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?

Virtual manuscripts and the real world (part I)

Posted in Future of Books, Manuscripts, Uncategorized by bonaelitterae on 8 July, 2013

I find it hard enough at times to keep up with the Times Literary Supplement; I usually manage to finish reading the copy from the week before last, only to watch the next issue drop onto the doormat. Having been out of town in the heat of Florence, teaching the arcana of codicology to a set of bright graduate students, I am now woefully out-of-date. And so, it was only thanks to Kenneth Pennington’s recent letter that I was alerted to the provocative comment piece by Tony Edwards on the digitization of manuscripts. I say provocative since it patently provoked Prof. Pennington: he opens his correspondence by accusing Prof. Edwards of holding opinions ‘more suited to the age of M. R. James than to scholarship in the twenty-first century’. Some might take that as a compliment; it was certainly not intended as one. If I am a few weeks’ out-of-date, Edwards is accused of being much more so, and being nothing less than a technophobe.

Comparison of the letter and the article that caused it might suggest that there has been some unfortunate misunderstanding. Edwards’ purpose in writing was not to reject outright digitizations but to draw attention to what he sees as two negative consequences of such projects: a limiting of access to the manuscripts themselves and a lack of funding for conservation or training to assist making the books available safely to readers. Admittedly, his prose does not shy away from the mischievous, as when he asks ‘are digital surrogates not really just a new, more expensive form of microfilm?’. He might have predicted his comments could rile some or even specific individuals. It is certainly the case that ‘Edwards v. Pennington’ is not now in its first round. Three years ago, another article by the same distinguished English scholar in the same publication inspired a riposte from the same distinguished historian of medieval law. When Edwards drew up a balance-sheet of the pros and cons of digitizations, he singled out for honourable mention the Parker on the Web project which has placed high-quality images of the all the holdings of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge on-line (the launch of which I celebrated in a post). Pennington felt the need to respond: ‘in spite of Edwards’s cautious comments, there are almost no downsides to putting manuscripts and rare books on the internet’, he commented, pointing out rightly how many important projects are in progress in Germany; he then turned a rather less forgiving eye to the Parker project – ‘a  sulphurous vision into the lowest regions of the Inferno’ he termed it – complaining about the subscription cost, in contrast to the free availability of German digitization, and adding, for good measure, that its ‘scholarly standards are abysmally low’ since it has put on-line the standard catalogue of the Corpus manuscripts, by M. R. James.

MRJ again. Pennington’s invocations of the ghost of the Provost of Eton and King’s provide a curious footnote in the history of his posthumous reputation. No one now would suggest that his manuscript descriptions are exemplary and the intention of at least one Cambridge college to replace his catalogue is to be welcomed. But Pennington’s implicit suggestion that the Parker project should not have mounted his records of the manuscripts on the web is surely not serious – even when his work is superseded, scholars will need to continue to check what he had to say, especially as he saw the books before the post-War campaign of re-binding (and cropping) which defines their present state. What Pennington presumably wanted was for the Parker Library and their backers, the Mellon Foundation, to have commissioned a new catalogue, produced alongside or as part of the digitization programme. He is certainly not alone in that wish, but it is a counsel of perfection. It would have been expensive – though it might be said with the overall price-tag of Parker on the Web (around $6 million), it could have been done for an extra 1% or, at most, 2% of that cost. It would have been time-consuming, potentially impossible to do well within the relatively tight time-span of the digitization, and it would have complicated an already grand project. None of these should stop us wishing it had happened, but they are practical considerations that surely weighed on the minds of the project managers when developing their ‘mission’.

Even if a new catalogue was not possible (or especially if), the other concern – the cost of subscription to the project – remains. The rates are very high and contrast, say, with the developing policy of the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan, where a daily or weekly subscription is possible. Pennington chooses a different comparison, and contrasts the Corpus Cambridge approach to that of Munich, where what is digitized is freely available, a policy made possible by government support. Perhaps, in Germany, there is more public backing for mounting images of medieval books than there is, say, for bailing out Greece – and this, in fact, is at the nub of the debate. Both Pennington and Edwards would recognise that there are finite funds for which the decisions of how they should be spent are decided in the public arena. Edwards’ approach is to question whether large-scale digitization campaigns should be the priority. It is this attitude that disturbs Pennington; as he puts it in his most recent letter:

 I write this letter because views like Edwards’s are dangerous for the future of scholarship and for extraordinarily important projects like the one in Munich. Almost all the major libraries are funded by government officials who have little or no understanding of these issues. As with climate change, politicians will embrace a contrarian who will help them to slash esoteric projects like the digitization of rare manuscripts and books. For a medievalist the issue is far from trivial.

I will admit that the last sentence in that quotation worries me. A medievalist may also be an engaged citizen, and a citizen anywhere in Europe might – to continue the contrast made a moment ago – consider saving the Euro to be more important than making more manuscripts available on-line in the near future. But that is not the point Edwards was making: his was not a suggestion that the funding for libraries should be reduced but that, within the available resources, careful choices should be made. ‘Digitization’, he would suggest, might be a fashionable concept, but is it really the top desideratum? It might be inferred that Pennington’s response would be that if the project is not fashionable, it is likely to receive less funding – but that second-guesses policy-making in a very passive manner. Libraries and academics (especially those who write in publications as much part of the public sphere as TLS) can do their part in shaping those fashions or, at the very least, help nudge them in the direction of the most propitious outcome.

The debate, in other words, is not whether to digitize or not, but, instead, one about the ideal pace of on-line developments and their place in the wider contexts of library priorities and developing scholarly practices. We are inclined to think that the virtual world is bound to develop exponentially, on an increasingly vertical upward curve. That would be a giddy, even nausea-inducing ride but there is no guarantee or requirement that the graph will be drawn thus. There is time to pause and think about how best to harness the resources that are developing – and, on that, I believe I have a few helpful suggestions which will form the core of my next post.