Kerry Featherstone

Submitted Entry for 2014 Competition


War/Door looks at representations of Afghanistan across a wide range of texts and periods, in order to provide a user-friendly interface that allows comparison across period and genre. So for example, if a researcher wanted to know how Herat had been seen by writers from the nineteenth century, they would be able to do so, and to filter the results according to criteria such as date of travel, date of publication, genre of writing, mode of transport, etc.

This BL Labs project would employ the corpus of texts that are digitised and accessible via OCR. With help from BL Labs staff, it will be possible to use searches for keywords and phrases to analyse the texts, and to plan an online portal that would deliver the findings to the public.

This is a critical moment in the relationship between Afghanistan and the West, but little work has been done on mapping textual representations of Afghanistan over time in order to show how different contexts influence the texts. The British Library’s collection is an ideal starting point for this, because its nineteenth-century texts feature a disproportionately high amount of travel, geographical and ethnographical writing. War/Door would contribute to making the collection visible and accessible, and would also be the proof-of-concept project for the analysis of a wider range of texts using the same methodology.

The outcomes, as well as providing insight into representations of Afghanistan, which I hope will lead to wider research in that field, might also provide a comparable lexicon for scholars looking at travel writing and ethnographic texts in similar fields such as other theatres of war during the period of the British Empire.

NB. ‘war’ is the Pashto word for ‘door’: this working title is intended to draw attention to the outcome as a portal for other users, and to subvert stereotypical ideas based on representations of Afghanistan.

Assessment Criteria

The research question / problem you are trying to answer

Please focus on the clarity and quality of the research question / problem posed:

Can representations of Afghanistan be tracked across a corpus of digital texts, in order to show how historical and political contexts as well as genre affect descriptions of specific locations?

Please explain the ways your idea will showcase British Library digital collections

Please ensure you include details of British Library digital collections you are showcasing (you may use several collections if you wish), a sample can be found at

This will be a unique, and timely, way of drawing attention to the digitised texts in the nineteenth century collection. The output from this will be an online resource which allows users to see the research outcomes based on that collection. The project will draw attention to the possibilities of research in this field based on this collection, and suggest ways in which the collection can be interrogated.

Please detail the approach(es) / method(s) you are going to use to implement your idea, detailing clearly the research methods / techniques / processes involved

Indicate and describe any research methods / processes / techniques and approaches you are going to use, e.g. text mining, visualisations, statistical analysis etc.

Using a subset taken from the British Library collections, topic modelling will be used to analyse textual depictions of Afghanistan through time and space. My expertise in travel literature and special interest in literature about Afghanistan, including the history of British involvement in the country, will inform identification of a body of work across which to establish these comparisons.

Please provide evidence of how you / your team have the skills, knowledge and expertise to successfully carry out the project by working with the Labs team

E.g. work you may have done, publications, a list with dates and links (if you have them)

For over a decade, I have been engaged in the theory of digital humanities, beginning with a paper on the research library as ‘Digital Gateway’ for the University of Nottingham Trent (2001), and using the latest technologies in my research and teaching. Recent undergraduate teaching in my current post at Loughborough University has involved digital analyses of texts. I have managed creative writing projects with an online presence, for example using QR codes to link locations to specific pieces of writing. I teach a module on Anglophone representations of Afghanistan, and have presented my research at conferences and in peer-reviewed publications (see below). I am keen to develop my practice in the digital humanities and would greatly benefit from working with digital experts in the BL Labs team.

Featherstone, K. “A Problematic Subject: Afghanistan in Two Contemporary Travel Accounts” E-rea: Revue electronique d’etudes sur le monde anglophone, 2004.

Featherstone, K. Which Way the Oxus Flows: Personal Motivation in Accounts of Travel to Afghanistan (conference paper: International Studies in travel Writing Conference, Georgetown University, 2012; publication forthcoming).

Please provide evidence of how you think your idea is achievable on a technical, curatorial and legal basis

Indicate the technical, curatorial and legal aspects of the idea (you may want to check with Labs team before submitting your idea first).

The software that will be employed here can deal with large amounts of text, and I’ll be taking advice from the British Library team to make sure that outcomes can be delivered in the time allowed. This may be affected by the amount of time spent on initial searching of the collection and deciding on a corpus, but the results from that point will make use of existing software.

I will be responsible for curating the results that are presented on the website, and, with help from the BL labs team in deciding how those results will be curated to make them most accessible and useful to the end-users.

I do not envisage any legal issues: no copyright is at stake; the texts will not be presented online in their entirety, and the research is not dependent on any third party input.

Please provide a brief plan of how you will implement your project idea by working with the Labs team
You will be given the opportunity to work on your winning project idea between May 26th - Oct 31st, 2014.

May 2014
Begin the identification of a subset of texts for study, using metadata and full-text searching to identify relevant texts with help of BL staff. This process will continue throughout the project, as results inform new searches.
Collect a community to consult throughout the project, through fortnightly blogposts, Facebook page, and using Twitter. This informal advisory group will inform work throughout the project.

June 2014
Interrogating the preliminary workset to identify topic clusters for analysis.

July 2014
Using the results of the interrogation, work with BL Labs staff to design automated processes for analysing a larger corpus of digital texts.

August 2014
Assessing processes and outcomes, and planning appropriate ways of presenting them openly and sustainably online, and the development of a beta website, all with advice from BL Labs staff. This work package will include an examination of comparable online projects. This work will be undertaken with advice from with the wider community of digital humanities practitioners, for example Neil Freistat from The Maryland Institue for Technology in the Humanities, whom I have already consulted about this project, and Pip Willcox of the Bodleian Digital Library Systems and Services, who is happy to discuss the project as well.

September 2014
User testing of website and redesign, following feedback.

October 2014
Launch of website