an intern, I had the opportunity to learn the ins and outs of working with historical collections, including how to handle things such as books, pamphlets, lantern slides, and photo negatives and I loved that I could learn skills I could take away with me into a future in humanities.
The 3D printer has been a brilliant opportunity to discover my creative capabilities at the DH Lab. Working with the Ultimaker 3D printer, I was able to make two small and adorable models that made great Christmas gifts for friends and family! The first of these was the goose. Initially, the software was uncertain whether it could print something with such an overhang at the neck when there were no materials available for making a temporary support. But, I was able to adapt settings and re-scale where necessary until I could print the goose I have today. The second was this puppy. By this time, I could use what I had learnt from my experience making the goose to confidently scale and print the puppy ready to make a gift at Christmas. So, not only do I know how to set up a 3D printer, operate the software and print anything I’d like, but I now have these two little pets to call my own!
My tips for anyone considering an internship at the Digital Humanities Lab would first be: apply! It’s a brilliant opportunity and a great place to work. This internship has given me an opportunity for a wealth of experience and knowledge unique to the Digital Humanities Lab here at Exeter.
Here at the Digital Humanities Lab, we are called upon to photograph a wide range of objects, which means we often have to come up with creative ways to position them our lab copystands. I have recently been working on digitising a set of bound letters, for which I am using the 150MP camera in Lab 1. However, it took me while to work what the best way of setting up the volumes would be, as it became clear that the glass platform we usually use for keeping books flat for photography was not the most appropriate option in this case. For one thing, as each letter in the volumes was written separately, and later brought together into one book, any given double page spread was likely to cover two letters, rather than one. As I wanted to have each page of the letters as separate images, this made things tricky, and if I’d carried on I would have had to crop each image twice and export it twice as well. This also made the metadata that I created for this first dozen test images difficult to write as well, because almost every image contained a page each of two letters, meaning I was writing two rows of metadata for one image on CaptureOne. Another issue with the glass platform is that once I got more than a few pages in on the first volume, it started to squash the pages on the left-hand side of the book in such a way that they covered the first two or three letters of each word on the right-hand side. After all this, I decided that I needed to come up with a better way of doing things, and started again from the first page.
I knew that the pages of the book were too tightly bound to be able to lie flat unaided, so when I put them on top of the copystand, rather than under the glass platform, I tried holding down each page using a system of bone folders and weights to hold them up and in place. This works for pages made of quite thick paper and are naturally heavy, as I had found when I digitised a photo album from the university’s archive earlier in the year, but for the lightweight springy paper of the bound letters, this wasn’t as effective. As I was now moving the book for each photograph, so that only one page was in view of the camera, this method involved a lot of adjustment, and the bone folders always ended up in shot because they had to be a certain way onto the page to hold it down properly. The next method I came up with, after I had taken perhaps a hundred or so photos in this manner, was using strips of polypropylene cut from a roll. This material is normally used in museum displays for holding down pages of a book on a particular page, so I thought that it might work here. I cut two strips, one for each side of the book, put them round the page and cover vertically, and secured them at the back using paperclips so that they were taught. This was a much better solution than the bone folders, as it held the pages down almost completely flat, and all that was needed was a weight underneath the higher side of the book, which could be taken out once the pages levelled out. The downside of this method was that, like the bone folders, the polypropylene stood out in the photographs compared to the paper of the letters. Although all the writing underneath the area was perfectly readable, it was very obvious, and inconsistent with the standard methods for digitising letters. However, I was unable to come up with a different solution at that stage, so I completed the first and second volumes using this process; adjusting the length of polypropylene around each side of the book as the pages built up or decreased.
It was once I was about 20 or so pages into digitising the third volume that I stumbled across the approach that I am currently using. I was watching a recorded AHFAP (Association for Fine Art and Historical Photography) online event from 2020, which featured a talk from Jo Castle from the John Rylands Library at the University of Manchester. She was speaking about the library’s project to digitise the archive of Heinrich Simon, namely the eight books known as The Simon Papers. As these books were made up of pages and scraps of paper of all different sizes, with many flaps and pages glued in, the digitisation team came up with the idea of using nylon monofilament secured between leather weights to hold down the pages as they were photographed. This was especially good for holding down the smaller pages in the middle of larger ones. Having watched this talk and seen how effective a method it was, I was able to acquire some finishing line from our Lab Manager Gemma.
