“There’s quite a lot that other fields can learn from the way that digital tools are being used in medieval studies…things that we all take for granted and we see as these hurdles that we have to overcome every day.”
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About This Episode
Recorded 12 December 2022. Edited by Aylin Malcolm.
Content: In this episode, Aylin, Hannah, James, and Seb discuss a recent article by Emily C. Francomano and Heather Bamford and the questions it raises about the accessibility of digital resources for medieval studies.
- Emily C. Francomano and Heather Bamford, “Whose digital Middle Ages? Accessibility in digital medieval manuscript culture,” Journal of Medieval Iberian Studies 14.1 (2022): 15–27.
- Matthew Kirschenbaum, Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination (MIT Press, 2007)
- Dot Porter, “Is This Your Book? What we call digitized manuscripts and why it matters“
- Kathryn M. Rudy, “Dirty Books: Quantifying Patterns of Use in Medieval Manuscripts Using a Densitometer,” Journal of Historians of Netherlandish Art 2:1-2 (2010).
- IIIF (International Image Interoperability Framework)
- TEI (Text Encoding Initiative)
- Episode 8: Material Manuscripts in a Digital World (Johanna Green)
- Episode 7: Facsimile Narratives (Mateusz Fafinski)
- Episode 6: Digital Archive & Materiality (Matthew Kirschenbaum and Eric Ensley)
Automated transcription by <https://otter.ai>, manually corrected by Aylin Malcolm.
[Music Fade In]
Aylin Malcolm 0:14
Hello and welcome back to Coding Codices. I’m Aylin Malcolm, and I’m a PhD candidate at the University of Pennsylvania. And today I’m joined by several other members of the Digital Medievalist Postgraduate Committee.
James Harr 0:27
My name is James Harr, and I am an Assistant Professor of Literature and Languages at Christian Brothers University in Memphis, Tennessee.
Hannah Busch 0:36
Hi, I’m Hannah Busch, and I’m a PhD candidate at the Huygens Institute for the History and Culture of the Netherlands and Leiden University in the Netherlands.
Seb Dows-Miller 0:45
And I’m Seb Dows-Miller. I’m new to the committee, and I’m a D.Phil. candidate at the University of Oxford.
Aylin Malcolm 0:52
Welcome, everyone—Seb, we’re so excited to have you as part of the committee. So today, we’re going to be talking about an article that was recently published in the Journal of Medieval Iberian Studies titled “Whose digital Middle Ages? Accessibility in digital medieval manuscript culture.” The authors are Emily Francomano and Heather Bamford. And Jamie’s going to read the abstract.
James Harr 0:51
Absolutely. So, the abstract states: “This essay examines why online availability should not be conflated with accessibility in discussions of the digital humanities and medieval studies. Expert-oriented projects and discussions of the digital humanities in medieval Iberian studies tend to get lost in collation. These projects lose sight of the promises of democratization and accessibility that the digital humanities community values in favor of the traditional demands of philology.”
Aylin Malcolm 1:44
So I think we all had a lot of thoughts and excited feelings about this article. So maybe just to start off, did anyone have a point that they wanted to raise sort of in regard to the article as a whole, or its uses, or its general audience?
James Harr 2:00
I think the overall idea of accessibility and availability is a thread that kind of goes through not just the paper, but the way that we think about digital projects and publicly available manuscripts, digital text, that sort of thing. I think there is this assumption that as long as it’s available online, it is accessible. And what I really liked about this article is it brings up these other points that we might not be considering.
Hannah Busch 2:28
Yeah, I like about the article that they’re touching also, the discussion about how experts can access the material and non-experts and how digitization makes material, of course, accessible to more people, because you’re not dependent on funding and on context to see the original material. But due to the architecture of most digitized collections, it’s still only accessible to some sort of expert. So the students need their teachers to understand how to work with the material. But it also touches the point of accessibility for people that have disabilities. And how this is often not thought through in the design of digitized collections and portals. And yeah, I like that this article is so yeah, overall, and also to an audience that is not purely scientific or technical.
