Daily Archives: March 2, 2021

Samuel Beckett Digital Manuscript Archive

The Samuel Beckett Digital Manuscript Archive is an initiative that comes from several partnering institutions, namely the Centre for Manuscript Genetics (University of Antwerp), the Beckett International Foundation (University of Reading), and the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center (University of Texas at Austin), with the permission of the Estate of Samuel Beckett.

The key goal of this project is to “is to reunite the manuscripts of Samuel Beckett’s works in a digital way, and to facilitate genetic research.” More specifically, this platform “brings together digital facsimiles of documents” which are housed in different archives, libraries, and special collections. The project also offers transcriptions of Beckett’s manuscripts, tools for bilingual and genetic version comparison, an analysis of the textual genesis of Beckett’s works, and a search engine.

The resource aims to help researchers and scholars to require immediate access to the manuscripts and typescripts produced by Samuel Beckett. The website, as of now, hosts eight major works: “Endgame,” ‘Waiting for Godot,” “Malone Dies,” Molloy,” Krapp’s Last Tape,” “the Unnamable,” “Stirrings Still,” and “what is the word.” However, only one work is not being password protected and, therefore, accessible. That means that in order to work with all other manuscripts, you should get an individual or institutional subscription.  

If its primary goal, or the first goal, is to make the texts available, the second goal of the project is to build a platform that would serve as an active laboratory studying the “variants” of SB’s works—often produced in both languages, English and French. This is a place dealing with such matters as genetic criticism and textual scholarship relying on different editorial and philological traditions offered by scholars. Of special interest is an introductory essay entitled: “Editorial Principles and Practice.” In it, the editors show their philosophy and practices as they approach the Beckett manuscripts; in particular, dealing with facsimiles and transcriptions (using an encoding in XML [eXtensible Markup Language]), transcription methods (relying, in part, on suggestions by the TEI Special Interest Group), transcription conventions (such as deletion, deletion within a deletion, addition, script, unclear reading, addition on the facing leaf, illegible character, transportation, etc.), collation and relative collaboration.

Manuscripts aside, the project also hosts the Beckett Digital Library—again, available only to subscribers, so it’s hard to say what’s inside. From the description, you can find out that the BDL is a digital reconstruction of SB’s personal library. At the moment it houses 762 extant volumes and 247 virtual entries with no physical copy. The whole project is an example that attempts and succeeds in the “reconstruction of dynamics of the composition process.” By looking and comparing various variants of the same work which versions are held at different places, the project demonstrates the unique opportunities the digital scholarly editions may offer in the future.

John Ashbery’s Nest


John Ashbery’s Nest is a virtual reality tour of the late poet’s private home in Hudson, New York. Its purpose is to give visitors the opportunity to explore “the spaces and collections that inspired [Ashbery’s] life and work.” The project illuminates connections between Ashbery’s home and writings; what is implied is that Ashbery’s “nest” was a space of intellectual inquiry and discovery that fed the poet’s body of work. As the Flow Chart Foundation, which works closely with the estate of John Ashbery, puts it on their website: “Purposefully constructed spaces that housed Ashbery’s domestic archive both reflect and are reflected in his writing, which itself is heavily involved with other literature, music, the visual and decorative arts, architecture, theater, and film.” So this “domestic archive” complements but does not house or manage Ashbery’s literary works.

The project was lead by Karin Roffman, senior lecturer in the Humanities, English, and American Studies at Yale. Roffman, an Ashbery scholar, is author of the Ashbery biography The Songs We Know Best. Nest is presented by the Digital Humanities Lab at Yale University, and the team responsible for the project included a Yale MFA candidate and several university IT specialists. Notably, the private firm VRH solutions (“a team of photographers, designers and developers providing full service solutions for 360 photo and video experiences”) is also credited. As I explored the project, I wondered about the institutional and financial arrangement that brought this partnership about.