As you can see from the pictures, this has proved a success, and in the final exported images, the fishing line is barely visible, especially compared to the bone folders and polypropylene. We have already utilised this method for another project in the lab, and I hope it will continue to be a viable option for digitising tricky material in the Digital Humanities Lab.
In the blog-post below, Ollie Anthony, Technical Assistant at the Digital Humanities Lab and former BDCM museum volunteer, explains the significance of the panorama and the digitisation process involved in creating the interactive map.
The initial Panorama of London produced in 1845 by James Frederick Smyth and printed by William Little of 198 Strand, London, was commissioned by the Illustrated London News, the world’s first illustrated weekly news magazine. This blogpost discusses the history of the London panorama, as well as the processes used to digitise a colourised copy, held as part of the Bill Douglas and Peter Jewell Collection at The Bill Douglas Cinema Museum (BDCM).
Despite its name, much of the contents of the popular Illustrated London News magazine series pertained to events happening around the world, particularly the far-reaching parts of the British Empire. Their magazines, often jeering and comical in style, were well known for their eclectic and extravagant displays of London life, politics, and royalty. On January 11th, 1845, upon the beginning of its third year of publication, readers were able to pay One Penny to purchase a copy of the Panorama of London or receive a free copy if they subscribed to the weekly Illustrated London News. Continue reading →
Recently we welcomed a distinguished guest speaker to the DH Lab, Professor Jane Winters of the School of Advanced Study, University of London, to give a seminar on the current landscape of Digital Humanities (DH) in the UK. Prof. Winters discussed the results of a major new survey, commissioned by the School of Advanced Study, the British Academy, the British Library and the Arts and Humanities Research Council, into DH research, teaching and practice in universities, GLAM institutions (Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums) and the creative industries. The aims of the report were to document the current landscape of DH research, teaching and practice; identify what kind of support this needs; and explore possible demand for a UK-based DH network or association and the nature of the role that such an organisation could play.
Interpreting the statistics of the report for a highly engaged audience, Winters drew out from the facts and figures a picture of a diverse DH landscape, in which respondents identified themselves as belonging to almost forty different research areas. More than three quarters also had extensive involvement in teaching, either in their subject area or in DH. Winters noted that not all digital research and digital scholarship is described by its practitioners as ‘Digital Humanities’, even when it is firmly rooted in the study of Humanities sources and their related areas of specialisation. As researchers within universities, we therefore need to ensure that when we collaborate with creative partners or GLAM institutions, we try to use a common language to describe what we do: this will help not only in the project itself, but also in how we communicate what we do to those outside our particular areas of expertise.
Over the past six months, we have settled into life as interns for the DH Team. Throughout the internship, we’ve become accustomed to supporting and facilitating the research of staff in the College of Humanities, and acting as the first point of contact for all the types of people coming in to use the lab spaces. We’ve undergone training in photogrammetry, Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI), and 3D printing… all whilst attempting to formulate an answer to the question “what exactly is digital humanities?”
We’ve been supporting numerous research projects such as Sarah-Jayne Ainsworth’s digitisation of Early Modern Bristol women’s wills, digitising Ronald Duncan micro-cassette tapes and the 2D digitisation of a collection of historic posters from the Northcott Theatre.
In December, the Digital Humanities team recruited six new College of Humanities undergraduates to advisory intern positions, based in the Digital Humanities Lab. The interns commenced work with us at the beginning of the new term. We received an impressively large number of applications and, following a competitive interview process, we were pleased to appoint candidates with a keen interest in the field, enthusiasm, strong problem-solving skills, and an interest in careers within the Digital Humanities.
The team have put together an introduction to their roles below, and some background on their own interests. The team bring with them positive energy and new perspectives on our projects and we welcome them and their ideas to the Digital Humanities Lab research community:
A warm hello to our blog readers, my name is Emma Sherriff and I am the newest addition to the Digital Humanities (DH) team. I am embarking on my DH journey at the beginning of an exciting new era of digital research, collaboration, and preservation for the College of Humanities; and ahead of the official opening of the Digital Humanities Lab on 23rd October by the Vice-Chancellor, Professor Sir Steve Smith.
My experience at the University of Exeter to date has involved supporting the work of Postgraduate researchers, as a member of the Doctoral College. My former role led me to discussions with the DH team around how the Lab can offer specialist expertise alongside cutting edge equipment, creating an opportunity to engage with, and connect an existing body of researchers across disciplines and themes. I am pleased to be involved in shaping the planning and delivery of training, digital projects and technical support in my new role.
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