Seb Dows-Miller 3:27
And I think this is something that the pandemic has made us realize, I suppose a little bit more as well, that as people working in the field prior to the pandemic, we would have expected access to the kind of materials that are being digitized. And I suppose losing access to those during the pandemic has made even experts within the field realize what it means to not have access to these particular resources, I think and is making us think a little bit more about the groups of people to whom we think actually the access should be widened. And that the things that we’re doing, I suppose to develop access for students and for early career researchers as well should actually be progressed a little bit further outside the academy.
James Harr 4:16
Just to piggyback on what Seb was saying that, you know, there’s, in addition to the access that we needed during the pandemic, I think there were also moments where we realized that the people behind the scenes are often kind of ignored in terms of their role during the pandemic. And I immediately go to the letter that the American Historical Association sent to the National Archives, pretty much demanding archivists to be in there so that they could do their research. And three days later, four days later, they rescinded and apologized realizing that it was absolutely just offensive, the letter that they sent and the tone that they took with librarians and archivists. This article doesn’t really get into that, per se, but once we start thinking about some of these ideas, you know, you can’t help but look under the hood and think about the other individuals.
Aylin Malcolm 5:09
Yeah, that actually speaks to another thread that I saw running through the article, which is the question of interpretation. And the authors caution against reproducing a divide that they see in their own fields between empirical and interpretative branches of scholarship. This is really interesting to talk about with digital tools and what the authors often call “digital surrogates”—which I know, Seb, you found an interesting term as well, and maybe we can unpack that in a bit. But in making medieval or premodern texts accessible to a broader audience—this always requires some interpretation, because you can’t simply throw up a gothic Latin manuscript on the internet and expect everyone to care about it. There is always this level of mediation that’s involved as well, which is a critical enterprise; every time that you edit a text that is obviously an act of scholarship. But I think it’s important to sort of remain cognizant of that interpretation that’s going on often behind the scenes and think about how it affects how we perceive these objects.
Seb Dows-Miller 6:18
And I think as well as considering the interpretation that’s going on in the creation of these surrogates, which as you say is a term I think we should unpack, but also in the in the choice of what gets digitized in the first place. That obviously, so often, as I know is the case at the Bodleian, what gets digitized is very often a question of, well, what can be funded? And so often, the manuscript digitization processes are based on what the funder thinks is worthwhile and interesting. And if we’re thinking in terms of accessibility, I suppose the the main question is, well, accessibility to what? What are we making accessible? And why have we chosen to make those things accessible?
Hannah Busch 6:59
So I know that in digitization, there has been a shift from one object that has value to smaller collections or bigger collections. So you’re—in general, it’s not that you digitize one important manuscript, but you try to digitize an entire group. And also, usually you don’t redo manuscripts in the first place that are already available on microfilm, or something similar. And when we think about the big studies about palaeography, that are often placed or ended up in a catalogue of dated manuscripts, on those plates, on those photos, many of those manuscripts are not digitized, or there is no project where they digitize an entire existing catalogue of dated manuscripts. Because we already have somehow pictures of those to study and they’re already accessible for students. So I mean, in the type of research that I’m doing on trying to analyze digitized images of manuscripts, I miss those manuscripts that are clearly dated, because they are important ground truth for other studies. But there is no entire collection of those completely digitized. And I think that’s kind of interesting—I think there is a shift. Also, because maybe of the pandemic that we could only rely on what is there digitally, that some teachers or some students couldn’t continue studying the manuscript they have been studying for years to teach palaeography and codicology. But they have to use collections that are online, digitally.
Seb Dows-Miller 8:40
This is something I’ve thought about a lot, I suppose in terms of to what extent we should prioritize quantity over quality. And this is something I think that the the authors talk about in their discussion of the, just the effort that goes into producing some kind of digital surrogates. Because I’ve often thought, is it better potentially just to send somebody through the archives with a phone to just take photos of every single page? Or do we take the time and do it properly? Or is there some kind of intermediate approach that we can take?
