TORCH Lecture, Speaker: Professor Rob Iliffe

digital humanities

TORCH Public Lecture

​Speaker: Professor Rob Iliffe, Faculty of History, University of Oxford

Free to attend, but registration required. Please register via Eventbrite.

Co-presented with The Digital Humanities at Oxford Summer School 2019, which will take place at Keble College from Monday 22 July to Friday 26 July.

​The Summer School offers training to anyone with an interest in the Digital Humanities, including academics at all career stages, students, project managers, and people who work in IT, libraries, and cultural heritage.

How to ‘edit’ a large digital edition: the case of the Newton Project

With no relevant digital projects to act as a guide, the Newton Project was instituted over two decades ago as an ambitious effort to publish an online edition of all of Newton’s non-scientific writings. In this time we have transcribed all of Newton’s personal and theological writings (totalling about 6.5 million words) and have built up unrivalled collective experience in re-designing and producing the contents of one of the most ambitious digital editions of any individual's writings. In the last decade, we have published edited encoded transcriptions of most of Newton’s key administrative, mathematical and scientific texts (and about half of his correspondence), and aim to complete the transcription of all c.11 million words comprising the materials left at his death by 2027, the tercentenary of his demise.

Throughout the process, our aim has been to produce an exhaustive re-presentation in TEI-informed XML of the written materials, available in both a diplomatic and normalised form. For a broad group of serious researchers, the availability of high-quality images of the originals provided by Cambridge Digital Library and the National Library of Israel makes it possible to use the digitised text merely as a searchable dataset facilitating an exemplary form of close reading. For an even smaller group of academic researchers, access to the books that made up Newton’s library offers the chance to make optimal use of the resources, by comparing notes and dog-ears in his books with his working notes and marginal references to secondary sources in his treatises.

In this talk I discuss the often utilitarian and always utopian principles that have underpinned our work as a whole, both in terms of the logic of production and in terms of how we have thought of the nature of the edition. Many of our decisions have been driven by the need to optimize our efficiency, so that (for example), we have rejected opportunities to use either crowd-sourcing or handwriting interpretation systems because of the amount of time it takes to correct these in comparison with input from expert transcribers. However, new developments mean that this caution is almost certainly misplaced. It also seems clear that machines can now ‘edit’ large bodies of material by automatically locating and ordering versions of what are now disparately located examples of text by finding connections between these text strings.

As a result, it may be possible to reconstruct the archive to produce some ideal representation of Newton’s works. Following that, we assume, we will be able to pose new questions to the dataset, and grasp the development of Newton’s ideas at a level that we would have considered unfeasible even ten years ago. Although human intervention will be crucial in the future, perhaps to provide new types of commentary, the obvious question arises of whether human contributors will play a secondary role in this cyborgian collaboration.