Polish Studies Bulletin

Article / interview

08.09.2019

“The Skamandrites” in digital reality

The project "The Skamander Triad in exile. Editing the letters of Jan Lechoń, Kazimierz Wierzyński and Mieczysław Grydzewski" is an example of combining the tradition of "flashcard and pencil" with modern technologies, mixing a fully professional critical study with an open access to knowledge and merging scientific sources, the rustle of pages of a printed book with a functional digital edition. It concerns the correspondence of the eminent representatives of Polish literature and culture of the 20th century, the poets Jan Lechoń and Kazimierz Wierzyński, and the editor Mieczysław Grydzewski. The collection of their letters, located at the Polish Institute of Arts & Sciences of America with headquarters in New York and the Polish Library in London, is an important part of the Polish cultural heritage.

 

We have talked about the project with its authors: Dr. Beata Dorosz, PhD DSc, Professor of The Institute Of Literary Research of the Polish Academy of Sciences, a member of the Department of Contemporary Literature Documentation, and Dr. Bartłomiej Szleszyński, Head of the New Panorama of Polish Literature team of the Digital Humanities Centre at the Institute Of Literary Research of the Polish Academy of Sciences.

An excerpt from the Skamander's correspondence made available on the Internet

"Polish Studies Newsletter": How was the joint project "Skamander's Triad of Emigration" born?

Prof. Beata Dorosz: The project was born as a continuation of my earlier work. After publishing the correspondence of Jan Lechoń and Mieczysław Grydzewski in 2006, I intended to work on two more "arms" of this "Skamander's correspondence triangle in exile" whose third point was Kazimierz Wierzyński. When the opportunity to apply for a grant appeared, I turned to the Directorate of the Institute of Literary Research asking for approval of such an application. At that time, Maciej Maryl, who, in addition to his function of the head of the Digital Humanities Centre until today, was also the deputy director of the Institute itself, saw the possibility of combining two scientific "realities" in this project: in addition to the designed traditional book edition, he also suggested considering a digital edition. He turned to the New Panorama of Polish Literature team (then involved in the creation of the NPLP.PL platform) with an interest in the subject of digital editing and the TEI (Text Encoding Iniciative) standard in the context of this correspondence.

Prof. Bartłomiej Szleszyński: After an intensive consideration and recognition of the topic, we decided to participate in this project and informally, in addition to supervising the digital part, I signed up to act as the organizational manager of the entire project (where, of course, all substantive and organizational decisions are approved by Beata). Beata, having obtained the assurance that we will deal not only with digital aspects, but also with organization of the entire enterprise, agreed to this hybrid-shaped project, striving both to create a traditional paper book (in fact two books in total of five volumes) and a scientific digital edition using the TEI standard, for the purpose of which the software was to be created on the TEI.NPLP.PL platform (http://tei.nplp.pl/).

When will the digital versions of subsequent correspondence blocks be made available?

B.Sz.: Currently, a block of correspondence between Jan Lechon and Kazimierz Wierzyński is available on the TEI.NPLP.PL platform (http://tei.nplp.pl/documents/korespondencji-jana-lechonia-i-kazimierza-wierzynskiego/). The software for digital scientific edition of letters using the international TEI standard is fully functional. The work of marking and adding another letters from the much larger correspondence corpus of Kazimierz Wierzyński and Mieczysław Grydzewski is currently underway.

B.D.: The digital work on both editions took place (and is taking place) at a different pace, mainly due to the different volume of both archival correspondence sets. The letters of Lechoń and Wierzyński in the number of about 230 in a traditional book form could be published in one volume (published by the Institute of Literary Research PAS publishing house in 2016). When I was working on this edition together with Paweł Kądziel, the programming work was still underway, but then, relatively quickly, it was possible to transfer this resource to the digital platform. Wierzyński's correspondence dialogue with Grydzewski, which consists of nearly 1,100 letters, will be published in four volumes, most likely in 2021, but due to the abundance of this set of letters, the work on traditional and digital editing must take place almost in parallel, and therefore its appearance on the platform will happen a little later than the printing.

To what extent is the traditional grant system adapted to the needs of digital humanities?

