Monday, June 25, 2007

Matt Unger's Papa's Diary Project

Of all the online transcriptions I've seen so far, Papa's Diary Project does the most with the least. Matt Unger is transcribing and annotating his grandfather's 1924 diary, then posting one entry per day. So far as I'm able to tell, he's not using any technology more complicated than a scanner, some basic image processing software, and Blogger.

Matt's annotations are really what make the site. His grandfather Harry Scheurman was writing from New York City, so information about the places and organizations mentioned in the diary is much more accessible than Julia Brumfield's corner of rural Virginia. Matt makes the most of this by fleshing out the spare diary with great detail. When Scheurman sees a film, we learn that the theater was a bit shabby via an anecdote about the Vanderbilts. This exposition puts the May 9th single-word entry "Home" into the context of the day's news.

More than providing a historical backdrop, Matt's commentary provides a reflective narrative on his grandfather's experience. This narration puts enigmatic interactions between Scheurmann and his sister Nettie into the context of a loving brother trying to help his sister recover from childbirth by keeping her in the dark about their father's death. Matt's skill as a writer and emotional connection to his grandfather really show here. I've found that this is what keeps me coming back.

This highlights a problem with collaborative annotation — no single editorial voice. The commenters at accomplish something similar, but their voices are disorganized: some pose queries about the text, others add links or historical commentary, while others speculate about the 'plot'. There's more than enough material there for an editor to pull together something akin to Papa's Diary, but it would take a great deal of work by an author of Matt Unger's considerable writing skill.

People with more literary gifts than I possess have reviewed Papa's Diary already: see Jewcy,, and Booknik (in Russian). Turning to the technical aspects of the project, there are a number of interesting effects Matt's accomplished with Blogger.

Embedded Images
Papas diary uses images in three distinct ways.
1. Each entry includes a legible image of the scanned page in its upper right corner. (The transcription itself is in the upper left corner, while the commentary is below.)
2. The commentary uses higher-resolution cropped snippets of the diary whenever Scheurmann includes abbreviations or phrases in Hebrew (see May 4, May 14, and May 13). In the May 11 entry, a cropped version of an unclear English passage is offered for correction by readers.
3. Images of people, documents, and events mentioned in the diary provide more context for the reader and make the site more attractive.

Comments are enabled for most posts, but don't seem to get too much traffic.

Navigation is fairly primitive. There are links from one entry to others that mention the same topic, but no way to show all entries with a particular location or organization. It would be nice to see how many times Scheurman attended a JNF meeting, for example. Maybe I've missed a category list, but it seems like the posts are categorized, but there's no way to browse those categories.

Lessons for FromThePage
1. Matt's use of cropped text images — especially when he's double-checking his transcription — is very similar to the illegible tag feature of FromThePage. It seems important to be able to specify a reading, however, akin to the TEI unclear element.
2. Images embedded into subject commentary really do make the site more engaging. I hadn't planned to allow images within subject articles, but perhaps that's short-sighted.


Sara said...

no way to show all entries with a particular location or organization -- if Matt was to use categorical tags with his posts, he could do this pretty easily.

Also -- from a usability perspective -- isn't "unclear" easier to spell/type than "illegible"? :)

Matt said...

This is Matt from Papa's Diary Project checking in.

Blogger does allow you do add a tag listing, but my poor HTML skills prevent me from customizing the template to show them the way I'd like. I'm going to do something with my tags, though, since a couple of people have written to me to request a tag listing.

Other things I'd like to use Blogger for but don't have the coding skills (or time) to do properly include:

1 - I'd like make all thumbnail photos trigger a pop-up of a larger image of the corresponding page on rollover or on click.

2 - I'd like my archive of posts to appear as monthly calendars in reverse chronological order (Blogger's archive menu options are pretty restrictive, so I've manually created my rudimentary archive listing using Blogger's link list widget)

3 - I'd like geocode every entry and have a page with a Google Map that shows where every incident my grandfather describes took place (alas, my limited coding skills again prevent me from creating what I need).