“It’s up to institutions to do something, rather than: ‘It’s closed in a safe and it’s safe for the next 500 years’.”
About this Episode
Recorded 4 June 2020. Edited by Tessa Gengnagel.
Guests: Giulio Menna, Marjolein de Vos
Content: In this episode, we talk to Giulio Menna and Marjolein de Vos, the founders of the Sexy Codicology project and the DMMapp (Digitized Medieval Manuscripts app). They both graduated in Book and Digital Media Studies from Leiden University, the Netherlands. Giulio Menna is a functional application manager and developer at Leiden University Library while Marjolein de Vos is a functional application manager at Leiden University, with previous work experience at Europeana and the National Library of the Netherlands. Together, we discuss how they came up with the Sexy Codicology project, how the use of social media to promote digitized medieval manuscripts has changed in the last few years, and what we think cultural heritage institutions should do in the future to showcase the manuscripts they are preserving.
Resources and Further Reading
The DMMapp on Github.
ASMR at the Victoria & Albert Museum: <https://youtu.be/bH7Sr3_HZfk> (on the topic of ASMR, see also German Lopez, “ASMR, explained,” in: Vox (25 May 2018), <https://www.vox.com/2015/7/15/8965393/asmr-video-youtube-autonomous-sensory-meridian-response>).
automated transcription by <https://otter.ai>, manually corrected by Tessa Gengnagel
Tessa Gengnagel 0:14
Hello and welcome to Coding Codices, a podcast from the Digital Medievalist Postgraduate Subcommittee. My name is Tessa Gengnagel and I’m your host today. In this episode, we’re going to talk about the Sexy Codicology project, created and run by Giulio Menna and Marjolein de Vos who both graduated in Book and Digital Media Studies at Leiden University in the Netherlands. Over the last decade, Sexy Codicology has been instrumental in promoting digitized medieval manuscripts online and on social media in particular. But there’s more to it than that: The project has evolved into or spawned off the DMMapp, the Digitized Medieval Manuscripts app, which links to more than 500 libraries in the world, making it the perfect place to start looking for data about repositories, or to search for institutions in your own city, for example, to see what kind of manuscripts they may have digitized. In our conversation, Giulio and Marjolein share their motivation behind creating these projects and we also discuss how the use of social media to promote this kind of content has changed over the last few years, and what can be done in the future to engender interest in the study of medieval manuscripts. That should be enough of an introduction. So let’s dive right into it. Starting with the question: How did Giulio and Marjolein come up with the name “Sexy Codicology”?
Giulio Menna 2:01
I was finishing my studies with Book and Digital Media Studies, here at Leiden University. And I knew I was going to graduate. But the question was: Then what? What am I going to do with myself? How am I going to find a job? So my idea was to create some sort of project that I could use as a portfolio to show that I have a brain and that I can do things. This was at the time when medievalists were just starting to explore Twitter, starting to post things. It’s already how long, four years ago, five years ago, more?
Marjolein de Vos 2:48
Eight years ago?
Giulio Menna 2:49
Yeah. Back then it was still the Wild West, I would say. And I wanted to have a name that would catch—be catchy, be interesting. And it just came to my mind: “Sexy Codicology.” Since then, we haven’t changed. The only thing we did is separate Sexy Codicology from the DMMapp. Because they are two very different projects that had two different audiences. Sexy Codicology was meant for a broader audience. People who might not be experts in manuscripts but find them interesting and would like to know a little bit more about the books; so give them a little bit of introductions to medieval manuscripts. The DMMapp was meant as something a little bit more serious. Medieval manuscripts are being digitized. They’re being put online, but there’s no uniformity in how they’re being put online. They’re just being thrown there on websites and it’s difficult to find them. So the plan was to create something that would make it easier for researchers or anyone who might need digitized manuscripts, to help them find these manuscripts. So we separated them a little bit.
