Looking Back on the Reading the First Books Symposium

As the “Reading the First Books” project draws to a close this fall, we wanted to take a moment to reflect on the symposium celebrating the project that was held at LLILAS Benson at the University of Texas at Austin on May 30, 2017. The First Books project began in 2015 as an effort to develop tools and resources for the automatic transcription of early colonial printed books. The day-long symposium brought together scholars, librarians, developers, and students to discuss the project’s accomplishments and challenges, the future of the digital materials it developed, and how digital scholarship will facilitate further engagement with colonial Latin American materials more broadly.

Tweets from the event have been preserved in a Storify and under #FirstBooksDH. Slides summarizing the project are available online, and readers are invited to view sample transcriptions from the First Books project.

The symposium featured two keynote addresses and three roundtables addressing the developing field of digital scholarship and colonial Latin American studies. Brook Danielle Lillehaugen, Assistant Professor of Linguistics at Haverford College, gave the opening keynote address on the promise of digital scholarship to increase access, inclusion, and opportunity in the study of indigenous language texts. Drawing from her experience as a linguist developing a digital corpus of Colonial Zapotec texts for the NEH-funded Ticha project at Haverford, Lillehaugen discussed how access to digital indigenous texts can be a form of linguistic activism. She illustrated how digital projects can serve as opportunities to co-learn and to engage with the expertise of stake holding communities. She also described the importance of institutional support and cross-departmental collaboration for sustaining digital humanities projects.

Taylor Berg-Kirkpatrick, Assistant Professor of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University, gave the closing keynote. As the creator of Ocular, the OCR software at the center of the First Books project, Berg-Kirkpatrick provided insights on some of the essential programming frameworks behind Ocular and discussed how Ocular makes the unsupervised analysis of Early Modern documents possible. He also described how the development of Ocular fits with broader research concerns in the fields of natural language processing and machine learning, showing how similar principles can be applied to the automation of sound transcription and of bibliographical analysis.

A central goal of the symposium was to bring to the fore the collaborative work of librarians, developers, and researchers on the First Books project. A roundtable on lessons learned from the project featured the ways in which interface development, data management, and web display have all been fundamental facets of the project that have depended on guidance from information professionals at the University of Texas Libraries (UTL), the Benson Latin American Collection, and the Initiative for Digital Humanities, Media, and Culture (IDHMC) at Texas A&M University.

The final two roundtables showcased a selection of digital scholarship projects engaging with Latin American colonial material and a discussion concerning the role of digital scholarship in graduate student research. The Digital Scholarship Panel highlighted projects ranging from online dictionaries and digital repositories to research in bibliography and machine learning, with an emphasis on the risks and rewards of collaboration across disciplinary and national borders. Some of the institutions and projects featured included the Wired Humanities Projects based at the University of Oregon, bibliographic research at the John Carter Brown Library, and the innovative digital projects developed at the Instituto de Investigaciones Bibliográficas at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM). While many of the speakers spoke positively about the utility of digital resources in advancing scholarly research, others warned about the ethical concerns of creating and transforming digital resources that are also cultural heritage.

The Graduate Student Roundtable brought together students from an array of fields including literature, colonial studies, indigenous studies, religious studies, and information studies to describe their experiences with digital scholarship. A take-away from this discussion was that in order to support graduate student interested in digital scholarship, libraries and writing centers can lead the way in helping students access resources to develop the technical skills necessary for integrating digital tools into their research projects.

The First Books symposium provided a productive, multi-institutional space to discuss the developing field of “digital scholarship and colonial Latin American studies” in its own right. One central outcome of the symposium was to bring together a community of practitioners to consider the role of transnational collaboration, multilingual data curation, and digital scholarship in the field of colonial Latin American Studies. We hope that this conversation continues well beyond this symposium and inspires other collaborative, interdisciplinary projects in the field.

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