The students of the Digital History seminar at the University of Toronto Scarborough undertook a semester-long endeavour this past winter: to study and analyze a 17th-century book available through the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library. We worked with Professor Natalie Rothman, Kirsta Stapelfeldt (Coordinator, Digital Scholarship Unit, UTSC library), Whitney Kemble (Historical & Cultural Studies Liaison Librarian, UTSC Library), Geoff Piersol (Technical support for the Serai system), and Stephanie Cavanaugh (Research Assistant).
The book in question was Paul Rycaut’s The Present State of the Ottoman Empire, 3rd edition, printed in 1670. Using various techniques from the Digital Humanities we set about analyzing the data in the book. The book consists of three sections, so we had three groups each assigned one section of the book. At first glance the task seemed overwhelming. Analyzing a 17th century book about the Ottoman Empire? Thankfully we had a lot of support from the professor and library staff.
We broke the text down and analyzed it, looking for: dates, events, places, foreign terms and proper names. Once we had that raw data we aggregated it in spreadsheets. We were shown how to work with the data, cleaning it up and ensuring consistency. Once the data was finalized (dates for events researched and inputted, places names modernized) we combined it into one master spreadsheet.
Using the master spreadsheet we were taught various techniques, shown what can be done with the data. We used Google Fusion Tables to create a map of all the place names. We had a clear visualization of the places being discussed in Rycaut’s book. It took a lot of work to modernize the names. Even then we had to modify the information in the spreadsheet. Sometimes we had only a city name, and Google would choose the wrong city. We had to be careful and specific.
Using the information we collected about events and times we were able to create a timeline using ViewShare. The Present State of the Ottoman Empire is a voluminous tome, written over a long period of time. Rycaut covers a lot of events during the time period. Creating a timeline helped us condense it into one easy to read visual image. We can now see the gamut of events that Rycaut writes about in his book.
The Present State of the Ottoman Empire features woodblock printed images as well. As a class we were able to annotate the images. We added information to each image, that appears when you hover over it. The information ranges from definitions (for example an image of a Spahee includes an explanation of the position) to comparative analysis with later publications of Rycaut’s book. Some of the annotations include information about woodblock printing techniques, others provide more contextual information about what is depicted. The image annotations act as a great informational supplement to the reader.
As a group we were able to take a difficult 16th century text and make it more accessible. We have created a timeline of events from the book, a map of the places discussed and more information on the images.