Tessa Gengnagel 4:18
But this—the DMMapp—was something that started a little later, or…? So you started with Sexy Codicology and then that became part of it or, well, in addition to it, perhaps, became…
Giulio Menna 4:31
When we were writing blog posts, we would need images and beside all the copyright issues, simply finding images and repositories was and still is rather difficult, especially if you’re searching for smaller libraries who might have a digital presence, an online presence, but don’t have an optimized website, so it’s difficult to find them. There is—
Marjolein de Vos 5:01
And then also if there is a language barrier, it makes it even more difficult sometimes to make your way through a library’s website or any kind of institution to try and find something; if it’s in a language that you don’t speak. And also a bit… the purpose of sharing the access to—directly to—the digitized material was also to shine a bit of a spotlight on—especially on—all the smaller collections. Because often, yeah, because the websites aren’t optimized, they’re so difficult to find, but they do deserve the people visiting them because sometimes it’s really amazing material that has been published. Maybe sometimes it’s very little metadata but very worth exploring as well. And that was also one of the goals.
Tessa Gengnagel 5:51
Sexy Codicology, as I understand it, was first a Twitter account and then you expanded onto other platforms. What was the reasoning behind that?
Marjolein de Vos 6:02
Or was Facebook first?
Giulio Menna 6:04
I think it was, yeah, Facebook first. It’s a long time ago. We were young and hopeful. Again, it’s eight years ago, so social media was, I would say, at its peak back then. There were endless possibilities. Facebook was really becoming something, Twitter was really becoming something, and there was a really active community. We had both accounts on Twitter and Facebook as private people for ourselves. So we had an idea to use it also for Sexy Codicology; would take only two clicks and then you would have an account to do something. We knew we loved the manuscripts. We knew we wanted to share our love for manuscripts. Of course, a big inspiration back then was Dr. Erik Kwakkel who had been our teacher during Book and Digital Media Studies and I also did an internship with him and he was my… how do you say that?
Marjolein de Vos 7:07
Giulio Menna 7:08
Yeah, the supervisor for my thesis, so his influence was clearly a big one.
Marjolein de Vos 7:15
And that’s also when we started writing more blog posts about new collections that were added to the DMMmap. If we saw some real nice potential in what was published online and thought, “Okay, this really could use an extra spotlight because this is really cool.” We tried to explain a bit: what can you find here, how can you maybe reuse this material; also put a couple of collection highlights in there that we came across.
Giulio Menna 7:44
What’s maybe important to know is that I have a big passion for manuscripts, of course, but also for computers and internet. I know that the more links you build towards certain websites, the more visibility it can get. So if we as a small blog with an audience can drive traffic to a smaller repository, that will have an effect on the findability of that repository.
Tessa Gengnagel 8:17
Yeah, it will climb in the rankings on Google.
Giulio Menna 8:20
Yes, exactly. And especially if the repository is small, it can go a very long way to simply describe the repository, what it has shared with your audience, and let this audience share the contents, share new links and help them be more visible. This also led to a shift in strategy for the contents. As you might have noticed, we don’t publish much anymore on both the blog and Facebook.
Tessa Gengnagel 8:53
Yeah, that would have been my next question, whether there was a change in—whether you noticed a change in—or whether you actively decided to change your strategy.
Giulio Menna 9:05
Well, a bit of both. On one side, we noticed a change, especially in the more recent times in how content is shared on Twitter and Facebook, mostly on Twitter. I would say until a couple of years ago, there was much more activity.
Marjolein de Vos 9:23
Especially on Twitter, there was a period where you would see a lot of people sharing pictures of cool content from manuscripts. But I think we’ve shifted a bit away from that, at least that’s a bit of a trend that I see on Twitter. I think what you see more now is less of content-sharing but more people discussing things with each other, people asking help to decipher things like provenance in manuscripts.
Giulio Menna 9:56
Back then, back when we started, again, Facebook was the place to be. Especially in the last couple of years, this has a little bit changed. Right now, if I would really like to share something and make it go viral, I wouldn’t use Facebook, but then I would use more something like Reddit or other social media that—
Tessa Gengnagel 10:20
Giulio Menna 10:21
TikTok. But we also have grown up as our project has grown up. And I would say the aim has gone more from sharing casual content to really helping researchers get in touch with their content. At the moment, I consider the DMMapp a higher priority for development than the Sexy Codicology blog. We have put a lot of development time in the DMMapp, to make it so that it can remain something easy to manage, and to update—should we ever stop doing it—for the next person who would like to continue working with the DMMapp. Our code is public on GitHub. We were working on an API so that anyone could use the metadata that we have published in the DMMapp. It has just become much more, I would say, professionalized on our side compared to what we were some years ago.
