Class Profile: Students in ENGL 390 explore coding, Digital Thoreau

In December 2011, the English Department and Milne Library collaborated to create Digital Thoreau, a project led by professor and English department chair Paul Schacht and Electronic Resources and Digital Scholarship Librarian Joe Easterly.

The Digital Thoreau project focuses on encoding seven manuscript versions of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden.

A description on the project’s website states that the project “aims to offer the most complete and interactive online corpus of Thoreau’s published works, manuscripts, journals, letters and related materials” and to “open to the widest audience for access and response.”

Schacht and Easterly invited Geneseo students to interact with Digital Thoreau and the author’s works – particularly by means of digital technology – with the introduction this semester of ENGL 390: Literature in the Digital Age.

Cofounder of the Thoreau Society Walter Harding was a distinguished teaching professor of English at Geneseo from 1956 to 1982. Because of this legacy, members of the Thoreau Society and the Thoreau Institute came to Geneseo to discuss the project.

“[My main goal is] for students to start thinking in a rigorous way about the issues and opportunities that digital technology is raising for how we engage with our culture,” Schacht said.

According to Schacht, the class discusses topics such as copyright and how digital technology may change the way we think about texts. He said his second goal for the class is “to involve students directly in a scholarly project that uses digital technology to advance some traditional aims in the humanities.”

A unique aspect of Literature in the Digital Age is the cooperation between the academic departments and Milne Library. Students entered the class with minimal experience in Extensible Markup Language, but with help from librarians including Easterly, Electronic Resources and Digital Scholarship Librarian Kate Pitcher and Special Collections Librarian Liz Argentieri, students acquired these skills and applied them to the manuscript versions of Walden.

Not only does the class work within Geneseo, but it also uses technology to communicate with others who are interested in the subject including Ronald Clapper, who developed his own critical apparatus of Walden in his 1967 dissertation “The Development of Walden: A Genetic Text,” and Elizabeth Witherell, editor-in-chief of the Thoreau Edition, a 47-volume collection of Thoreau’s writing including his handwritten journal.

With the help of professors, librarians and Thoreau scholars, the students are currently using the XML markup language to encode Clapper’s critical apparatus of Walden, while following the international standard for scholarly digital encoding, TEI. The encoding will also include Walter Harding’s explanatory notes from his 1995 publication of Walden: An Annotated Edition.

Schacht said he hopes that the encoding of Walden will be completed within the next couple of years. He also hopes, however, that Digital Thoreau will grow to include digitally encoded versions of other works by Thoreau, such as his journals.

Schacht also said that he hopes to offer the class every spring in effort of continuing the project. Anyone is welcome to join the digital humanities community at