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Working in one of the world's top rare book libraries

Fall Convocation: iSchool graduate Rebecca Niles

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The Folger Shakespeare Library on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, is a globally renowned research centre and conservation lab, home to the world’s largest collection of Shakespeare materials and to major collections of rare Renaissance books, manuscripts and art.

For scholars, teachers, and students around the world, the Folger is an incredible resource. And for Rebecca Niles, who graduates November 16th from the Master of Information program at the University of Toronto's Faculty of Information (iSchool), and is already working at the Folger, it's an incredible opportunity.

“I think Rebecca is a great example of what a 21st century U of T graduate student can do,” says Professor Alan Galey, her thesis supervisor. “Her background and thesis work, in addition to her distinctive U of T background, has taken her straight into an exciting job in the area for which she trained — and a new kind of job in one of the world's top rare book libraries.”

What kind of research specialty and academic background do you have?
All of my degrees are from the University of Toronto. I have an undergraduate degree specializing in English and minoring in critical analysis, writing, and rhetoric, as well as a Master’s degree in English with a focus in textual scholarship through the University of Toronto’s Book History and Print Culture Collaborative Program. My thesis supervisor encouraged me to combine traditional scholarly research and writing with programming when I decided to take the thesis path at the iSchool. By taking this approach, I was able to focus on my research interest: image-based humanities computing for textual scholarship research.

photo of Rebecca NilesHow did you first get involved in a project at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington?
For the past three years, and largely under the guidance of Professor Galey, I studied both the past and the future of the book. This background has left me well-equipped to consider the transmission of texts over time, and assess how texts can make the transition from print to digital in a way that respects their essence and yet takes advantage of new capabilities. This is at the heart of Implementing New Knowledge Environments, a major collaborative research initiative that Prof. Galey involved me in as his research assistant. When the Folger Shakespeare Library made the decision to go digital with their celebrated Folger Shakespeare Library Editions of the works of William Shakespeare, its original editors, Paul Werstine and Barbara Mowat, reached out to Professor Galey. The Folger wanted someone to work with their brilliant in-house programmer to create digital texts that were up to the editorial standards of Mowat and Werstine, and who would also think critically about how readers should be able to access, navigate, search, and read these texts. Through Professor Galey’s training, and his willingness to endorse me for the position, I am now the Folger Digital Texts’ Co-editor and Interface Architect.

What are the “Folger Digital Texts?”
Folger Digital Texts is an emerging repository of digital editions based on the popular Folger Shakespeare Library Editions. This project will make modern, expertly-edited texts of Shakespeare readily and freely available to all for non-commercial use. The digital editions we’re creating have a sophisticated XML infrastructure that provides us, and anybody who uses our code (also available free for non-commercial purposes), with unique identifiers for every word, every space, and every punctuation mark, in every text. This encoding structure allows me, as interface architect, to create a web interface to search, navigate, read, and bookmark, any part of Shakespeare’s plays. This encoding structure can be used by outside researchers and developers, giving them a major head-start in developing digital Shakespeare projects. The first twelve plays will be available mid-November, and will include Hamlet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Romeo and Juliet.

What kind of impact do you think your time at the iSchool, and at U of T generally, will mean to your career?
I feel the impact of having taken a degree at the iSchool in two key areas: First, the program allowed me to simultaneously receive broad exposure to issues in information studies and focus intensively on my research interests. For potential employers, I am seen both as having the solid foundation of training they expect from an institution such as the iSchool, and as being an expert in a more highly specialized area of expertise. Secondly, attending the iSchool has greatly impacted my career path in how the institution’s top-notch instructors invest in their students. As a thesis student of Prof. Galey, I not only received support for my studies that far exceeded my expectations, but was initiated into an academic community; the connections I have made as a result continue to pay dividends in my career pursuits.

What helped you the most to achieve your goals?
Because I studied under unparalleled instructors such as Prof. Galey and Prof. Kelly Lyons (who taught me the project management skills needed to bring the Folger Digital Texts project to fruition), I am in an ideal position to launch my career doing what I think is critically important: bringing print texts into the digital world in responsible yet innovative ways. I hope to have a long, fruitful relationship with the Folger, gain further experience and expertise, and perhaps, down the road, have the chance to bring it all back to the University of Toronto.