TEI Experience

Experimenting with the TEI system was a very interesting learning process. Using this program simplified the idea of ‘coding’ and made iit accessible to a person who is not very computer science-literate (i.e., me). Most of the challenges that Isabel and I had during the TEI process were due to ‘invalid’ lines of code; the program is very specific and finicky – lots of troubleshooting/experimenting had to occur before solving an issue and moving onto or finding the next one. The letter we encoded for this project became more layered in [potential] as we went on with it. Interpreting the handwriting and sometimes archaic or stylized prose of the letter revealed certain qualities of the soldier writing it, as well as of the era he came from. Beyond that, the background and contextual research we conducted to pair with this letter revealed different social norms and deviancies — for example, that the soldier may have followed an etiquette guide (such as Gaskell’s Compendium of Forms) in handling a possible rebuke from Lizzie Johnson herself, or (as a deviance from the social norm) that Lizzie never responded to the soldier’s first letter.

Once again, we see that etiquette and the form of correspondence reveals a type of discourse in which a particular style of expression is necessary. This is something Farge touches on, the idea that a particular form necessitates a particular type of language or expression. Furthermore, there is a more individualized level of expression going on in the J.M. Bunnum letter: we chose to add the element ‘distinct’ for any irregular, notable, or (possibly) archaic phrases, capitalizations, and grammar. Some of these instances may have been common at the time of writing (1862), while others may simply have been a result of Bunnum’s own personal writing style. The real challenges in interpreting the letter (and before that, deciphering the handwriting) itself came when there was an apparent junction of these two elements: when Bunnum’s near-poetic prose was met with an expression or concept that has since fallen out of fashion. These were the most impenetrable to determine, but the overall context of the letter helped ground them in meaning.

The encoding and color-coding of the letter illuminated all the difficult concepts and themes running throughout it; often these points would converge: “history” and “death” tags seemed to overlap each other, as the soldier mentions battles, being on the field, a specific military entanglement at Yorktown, etc. Other moments where themes overlapped were those of etiquette and gender; at times, it seemed that the soldier must be genteel, both because he was an honorable and noble soldier, and because he was writing to a woman. Both of these situations required a kind of delicate code, which creates an interesting tension throughout the letter, one that remains clear in interpreting it now.

Interpreting 19th Century Letters in the Digital Age

When Anne and I began the TEI experiment, I was definitely intimidated by the new code we would be using to get the letter online. From reading and transcribing a historic letter that was at times nearly illegible to encoding the letter into the TEI boilerplate, this TEI experiment proved to be an exercise in meticulous interpretation. In reading and transcribing the letter, we quickly learned just how straightforward and intimate the letter was in that the message did not subscribe to proper grammar and structure. Without any paragraphs or even periods, the letter gives the impression that emotion flowed freely from the author’s pen and gives a sense of urgency to the declaration and pseudo-proposal. What was interesting to me in experimenting with TEI was the ways in which learning how to encode all of the minute details of the text in a way that would be readable to others really enhanced the close-reading process. In identifying items for the sake of translating the letter to code that could be recognized by the computer, we laid down the foundation for our own interpretation and changing understanding of the letter. Identifying things like names, salutations, and closing regards led to questions of audience, gender, and etiquette. Later when we started to tag and color code parts of the letter based on categories such as gender and etiquette, the process facilitated rumination and deeper thought on perceived patterns and items of interest. Interpreting the signs of etiquette in J. F. Powers’ declaration of love to Lizzie Johnson led to questions of the role gender must have played in their aforementioned friendship/courtship, which guided us in our research to find contextual links to encode in the letter. What began as an exercise in categorizing items in a letter to create a wider scope in primary source research led to the widening of our own scope of research questions to bring to our own understanding of the text.

Text Encoding Initiative Reflection

I have to admit to being slightly intimidated by the Text Encoding Initiative lab when it was first introduced to our class. The phrase “text encoding” sounded like something intricate and challenging that should be reserved for people who are actually “good at computers.” However, once my partner and I transcribed a letter sent to Lizzie Johnson from one of her pupils, the actual act of text encoding became a fun puzzle. It certainly made me slow down and consider each piece of the letter as I separated it into its different components and looked for areas that might benefit from having an external link added. It made me consider how long the pupil must have originally spent crafting the letter by hand, and gave me a deeper appreciation for how much time and effort people used to put into communicating with one another.

Transcribing and encoding the letter also highlighted the ways in which the English language has changed drastically since the days of settler colonialism. For example, my partner and I chose to add the “distinct” element of text encoding in reference to the phrase “bewitching creature.” Both words are still commonly used today, but wouldn’t be combined in such a way to connote romantic admiration. Color coding themes like gender and etiquette also highlighted how much of our letter was devoted to manners and niceties. The letter writer certainly demonstrated Southern hospitality by inviting Lizzie Johnson to come to stay numerous times, and reporting on the state of different seasonal fruit harvests. The emphasis on such subjects showed that women of the time were encouraged to focus only on aspects of life within the domestic sphere. There was no mention of political or large-scale events, and the only part of the letter that wasn’t resolutely cheerful was a short diversion about illness. Overall, working with this letter revealed the optimistic determination that was necessary to survive on the frontier, and I find that spirit very admirable.

