“We have all the intellectual tools we need in traditional codicology to do the work of digital codicology, but we weren’t doing it.”
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About this Episode
Recorded October 21, 2021. Produced and edited by Caitlin Postal.
Guest: Bridget Whearty
Content: Caitlin Postal and Bridget Whearty discuss labor ethics in digital medieval studies, manuscript digitization processes, and Bridget’s forthcoming book, Digital Codicology.
Bridget Whearty is an Assistant Professor at Binghamton University. She received her BA in English Literature and Creative Writing in 2003 from the University of Montana and her PhD in English from Stanford University in 2013. She was a CLIR Postdoctoral Fellow in Data Curation for Medieval Studies at Stanford University, prior to joining the faculty of Binghamton University in 2015. Her research and teaching interests are wide-ranging: late medieval death culture and the legacy of the poet Geoffrey Chaucer; medieval manuscripts, media history, and digitization; pedagogy and information literacy instruction; and queer and trans medieval literatures. She is the creator of the Caswell Test, named after and inspired by the work of Michelle Caswell (#CaswellTest) and co-editor for the special issue of Archive Journal dedicated to Digital Medieval Manuscript Cultures. Her first book Digital Codicology: Medieval Books and Modern Labor is forthcoming from Stanford University Press’s Text Technologies series.
If you’re interested in reading one of Bridget’s articles but do not have institutional access, please reach out to Bridget by email and she would be glad to share a copy.
- Caswell Test (single slide and full script)
- Bridget Whearty, “Making a digital medieval manuscript” (on working with Astrid J. Smith)
- Bridget Whearty, “Adam Scriveyn in Cyberspace: Loss, Labour, Ideology, and Infrastructure in Interoperable Reuse of Digital Manuscript Metadata” in Meeting the Medieval in a Digital World
- Astrid J. Smith, “Teachable Features 14: Working with Digital Objects: Digitization as a Teachable Feature, or “How did Those Images Get There?!?!”
- Information on the Digital Medieval Manuscript Expert Meeting
- Debates in Digital Humanities
Automated transcription by <https://otter.ai>, manually corrected by Caitlin Postal. Click here to open a .pdf of the transcript.
[Music Fade In]
Hello and welcome to Coding Codices, a podcast from the digital medievalist postgraduate committee. I’m Caitlin Postal, your host for this episode, and I’m joined today by Dr. Bridget Whearty. Bridget is an assistant professor of English and Medieval Studies at Binghamton University in the State University of New York system, and a former CLIR fellow in data curation for Medieval Studies at Stanford University. She developed the Caswell Test: a three step test inviting humanities researchers to center the labor of librarians and archivists in scholarship on the archive, inspired by and named after Michelle Caswell. Bridget’s first book, Digital Codicology: Medieval Books and Modern Labor, is forthcoming from Stanford University Press with the Text Technologies series.
Our conversation today focuses on labor ethics and digital labor. To start that, I’d love to hear what first interested you in digital medieval studies.
Two things really come to mind. One has everything to do with the pragmatics of the job market, and the other has everything to do with me getting really angry at a conference. I became interested in digital medieval studies as part of that simple fact of what job I got. My first year on the academic job market, I did really badly. At the very, very end of the season–like late May, early June–I interviewed for and did get the CLIR postdoctoral fellowship in data curation for medieval studies at Stanford. That was part of a cohort of five postdocs at five institutions that the Mellon Foundation was funding for all of us to work together in data curation for medieval studies. So the first part is because it’s what I was hired to do.
I love that the Mellon Foundation was supporting a cross institutional postdoc series. That’s really cool.
It was great actually! I had the most wonderful fellow fellows. And Don Waters at Mellon was the sort of thinker behind this. And I remember him saying that they had realized that they accidentally been incentivizing competition, and not working together by having people compete.
Yeah, that makes sense.
And they really felt that the– right yeah. But they realize or they knew that the future of interoperability, of a dynamic kind of global digital medieval studies, had to be collaboration. And they’ve done multiple cohorts in various focus points since this but we were kind of a first experiment. And my colleagues–Tamsyn, AJ, Alexandra, and Matt–and I joked that we started out as a political marriage, but we very rapidly became a love match. They’re the most wonderful people to get to work with.
