bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

Virtual manuscripts and the real world (part II)

Posted in Manuscripts by bonaelitterae on 30 July, 2013

I realise that, since the first of this two-part series, I have left you so long on tenterhooks, that all your joints must be tender. Let me let you down from your sense of anticipation and complete what I promised last time. I ended by saying I have some advice — or, rather, a set of user’s requests — for those about to embark on a project of digitizing manuscripts. I do not want to be greedy or overly demanding, so I confine my desiderata to six points:

  1. Think of secondary audiences – I will admit that this is special pleading by a palaeographer, but my request does have wider relevance. The internet is the domain of pretty things: the visual works better than the textual, and the more eye-catching the image, the better. So, some on-line projects have worked to the internet’s preferences and provided selected images from manuscripts, concentrating on the illuminations. Leave aside the point that this is to provide too narrow a definition of what makes a hand-written codex artistic, this misses an opportunity to serve the wider range of users who are likely to be interested in the manuscript: alongside illuminations, give unadorned text pages, and, while you are at it, give images of the early binding, if it has one, and of signs of provenance. Those elements which are not as yet fully explained are the most useful to include, as they may spur others to discovery. As photography of a few folios of the manuscript is happening anyway, it is little extra work to add a few more images, and a huge assistance to future scholarship.
  2. Provide a ruler and a palette test-card for each image – images on-line can be deceptive. The hues seen on a screen can be far off what is actually there on the page; the nature of a manuscript can be lost by amplification, if there is no reference-point to appreciate its actual size. This, of course, should be standard in hard copy images and on-line; too often the absence of such information can make an image worse than useless and positively misleading.
  3. Give a full description – the possibilities of misunderstanding an image can be decreased not only through visual aids but, all the more, by giving the detailed explanation that a manuscript description provides. Of course, as discussed in the previous post, there are many practical arguments against including the provision of full descriptions in a digitization project; there is a danger that it is not seen as core to the ‘mission’. Provision of full and accurate descriptions would cost (though only a small proportion of the overall budget of such a project) and be time-consuming. And, if those arguments were not strong enough, let me also point out that what I am asking for is not a brief note of contents and structure but a more detailed analysis of material, measurements, structure, script, illumination and provenance. The totality of this is rarely provided: for instance, the British Library Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts (I have before me a sample page) mentions the overall size of the page but not the layout or size of the written space; it provides collation of the quires but in a form that is incomplete or inaccurate (so, in this instance, as all quires are formed of sheets folded to make an even number of leaves, a quire of seven must signify a folio has been removed at some place and at some point in time. It might be said that this sort of detail would only be of interest to academics and that academics are not the primary audience for this type of project which claims to make heritage accessible to a wider public. That may be so, but academics are likely to prove the most loyal visitors to the site. What is more, for those who are not trained to read the opaque information elliptically presented, why not provide an on-line guide to deciphering what it says? That would treat ‘the wider public’ with the respect they deserve rather than patronizing them by considering them interested in pictures alone. Finally, if time constraints are used as an argument against doing this, see my guideline (5) below.
  4. Provide where possible hyper-links to related manuscripts – as the amount of information on-line grows, our ability to view the whole panorama decreases. Knowledge on-line is not knowledge simply made available by the single act of mounting it onto the ether – the internet can be a place to hide learning. Some hardy souls – like Siân Echard – have attempted to provide indices of manuscript images mounted on-line, only (as in the case of the UCLA project to develop such a resource) to be overwhelmed by the task. Googling is no substitute, especially as the search engine has problems recognising shelfmarks, let alone the difficulty of information held in databases not being easily discoverable from outside that database. Perhaps the time will come when the speed of digitization slows and scholarship can catch its breath long enough to develop comprehensive portals to provide us with an Ariadne’s thread guiding us through the labyrinth of learning. As matters stand, we are at the stage where we are grappling with the overload of knowledge, not where we are composing the equivalent of L’Encyclopédie. And that being the case what assists at this point is if websites create their own associations, demonstrating their recognition of related work that has gone on elsewhere. This does not mean simply having a page of ‘related resources’ but embedding links wherever possible so that the viewer is provided with as many strands of thread as possible. It might not be possible to create a comprehensive listing at this point, but each website offering digitized manuscripts can play its part in making the knowledge more accessible.
  5. Most importantly, budget for updating – an on-line project should not be considered finite. There are many worthy projects that have been developed, gained attention at that phase, been launched to fanfares, and then fallen silent, becoming so static that they seem petrified, written in stone rather than on screen. In a virtual world where the oxygen is change, this runs the risk of death by obsolescence, with the site becoming of antiquarian interest, appropriate only for the Wayback Machine of the Internet Archive. This issue returns us to the Parker Library on the Web project which has received repeated mentions in the disputes between Edwards and Pennington. One point of similarity between them is their dislike of the high subscription price-tag for access to the website but, as Edwards mentions, the justification for those charges is that it will help cover the costs of the six-monthly updates. Sitting in an institution where access is available, the cost concerns me less than ensuring the updates are truly that – not just correction of typing errors or technical improvements to information already present but additions to that information, reflecting the latest scholarship which is often aided by the availability of the project itself. This, indeed, can provide a sixth and final entry on this wish-list from an avid user of on-line manuscripts:
  6. Encourage comments – most websites have a ‘contact us’ pages, but that is hardly sufficient positively to encourage engagement, which is of such potential use for projects like those we are discussing. No team of scholars can be expected to know of all discoveries and so should take advantage of the conversation the internet allows.

 This is not too much to ask, is it?


One Response

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  1. David Ganz said, on 2 August, 2013 at 9:33 am

    I spent three years trying to persuade the British Library to include a comments secton on their Digital Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts, to be told that this might cast doubt on the erudition of the library staff. Dr Cristina Dondi has provided ample evidence oof errors in that catalogue.
    Your request for a colour scale and for a ruler is entirely valid.
    I am sorry that Professor Pennington has chosen to remain silent in the face of your comments.

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