Ask Not What Your Text Can do For You. Ask What You Can do For Your Text (a Dictionary's perspective)

poster / demo / art installation
  1. 1. Carlos Monroy

    Texas A&M University

  2. 2. Richard Furuta

    Texas A&M University

  3. 3. Filipe Castro

    Texas A&M University

Work text
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This paper’s title, a modified version of President
Kennedy’s well known quote, in a metaphorical
sense suggests shifting the role texts play in a collection.
This shift is based on the growing number of available
tools that can be used to enhance textual analysis. We
are investigating the effect of tools as generators of what
can be done with the texts. We are not advocating a conceptual
change in the role and nature of the texts from
the literary or textual studies perspective. Rather we suggest
a pragmatic role change. In doing so, we believe
that new hypothesis about the content of the texts can be
posited, or at least their use can be augmented.
Our motivation is based on our experience in the creation
and use of a multilingual glossary of nautical terms
for the Nautical Archaeology Digital Library (Monroy
et al, 2006). In this context, we have seen two major
benefits from the glossary that affect both the scholarly
practices and the collection. First, it has enabled collaboration
among scholars and researchers geographically
scattered. Second, how it has broadened the possibilities
in the use and understanding of the textual materials—
shipbuilding treatises in our case.
2. Dictionaries
Dictionaries have been used extensively in numerous
digital humanities initiatives. The Perseus Project
(Crane 2002) provides a good example of incorporating
dictionaries in a classics collection. The idea behind a
dictionary is very simple: an alphabetical list of words
with definitions. Yet it has great potential and usefulness
when used simultaneously with the contents of a digital
collection. Dictionaries also come in various flavors—
bilingual or multilingual, thesaurus, specialized, illustrated,
and encyclopedic—to name a few. With the use
of information technology and the Internet, it has been
possible to expand not only their use, but also the way
they are created and edited.
Searching for a term in the on-line dictionary of the Real
Academia de la Lengua Española (RAE, 2008), for example,
presents users with occurrences of that term in all
the digitized dictionaries where it has ever been edited;
see Fig. 1. Because all editions of the printed version of
the dictionary have been digitized, it is possible to visualize
the evolution of the definitions of a given term. Although
this electronic version of the dictionary in itself
is a great resource, one can imagine what could be accomplished
if used in combination with a corpus of texts.
Fig. 1 A screen shot of the on-line RAE dictionary
depicting occurrences of a term in the collection of
digitized dictionaries, on the right is the image of a given
Arachne (Foertsch 2006) is an electronic repository
(database) of the German Institute for Archaeology.
Because archaeological objects are scattered across the
world, Arachne provides multilingual access and thesaurus.
The Getty Thesaurus of Geographical Names (Baca
2004) is another good example of an external tool that
can be incorporated into existing textual materials, enhancing
searching and browsing.
The LEO on-line dictionary (LEO, 2008) was originally
launched as a German-English dictionary in 1995.
At present it includes German translations into French,
Spanish, Chinese, and Italian. Since its beginning, two
of the most remarkable accomplishments have been the integration of a larger and linguistic diverse editorial
team. And the creation of new environments for searching,
using, and learning. For instance, the current version
allows users to join groups and work together to learn
the language; it also enables teachers to organize lessons,
see Fig. 2.
Fig. 2 A screen shot of a bilingual dictionary—LEO—
depicting translations and definitions
3. Motivation
Although the use of tools for textual analysis is not a
new concept in digital humanities, their emergence is reshaping
not only the use of textual materials, but also the
mere notion of the texts themselves. Impacting in the end
how scholarly practices are conducted.
Traditionally, textual scholars can be seen as “consumers”
of the texts. They analyze, compare, and study their
contents, how they relate to each other, and their historical
and cultural contexts to name a few. Rockwell (2003)
commenting on a well known discussion about two approaches
to texts: as a hierarchical objects advanced by
Renear, and as a performance proposed by McGann,