It’s great to hear. You said that there was a second piece.
Yeah, um, so I had this postdoc, and I was attending the combined meeting of Medieval Academy of America and Medieval Association of the Pacific at UCLA in 2014. You know, those conversations you would get in casually in live conferences?
Mhm, I miss them.
I do too! I got to chatting with someone walking up the stairs. I don’t remember their name. I don’t remember any distinguishing characteristics, which is good actually. Because we were doing that back and forth: “What do you work on?” “Oh, I work on whatever it was,” I don’t even remember that. And then I was asked, and I said, “Oh, I work on digital medieval manuscripts.” And this person looked at me, with this sort of horrified and dismayed face, and said “digital medieval manuscripts. Why don’t you work on the real thing?” And then they proceeded to kind of go on this mini rant about digital imaging specialists.
Yeah, and how they don’t know what they’re copying and they don’t understand manuscripts, and that could be a physics textbook for all they care. And I just was so flabbergasted wordlessly furious at this.
If this person, if you’re listening at home, which I don’t know why you would be, we’re very frustrated.
I mean, I’m actually grateful. It’s like the best kind of frustrating conference experience. Because it was this, I couldn’t stop thinking about this conversation. Well, how would you even know?
Yeah, I think everyone at some point has that experience of someone says something that is at odds with the way that you conduct your research. And that’s what sticks with you when you’re working. For me, it was someone had said that the markup labor in the digital edition is just grunt work and I was like, “Excuse me, let’s have a conversation,” and by a conversation, I mean this is my first dissertation chapter.
Exactly, exactly. I didn’t even have the wherewithal to say, let’s have a conversation. I just sort of smiled uncomfortably and went fuming on my way. But that was really the seed for six, seven years of work. Why don’t medievalists talk to digitization specialists? What would we learn if we could and did? What could we offer that would be helpful to these amazingly skilled people who are somewhere between our collaborators and the people upon whom our research depends.
Right. I think that this is so deeply woven into your work, including your book project that’s forthcoming, as well as the talk that you recently gave at the Digital Manuscript Experts meeting. It was a great talk, I deeply enjoyed it.
I’m wondering if thinking about this conversation that you had and the and the work that you’ve done in the interim, if you would be willing to reflect a little bit on how your experience with digital projects like for instance, the DMS Index that you did during your postdoc, how these varied conversations and these different kinds of experience with different projects lead you toward these arguments that you’re making about the labor that supports digital projects, and especially, like imaging specialists with digital manuscripts.
Yeah, I’d love to. So Digital Codicology, the book project, kind of grew from that moment on the stairs. But a really key part for me for thinking about labor came when I had been working with large sets of metadata produced by different institutions for different projects, different digitization projects, and it was my job to try to bring them together into a single metadata standard. And I was doing this work, and I just had this profound sense that I was missing something. And by something I meant, I would really like to know what it takes to make one of these. I’m working with them in the thousands. So I went to one of my postdoc supervisors, Benjamin Albritton, who was really focused on leading me in the libraries projects I was part of, and I asked him what strings can be pulled or permissions can be begged for me to get to go into the digitization studio and see one book get digitized? And he had various artful and political discussions, probably far beyond what I actually understand (speaking of unseen labor), and eventually I got permission to join the digitization of a single 15th century manuscript, not just as an observer but as a participant. I was one of the photographer’s assistants involved in the project.
It was so cool! It was in November 2014. So spring 2014, angry conversation; November 2014, trying my hand digitization. Really the least skilled aspects of it, following a highly skilled, highly experienced digital imaging specialist, whose name by the way is Astrid J. Smith, and she’s amazing, and she’s still working at Stanford University Libraries in this capacity. And I was just stunned by the amount of thought, work, that went into everything from the benchmarking processes that you don’t even see in the final product to the endlessly focused attention she and I had to have to create a book that was coherent unto itself across different imaging sections. Like the exact same lighting, the exact same color balance. I was stunned by how much I hurt, like by the physical labor of it. And, because in my other life I’m a literary historian of the 15th century, of course, I had Thomas Hoccleve in my head.
