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A Word Is Born: A Digital Exhibit for the Dictionary of Old English

By Alexandra Bolintineanu

In Old English poetry, the human body is a bone house (banhus) and the sea is a whale-road (hronrad). There is a single word for “the care and anxiety that come in the early morning”(uhtcearu) and for a flight of spears (garfaru) but over 30 words meaning warrior in the first half of the alphabet alone.

Old English is the earliest form of the English language, from 600 to 1150 AD. Its words are at the heart of our language, but still strange to a modern reader: word is word and heart is heort, but language is gereord or geþeod. Some Old English words are recognizable in Modern English (cyning means king, sweord means sword, boc means book); other words are misleading or downright unrecognizable: dream means joy or bliss or music, not dream; snotor means wise, not snotty; and the amazing neorxnawang means Paradise.

The Dictionary of Old English studies this earliest form of the English language. Founded in 1970 at the University of Toronto, the Dictionary and its Old English corpus predate the Internet by more than a decade. In 2015, the Dictionary will publish its latest release, the letter H, along with an improved corpus, a more powerful Solr Lucene-powered search engine, links to manuscript evidence, and newly released free access sessions.

This is where I came in. I am a CLIR Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Medieval Data Curation. At the University of Toronto, my job is to build bridges—in the form of reusable data, sustainable initiatives, learning resources, and a robust digital humanities community of practice—between projects, between disciplines, and from research projects to classrooms. At the Dictionary of Old English, this goal formed an outreach initiative called A Word Is Born, meant to showcase the Dictionary’s life and work, and to document its latest release.

The digital outreach initiative was a pilot project—the first of its kind at the Dictionary and at the Centre for Medieval Studies. After consulting with the Dictionary’s then-editor-in-chief, Antonette diPaolo Healey, and its systems analyst, Xin Xiang, we decided that success would look like a digital humanities hydra: a combination of live workshops, a digital exhibit, a help manual, an online mini-course, and a collection of teaching ideas.

To accomplish this, I integrated the initiative with a workshop series on digital tools and practices for medievalists. The Dictionary of Old English offered time with its researchers, professors Antonette diPaolo Healey, David McDougall, and Ian McDougall, and its project staff, Xin Xiang and Catherine Monahan, as well as access to its research collection. University of Toronto librarians Sian Meikle, Lisa Gayhart, and Kelli Babcock offered expertise, server space, and advice about digital archives and usability initiatives. And I shaped the project and used pedagogical approaches more often found in computer science courses—pair programming and project-based learning—to fulfill both the students’ learning goals and the project’s need for documentation and outreach. The ensuing collaboration resulted in a (reusable, scalable) set of digital resources that the Dictionary of Old English and other research projects can use to build bridges to local and global scholarly communities.

  1. In her lecture, “The Future of the Past: Early English, Connectivity, and Sustainability in a Digital Universe,” Antonette diPaolo Healey introduced medievalists to the latest release of the Dictionary of Old English and discussed sustainability in the context of a long-lived digital humanities project.
  2. In a follow-up workshop, graduate students and I ran a usability study to test the new Dictionary of Old English interfaces. To this end, I wrote a protocol that combines testing and training. I adapted pair programming, a computer science pedagogical approach that pairs up participants and allots one the role of “driver” (programmer) and the other the role of “navigator” (planner and observer). Instead of having one facilitator observe and document each user’s tests of the interface, as is typical in usability testing, I wrote a road map of user tasks and invited students to pair up. Each pair consisted of a tester, who carried out the tasks using the interface, and an observer, who documented the process. Midway through the testing, the participants switched roles. By the end of the session, participants learned about the importance of usability testing and gained hands-on experience with designing and running usability tests at a low cost to the research program.
  3. Based on the usability study results, Xin Xiang implemented some interface redesigns, while I created a set of learning resources, including a detailed Help manual and a series of video tutorials, about the Dictionary of Old English and the Dictionary of Old English Corpus. Since we expect the Dictionary’s newly released free access sessions to draw new users, some experienced scholars of Old English and some altogether new to the discipline, some of the learning resources are aimed at novice users and others at advanced users. All videos are provided with full-text transcripts for greater accessibility.
  4. In addition to the tutorials, I conducted interviews with the Dictionary’s editors and staff about the history and workflow of the DOE. I learned about the challenges of digitizing the Dictionary of Old English Corpus in the seventies, when each known Old English text had to be typed on Scantron sheets, using jury-rigged special characters; and about the challenges and rewards of Old English lexicography.
  5. To organize this documentation, I created an Omeka exhibit showcasing the Dictionary’s work and history (originally on the free hosted server at, eventually migrated to a library repository, thanks to Kelli Babcock, Digital Initiatives Librarian). The exhibit documents the Dictionary’s workflow, with digital artifacts and oral narratives of the dictionary’s history.
  6. Using this Omeka exhibit, I led a workshop on the Omeka content management system. I invited participants to contribute sample assignments and teaching ideas using the Dictionary of Old English to the Dictionary’s Omeka site. Participants drew on their own areas of research, from literature to archeology, history, and law, to construct interdisciplinary instructional resources. The following day, three workshop participants—Daniel Brielmaier, Kasandra Castle, and Anna Wilson—presented their resources at the Toronto Old English Colloquium 2014. Contributing to a live project not only motivated the participants, but encouraged them to raise questions that went beyond the technical basics of Omeka—questions ranging from metadata schemas to digital pedagogies.

Each of these steps involved the graduate student community at the Centre for Medieval Studies, who attended a talk about the Dictionary of Old English’s latest developments, acted as users and observers in the usability study, provided the questions and observations that motivated the video tutorials, and created sample assignments and teaching ideas for the Omeka exhibit. Graduate student participants provided invaluable ideas throughout the process, while at the same time learning about the Dictionary itself and about digital humanities approaches and tools.

A Word Is Born brought together a nucleus of librarians and medievalists with DH interests, a collection of digital resources, but also a web of relationships across the University of Toronto community. The CLIR fellowship provided me with the training and position to run this kind of hydra-like project—at once exhibit, community-building exercise, meta-scholarship, and experiment in distributed learning. The fellowship itself placed me at the intersection of library and academic department and research project. CLIR training modeled the immersive, project-based training that I shared with graduate students at the Centre for Medieval Studies. And the CLIR community modeled how to succeed by setting goalsforming alliances, and creating relationships across the university’s infrastructure.

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