If we are to take McGann’s public performance of a reading
as an analogue for what we wish to achieve with these
tools, we have to think not only about how we represent
the text but also about the performance of analysis and the
tools that are used to perform this analysis with a computer.
In this paper, following Rockwell’s statement, we describe
a change in the role of textual scholars, from consumers
(users of the texts) into producers (augmenting
the texts) with the use of tools. Our observations are
based on the function external tools can play in augmenting
the use of the texts; how they can be used; and what
can be learned. Therefore, our goal is neither to propose
a right approach, nor to compare approaches.
We take this approach for two reasons. First, at a recent
textual studies conference (CASTA, 2008) a participant
asked one of the presenters regarding the numerous tools
available to text scholars: “But don’t you think that quite
often the problem with ‘tools,’ is precisely that there are
too many of them; and we don’t know what to do?” This
is an interesting question because—although coming
from a literary scholar with strong background and expertise
in using technology for textual studies—it shows
the marked prominence of the role texts play in digital
humanities, or at least in how humanists perceive their
The second reason is based in our experience working in
the creation of a multilingual glossary of nautical terms.
The glossary has allowed the incorporation of a new
layer to the original transcriptions. For example it would
be possible to search for a given term in one language
and retrieve occurrences in the transcriptions in multiple
languages. Also categories associated to the terms can be
used for retrieving occurrences in various contexts.
Used in the context of the Willa Cather Archive (The
Willa Cather Archive, 2008), Evince—a non-invasive
text analysis tool that mediates the integration of analytical
data with the text—shows how a tool can enhance
the textual materials. What is interesting in this case, is
the fact that the tool is being used to augment the study
of the texts, hence improving what can be learned from
them. Discussing the use of Evince, (Jewell et al., 2008)
We posit that integration of analytical data with the reading
text will create new possibilities for interpretation informed
by textual data, as it will eliminate the need to
enter a specialized environment.
4. Our Collection of Shipbuilding Treatises
Shipbuilding treatises are ancient technical texts, both
printed or manuscript, that describe the conception and
construction of ships, establish the required types and
properties of the wood and building materials utilized,
and sometimes describe the steps to be followed in their
construction. Given their characteristics, these texts can
be properly considered as ancient technical manuals.
Our collection was started with three Portuguese treatises
obtained with permission from the Portuguese Academia
de Marinha and National Library. At present our
collection has grown to eleven copies; and includes materials in Portuguese, French, Italian, and Dutch, spanning
a period from the late 16th to the early 18th centuries.
Additionally, an English book is already digitized and
ready to be added.
In terms of naval and seafaring dissemination, shipbuilding
treatises are priceless sources for scholars working in
ship reconstruction and studying the evolution of shipbuilding
techniques. Moreover, the development of underwater
archaeology in the last 50 years propitiated the
growth of the archaeological data corpus, which can now
be tested against the textual evidence pertaining to the
conception and construction of these complex machines.
Nautical Archaeology students, on the other hand, study
ship treatises as part of their curriculum. Finally, for the
general public they are a great source of historical and
cultural contexts in which seafaring flourished.
5. The Tool—A Multilingual Glossary of
Nautical Terms
The need for the creation of our glossary goes back to
an English illustrated glossary included as appendix in
an underwater archaeology book (Steffy, 1994). Tied to
one language and a printed medium, the glossary’s limitations
were evident. But the most pressing reason was
the various languages in which the texts in our collection
were written. Further, the glossary is essential because
nautical archaeology is a highly specialized domain
where technical terms need to be explained in order to
understand their meaning and context.
Fig. 3 A partial display of the NADL glossary depicting
our model to represent a multilingual dictionary of
nautical terms
Our model uses term as the atomic element. Each term in