I was about to mention Hoccleve.
Yes, yes, You know where I’m going! The sections in the Regiment of Princes where he’s talking about how hard it is to be a scribe and how they can’t sing or have fun, they have to pay attention–
–my eyes hurt, my hands hurt, my back hurts.
Exactly. And so that was running through my head, while I was lifting and lowering and doing support work and not blinking my eyes at the right time. So totally getting the flash in my face. Bending and my back hurt, and my feet hurt. And my. And it was just this like, amazing “aha!” moment. And it was also amazing to me then seeing all of the skilled, really expert people who were involved at all of the stages from collaborations: with the curator at the start with the digital imaging specialists all the way through with post production with metadata, with the long term care and feeding of the digital repository in which these images live. Like there was just so much work that was happening.
There’s, I think, for us as medieval literary scholars, there’s a disconnect between the kind of work that we frequently do and understanding different forms of skilled labor that is connected to the work that we might do.
I think we’re in the stage of, you know, I guess, going back to my Mellon theme point here, of competition, like maybe my work is only valuable if it’s harder than someone else’s.
I just I just don’t think that that’s true.
I agree. Clearly I agree. This is like, even in my traditional literary studies, my arguments tend to be about care and community. And the labor…
As it turns out, as it turns out, so do mine!
That’s one of the frameworks that supports my dissertation project. Like, from your work gave me a foundation to make some of the arguments I’m interested in making.
That is the nicest thing I think a piece of scholarship can have said about it, is that it went on and was useful and helped someone else build something more. So that’s really amazing. Thank you.
I wanted to think a little bit you’ve, you’ve alluded to your work with 15th century literature, I hoped you might share with me and with listeners, how you trace the continuities between 15th century literature–what I know has centered on late medieval death culture–and labor and care in digital humanities projects.
Sure. I came into this amazing digital medieval postdoc by way of having finished a thoroughly mediocre dissertation on Hoccleve and Lydgate and poets after Chaucer and death culture and legacy and stuff. But I think the most interesting takeaway I had from that project was thinking about how writers like Hoccleve and Lydgate were mapping out the conflicting obligations of bookmaking. By which I mean, I started seeing their work as the sort of set of endless compromises. Thinking about–
So too are digital projects.
Exactly. Yeah. So they were thinking about, you know, am I making this book to serve the living or the dead? If I’m serving the dead, what compromises do I have to make to serve the living or vice versa? Am I making this book to serve writers like me, or readers; if readers, then like noble readers or common readers? And ultimately thinking about is bookmaking a service to the past, or to the present and future? I’m not actually sure if that holds as an argument, but it’s what was in my head when I went into the studio.
I find it an interesting and compelling argument.
Thank you. And so then exactly, I went into the digital library systems and services division of Stanford University Libraries, and I was working in data curation. I was trying to learn about metadata. I was having lunch with digital imaging specialists. And I kept feeling like I was hearing the same conversation: are we building these digital manuscripts to meticulously reconstruct the physical form they had in the past? Even if that form doesn’t serve the future very well? Are we doing imaging to serve like a few elite researchers or a larger, more diverse group of end users? That was the continuity moment for me. In addition to thinking, “oh my god, I hurt just like Hoccleve.”
Yeah, I find it so interesting that you’re bringing up the audience focus of digital manuscript preservation, digitization, curation. Because I think the answer changes depending on who you ask, depending on what the project is, depending on where in time we are, as well as what kind of funding is attached to the digitization process, that answer is going to change. One of the episodes of Coding Codices that will be out by the time people are listening to this one is a conversation we had with Johanna Green, where she was talking about the Lindisfarne Gospels and their digitization process being so locally important to the people who lived in the area where they were produced. And I think we can often forget about who gets access to what materials. And that’s both in terms of who gets access for experiencing and enjoying them, and who gets access to the process of working with them. Not just working with them as a literary scholar or as a historian, but working with them as an imaging specialist, working with them as a preservation specialist.
You’re exactly right. That kind of breadth of understanding all of the different kinds of labor and laborers who connect with us and having end users like me see ourselves as part of a larger continuum than we tend to think of ourselves.