By Carly Banner

Reflection on TEI Workshop

The Transcription Encoding Initiative workshop was an illuminating experience that revealed the depth of information contained within primary sources. I worked on the “Letter to Lizzie Johnson posted from Montgomery, August 29, 1861.” My reflections throughout the worksheet show the progression of comprehension that I went through. Before transcription, I primarily noticed the addresses of the author and the receiver, the postmark date, and the general content of the letter, which included references to the Civil War and reports on social life. After transcription, which was a long process that required extensive reading and rereading of the letter, I realized that there were many unanswered questions in the letter. It was full of specific references to people and places, which suggest that Lizzie was a part of this social group. I became curious about the relationship between Lizzie and the author: Who is the author? What is her station, her age, and how does she know Lizzie? I also thought about the “healthy lifestyle” on the Texas frontier, in consideration of the author’s discussion of food, health, and her old age.

The adding of <seg ana=”#topic”> to the text was the most interesting part of the elements process, because it forced my partner and I to take the specific details and put them in conversation with larger topics. We successfully categorized much of the text and the color-coding showed an interesting arc. Sentences related to etiquette (green) are found at the start and the end, corresponding with the greeting and closing. Historical references (purple) to the Civil War are concentrated at the beginning, as the author may have wanted to open with the biggest news she had. References to death (red) and gender (blue) intermingle in the latter half of the letter when the author discusses her personal life in more detail. These topics, then, are present in the everyday life of the author; gender roles and interactions were played out constantly, and death and illness were unfortunately very common.

We added the <hi> element, which emphasizes certain words, in order to italicize the words that the author underlined in her letter. Because she intentionally decided to add that emphasis, we thought it was important to reflect that in our encoding as well. If an encoded letter does not accurately portray the features of the text, then its validity is compromised. Figuring out the <hi> element was a challenge, however. The resources we found online, including the TEI list of elements, were not working in the XML editor. Once Dr. Nunes wrote a line of CSS, it worked—but only if words with <hi> around them were italicized. We could not make it so that the words were underlined, which still frustrates me because I want the letter to be transcribed as authentically as possible. However, the purposes of italics and underlining, in this case, are the same—they designate certain words as different from other words around them.

The full TEI project definitely caused me to realize new things about the letter that I had not noticed the first few times I read it. Spending so much time with the text, and going through this incredibly detail-oriented process, has made me very familiar with the content of this object and its connection with larger historical and social themes. For example, the oblique reference to “a protracted meeting” led me to information on 19th century Protestant revivalist movements. This would be an interesting topic to pursue and see if and how Lizzie’s correspondents or family were involved in this phenomenon. Throughout our course, we have discussed the incredible value of using archives as a source of academic discourse. By analyzing an archival object as in-depth as TEI requires one to, the information gained can become an indispensable source used for further scholarly work.

-Rachel Robinson

My TEI Experience


For the past three class periods, I have explored a new digital platform called Text Encoding Initiative (TEI). My partner and I used TEI to encode a letter from an the Lizzie Johnson Papers, which are an exhibit in Southwestern University’s online special collections. Overall, the encoding process was useful and made the theme, tone and the context of the letter easier to understand.

The biggest challenge for the project was transcribing the letter. The letter was written in script font, which made it hard to read and understand at first. Only getting bits and pieces of a letter is confusing, but once the transcription was finished, I understood the reasoning behind Alice (who wrote the letter) writing a letter to Lizzie, and I also gained some knowledge of their background and how they knew one another. This exercise allowed for a more in depth reading of the letter. For example, I found that the words underlined were more playful and described the man that Lizzie had met earlier, a connection I overlooked in the first reading.

The actual encoding was not simple, but fairly easy to learn and accomplish. The biggest takeaway was definitely seeing all the different themes that appear constantly throughout the letter. The displaying of the different colors on TEIBP (assigned to each separate theme) made it easy to see patterns and allowed my partner and I to realize what values were most important to the author. For example, there were many sentences or segments of my letter that described or referred to etiquette. This gives the reader a greater understanding of the time period and the context; letters were supposed to be written in a formal tone, and Alice must write formally as Lizzie was her teacher. Also, there was not much mention of death or sickness in the letter; this is because Alice was writing in a fun and playful tone trying to get Lizzie to come visit her.

My partner and I chose to add the element “distinct” to our text encoding. There was one term that jumped out at us in our letter, “bewitching creature”, that was used to describe a man that had fallen in love with Lizzie when they met. This is a phrase that would most likely never be used to describe a man today, so we used the distinct feature to explain how that phrase is distinct to the letter and the time period.

The whole process revealed some connections to other course topics, as the themes in the letter are themes we have talked about in class all semester. You can relate the sickness and hardships to the hardships on the frontier from Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder or The Birchbark House by Louise Erdrich; or the theme of etiquette to my Southwestern online special collections project on The Ladies Letter Writer. Overall, I enjoyed how the encoding gave the text a personal feel, almost as if you were in the moment reading the letter as Lizzie.


Renee Walker