Aylin Malcolm 9:11
Or do we do both, because maybe the phone photos are revealing something that the high-res, highly polished ones are not? Johanna Green talked about that in her episode with us.
Hannah Busch 9:22
That was—yeah, I wanted to jump in there and say, we always have to think about something the authors are touching in the article of the findability and accessibility and if everyone takes photos with their phone, how will they end up with the end user? So if we think of portals where potentially everyone could upload pictures, and of course, this would be possible with the triple IF (IIIF) technologies and so on. Considering the FAIR approach of FAIR data, then there needs to be some sort of structure and…because otherwise, we can have millions of phone pictures but they’re not—that are even less accessible to the broad audience.
James Harr 10:04
But another thing to think about is, you know, how sustainable is the technology? If we do go through and there is funding to digitize everything with a phone or with a high-resolution camera, will that technology necessarily stand the test of time? I think about the, all the historical documents that the UK National Archives put together on the Discovery platform. And they are, they’re scans of microfilm and very grainy black-and-white photos that at the time were fantastic. And you know, they do allow us to see a great deal. But there’s still a lot of noise, there’s still a lot of graininess, there’s still a lot of distortion in the images, that from a palaeographical point of view, it makes it very difficult to read them. So do we have to go through this conversation every 20 years? Looking back when those were done probably in the 80s so oh, gosh, now, like nearly 40 years? Do we have to do this every so often? And is there a way that we can maybe anticipate the way technology moves forward?
Aylin Malcolm 11:03
This kind of speaks to the perennial question of when a digital project is done, the answer to which is often: not yet. I have this question about accessibility generally: with limitations in human resources, budgetary concerns, when is it better to just throw something up on the internet, even if it’s temporary, versus the project not existing at all?
Hannah Busch 11:26
Yeah, I think digital projects are basically never done also, because technology is advancing and technology gets outdated. But I’m also thinking about in this matter of should we prioritize the interface or the data? Because what, yeah, what has a longer life? And of course, for usability and accessibility, I think we have to put more focus on interfaces. But at the same time, we kind of have to keep the data in a shape and in a format, that it remains accessible beyond the interface and beyond the user experience. And I see there that is a big issue in all digital humanities projects: that the humanities scholar needs the the interface, while the more technology-focused scholar or the computer scientist is all about the data and the API.
Seb Dows-Miller 12:27
I suppose this is one of the big benefits of something like the IIIF where you’re separating your data from your interface. And I think that’s, that’s really important, because as you say, we probably should put a little bit more emphasis on interface, but so often, particularly in kind of static-state projects, the interface is built in to the data, isn’t it, it’s kind of, it’s part of the data in a way that’s inextricable. And by having the data separate from the interface, I suppose that allows us to come back and reapply certain new principles to the interface should that be relevant. And I suppose it also allows us to treat the data, the same data in lots of different ways, doesn’t it—to simultaneously perhaps have an interface that is slightly more scholarly, that is slightly more focused on presentation of material in a way that, say, philologists might be interested in. But on the other hand, it maybe allows you to have a slightly more public-facing interface or maybe an interface that’s got functionality built in for visually impaired people, for example. And I think IIIF, again, is really interesting for that, because of this ability for annotation and for, to some extent, crowdsourced annotation as well—that where communities can build up the annotation over time and can build up this ability and this accessibility, I suppose. And the authors talk, don’t they, about how so much of examination of medieval manuscripts and similar things is so keenly wrapped up in, for example, color and mise-en-page and things like that, which is so difficult to access for people who have limited vision. And I suppose that’s a part—that actually we think, well, it’s an image framework, how could IIIF possibly actually be helpful here? But actually, in terms of the annotation that allows people to give access to other people who may not necessarily be able to see that there’s a certain color—but if there is the ability for, say, screen readers to interact with IIIF annotation, to be able to be told that there is a rubric on this particular part of the page, for example.