You asked about continuities. One of the discontinuities that I kept seeing–that I still see a little bit but that fascinates and bothers me–is that we have all the intellectual tools we need in traditional codicology to do the work of digital codicology, but we weren’t doing it. We know how to look at a medieval book and say, When was this made? Where was this made? Who made it, what tools that they use? For what patron to serve what ends, and we just didn’t ask that for a really long time about digital manuscripts, but it’s all the same questions. It’s all the same things. So I saw or felt those continuities, but that’s the continuity I want to establish.
I agree. I’m really interested in this. It came up in the conversation that Jamie, Eric, Matt and I had around digital archival materiality a few episodes back in Coding Codices, where we were thinking about metadata provenance. Which I don’t know if that’s a term other people use, I have been using it. I would like more people to use it if you’re listening, where we are thinking about what Bridget has just offered: the provenance of the metadata curation for the objects that we care about, that we’re interested in.
I think that that was something I wasn’t I wasn’t particularly good at even when I was a node in that metadata provenance network. I didn’t, or it was something I sort of struggled with, like, how much of this is me changing how much of this is me adding how much of this is me simply recreating what I have been given? As I’ve continued to sort of process and research and re-understand the work I did as a postdoc, and learn more about the experts who are working in metadata provenance–and I think you absolutely get to use that word. You know, more broadly, this is also labor that has long supported medieval manuscript studies, but that we are not in the habit of seeing. And that’s the immense work that goes into making and maintaining and updating descriptive catalogues.
I almost finished your sentence. I knew where it was going. I was so here for it.
Well, to be fair, and give credit where it’s due, although I cannot name a name here because I don’t know it. The first reviewer of my book, my anonymous reviewer one has been really helpful in guiding me to think more vigorously about this. So thank you so much for that.
Thank you, reviewer one.
Speaking of thinking about varied labor and the sort of elision of credit for that labor, I know that you talked about the labor of those who don’t want to be named in digital manuscript work at the Digital Manuscript Experts meeting not that long ago. I was wondering if you would share for podcast listeners who may have missed your talk, how we can think about making visible the labor of those who may not want named credit, individually?
Yes. Yes. So the talk was really sort of wrestling with a later stage in book production for me, which is how do I give credit to imaging specialists and digitization studios and all of that network of labor in my image captions? And kind of going over the conversations I’ve had and how different digitization studios and programs will have different answers to that question that I asked them, and sometimes their answers will change. And at one period, they’ll have one preferred citation method, and later it will change. So sometimes a place will say, “Yes, here’s the name of the digital imaging specialists and here’s the date it was done.” And some places will say, “We don’t want you to use the digital imaging specialist name, because there are so many people who do this work. We want you to credit the entire studio.” And some people will say, “I feel like you’re asking these questions is weirdly invasive, and I don’t know if I want to trust you with this person’s name until I know you’re going to do right by them,” which got me into thinking about like the right to be forgotten and how being made public is often, especially in various online cultures, not a good thing at all. So the way that I’ve worked towards it in my book is: I will name whoever wants to be named, I will not name anyone who doesn’t want to be, I will cite however I am told to cite by studio preference (this is part of centering labor is when people say “do it this way,” it’s my job to say, “Okay, thank you, I will”), but then also by trying to foreground anonymity, where I can, by not just saying such and such manuscripts, quick description of the image copyrights, such and such institution, but this particular manuscript number, a little description of what I want people to pay attention to, based on this source media made at such and such time period, digitized by unknown people working at such and such time. My captions are enormous. But, in each of them, it’s trying to highlight that the work has happened, even if we don’t have a name to hang it on.
Well, and I think what’s important about a caption is that it’s directing a reader, it’s drawing attention to something that is important to you and important to your argument, whether or not they have been thinking about it themselves.
Yeah. My anonymous reviewer two was really good at pointing out where my captions were not performing the kind of visible credit of labor that I was arguing for, and gave me a chance to fix that in one of my rounds of revisions.
Thank you, reviewer two.