According to the Nest website, Ashbery moved to Hudson, New York “at the age of fifty-one in 1978.” He purchased a 19th century home adjacent to the Columbia County seat and courthouse, and undertook a meticulous restoration over the course of fifteen years. Ashbery’s ornate, four thousand square foot house became a repository and exhibition space for his “hundreds” of collections of antique furnishings and decorative objects, many of which are cataloged in exquisite detail by the Nest team.

From the perspective of the present, Hudson seems a uniquely suitable location for Ashbery’s home archive. The miniature, Hudson River–adjacent city is well-known for its antiques scene, and experienced several waves of gentrification in the late 20th and early 21st centuries implicated with an influx of antique shops and warehouses. (By 2001, according to the New York Times, Hudson had “some of the best antiques shopping in the Northeast.”)

The Technology

The Nest website is not built on a backend like Omeka or LibGuides. Instead, it presents the “domestic archive” as an interactive, 3D virtual tour, navigable by mouse (or by gesture on a mobile device). Anyone familiar with Google Street View or with the classic PC game Myst will be familiar with the controls. Interactive objects in the virtual environment are tagged with 2D map pins, and clicking these produces a popup with some of the following: a 3D view of the object (or additional photography), scholarship, voiceover (sometimes Ashbery’s), additional readings, and links. Accessibility features are notably absent. The bespoke interface, while slick, does not give the impression of being either the most intuitive or most inclusive format.

There is an alternate method for exploring the nest. A more traditional hyperlink-based format (accessible from the VR tour menu) allows you to browse the “Collections by room,” and breaks the website’s contents down into headings: Hudson House (“History,” “Architectural Documents,” “Room by Room,” “Bibliography,”) The Poet (“John Ashbery,” “House Essays,” “House Interviews,”) and Collections. Though browsing the website this way is an intuitive and pleasant experience, a lack of robust metadata and search tools make the project, as a whole, seem more suited for unguided perusal than concerted study.


Partly for this reason the project seems designed mainly with casual users and Ashbery readers in mind. Like other literary “historic home” projects, John Ashbery’s Nest serves more as an outlet for roving curiosity than rigorous study. With a mix of voiceovers from the poet, snippets of his poems and essays, and informative antiques scholarship, the project seem designed to delight and divert Ashbery’s fans and decorative arts enthusiasts (I personally enjoyed poking around very much). That said, a scholar wishing to make original discoveries around Ashbery’s legacy will want to go directly to the poet’s estate.

The information is presented with verve; it is designed to engage an already-curious audience, and encourages unguided exploration by offering a non-linear, sensory approach to a fascinating collection of digital materials. Exploring the nest is more like visiting a museum than it is like browsing a traditional library’s digitized catalog. A visit supplies a new perspective on the poet’s aesthetic sensibilities. His furnishings, like his poems, are eclectic and baroque, and betray an affinity for a broad array of American vernacular styles.

Letters of 1916-1923

About Ireland’s first “participatory digital humanities” project, Letters of 1916-1923 explores early 20th century Ireland through letters. Susan Schreibman of Maynooth University created the project to collect letters from the eight months before and after the 1916 Easter Rising. A grant from the Irish Research Council allowed Schreibman’s team to expand the project’s collection period to the end of the Irish Civil War. The project includes letters from private collections and institutions around the world, with the team acting as curator for this digital exhibit. There are over 5,000 letters covering subjects including politics, WWI, medicine, culture, and the arts. Users can contribute to the project in several ways. Team members will digitize letters on-site after being contacted by letter owners or owners can upload images of the letters on the website. Owners and the general public can register to become a transcriber.

Audience Letters is open to the public so the site is easy to navigate. An introduction to Letters is on the homepage, with visible tabs available for users to explore the collection, contribute letters and transcribe them. ‘Explore the collection’ allows users to filter results by keyword, sources, authors, gender, language, and date written. Clicking on a letter shows an image of the letter, letter information, a transcription (if available) and a brief bio of the sender.