Hannah Busch 14:37
Yeah, I think IIIF is an excellent example because it definitely separates the data from the interface. So you don’t have to focus to have the perfect experience for the user as long as you have good data. And then you can have specific pages, specific viewers, for scholars and people with specific needs and you can just transport the images and the metadata into other environments. So the idea behind that is really, really great. But there, I would say that we still need to focus a lot more on how we present the data in order to make it reusable in that way, because IIIF, still, there’s the risk of losing information and also of losing the connection to the original collection. So if we only have API for for the images, and for very basic metadata—and there are a lot of collections that are not curating their IIF metadata in a proper way and forget to link to additional metadata files—we will lose the connection to the original collection. And then I think the data gets, yeah, not really reusable, not really interpretable. But yeah, I think IIIF is a very good example how we can get that…bridge the gap, to more accessibility for more user groups and also to implement it in exhibitions, scholarly use, and so on.
Aylin Malcolm 16:26
Regarding the question of interface versus data—which I think you’re totally right to be focusing on, Hannah—I was wondering what those of you who work more with markup languages thought about the authors’ critique of, particularly, the TEI.
James Harr 16:43
I think it brings up a really—they bring up some really valuable points, that the TEI is English-based primarily. And while there are individuals who are working to expand it to a more globally accessible markup language, it’s a lot of work. And to be honest, I just looked at it as a computer language. And it’s a really valid point that it is completely based in English.
Seb Dows-Miller 17:11
And not only based in English, I suppose, but also in the Roman alphabet in a way that kind of often goes counter to questions of accessibility. So thinking about TEI and accessibility, I immediately think of Ellen Forget in, [they’re] at the University of Toronto, who’s been working on a project trying to encode braille into TEI, who’s come across all sorts of problems with the way that TEI is just not really set up for that kind of task. But I think on this question, I suppose of even straightforward things, like, for example, that the tags are in the Roman alphabet, and are in primarily English, to what extent is that a computer science problem?
Hannah Busch 17:55
Well, I think that the TEI is a huge rabbit hole. And when you start to try to translate it to different languages—and I’m just speaking of, here, European, Central European languages—it gets even less interoperable, because of course, we have collections in different countries. But of course, that’s, I think, a general problem of of digital humanities—that it’s mostly, and because most coding is in English.
Seb Dows-Miller 18:25
I have this image of some alingual coding language that wouldn’t be in any language or would somehow be wholly universal. But I’m, I feel like I’m not the person to design that. And I don’t know who would be but yeah, it’s a very difficult thing, isn’t it? How can we create something that would be so completely accessible and equally accessible, as opposed to everybody using it in a way that it just isn’t currently? And I think it’s unequally complicated, isn’t it, as well, in that…speakers of Western European languages, it’s harder if you don’t speak English, I suppose, but at least the characters are going in the right direction. If the language that you’re encoding is Hebrew, or Arabic, or anything else that goes in a direction other than left to right, it suddenly becomes so complicated. And I think that’s just something that going forward— maybe that’s not something that’s now achievable with the TEI, but I suppose as we go forwards, and as people develop new tools and new systems, it’s something that has to be taken into account. As I suppose the authors are saying, aren’t they? I think they make it very clear that they’re not criticizing projects that have already been completed and things that have already been done. It’s more of a suggestion, I suppose to those of us who are coming with new ideas and new projects that actually there are different and better ways that we can look forwards.
Seb Dows-Miller 20:09
The authors talk about how these online digitizations of medieval manuscripts are usually reasonably effective at presenting that evidence of readers’ physical interaction with the book in ways that actually has been claimed it doesn’t do very well previously. So for example, marginalia is very visible, at least for most audiences within a digitized version of a manuscript online. But when we interact with a manuscript physically, obviously in our very unintentional and minimal way, we do still leave a trace, don’t we, on the manuscripts—we leave oils from our skin, we leave cells, we leave the odd hair on a page, in a way that perhaps we can’t do with a digitization. So do we make our mark on a digital edition when we read it? Or are there ways that perhaps would be worth introducing to enable us to do that?