Indeed, I have no idea who any of them were but I had such good reviewers. Another way of answering your question is again, in like the opposite form, what not to do. And here, I really need to foreground that I’m getting this a lot from Astrid J. Smith, who’s the digitizer I worked with. And Astrid and I have a co-written book chapter that’s coming out in the next Debates in Digital Humanities. But this is really her part, her insights, which is how not to credit it: Don’t credit it by magic. Don’t credit by the miracle of 21st century technology. Don’t credit yourself “I had x digitized,” or God forbid “I digitized X,” unless you are the person doing it, don’t do that. Find some way to gesture towards the people who have done and are continuing to do this work, however they want that done. Be aware of how rhetorical flourishes, as fun as they can be, enact a kind of erasure and resist that.
I was thinking about, you have mentioned something about sort of the right to be forgotten and, and living documents and sort of the digitization studios preferences will change. I just wanted to add that I think that that can–not to be too anachronistic–but that happens with our medieval manuscripts as well. And we know how to ask those questions and look at them, like you had said earlier, and think about what happens with scribal authority. What happens when a scribe changes? What happens if a name has been scraped up? How we’re looking at paratextual evidence of use–
–that may not necessarily be contemporary with the moment at which it was recorded, at which the primary text of a manuscript was recorded.
Besides being angry, and being curious, one of the other things that really drove my dedication to this project is how little of it is written down. I’m a medievalist, I don’t deal with living people! But so much of this project involves me needing to go interview people. Not just Astrid but also Astrid, for chapter three, which is sort of tracing the rise of digitization through four different digitization projects involving manuscripts of The Fall of Princes by John Lydgate, I had to do so much checking in with living people with people who have done these projects. Like, what was the project history? How did this happen? Who did what? Oh, I need to go talk to someone else, because he knows that but we don’t know this other thing. So much of our recent history in digital manuscripts is dependent on brilliant people’s brains. And I wanted this history to be written in whatever way I could so that when we move forward, we’ll remember who we owe, and what they’ve given us.
This tracks really well with the first chapter of my dissertation, which is about interpretive labor in digital editing projects and thinking about how that information gets recorded or not recorded. Both in the framing materials for a project as well as just the line by line markup, how different projects might think about recording labor, or not. So I’ve not been thinking about the codicological aspect of it. I’ve been thinking about the editing, textual editing aspect.
I would also say in terms of recording the labor that goes into it, and I’m really indebted to Dot Porter here for this. Time that goes into recording information about a project is not time that can then be spent making a new digital manuscript. Even as I have this, like, “Oh, record all of the things” drive, I’m aware, and I would want all of us to be aware, that if something isn’t written down, it’s probably for a very good, well thought out reason. We should ask. We should be curious. We shouldn’t, if we see a gap, assume it’s because a digital imaging specialist, a curator, and archivist librarian didn’t think of it. We should find out and kind of understand the economic pressures under which anything is being built. I think that every time possible, we should record and credit where we can, depending on what people are comfortable with in terms of visibility, but I also know that it’s kind like the map of the world that is so big that it becomes the world. Compromises will inevitably have to be made. I’m just hoping that we can be aware of the ethical implications of those compromises.
I think you’re exactly right. And that’s one of the important features in recording project framing, either in a robust and well documented way, or, but even in a brief or perfunctory way, is to offer why choices are made. Because choices are made in every digital project. And I think the more that we who work in digital humanities, and especially with digital medieval studies where it’s this cross temporal experience working with objects of the past, I think the more that we are talking about what our choices are and why, the more that will be the foundation of work with digital manuscript materials.
Yes. I agree completely. And it also reminds me of just good software practices, right? Like everything needs a good ReadMe document. If we’re gonna make changes, we should say somewhere kind of what they are and why. Even if we can’t record the change, we can record the fact of the change. So we don’t need to reinvent them. We just need to read widely enough and generously enough that we can use all of the wheels that people have been inventing.
And this is where everyone should familiarize themselves with the Caswell Test.
Yes. Yes, please.
Speaking of the Caswell Test, we sort of briefly touched on it in your introduction and I would love to invite you to share a little bit for listeners who may not yet have seen your wonderful work, inspired by the work of Michelle Caswell who also is just fantastic.
