English, Research

Engaging Book Ecologies: Dr. Margaret Linley on Digitizing SFU Library’s Lake District Collection

May 21, 2014

 ‘Digital Humanities,’ DH, or #digitalhumanities, has been a scholarly catchphrase for some years now. The Chronicle of Higher Education recently reported that over the last five or so years, “the kinds of work collectively known as the digital humanities have taken on fresh luster” and that aside from so-called “headlines and hoopla, digital scholarship has begun to work its way into the academic ecosystem” (“How the Humanities Compute”).

Here in FASS, one such project has been underway much longer than this recent buzz: The SFU Lake District Collection Scholarly Digitization Project. The project, stemming from the outstanding rare book collection housed in Bennett Library’s Special Collections, is undertaking not only a digitized bibliography of the books in the collection, but is also a full-scale digitization of the collection’s most important books. It is being steered by Dr. Margaret Linley of the SFU English Department, English and History Liaison Librarian Rebecca Dowson, and Eric Swanick of SFU Library’s department of Rare Books and Special Collections.

Linley explains that the books in the Lake District Collection are part of the larger Wordsworth Collection acquired in the 1970s and 1980s at SFU. Many of those books came to SFU through the combined efforts of the Library’s Special Collections Department and Professor Emeritus Dr. Jared Curtis of the Department of English. Throughout the 1980s, Curtis and the library secured several grants through the Social Sciences and Humanities Council of Canada (SSHRC). These grants allowed the team to make key purchases to develop the collection—and, as the library acknowledges, SSHRC has “contributed generously to the Wordsworth Collection on a continuing basis since 1981.”

An external assessment of the collection was done in 1989 by eminent bibliographer and Wordsworth scholar Dr. Mark Reed, who identified one of the key strengths in the Wordsworth collection as the Lake District material. He noted that books like the 2nd edition of James Clarke’s A Survey of the lakes of Cumberland, Westmorland, and Lancashire, 1789, are essential for understanding “popular attitudes toward the Lake District, and toward external nature, that the poet consciously shaped and influenced” (qtd. in Curtis “The Wordsworth Collection”).

The scholarly importance of SFU’s Lake District Collection is the reason it is now the focus of a larger digitization project. Linley explains that in the early 2000s, when she was still new to SFU, reference librarian Heather Ann Tingley put together a research team—consisting of Tingley, Linley and Curtis—to build and establish a bibliography of the collection. The bibliography was completed in 2003, and contains 99 items dating from 1709 to 1898.

Linley explains that it really wasn’t until “Spring 2012, when the English Department asked me to put together a presentation to talk about digital humanities scholarship” that she went back to the collection and found that “the time is ripe to revisit this”, leading her and librarian Rebecca Dowson to inventory the whole collection and develop a proposal for digitization with three aims: establishing an online bibliography, digitizing the collection, and adding metadata—the last of which would be crucial to making the bibliography searchable and useable.

The bibliography phase is now close to being launched, Linley explains, but “constructing usable metadata involves the library science of scanning the collection” and has presented the team with “enormous problems.” While technological advances have allowed libraries and researchers much innovation in digitization and creating online accessibility, Linley notes that “people are shocked to find that machines can’t read… they can’t recognize characters… people can’t believe that you can’t translate an image of text into a searchable text.” Linley explains that it is easy to take a picture of the text but that acquiring a version of the text that is searchable is much more difficult, in part because optical character recognition software (OCR) is not sufficiently advanced to scan original documents and translate the image into its textual counterpart.

Linley says this problem is particularly challenging with books dated earlier than 1900 and especially with books pre-1800: “OCR, because of marginalia and crumples in the paper, would be garbage that the machine wouldn’t recognize.” For this reason, Linley explains, many digitization projects often send material “offshore to be typed by humans.” Linley had one of the most important books in the collection hand-typed by students; however even “between two humans they still didn’t get it perfect…”  Thus, the same technology that affords digital mobility, accessibility, and innovation can also trouble the semantics of the texts themselves. These challenges reveal that the landscape of digitization is still rather untamed.

Physically and geographically, the Lake District was similarly untamed at the time many of the books in the collection were published. Thematically and generically, the books reflect an effort to cultivate and refine the Lake District: there are tours, guides, histories, landscape books, all mainly about travel. Linley says an example is one of the books in the collection, Thomas West’s A Guide to the Lakes in Cumberland, Westmorland and Lancashire, published in 1789, presented the first sort of “standardization” of touring the lakes district. Published in multiple editions, the book includes appendices such as a literary anthology, maps, and poems.

Linley notes that these kinds of publications gave the area its association with literature and helped establish the vogue of the picturesque in an area of England that was quite remote until the eighteenth century, when there was a national road building program which opened up the area: “it became quite an attractive place for more adventurous travelers and as they went they would write about it and then artists—all for the market in London.” According to Linley, this was all established long before Wordsworth was even born and the publishing industry around the area eventually become it’s own “brand” of sorts during the eighteenth century. By the end of the nineteenth century, she says it “was a recognized tourist destination and part of the vocabulary in England.”

Lake District, U.K.
Simon Fraser University

In her research, Linley links these thematic connections to tourism, natural landscape and migration beyond the Lake District, asking “Does it actually matter that these books are here, in Vancouver?” For her, the story of the books’ physical migration to British Columbia is just as relevant as their digital migration from print to online. She says books like West’s established the way of approaching and seeing nature that we are so familiar with today: “It became very information-based and with directions that said where you could stand to sort of draw a picture of this… Basically the tour or hiking system of our national parks follows this similar method.”

Other books in the collection, like William Gilpin’s Remarks on forest scenery, and other woodland views, published in 1794, established a “theoretical basis” in the way we approach nature: “you have a path that you go through and then you come to a prospect…and there will be a bench and trees will be cleared it will be perfectly placed so that you have, you know, the framed, perfect view.” Linley explains that, this “way of seeing nature is highly, highly cultural.” Other scholars like Scott Hess in William Wordsworth and the Ecology of Authorship linked the “Wordsworth vision of nature” to the “nationalizing of Yosemite Valley as a public park in 1864 and the designation of Yellow Stone as a national park in 1872.”

This linkage has relevance in Canada, and particularly in British Columbia, where the provincial and national parks are a crucial facet of the province’s cultural identity. Linley goes further to say that “the ecology of lake district picturesque travel writing helped convey colonial exploration in the pacific northwest” and that it went beyond early travel writing in Canada and “eventually contributed to the establishment of Banff as a national park, because it was the railway going through the national park and the desire to commodify nature in 1885.”

In the end, for Linley, this project goes beyond the difficult and meaningful task of digitization. The collection’s establishment in B.C. and its digitization “helps us to see the connections between our own way of viewing nature and colonialism” even as it “helps us to understand our connection to books, development and environmental consciousness.”