Corpus Approach to Collections

Some of these objectives and aims proved challenging to fulfil, especially when one is trying to discuss ideas of the materiality of 3D image objects (e.g.: an album or a lantern slide) in a 2D digital form. Yet the digital aspects of the project offered new opportunities for the development of research methodologies relating to the photographs as material objects.

First, the use of digital technologies enabled the exploration of related aspects of image materiality in the recording of data on the project database in a searchable way (types of negatives, evidence of copying, places of reproduction and evidence of exchange, for example).

Second, the process of creating the digital record of the images provided an opportunity for viewers of the website to access more of the digital footprint of each image than just the ‘optimised’ or ‘finished’ version. Importantly, ‘raw’ images (the files created before optimisation which would enhance the readability of the image content in digital format), could be included in the website. In this way it would be possible to present features of the material object that go beyond image content and which are typically omitted in representations of historical photographs. Whilst it is recognised that the vast majority of visitors to the site may be interested in image content, digitisation in this project has not been considered simply a tool for providing a global virtual audience with access to the images but as something that has been intrinsic to the research methodology and the continuing historical representation of these photographs.

Digitisation has also been vital to the process of reconstructing and analysing linkages between collections. One of the features of all the collections included in the project is that they individually each contain many hundreds of images. This includes both original and duplicate negatives and print photographs in various formats, as well as other performances such as ‘lantern slides’. Not only is such duplication of the image important to the idea of photographic materiality in the project, it also creates a methodological challenge. Without repeatedly handling the archival image, how can one retain a detailed visual memory of so many similar and even identical images?

‘Aims to provide insights from quantitative information that is statistically reliable and from which robust generalizations may be made as opposed to claims made based only on a sample of material’ [Kirk 1998]

‘Corpus linguistics - transformed historical understandings of Chaucer’ [McEnery & Wilson 1996]

In this case, lessons can be learned from digitisation projects involving other kinds of material where large quantities of data have been digitised for detailed analysis. For example, digitisation of text has in recent years provided great insights into a number of major literary enterprises through use of corpus linguistics. A similar approach was adopted and adapted as one of the methodologies underpinning this project. What could be referred to as a ‘Corpus Approach’ which utilised the digital potential of the project to full effect was developed to deal with the many thousands of often very similar images, to explore their creation and relationships and thus how the visual representation of Tibet was affected and constructed by these diplomatic photographic encounters.

Dr Mandy Sadan, Project Manager/Researcher, 2006