Tessa Gengnagel 11:27
I think that’s interesting because what I always sort of, well admired, I almost want to say, about the project was that it was so effortlessly having the merchandise on RedBubble. Like all these things that I as a person who also uses the internet and the computer a lot know that this is genuine and not: someone has heard of it and thought maybe we should put our stuff on there. And you can always tell when—I mean, it’s not always a question of age—but you can always tell when researchers think, “oh, let’s use Reddit,” but they don’t use it themselves, they just want to utilize it for their project. But you can always tell when they’re not really familiar with the way it’s used. And so I always felt, with you being on Patreon, using RedBubble, that’s still very—almost cutting edge in the field. So, you don’t really see those things a lot.
Giulio Menna 12:19
We are not sponsored. No one pays us two for doing these projects, we do it because we really love manuscripts, we find it interesting; and not every medievalist is, at the same time, a developer or, you know, might know how to do things. And I like to develop and I like manuscripts, so I put them together and I create something. The problem is, servers are expensive. We host the two websites and it comes at around 120 euros a year. And that’s where Patreon and RedBubble come in. I mean, we would have no problem just paying every year for the servers because it’s our passion and we spare no expense for our passion. But it’s nice to see that our work is rewarded by the users. We’re never going to get rich out of it. It’s never going to pay all our bills. But it helps to have support through Patreon and RedBubble.
Marjolein de Vos 13:27
Well, it’s also never really been been the purpose to, like, go viral and make a lot of money out of it. I think especially also with sharing things on social media, of course it’s nice when it gets picked up; when we would make posts for social media, it was always trying to explain, why is this manuscript interesting? Why should you care about books that are hundreds of years old? Why should we keep on caring to get money to the cultural sector so we can keep on digitizing material? Always with that thought behind it and not just posting for the sake of posting something and hoping it will go viral. I mean, in the end, we do have quite some followers on the Facebook page, which I never would have expected—that we would have gotten that far. So that’s nice. I think in that way we’ve reached our goal of trying to get a bit more widespread attention for manuscripts.
Giulio Menna 14:25
I remember how happy I was when we got our first 100 likes on Facebook. “Oh my god!” Or our first 100 followers on Twitter. I never thought it would have grown this much, the whole project.
Tessa Gengnagel 14:41
I mean, I know it’s rewarding when other people like the stuff that you do. And of course the motivation to keep doing it is ideally that you just like doing it because, of course, you also can’t plan whether something goes viral or not. You can do something like clickbait titles or something, although with medieval manuscripts that’s probably a bit more difficult, but—
Giulio Menna 15:02
“You will never believe what this manuscript says inside!”
Marjolein de Vos 15:05
Tessa Gengnagel 15:11
So my question, my other question, maybe would be about the future. So you probably, as I’ve heard it, you’re going to focus on the DMMapp but I also saw that you might—I saw that you had some videos on YouTube from a few years ago and that you might like to do more of that or other kinds of videos. Is that still a plan, or…?
Giulio Menna 15:38
Concerning the videos, that was still part of the “we have no idea what we’re doing, let’s try something new.” My BA was in multimedia design. So I had an idea of “we’re just gonna make videos.” But no. Turns out, it’s really difficult to make good videos; takes a lot of effort, knowledge of the programs that I don’t have. And a couple of years ago, three years ago, four years ago, when I tried to make the videos, the quality of many of the images that were with the right copyright to be used on YouTube from digitized repositories was just not high enough. I can’t go to a library, take pictures, clear the copyright and make the videos. In the end, the videos also became an experiment. And the experiment did not succeed. We tried but we don’t have the resources, both technical knowledge and time to create high quality videos. I think, especially for libraries that have great manuscripts in their collections, I think it would be really a great idea to create short videos in which they showcase “Look, this is what we have in our library, this is being kept safe for the future generations, it’s a beautiful manuscript, look at it, explore it with us,” and share it to an audience. I think it would be a great idea for libraries and institutions that might have the resources to do this. But for us, as two private individuals, it’s really, really difficult to do.
