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Using Plain Digital Text
"OK, I've downloaded Shakespeare into my word processor, now what?"

This page gives some ideas about how to use the plain text files that can be down loaded from many different websites. Perhaps the best source of these is the Project Gutenberg website, but most of the libraries listed on the Sample Digital libaries page in this site have them as well.

These "text files" or "ASCII files" contain the complete text of some document. They have no formatting or special characters. There is nothing but the words and sentences of the text. What you get when you access these files varies somewhat, but often they are simply loaded into a window of you Web Browser. Here are four examples:

United States Constitution Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address
Mowgli's Brothers by Rudyard Kipling A Devoted Friend by Oscar Wilde

Before these documents are of much use, they must be transferred to some computer program, such as a word processor, where they can be better viewed and manipulated. Almost always this can be done by using the "Save As" command from the browser file menu. As you do this you will have a choice between saving as "source/html" or save as "text." Choose "text."

After saving the book in this way you will see a new file on your computer which you can now open with your word processor. Once this is accomplished, the text can be manipulated using all the tools available on your computer.

Ideas for Using Text Files:

1. Speed Reading

One problem students face is adjusting to the layout of the printed words on the page. The print can be too small, or the lines too close together, or the font too elaborate. Help them by reformating the digital text for easier reading, either directly from the screen, or from a printout of the text.

Try different fonts - especially compare those with serifs (like Geneva or Arial) to those without (palatino or Times). Serifs are the little tails and hooks attached to the ends of letters. These in fact are designed to help move the eye along while reading, but perhaps they're just getting in the way. There are also fonts (Courier for instance) where the letters are equally spaced, like on a typewriter and this may help.

Remember that fonts on a screen are sometimes different when printed.

2. Passing Notes

Almost always when we "study" a text rather than just "read" it, we have to take notes. When studying a printed book, note taking has its problems. Teachers frown on writing in their books and even when this is OK, the margins are really much to small. But, if we write our notes on paper, they are decontextualized.

A digital copy of a book stored in a word processor can be reformated with wide spaces for writing notes. This is accomplished differently with different software; In Microsoft Word, for example, the best technique is to convert the paragraphs of text into 2x2 Table (using the "text to table" command) where the text is in the table cells of the left column, and the right column can be used for notes.

Most word processors these days will also automatically format FOOTNOTES, which can also be displayed as ENDNOTES. Also, some processors allow audio notes as well. Students can also insert small graphics, either from clip art, or that they draw themselves.

3. Clone & Mutate

The SINGLE most POWERFUL thing COMPUTERS do is allow you to copy a text and then change it in some interesting fashion. Remember, you never just have one copy of a digital text, you have as many as you want. In particular you might:

  1. Make a copy and delete all the uninteresting bits. "Uninteresting" being defined in the context of the moment, leading to several different versions of "interesting."
  2. Set up a separate copies where different features of the text (like all the parts about BOB) are highlighted with colored text in a big font or some such.
  3. Repaginate a copy of the text by inserting page breaks at conceptually turning points.
  4. Break sentences apart by replacing the spaces between words with carriage returns. Then sort. Now you have a comprehensive vocabulary list.

4. Markup Makeup

As the clone and mutate section suggests, sections of the text can be can be marked up with different fonts, font sizes, colors, spacing, margins, etc.. These markings point out special parts of the text, making them distinct and findable.

5. Speak Up!

Digital text can be verbalized using various types of "Text to Speech" software. The most common example of this is the SimpleText program provided with all Macintosh computers. SimpleText works in concert with a "speech manager" extension to "speak" any text that has been pasted into a SimpleText file.

There are other Hardware and/or Software tools for doing the same thing, with varying degrees of sophistication.

6.The Sort Resort

The examples given so far have all been based on the use of a word processor. Database programs can also be used. Databases are particularly useful for Searching and Sorting the text. For example, suppose students are ask to find examples of different types of conflict in the plot of a novel. Each paragraph of the book can be stored in a separate record of a database, along with extra fields that can be used to write notes & commentary, along with fields for marking the paragraphs with "key words." E.g. types of conflict: "Man vs. Man" or "Man vs. Nature" or "Man vs. Himself;" or place names, or characters. Once these annotations are in place, students can search the database for parts of the novel where for instance "Bill and Mary face conflicts with nature."

While databases are somewhat more difficult to use, they can be incredibly powerful when it comes to analyzing a book.

7. Text & Context

Making the vocabulary list as described above is actually better accomplished using a "concordancing" program. These programs automatically perform many vocabulary manipulation functions. For example, for each word of the text the program can show where in the text the word appears along with its context. This is especially useful in comparing how different writers use the same words to mean different things.


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Copyright 1998 Center for Electronic Studying, University of Oregon.
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Last updated: December 12, 2001.