James Harr 21:03
I think this is a really interesting topic that I don’t know if there’s an answer. But immediately my mind went to Matthew Kirschenbaum’s Mechanisms, “every contact leaves a trace,” and I’m wondering like, do we leave a trace when we open up a digital document or whether we interact with code, without having to create a signature for ourselves in the, either in the finding aid or in the code itself?
Hannah Busch 21:26
I mean, the first thing I was thinking about was the good old sheets in books that lists all the people that that looked at the book, or that lent it out. And earlier this year, I was digitizing medieval manuscripts, and in some of those manuscripts, there was still the sheet. And I could exactly see who consulted the book. And of course, they also left invisible traces in the book. And we also had in some books, tiny, tiny papers that were left from an exhibition, with some explanation about the page. And I think already with digital loan systems and libraries, we lose that information. And now that we are consulting manuscripts that are freely available online, we are leaving even less trace, so maybe the library gets our IP address. And of course, if there’s a interface with IIIF, there is the possibility to maybe leave annotations, or we can implement the manuscripts in our own research, do webblogs, web pages about it, about them, we can tweet about them, put them on Instagram. But these unconscious traces, yeah, I think they are lost, so that we don’t leave them on the digital surrogate.
James Harr 22:45
I think the IP address would probably be the closest thing, you know, to this, like you said, unconscious remainders of ourselves. But I don’t know how often that is stored, or you know, whether that’s something that people are even interested in.
Aylin Malcolm 23:06
I’m actually pretty sure that the ability to look up who has consulted an object is specific to different contexts. I don’t think you can legally do that in a lot of American libraries. And of course, with IP addresses, there would be all kinds of privacy issues as well.
Hannah Busch 23:27
Well you could probably trace maybe places from where people accessed and maybe also the day time. So it could be very interesting to see what times of days people consult manuscripts and also—
Aylin Malcolm 23:41
What time, like, wake up in the morning, like, time to go look at something from the Bod—
Hannah Busch 23:47
Six o’clock in the morning coffee manuscripts! Also thinking about the studies of Kate Rudy, who did research on traces on manuscripts, and then, of course, figured out that the pages with illuminations have many more traces than pages without, but how can we do that with the digital? I mean, of course, probably we can see which pages are looked at most, the longest, and have kind of timestamps and usage stamps. But how can we make them visible? And how can we, yeah, maybe access them, because of course, there are privacy issues.
Seb Dows-Miller 24:25
And I think—privacy would obviously have to play a really important role in this, and people would have to very definitely agree in advance for this kind of data to be shared—but there is some interesting work going on, I think, on questions of eye tracking and things like that. So I suppose the digital surrogate allows us maybe to have even more data and even more information about the kinds of things that people choose to look at that maybe it’s…we’re not so much saying oh, well this page is clearly really popular because it’s been quite badly damaged, it’s been quite badly worn—we could even point to the specific parts of the page that people are looking at. And I suppose eye tracking is one way to do that, but also in a slightly less invasive way, I suppose, mouse movements and things like that, where people are focused, where they tend to zoom in. And I don’t know whether this is currently possible with the IIIF, but I suspect it would be without too much difficulty…for the servers to return some kind of statistics on which parts of the image get looked at most frequently, and which—even which images get looked at most frequently.
Aylin Malcolm 25:32
And of course, there would be potential labor and budgetary concerns involved in archiving all of that data as well. So once again, I suppose we get into the question of how do we make decisions about which data to preserve?
Hannah Busch 25:44
And also getting getting back to, I mean, we talked a lot about expertises, and different ways of accessing and leaving traces in manuscripts. But if we now think about the digitization project of the future, what would be the priorities concerning who’s developing the projects? What kind of expertise do we need? On the one hand, we need the manuscript scholar, probably we need technicians…should we involve more students as well? Should we also—because money usually comes from public funding pots—is it necessary also to have more public outreach and to involve the public, the general public more, to get their interest, but also to learn how we can make the collections more accessible for them?
