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Creighton senior discovers lost manuscript

Paisley Abbey in Paisley, Scotland, with a statue of Scottish poet Robert Tannahill.Having the soul of a poet doesn’t mean you can’t also have the ken of a coder.

Cole Crawford, a Creighton University senior majoring in English and computer science and who is presently working on cataloguing the extant canon of Scottish poet Robert Tannahill, of a necessity, works fluidly in lines of verse and XML.

“Working in the digital humanities gives us a new way to see information,” explained Crawford, of Dubuque, Iowa. “When you see digitally, when you’re able to utilize all the tools the online world has to offer, you really do begin to appreciate a poet’s or a painter’s work in a new way. We’re also giving people wider access to this work and opening more eyes on artists like Robert Tannahill.”

Crawford, himself a poet, Creighton Honors Program scholar and the editor of Creighton’s Shadows literary magazine, first became acquainted with Tannahill during an editing course taught by English professor Greg Zacharias, Ph.D. In the class, students can complete a range of projects, including ones delving into the digital. There, Crawford began tapping into his coding skills and started seeing that poetry and literary study doesn’t all take place on the paper page. He began amassing an expansive concordance of Tannahill’s word choices, coupled with scholarly and multimedia tools to help future Tannahill devotees navigate the poet’s life and work. The project will serve as Crawford's research project for the Creighton Honors Program.

Zacharias praised the Tannahill project for the richness of its content, textual accuracy, and the sophistication of Crawford’s overall concept to help interested students and scholars learn more about Tannahill and his work. In the digital edition, readers have access to manuscript facsimiles, scholarship, images and maps. There’s also a pointed development of thoughtful and important analytic tools.

“Most of all,” said Zacharias, “Cole’s digital edition, especially in its tools for reporting and analyzing word — and thus meaning — relationships particular to Tannahill’s published poems, points the way for similar scholarship in other fields. Cole’s edition complements other important digital and print-based work being done by Creighton undergraduates and graduate students in English in the scholarly editing course.”

For his senior thesis project, Crawford is compiling Tannahill’s known poems into a web-based cache, replete with digital copies of original manuscripts and multimedia features allowing users to learn more about the poet, his poems, his times and even his landscapes. With a special computer program, Crawford has been able to document places Tannahill mentions in his verse, and give users a map and a vantage point on what that place looks like today and what it might’ve looked like in Tannahill’s lifetime, more than 200 years ago.

But Crawford’s efforts don’t entirely take place in the ether of the Internet. On two trips to Scotland to research Tannahill’s life and works, he has amassed research experience to which most undergraduates are not privy and made a find to make many a graybeard envious.

Poet Robert Tannahill's grave in Paisley, Scotland.In 1810, beset by his publisher’s rejection of a new collection of poems and worried about his health, the 35-year-old Tannahill committed suicide by drowning himself in a stream running through his hometown of Paisley. Just prior to his death, the poet burned most of his manuscripts. While draft versions of those pieces have helped fill in most of the gaps, a flock of about 10 poems Tannahill was known to have composed were believed to be entirely lost.

Last summer, during his second visit to Scotland, Crawford was in the stacks at the Paisley Public Library, pulling out more Tannahill manuscripts for his project when he ran across a small photo-facsimile of a newspaper clipping.

“It was a sonnet,” Crawford said. “I knew I hadn’t seen it before and hadn’t seen it in any of the other collections I’d been reviewing. Looking at it, it seemed to be one of those 10 pieces that were believed to be fully lost. And there it was in the public library.”

Crawford’s discovery is now making the rounds among more than just the literary scholar set. This digital democratization of the humanities, once believed a strong bastion supporting the Ivory Tower, is taking place at a steadier clip with the proliferation of the Internet and Crawford is happy to be a part of the movement.

“That’s one of the best things about the digital humanities,” he said. “It is open to anybody. You don’t need a library license. Anyone can access this information anywhere. It’s collaborative, it’s encouraging more and more people to learn about these writers and artists, it’s providing a wider audience.”

While Tannahill’s popularity waned in the century following his death, he’s still a known quantity around Paisley and he was as much a celebrated figure in his epoch as one of his contemporaries, the man synonymous with Scottish verse and whose language has become a de facto dialect on Scots-English: Robert Burns.

The reconstruction of Tannahill’s canon, not only for scholarly purposes, but to give the lesser-known poet wider appeal, has been central to Crawford’s project. Tannahill, for instance, won wide acclaim for his prowess as a songwriter and Crawford has included some musical segments to augment his work.

“The Burns legend tends to overshadow Tannahill,” Crawford said. “But for a long time, he was just as popular. For 70 years after his death, people in Paisley would get together to celebrate his life and poetry. There have been people who continue to put his lyrics to tunes, also.”

This brush with Tannahill has served to stoke Crawford’s interest in further entwining his poetic and computer science interests. He’s weighing options on graduate school and exploring other avenues for the digital humanities.

“The experience continues to help shape my own writing,” he said. “I’m doing more forms of writing now than I ever used to do. Finding that sonnet was a really great moment for me. Taking in that editing class was great, especially with my coding experience. Seeing digital humanities really start to take off is very affirming. I love seeing these things become more accessible.”

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