Digitizing Walt Whitman’s Annotations and Marginalia

Digitizing Walt Whitman’s Annotations and Marginalia
Start date: September 2007
Projected publication: ongoing
Supported by Duke University Libraries, the Department of English at the University of Texas at Austin, and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Current staff:
Matt Cohen, Editor
Alejandro Omidsalar, Project Manager and Assitant Editor (Univ. of Texas at Austin)
Ty Alyea, Assistant Editor (Univ. of Texas at Austin)

Former staff:
Ashley Palmer, Project Manager, Assistant Editor (Univ. of Texas at Austin)
Lauren Grewe, Senior Assistant Editor and Project Manager (Univ. of Texas at Austin)
Nicole Gray, Project Manager and Senior Assistant Editor (Univ. of Texas at Austin)
Travis Brown, Assistant Editor (Univ. of Texas at Austin)
Jonathan Cheng, Editorial Assistant (Univ. of Nebraska-Lincoln)
Elizabeth Frye, Editorial Assistant (Univ. of Texas at Austin)
Mike Speriosu, Developer (Univ. of Texas at Austin)
Erica Fretwell, Assistant Editor (Duke U.)
Kevin Webb, Consultant (Tackle Design)
Brian Pytlik Zillig, Consultant (U. of Nebraska-Lincoln)
Brett Barney, Consultant (U. of Nebraska-Lincoln)

Research Assistants:
Laura Beerits (UT Austin)
Lauren Trojniar (UT Austin)
Nathaniel Bilhartz (UT Austin)
Kristen R. Davis (Duke U)
Anna Dudenhoeffer (Duke U)
Melissa J. Miller (Duke U)

Cohen Lab received a Digital Humanities Start-Up Grant in 2007-2008 from the National Endowment for the Humanities to develop software tools and protocols for digital representation of static multimedia documents. Using Walt Whitman’s manuscript marginalia–his annotations and other scribblings on other writers’ printed works–we have built prototype tools for marking up such documents as well as for displaying interactive search results for such documents using images and text.

The project unfolded in several stages. First, with the help of Duke University Libraries, we scanned and transcribed some of the most interesting documents in Duke’s Trent Collection of Whitman materials. Whitman used pasted-on clippings, drawings, mathematics, annotations, and underlining in pencil and ink as he interacted with printed materials and even photographs and drawings. Research assistants transcribed all such information and generated descriptions of non-textual content. Then, using the Whitman Archive‘s Poetry Encoding Guidelines as a starting point, we began to encode these transcriptions. Brett Barney of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s E-Text Center came to Duke to help us create Encoding Guidelines for these static multimedia documents that extended the extant Whitman Archive DTD. These documents and standardized image scans of the originals were passed on to Tackle Design, a Durham, NC software design firm, for use in generating two tools: one to help encoders link images to XML files through a coordinate system that spatially locates each manuscript word or image element in a document; and one to help users search for such content online. It’s a kind of “Google Earth” for documents that mix print, manuscript, and drawings or other visual elements.

The next phase of this project, funded by an NEH Humanities Collections and Reference Resources grant (2011-2014) involved creating a demonstration site and obtaining images from the dozen archives that hold large or particularly rich collections of Whitman’s annotated material, including Duke University’s Special Collections, the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin, the Library of Congress, and Middlebury College Special Collections. These are being transcribed and encoded according to an expanded version of the Whitman Archive’s TEI-based schema.

Currently we are adapting the project to the environment of the Walt Whitman Archive. We published the first round of documents in December 2015.

Our advisory board members are William Sherman, Steven Olsen-Smith, Terry Catapano, and Michael Winship. H.J. Jackson also served on the first board, from 2011-2015.

A white paper by Erica Fretwell, Matt Cohen, and Kevin Webb on the project, published at the NEH web site for digital humanities projects, can be downloaded here:


The visual interface is currently being adapted to the Archive.org reader platform; results from this part of the project will be available in winter 2017. Our grant narrative for the NEH Humanities Collections and Reference Resources program can be found here:


Our encoding strategies–extensions and tweakings of the general Whitman Archive Encoding Guidelines–may be found here:


Conference and other presentations on the project may be downloaded here:

Hall Humanities Center lecture, University of Kansas: “Editing Walt Whitman’s Marginalia Today”

Society for Textual Scholarship, 2009: STS_09_CohenFretwell.pdf

American Studies Association, 2011: ASA2011DH.pdf


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