Tessa Gengnagel 17:24
But that—I think maybe that sketches a path forward for the institutions, like you say, to use more of the audio-visual possibilities of the internet. I just saw that the Victoria and Albert Museum posted an ASMR video. So, the latest trend, they followed that, but I mean, it’s smart of them to do something that’s very popular. And I think it already got a lot of views; and they use an exhibition object and did the ASMR with that, so the sound of the material or something like that. And I mean, you could do that with manuscripts, the tactile—
Marjolein de Vos 18:04
Yeah, I was just thinking of that, like the way when you slowly flip another leaf that like maybe crackles a little bit. Yeah.
Tessa Gengnagel 18:17
Okay, but maybe that’s… we will have to see whether any institutions in our field will ever get to that point. But it probably depends a lot on the individuals involved: If there’s someone like you who has a passion for it and also an understanding of the different ways in which media is used.
Giulio Menna 18:39
It also depends on how much institutions want to promote their own content, especially with manuscripts. Manuscripts often end up in a safe in a library. And that’s it, until someone, a researcher, comes once every 30 years to give a look; and I find that such a huge pity. Yes, manuscripts, in their physical form, belong in a safe place, such as a library or an institution that can guarantee that they will be safe for the next 500 years. Still, the contents, the manuscript as an object should be available in some other form, to the general audience—and it’s not just “we’re going to digitize the book, from top to bottom, take pictures of every page and that’s it, that’s what we have done with our objects.” There is so much more that can be done with manuscripts, you can talk about them and show them: how the covers were made, how taking care of manuscripts is done, there is so much more, and it’s up to institutions to do something, rather than: “It’s closed in a safe and it’s safe for the next 500 years.”
Marjolein de Vos 20:01
And also to promote reuse, I think, because, you know, of course, you want to generate some attention; but what me personally—what I think what is also really nice is to promote the reuse, not only in university, in the university context, but wider than that. Maybe also like primary and secondary education, you know, get it promoted to teachers to do something with this material, but also in the more creative sector. Because there are so many nice cool things that you can do that you might not even think about. And then if you also promote reuse in various ways, then I think it can also help to educate people to see, why is this relevant? Why is this interesting? Why should we treasure all this shared cultural heritage that we have? And why should we keep on investing in keeping it safe and keeping it—making it digitally available? But also to ensure that… if I see now, when you follow a bit the discussions on social media like Twitter, the way you see that more and more collections are being made digitally available, also, what’s the new kind of research that it enables, that it leads people to draw conclusions that maybe you wouldn’t have been able to make before? Because it has been made available online, that people can start connecting different kinds of dots, that before was just too hard to do.
Tessa Gengnagel 21:51
I’m just looking at the time, this is such a fascinating conversation. But I thought this was also such a nice, beautiful closing thought that, you know, there is so much more that can be done, but it’s all there almost. And some people just have to get active and start doing it. It’s not impossible to do it as people like you show who do so much with so little resources. And I think we, as the community, are so lucky to have you and for the work you’ve done in the last few years in promoting medieval manuscripts also to people who would otherwise not really have heard of them or looked at them and weren’t even aware that illuminated manuscripts are a thing, you know, and also with this common narrative of the Dark Middle Ages and so on. I think it’s a very good thing to actually promote that knowledge and that cultural heritage that’s there and for the taking, essentially.
Giulio Menna 22:53
I believe that if we managed to get one student to study medieval manuscripts through our apps, through our work on the websites, then I think we can consider ourselves—yeah, we consider that we have done a good job, at least for us.
Tessa Gengnagel 23:26
And with that, we are at the end of the episode. Thanks again to our guests and thank you for listening. If you want to know more and if you’re looking for links to things mentioned in this episode, feel free to visit our website at podcast.digitalmedievalist.org.
- Featured Image: Portrait of St Dunstan as a bishop, British Library, Royal MS 10 A XIII/1, f. 2v; ed. by Tessa Gengnagel.