Work experience with the Lawforms project

Guest post by a high school student on work placement

As part of my work experience in February 2022, I was able to enjoy two days behind the scenes of the Lawforms project. I knew very little about Islamic history during the period the research was concerned with, and even less about the legal culture of this early Indo-Persian world, so in reading over the documents and essays and products of five years of the researchers’ hard work, I was able both to acquire new understanding of legal institutions at the time, and flesh out the framework of knowledge I had of Mughal India. Even more valuable, however, was the glimpse of  what a research project truly entails, and how a researcher starts and fulfils the tasks needed on such a large project. I was lucky enough to speak to both Prof. Nandini Chatterjee, the director of the project, and Dr. Elizabeth Thelen, a post-doctoral research associate, and learn about the effort that goes into historical researching – into digging up and accessing primary sources, many of which exist only in private collections; into reading and collating notes on select secondary sources; into archival research, and honing language and transcription skills in order to translate the primary sources into idiomatic English. I’m aiming to pursue an academic career in History when I’m older, and the experience taught me in particular that the path towards completion of a historical project involves far more collaboration and interdisciplinary skill then I would have previously considered.

Film rolls containing photographs of old Persian documents

                                                                                                                                                                               I was also able to go to Exeter University’s Digital Humanities department, and received the opportunity to digitise some primary sources that had previously only existed on private, piecemeal film from the eighties. As a History A-Level student, it was fascinating to learn about the processes, such as text encoding, website creation, and digitisation, that lie behind and enable historical research. I had never given much thought before to the process that lies behind accessing sources online, but the Digital Humanities team showed me how it is their critical thinking and problem solving that makes it possible to, say, scan, upload and then access a 5m medieval tapestry, or create a 3D scan of a skull for archaeological purposes. The experience also highlighted the necessity of disciplines such as Digital Humanities in a world in which, increasingly, if it’s not digital, it’s forgotten. Digitisation is a way to democratize information, an answer to the physical archives which often contain carefully selected documents and data designed to preserve a certain impression of the past. Learning about the role Digital Humanities and the Lawforms project plays in this was truly intriguing.



Forms of Law and Digital Editing

By Dr Lizzy Williamson (Digital Humanities Lead)

In 2019, Nandini Chatterjee, Elizabeth Thelen and Dominic Vendell began the text encoding work that will result in the online publication of a selection of early modern Persianate legal texts. As Digital Humanities Lead on this project, I am enabling this work through training the editorial team in text encoding, developing the editorial guidelines and encoding schema that we will follow, and creating the resulting online edition, which will allow users to browse and search these fascinating documents, in original and translated formats where possible. We are using TEI XML, which stands for the Text Encoding Initiative, and is the recognised standard for publishing digital editions in the Humanities today.

Text encoding is a way of making a document both human and machine-readable: it is the fundamental processing of a text that will lead to eventual publication, but it also enables scholars to delve deep into the meaning of a document, forcing them to identify elements of theme and structure that would otherwise remain implicit. Text encoding is a great way to close read a text. In due course, we will publish a small resource of a selection of these complex, multifaceted texts, to share them with the wider world and encourage their use in both research and teaching.

This is exciting and challenging work, particularly since I do not read any of the multiple languages seen in these texts. This means that a close working relationship with those doing the encoding is essential, and we have already had several productive half-day workshops to tease out the intricacies of these texts. As well as eventual publication online, we will also share our methods of encoding these complexities, so that others can build on our work in the future.

I may not have worked with these languages before, but I am an early modernist, and so I’m attuned to the peculiarities of manuscripts and archival study. As a Research Fellow in Digital Humanities at the University of Exeter, I’ve been involved in multiple digital editions, including for example a teaching resource on Early Modern Court Depositions. Prior to joining Exeter’s DH Lab in 2017, I was the Encoding Fellow for Early Modern English Drama at the Folger Shakespeare Library, and before that, Digital Project Manager for Early Modern Letters Online. My own research interests include the practical and theoretical concerns of the Digital Humanities; textual scholarship and digital publication; and early modern archives and epistolary culture, especially in a diplomatic and governmental context, which is the subject of my forthcoming book (Elizabethan Diplomacy and Epistolary Culture, Routledge, 2021). As someone who enjoys the process of translating between textual artefact and digital object, I look forward to learning more about these fascinating texts.

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