turn has an associated matrix where columns correspond
to roles and rows to properties. Because we are working
on a multilingual glossary, we decided to use properties
to map languages, while roles map synonyms and spellings
respectively, see Fig 3. Each cell at the intersection
of role and language can contain zero, one, or more values
separated by the symbol |. This implies that each cell
can be represented as a vector of values.
Our approach allows scalability and flexibility. For example,
we had to add a new language—Venetian—since
it was not originally considered, and was requested by
one of the scholars. Adding the new language was a
straightforward process. Similarly, adding new roles entails
the addition of more columns. In both cases both
the architecture and the interface scale easily. From the
implementation standpoint, we use a relational database
for storing terms, synonyms, spellings, and definitions in
multiple languages.
Using Lucene—an open source full-text retrieval software
(The Apache Lucene Project, 2008)—we are parsing
texts and automatically creating links to the glossary.
Fig.4 depicts a screen shot of the treatises interface
showing the image on the left, and the transcription on
the right, with linked terms underlined in blue. Although
this process might seem a simple one, implementing it
turned out more complicated than expected. The two
main reasons were multiple-word entries and the limitations
on Lucene’s stemmer to handle 17th-century Portuguese.
Fig. 4 The treatises interface depicting linked terms in the
6. Conclusion
Our Web-based interface has enabled scholars to work
remotely in editing the glossary, expanding its contents
and attracting other scholars. This collaboration goes beyond
merely the editing of materials remotely. It has allowed
us to obtain materials from other libraries and also
to engage the special collections library at Texas A&M
in the acquisition of original materials.
Profiting from the rich illustrations nautical treatises provide
and the numerous ship models in our collection, we
want, in the near future, to create multilingual illustrated dictionaries, linking them to the texts. As stated earlier,
our goal is not to redefine the role of texts in the humanities.
But as our experience with the introduction of the
multilingual glossary in NADL indicates, tools are shifting
the way texts are perceived.
7. Acknowledgements
This material is based upon work supported by the National
Science Foundation under Grant No. IIS-0534314.
8. References
Baca, M. (2004). Fear of Authority? Authority Control
and Thesaurus Building for Art and Material. Cataloguing
& Classification Quaretly Vol. 38, No. 3/4, pp. 143-
Crane, G. (2002). Cultural Heritage Digital Libraries:
Needs and Components. In ECDL 2002, LNCS 2458,
pp. 626-637, 2001. Springer-Verlag, Berlin, 2002.
Foertsch, R. (2006). ARACHNE - Datenbank und kulturelle
Archive des Forschungsarchivs fuer Antike Plastik
Koeln und des Deutschen Archaeologischen Instituts. (accessed 12 October 2008).
Jewell, A., Zilig, B., and Ramsay, S. (2008). Can Text
Analysis Be Part of the Reading Field?: The Vision of
Evince. CaSTA 2008, New Directions in Text Analysis.
view/25 (accessed 2 November 2008).
Monroy, C., Parks, N., Furuta, R., and Castro, F.
(2006). The Nautical Archaeology Digital Library, 10th
European Conference on Research and Advanced Technology
for Digital Libraries ECDL, Alicante, Spain,
September 2006. In Gonzalo et al. (Eds.) - LNCS 4172
:544-547, Berlin and Heidelberg: Springer-Verlag, 2006.
Monroy, C., Furuta, R., and Castro F. (2007). A Multilingual
Approach to Technical Manuscripts: 16th and
17th-century Portuguese Shipbuilding Treatises. ACMIEEE
Joint Conference on Digital Libraries, Vancouver,
British Columbia, Canada, June 2007.
Rockwell, G. (2003), What is Text Analysis, Really? Literary
and Linguistic Computing 18(2):209-219, 2003.
Steffy, D. (1994). Wooden Ship Building and the Interpretation
of Shipwrecks. Texas A&M University Press,
College Station, Texas (1994).
Diccionario de la Real Academia de la Lengua Española, (accessed 28 October
CASTA 2008 New Direction in Text Analysis, http:// (accessed
17 October 2008).
The Apache Lucene Project,
(accessed 10 October 2008).
The LEO dictionary, http://dict.leo.og/ende?lang=en
(accessed 30 October 2008).
The Willa Cather Archive, University of Nebraska Lincoln (accessed 1 November 2008)

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Conference Info


ADHO - 2009

Hosted at University of Maryland, College Park

College Park, Maryland, United States

June 20, 2009 - June 25, 2009

176 works by 303 authors indexed

Series: ADHO (4)

Organizers: ADHO

  • Keywords: None
  • Language: English
  • Topics: None