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Introducing Dr. Michelle Taylor, Post-Doctoral Fellow in Digital Cultural Heritage

Posted by on Thursday, September 20, 2018 in Uncategorized.

In order to expand the possibilities for digital cultural heritage, you need new tools and skillsets to preserve documentation, making it possible to provide open-access sources of global history. Since its inception, the Digital Cultural Heritage research cluster has modeled the effective use of TEI (Text Encoding Initiative) coding in digital humanities projects from digital editions of important literary and historical texts to historical geography tools. For this reason, on of the most crucial aspects of the DCH’s funding and university stewardship was for a post-doctoral fellow capable of training interested faculty as well undergraduate and graduate students in both TEI and MEI (Music Encoding Initiative) to cultivate a new generation of digital scholars.

Thanks to the generous funding from a Vanderbilt Trans-Institutional Programs grant, we are excited to introduce our first post-doctoral fellow in Digital Cultural Heritage, Dr. Michelle Taylor. Dr. Taylor was kind enough to sit down with us and tell us about her background and some of the initiatives she will be coordinating during the 2018-2019 academic year. Enjoy!

Can you describe who you are (where you’re from, where you did your doctoral work, etc.), what your research entails, and what brings you to Vanderbilt? I hail from northeast Ohio, but over the past ten years I’ve been living in Virginia and Iowa (my MA is from University of Virginia and my PhD is from the University of Iowa). I specialize in nineteenth-century British literature, animal studies, and textual studies/book history as well as the Digital Humanities. After working on three different DH projects at Virginia and Iowa, I was fortunate enough to be able to bring my skill set to Vanderbilt.

What does Digital Cultural Heritage mean to you and for your work? A lot of the work I’ve done and that I have in progress has been concerned with the thoughtful preservation of texts in an age where it is so easy to reproduce them. Anyone can buy a Print-On-Demand book off of Amazon, but usually no one knows where that particular version of the text came from. Scholars can use their expertise to provide context for readers, as well as standards to which authoritative digital versions of texts or other cultural artifacts should be held. These things are important, as is open access. Like at museums and libraries, custodians of Digital Cultural Heritage want shared cultural history to be available, which is why most DH projects are free to access.

Can you briefly describe what TEI is and its importance for the DCH’s work? TEI stands for the Text-Encoding Initiative and is a means of describing the characteristics of texts using XML. There are a couple reasons why someone might want to put their texts into TEI. First, it’s a standardized and time-tested means of describing and preserving texts, so TEI projects have sustainability and can hold up well in peer review. Second, when a text is encoded into TEI, its data can be more easily queried and therefore aid humanistic research. We’ll take an example from my own project, an archive of sermons and hymns written by early Methodists. If every time a preacher mentions Bible verses, we tag that in the TEI markup language, we can easily search through our data to see all the instances in which a particular verse is cited to make arguments about how that verse was interpreted. Most of the projects within the DCH research cluster focus heavily on geography; indeed, Vanderbilt has pioneered the use of TEI for geographic purposes. What results is a rich network of information about people, places, events, and, yes, texts, among other things.

What does a hypothetical TEI consultation look like and how can those who are interested get in contact with you? It’s easy! Just drop into my office hours from 2-5 on Wednesdays at 341 Buttrick Hall or email me to make an appointment. We’ll sit down, talk about the texts/data you’re interested in encoding, and decide whether it would best suit your research needs to use TEI. Then I can get to teaching you how to code! If you have existing TEI data that you’re having trouble with, I can also help with that.

What are some of the initiatives you’re involved in this fall and how can people join in? Probably the biggest thing going on this fall is the XQuery/TEI Working Group, which runs Fridays from 2-3 in the DH Center (344 Buttrick Hall). So far we’ve been learning the basics of XML/TEI, and later on we’ll look at how to actually use the data you’re creating. If you haven’t made any of our meetings so far, don’t worry–I can catch you up privately during my office hours or at another time convenient for you.

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