B.Sz.: Not only the grant system, but the entire Polish science system related to the humanities is poorly adapted to the needs of digital humanities, despite the declaration of the need to digitize science. This applies to the points system, which does not include digital editions or digital collections. It applies also to the system of positions in scientific institutions where it is difficult to find a place for people dealing with issues such as digital typography or for graphic designers whose work is necessary in digital humanities projects, such as those created by the New Panorama of Polish Literature team (the latter issue does not only concern Poland, but also appears in the recognition of researchers from other European countries). It is relatively easiest to "fit" digital projects in the formula proposed by the National Program for the Development of the Humanities, but due to financial restrictions imposed for several editions, it is becoming increasingly difficult. Digital projects are often associated with much higher costs associated with designing, creating and software support for projects.

B.D.: This is a kind of paradox, because the basis for our decision to apply for a grant was the belief that the traditional book edition of Scamandrites-emmigrants may not defend itself in the competition, while giving this project the advantages of new technology, and thus enabling the principle of unlimited use of this form of editing by many users strengthened its chances in the face of usually high competition.

How would you finance further work on the project after the grant expires?

B.Sz.: The optimal and,in the long run, the only solution would be to employ a basic full-time team to guarantee the maintenance of project’s results and a peaceful transition to subsequent projects. In the current reality of Polish humanities, especially during the turmoil after another reform, this is difficult to achieve, but I hope that eventually the New Panorama of Polish Literature team will succeed - otherwise we will be forced to significantly reduce our activity, perhaps even to freeze many ventures for some time.

How does a digital humanist running such a project find time for scientific analysis?

B.Sz.: It is not easy. Even in my case, with full-time employment, it is quite difficult to both manage projects and watch over "production" aspects, as well as create scientific papers in two areas (my first field of scientific interest and primary employment at the Institute is Department of Late Nineteenth-Century Literature). Therefore, whenever possible, I try to combine these activities - it is ideal when it goes like in the recently completed digital collection "Post-modern Sienkiewicz", however, I often write papers and articles in the field of digital humanities separately from those concerning Bolesław Prus and Henryk Sienkiewicz.

What is the attitude towards this type of projects in the scientific community?

B.Sz.: It seems that for the most part, if researchers are interested in activities in the digital environment, we – I mean the team of the New Panorama of Polish Literature - manage to find a common language with them. Of course, there is a part of the environment that is reluctant to any kind of news, including the digitalisation of science, but no arguments will convince them. There are also people interested in the subject purely theoretically, who need to be made aware of the practical limitations resulting from our experience – here I can see the potential for cooperation as much as possible. Paradoxically, we often find more recognition among colleagues from abroad who are aware of how difficult it is to build two large platforms in a few years (NPLP.PL for the publication of scientific digital collections and TEI.NPLP.PL for scientific digital editions), which we have succeeded in team.

B.D.: I am quite a typical representative of the "generation of flashcards and pencil" and I remember what kind of sensation in the Institute was the fact of preparing, by Prof. Jadwiga Czachowska in cooperation with me, the bibliography of literary prints published in the Polish People's Republic in the second cycle (“Literature and criticism outside the censorship of 1977-1989. Bibliography of books”, 1991) on a computer. For a younger generation of researchers, it's hard to imagine that for their older colleagues even a switch to a computer from a typewriter could be a revolution. It is no wonder then that I, too, initially responded with some caution to the proposal to "digitize" the Skamandrites. As I worked on the digital edition, however, I was convinced of the new research opportunities that arise from it - not to mention another very valuable and highly practical aspect: the digital version of the edition can be constantly developed and improved. These types of editorial works are basically "infinite" - after the publication of the book, nothing can be changed and improved, even if the next day after its appearance on the book shelves there will appear an extremely important, and so far unavailable or unknown information. The digital version enables it. I think that many researchers who prefer a physical contact with a book (because they can take it to bed, hear the rustle of pages and underline whilte reading - and I belong to such group too), will, however, eventually look at the digital platform to check what has changed. Although, unfortunately, there is also the view of some of our older colleagues that the digital edition is "no academic work, it is only a work tool", but it has nothing to do with reality and results from misunderstanding and ignorance of the topic.

 

You can read more about digital humanities project management in: Szleszyński, Bartłomiej. 'Digital Humanities: Project Funding versus Continuity of Research'. In: Lana Pitcher and Michael Pidd. Proceedings of the Digital Humanities Congress 2018. Studies in the Digital Humanities. Sheffield: The Digital Humanities Institute, 2019.

The article is available in open access at: https://www.dhi.ac.uk/openbook/chapter/dhc2018-szleszynski

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