Aylin Malcolm 26:39
Well, as you probably know, I became interested in digital approaches because I was interested in the public humanities. So that was sort of my trajectory, this desire to do outreach beyond the academy. And I thought that the article’s take on the public humanities was really interesting, and the way that they conclude in particular. They mention that we would need to change how we value collaborative scholarship, we would need to change how we value digital projects that are doing public outreach over traditional monographs. And then they conclude very interestingly, “it is uncertain as to whether it would be damaging to scholarship and the missions of universities.” So I wanted to throw that out there and see what all of you think about that? Is there a possibility that this would actually be damaging to scholarship to focus more on digitization work or interpretation to wider audiences? Or is this actually something that can benefit scholarship by encouraging us to reframe our research in ways that are clear and comprehensible to a variety of audiences?
James Harr 27:47
I feel like the underlying thought there is the…”if we’re all special, then no one’s special.” And it seems like there’s this pushback on…if we share our scholarship, which is totally contrary to what digital humanities is becoming, or has become—if we don’t share our data and our information, then we’ll be experts. And if we do share it, then everyone’s an expert, and no one’s special. And I think that’s a surefire way to make our discipline extinct. By holding it close to our chest, and dying with our, you know, our data and our manuscripts and saying, “We did it, we were special, and we were experts, and now no one else can be.” I think that is absolutely..I’ll just say selfish, a selfish approach to scholarship.
Hannah Busch 28:33
Yeah, I think what do we have to lose at this point? I mean, we are fighting for funding. If we get more dramatic, there’s like, almost no tenure positions. I mean, there’s like, not a lot of hope. So why? What can we lose if we make our data and our scholarship more public?
Seb Dows-Miller 28:51
And I think there’s also quite a lot of scholarly value, I suppose, in making things accessible and making things comprehensible, that it forces us to engage that bit more with what it is we’re actually looking at. I think we probably all have examples in mind of that book or that article that we have fought our way through, but nevertheless seems to have been designed to be solely comprehensible to the person who wrote it. Which ultimately is bad scholarship, right? Because that means then that people don’t interact with it in the way that they perhaps should and there’s no movement forwards within the academy. I think that by working in the public sphere a little bit more as academics, I think there’s so much value to be had actually on our research as well, that we will gain such a greater understanding from it—not necessarily from the way that that public engagement ends up working, but the thoughts that we have to have in order to create that public engagement, I think is so important.
Hannah Busch 29:53
And also from my own experience, I think the most I’ve learned about manuscripts in particular was when I had the chance to look at manuscripts with other people that knew a lot about the content and could just share that enthusiasm, or that knew a lot about the codicology or palaeography. And I think that were the moments that I still keep in my heart the most and that make me more excited about what is now my discipline of scholarship. And I also think that this could be the power to engage more with the public and to get more understanding why we maybe need funding, why we should make the collections accessible. And that does not only mean to look at pretty images, but also to get the data behind it in order.
James Harr 30:11
I think we have an opportunity as medievalists to show that a lot of these skills are transferable to other projects that preserve historical documents. And that, and yes, that public engagement with this information, with this technology, in addition to hopefully getting us some funding, also shows, you know, local governments, state governments, you know, that we’re not just looking, it’s not just 1000-year-old, 1500-year-old books, it is stuff that we can use to preserve, you know, local histories, even, you know, I think that the transferability of what we do is is really, really important to stress. And like I said, you know, getting more people involved, especially non-experts, will help kind of disseminate that truth. And at the same time, you know, we can talk about accessibility, and you know, inclusivity, all we want, but if we only have medievalists looking at this stuff, there’s gonna be limitations to how much we’re considering.
Aylin Malcolm 31:12
Jamie, I take your point about framing our skills as valuable in the wider world. But I also wonder if emphasizing transferability can go too far, if it can sort of make our field into a kind of instrument—oh, we have critical thinking skills, we have critical writing skills—rather than emphasizing what I think is also true, which is that some things are just worth studying because they’re interesting and good and valuable in their own right. You know, when I talk to my neighbors in the street here in Philadelphia, they’re always deeply interested in my work. I always feel like I might have to justify it, but actually, there’s a lot of excitement about, oh, you get to work with old books, oh, I didn’t know books survived from that period. Tell me more about it.