Users can also interact with letters through worksheets and lessons plans found under ‘Resources.’ Primarily used for teaching secondary school and adult students, three lesson plans created by the team are available for download covering Ireland during WWI and the Easter Rising. The team collaborated with the Irish Military Archives to create the ‘1916 in Transition’ packet, which focuses on the aftermath and effects of the Easter Rising. There is also a digital treasure hunt available for users of all ages.  

Technologies The team listed all software used for Letters and provides a brief description of why they used each one on their ‘Technical’ page. WordPress, Omeka, Scripto, MySQL, and Apache are just some of the software packages used on Letters. This information is extremely helpful for anyone thinking about creating a similar project. I have some experience with WordPress and Omeka, but little MySQL and Apache (server related packages used). I know that for a project to be as successful and user friendly as Letters, I would need team members who have the technical experience I lack. I also appreciate the team offering technical guidance/support to their users regarding these software packages. 

Future projects can learn much from Letters 1916-1923. I found especially useful the way Letters gathered support for the project from both public and institutional archives. Institutional archives are historically seen as exclusive or elitist in terms of access, so it was great to see institutions eager to contribute to the project. One could argue that it is because they are digital copies of the letters and in the public domain, but for smaller archives that do not have the resources available to create a digital exhibit, Letters is a useful way to introduce their materials to a worldwide audience. I had an increase in research requests after contributing to Letters, which turned into support for my archive. I also spoke with a few private owners and they commented how kind the team were when digitizing letters and the respect they showed to the memory of the letter sender/receiver and the letter itself.

I think it is also important to continually evaluate your project once it has launched and to listen to feedback from your audience. The team was eager to visit my archive because we provided Irish American sources, something that was lacking in their initial launch and was noticed by users. They were also looking for letters written by women since a majority of their initial contributions were to and from men. Just because a project launches does not mean that the work is done.

Unpacking Manuel’s Tavern


Unpacking Manuel’s Tavern preserves the organic archive of Atlanta’s political left that has been inscribed on the walls of this local restaurant and bar over the past half century.”

This project treats Manuel’s Tavern, a dive bar in Atlanta, Georgia founded in 1956, as an archive in and of itself. In contrast to intentional, curated archives that exist as part of an institution, we are presented with an unplanned, accidental, “organic” collection of material. This material is sourced from the walls of the bar, on which hang an amalgamation of ephemera, politely referred to by the New York Times as “junk”.

The bar was once owned by Manuel Maloof, who was a major figure in local politics. The bar played host to many characters, mostly from Atlanta’s left leaning/democratic political scene.  Local academics began the attempt at digitizing the walls before a 2015 renovation triggered by a new developer buying up neighboring properties.

The objects include photographs, neon signs, posters, advertisements, paintings, an entire bicycle, and many odds and ends that hint at the political action being undertaken by the patrons such as this fundraising flyer for a local politician’s campaign.

Presentation & Audience:

The website of this digital archive is in three main sections or “portals”: immersive media, walls, and artifacts. The most exciting portion, in my opinion, is the walls portal which has 360° panoramas of each wall in the bar. Users can click on items to learn more like titles and descriptions, though some of the descriptions are lacking. It is clear the context for some of the more personal items has been lost to time (and maybe alcohol).  In the “artifacts” section of the website, each item is listed so that you can browse without using the panorama feature.

This project seems to focus on use for teaching. The website suggests using it for classes in history, english, political science, art, policy, and beyond. A portion of the site is dedicated to showing how the archive/objects from it have been used in assignments by local institutions like Emory University. Some student work has been incorporated into the public exhibit. For example, when browsing the artifacts portal, the description of a 1998 Atlanta Falcons pennant is accompanied by a Georgia State University student essay on a short history of the Atlanta Falcons. This helps provide some context to the meaning of the item to locals, and suggests why it hung on the wall of the tavern.

Other projects that are associated with this one are ATL Maps and Teaching Atlanta, which both have similar aims in use for teaching.