She’s really brilliant. Yes. So in 2018, I was invited to be on a roundtable about medieval and medievalist archivists and librarians. And I thought, “I am such an imposter. I am not an archivist. I am not a librarian. I don’t think I belong here.” But then I decided that it was a really great opportunity for me to go on record confessing how much I don’t understand and kind of hate the phrase “the archive.” At its core, the Caswell Test is a like seven minute rant from me about who are historians and literary scholars and end users erasing when we say “the archive.” Like which archive, where, who works there, how is it funded? These are all of my favorite questions. And because I love the works of Alison Bechdel, who’s a graphic artist, it somehow made sense to me to make a test modeled on Alison Bechdel’s Bechdel Test for media representation. So it’s a three step test, that ultimately is named after Michelle Caswell, that asks [and] challenges anybody who wants to write about “the archive” to think about: okay, am I citing any archivists? No, I should do that. Am I only citing archivists in my thank you notes? That’s great, but I should cite them as my scholars. Always make sure that you’re actually conversing with and listening to and learning from the real experts when you’re doing transdisciplinary work. We just, somehow for some reason, need to be reminded to do that more with archivists and librarians. And then it became a hashtag and then I had to write to Michelle Caswell and say, “Hi, you’ve never heard of me. I’m a big fan of your work. I accidentally invented a test named after you. And it’s a thing now. I hope that’s okay.” Which I hear was probably really strange for her to try to explain for tenure, but it’s one of the things that’s gone on to have a weird life of its own and I’m really proud of it. I’m really pleased that it– building on Michelle Caswell, building on Eira Tansey, building on Myron Groover, building on a lot of brilliant archivists and librarians–can be a useful thing.
One thing that was coming to mind for me when you were speaking was the ways that scholarship becomes possible through–I don’t even know how to describe it–it’s the ways that we are in community with each other. And my scholarship is possible because of your scholarship. Your scholarship is possible because of Michelle’s scholarship. And the different folks who you’ve been mentioning in our conversation are all people who are in my mind and a lot of them are in my bibliographies. And I just love thinking about the kind of generative network that we have just by asking these kinds of questions.
This is the thing that I’m trying to teach my students about citation.
Well, citation is a conversation. And it’s, for me, citation becomes a form of collaboration with people that I might not get to have a conversation with the way that you and I are conversing now.
Yeah. I remember when I was first reading Lydgate as a graduate student, he has this tic that I am obsessed with and have written about, about saying, you know, “Oh, well, I’m gonna tell you this story, but Chaucer already has and his version’s better. I can’t believe I’m even daring to write this. You should just go read his.” And the tradition that you and I inherit is that this is this, like, this is like this performative false humility, modesty topos thing. And this probably just reveals way too much about my state of mind as a grad student. But I remember reading it and being like, “Oh man, I feel that. I too am writing in this shadow of people who have already said this and said it better. And you should probably just go read them. And I don’t even know why I’m bothering.” But then Lydgate goes on and and bothers, and, and we do too. And the value isn’t one poet trying to replace another. But in thinking about the conversations you can have with someone who died 30 years ago, as well as the conversations that you and I get to have together today.
Beautifully put. And probably, probably I should call us to a close because I think you and I could just talk forever.
I should be so lucky.
And especially about Lydgate who has become fond to me in a way I didn’t anticipate. And part of that is the inherited scholarly conversation has made me want to love him more because so many people have not.
Which is weird.
Okay, so here it is: if listeners of this podcast want to be true medievalist hipsters, they have to love Lydgate so they can say they loved Lydgate before Lydgate was cool to love.
Thanks for listening to Coding Codices, a podcast by the Digital Medievalist Postgraduate Committee. And thank you so much to Bridget for joining us in this wonderful conversation that we’ve had today. You can find Bridget on Twitter @BridgetWhearty. And if you don’t know how to spell that, I would encourage you to check out the show notes. You can also catch up on Coding Codices on our website, podcast.digitalmedievalist.org, or get in touch with us at dmpostgrads[at]gmail[dot]com.
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- Theme music: TeknoAXE, “Chiptune Nobility” (CC BY 4.0).
- Interludes: Curran Son, “The Red Fox Tavern“
- Featured image: Rosenbach MS 439/16 fol 146v; ed. by Tessa Gengnagel.