Wednesday, June 29, 2016

The Digital Paxton Project: Where the 1760s meets Modern Technology

Hi there! I’m Hunter Johnson, the Summer 2016 Digital Paxton intern at the Library Company of Philadelphia (LCP). Now that you’ve read my fancy title, I suppose you’re wondering what I actually do here. Well, put on your scholar glasses, because I’m about to give you a brief tour of this project.
How did I get here? Long story short, I read about this internship online, loved the description, applied, and got accepted! I’m a rising senior at the University of South Carolina Honors College (Go Gamecocks!!). My research interests include the discovery and colonization of the New World by European settlers, and the wars and political disputes that subsequently followed. As you can imagine, an internship focusing on the 1760s, a time period that was the apex of British hegemony in North America, was very appealing to me. Also, Philadelphia is an awesome city, and is rich with colonial legacies and museums.
The Digital Paxton Project is a collaboration between LCP, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania (HSP), and an outside scholar (Will Fenton). Will came up with the idea for this project, and the rest of us have gladly helped him out. So what does this project involve? Basically, it involves the digitization and transcription of dozens of pamphlets and cartoons concerning the Paxton Riots/Massacre. In 1763, a group of settlers on the Pennsylvania frontier, called the Paxton boys, were upset at the presence of Native American villages in their territory. They decided to target a village called Conestoga Manor, and killed all of its inhabitants, mostly women, children, and the elderly. After this, they marched towards Philadelphia, intending to kill any Native American found in the city. Battle was narrowly avoided after Benjamin Franklin negotiated a deal with the Paxtons. However, the inhabitants of Pennsylvania were still sharply divided over this issue, and published many works, both vilifying and praising the Paxtons. These publications are relevant to colonial history, as they illustrate the religious, political, and social divides among settlers, many of whom were not from England, despite belonging to an empire ruled principally by and from England. The settlers of Pennsylvania included people of a mixed Scottish-Irish background (so called “Scotch-Irish”), Swedes, Dutch, Germans, and multiple religious groups. As you can imagine, the inhabitants often violently disagreed with each other. The divide was sharpest between the pacifist Quakers and the not-so-pacifist Presbyterians, both of whom published pamphlets insulting the other side.
Example of a scanned pamphlet. This one is from a poem titled “The Paxtoniade” (Am 1764 Gym [795.D.24]). The title and content are meant to parody the epic poetry genre (Homer’s Iliad being a famous example). The poem describes the events leading to the Paxton Massacre. It mocks the Paxton Boys and their motivations, with a clear anti-Paxton bias from the author.
Example of a scanned pamphlet. This one is from a poem titled “The Paxtoniade” (Am 1764 Gym [795.D.24]). The title and content are meant to parody the epic poetry genre (Homer’s Iliad being a famous example). The poem describes the events leading to the Paxton Massacre. It mocks the Paxton Boys and their motivations, with a clear anti-Paxton bias from the author.  
That’s the historical background. Now onto the actual work. Like I said, the project involves digitizing and transcribing publications, in preparation for their online publication. It requires a lot of technology, so I’ll take you through it step by step.
The first step is pretty simple. You take a pamphlet, and place it upside down on a digital scanner (we use an Epson 10000 XL). The pages are supposed to touch the scanner’s surface, since we want to capture everything that’s written there. Once the pamphlet is placed, you load a special program to do the scanning. Scanning itself is easy: click the scan button, and let the scanner do its job. Then, you flip to the next page, and keep scanning until you’re finished with the pamphlet. We scan two pages at a time, and save each scan as a tiff. Some of the pamphlets are only 8 pages and very quick to scan, but others are over 50 pages and take a while!
After that, we use Photoshop to crop the tiffs into jpegs. The tiffs contain two pages each and are a broad view, but we want a narrower view of the pages too. So each tiff is cropped into 2 separate jpegs. Each jpeg represents a single page of the pamphlet at high resolution, so it’s easy to read. We use two different kinds of images, because it’s better to have multiple options for reading documents. The tiff serves as the archival digital file with the lower resolution jpeg intended for web use. Also, it’s smart to have multiple images of the same page, in case some images get accidentally deleted or won’t open. LCP follows best practices for digital preservation by storing a copy onsite as well as a backup offsite to ensure the long-term stability of the digital content.
After the images are Photoshopped, they need to have metadata appended. This sounds complicated, but only involves a couple clicks of the mouse. You enter a program called Adobe Bridge, and click “append metadata.” This puts information on each image file that contains the LCP address, email, and other things that register us as the creator of this image. It’s something that is used for technical reasons, as the metadata doesn’t actually appear on the image. It appears in the image files, and is essentially digital record-keeping. It sounds way more complicated than it actually is.
The next step is uploading the images onto our servers. This requires two different steps. First, all of the images are copied and pasted into folders on our computer. This transfers the images from an individual computer to the entire LCP network, so anyone in LCP can access it from their work computers. Second, the jpegs are uploaded using a file transfer tool called Core FTP. This is another complicated-sounding program that involves a few easy clicks. This uploads our images to the servers of the website. These images are intended for online publication, and this ensures that they are uploaded onto the servers for the Digital Paxton website. The Digital Paxton Project will launch in early 2017, so information on the website is forthcoming.
With the pamphlets scanned and images uploaded, there is only one step remaining: transcription. This is the longest and most time consuming step. While the images are helpful and contain the original text, they are often difficult to read. This occurs because spelling and grammar were not standardized. Letters also look different; for example, the letter S looks like the letter F, which makes it hard to read. Handwriting was also very sloppy, and in cursive, which makes it nearly impossible to read a handwritten letter at a normal pace. For historians who want to use these documents in their research, it’s more convenient to provide a transcription. This is a plain Microsoft Word document that reproduces a pamphlet’s written content, retaining the original spelling, punctuation, spacing, and inaccurate grammar. Transcription is simple: sit down at a computer and start typing! It’s very time consuming and requires much patience, but it goes fairly smoothly. It’s also very interesting, as I inevitably start listening to the author’s argument and agreeing (or disagreeing!) with their opinion. Some of the pamphlets use quite colorful language, and it’s clear that the two sides did not agree about much. 

That’s the entire process from start to finish! It’s a lot of work and clicking, but it’s really fun to engage with these historic documents. My last day of work is July 1st, and I’ll be very sad to depart this awesome project! It’s intended to be accessible to just about everyone, from researchers and students to anyone with an interest in colonial Philadelphia. Keep checking our website for more updates, images, and transcriptions!

Hunter Johnson
Summer 2016 Digital Paxton Intern

No comments:

Post a Comment