This project has made use of virtual recreations of spaces and objects. High-res panoramic photographs which were created with gigapans, or gigapixel panoramas. These are digital images with billions of pixels and usually consist of hundreds of single images stitched together.

The archive includes three videos—one which includes an interview with the current owner and original owner’s son conducted by the lead Academic on the project, Ruth Dusseault. This is a nice bit of oral history

Another video is an interactive “virtual environment”. This uses Unity WebGL, which allows you to render 2D and #d images in a browser with no need for a plug-in. It uses Javascript to render the scene. Unfortunately, the virtual environment currently only produces an error message. The same goes for the third video which is a 360 ° tour of the bar. It seems that this website has not been maintained as much as it could be.

Finally, the actual website was put together using Omeka.

What can we learn from this project?

If there is one thing that this project makes clear, it is the fact that we can look for archives in unexpected places. The website uses words like “unintentional”, “organic”, and “accidental” to describe the collection, emphasizing the fact that the material was not sought out or looked for but rather gathered in the bar “like driftwood on the beach”. Additionally, the material is left alone, physically and figuratively. “More product less process” indeed.

I think this project shows some of the issues with archiving/curating ephemera. Though the website says this archive “speaks for itself”, some objects have very limited information and I’m left with more questions than answers. The nature of ephemeral objects can mean that the context is easily lost. I don’t think that this makes this material useless or not worth saving, but it begs the question of how to deal with ephemeral material in the interest of giving it meaning. In this case, it looks like student work is used to provide some of this context.

The bar was opened in 1956, meaning that there are potentially still those alive who can provide some of that context. I think some sort of oral history initiative to hear from people who were there would be a wonderful accompaniment to this.

Digitizing Chicory

Digitizing Chicory displays digital reproductions of the 126 issues of Chicory, a Baltimore art and poetry magazine that ran from 1966 until 1983. Initially edited by poet Sam Cornish and inspired by the Black Arts Movement, Chicory published work by East Baltimore residents, providing a medium through which working-class and particularly Black Baltimoreans could convey experience in their own words. From Issue 19 (November 1969):

“[Chicory] will not publish just anything, but it is concerned with the music of words as well as with meaning…. Chicory publishes the written word in the manner submitted. Chicory will show how we feel…. It is writing about experience, about being poor, about being alive. It is a statement unguarded by the proper or necessary word.” 

This editorial approach of publishing submissions as-is—continually affirming Chicory’s  inseparability from moment and place—rendered a sense of political immediacy that is still tangible in the text and created an idiosyncratic documentation of Black life and modes of relation in Baltimore through the ‘70s.

The collection is presented in a way that lends itself to multiple forms of engagement from a wide audience—scholars, historians, and the general public would be able to navigate with little to no problem. Each issue of the magazine is displayed in ascending numerical order (there are additional sorting options as well). A search bar at the top allows users to search for words or phrases that may appear in the collection, and a similar feature within a given issue localizes the search to that issue. Metadata within each issue includes identifiers and keywords for both the object (issue) and item (page), as well as document dimensions and access rights. These features altogether lend themselves to both researcher and layperson, making for a user-friendly collection. Technologies used seem limited to the photoduplication process and—perhaps—a software that rendered the text of the issues searchable. 

The creation of Digitizing Chicory was the result of Mary Rizzo, of Rutgers University-Newark, coming across issues of Chicory at Baltimore’s Enoch Pratt Free Library while researching for a book on Baltimore’s cultural history and racial politics. Rizzo then used grant funding to assemble an advisory group consisting of Baltimore community members invested in Chicory’s future. This advisory group included former editor Everett Adam Jackson as well as Brown. Along with Brown, Cornish is credited as Advisor on the About This Collection page. The recognition of the Baltimore community’s personal, historical, and political stakes in preserving Chicory—and the centering of their voices in the process—demonstrates an attention to ethical concerns around digitization and archival work that future projects would do well to emulate.