Changing the Rules: TEI Customization at DHSI 2016

This year during the second week of DHSI, I took “Advanced TEI Concepts / TEI Customization” with Syd Bauman and James Cummings. I had previously taken another course, XSLT for Digital Humanities, with Syd and Martin Holmes, during my very first DHSI. For that first DHSI, I wanted to learn something that would be useful but hard to learn on my own. XSLT certainly fit the bill, and after five brain-tiring days, I could manipulate code with XSLT and turn it into something that looks and reads very differently from the original (sometimes I like to call XSLT “black magic” because of its transformative potential).

For DHSI this year, I again wanted to push my limits, and I had a second motivation for picking out a class: my upcoming dissertation project. My project encodes marginalia from a book of Shakespeare’s plays owned by 19th-century actress Fanny Kemble. Looking over my material, I quickly found that the types of coding in the current version of the TEI Guidelines were not specific and flexible enough for encoding the features of the text that I wanted was interested in for my project. Trying to rewrite the guidelines on my own to fit my project’s needs seemed intimidating. From its name alone, TEI Customization, I knew this class would be perfect for teaching me how, why, and when to customize the TEI Guidelines.

“Everybody uses customized TEI.”

This statement sticks out for me as the most important phrase (or perhaps the thesis) of the class. When Syd said that, suddenly changing the TEI Guidelines to suit my project didn’t seem so impossible or unusual. Everyone has to customize, from the large, multi-year projects I use and admire, to the smaller-scale and/or growing projects, like mine, that are built by individual scholars. In a profession where “imposter syndrome” is just as constant a companion to our work as a cup of coffee, knowing that you are not alone and that you are on the right track is important; that one word, “everybody,” may seem small, but it establishes something we all have in common in our scholarly community.

After recognizing that “everybody” customizes TEI, it was time to actually learn how to customize it. I’ll spare you the details, but there were functions and regular expressions and modeling and schema trees and ODDs. But at the end of the week, I had a rough prototype for my project’s schema. It’s not pretty (and certainly not readable unless you like settling down with a nice bit of code in the evenings), but I left DHSI with a lot more knowledge and a little more of my dissertation. And that is what makes for a good DHSI–that and spending a week gorgeous Victoria with amazing and lovely people who are just as excited about digital humanities as you are.

By Maria Chappell

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