James Harr 31:59
You’re absolutely right. And I don’t mean to undermine the work that we do and the value of our work. You know, I also to go back to Hannah’s point of tenure-track jobs and positions for medievalists disappearing, you know, I also see, certainly in the United States, having to reframe our roles, and even digital humanities, in order to get funding within universities, you have to throw in—go back, go retro and say humanities computing, because computer makes sense. Humanities and digital are like, no, no, that’s not very STEM of you. And, and you know, we almost have to validate our existence in some respects, it’s unfair. Having said that, you’re absolutely right. The things that we do, the texts we interact with the, you know, the topics that we, that are evolving in our field are amazing. And I love the work that we do. So we’re, it’s unfortunately, it’s rock and a hard place situation where, you know, we need to show that we can do all this technical stuff, but at the same time, maintain the fact that we are valuable scholars, and that our work is really, really important.
Hannah Busch 33:10
Yeah, and I must also say that I really like the experimental approach of our field. I mean, that we can dare to have a look at the old document, at the old books from a different perspective, and maybe learn new things from them. And I mean, I’m working with artificial intelligence. And by trying to apply it to study medieval manuscripts, I also learn a lot about the shortcomings of those methods that are taking more and more space in our everyday life. Like, yeah, how how unprecise it still is for specific fields, how biased it is. And so these old fields of study and these old documents can also teach us a lot about the modern technology. Yeah, it’s also a way to use new technologies to get the interest of the public. So that’s maybe similar to Aylin’s experience talking to the neighbors. Every time I mentioned medieval manuscripts and artificial intelligence, I get basically the attention of everyone, even people that are not into AI or medieval manuscripts.
James Harr 34:23
I just love the idea of Aylin walking down the street in Philadelphia, like, just whistling, and the grocer’s outside sweeping, saying, “How’s the parchment today Aylin?” “All right, Mr. Johnson.” It just, like that’s where we all want to be, just in our neighborhoods, just walking around talking about our stuff.
Seb Dows-Miller 34:38
And I think to bring this back to accessibility a little bit, projects like Hannah’s, as well as developing accessible ways of presenting scholarship, I think can also teach people in other fields about how certain elements of technology may not actually be as accessible as perhaps they could be. So an example that I might think of is AI working with variable spelling in the medieval period, which is obviously something that we deal with every day. But actually somebody developing an AI tool based on usually perfectly-spelt, consistent, usually English… wouldn’t we all love that. But in reality, that’s not what text looks like. I think there’s quite a lot that actually, other fields can learn from the way that digital tools are being used in medieval studies and things that we all take for granted and we see as these hurdles that we have to overcome every day, which actually, others I don’t think have thought about in the same way.
Seb Dows-Miller 35:59
So yeah, the the authors, don’t they, talk about digitizations of medieval objects as digital surrogates. Obviously, there are lots of different terms that get used for this, “digital edition” being just one of the types, I suppose, of the surrogates that they talk about. But I wonder what you all think of that as a term? Do we think that they are surrogates in that they are somehow, I suppose, lesser than the original object? Or are they perhaps objects in themselves?
Hannah Busch 36:24
I think there may be both at the same time. So I like the term of “digital facsimile.” But I think the authors are right when they’re saying that, like, the digital object needs its own curation. Because we need to keep it accessible and findable and reusable, just like the original book. It’s different in terms of, of course, we have the one original book manuscript that is unique, that has a lot of history, that has seen a lot of things probably. And then we have the digital, the digitized object, that needs to be treated in a different way, but also needs a lot of attention to have a long life just as the original.
James Harr 37:07
I feel like Dot Porter talked about this once, either at Penn or at Kalamazoo, where she kind of pushed back on the term “surrogate,” because it it implies that it’s a substitute. And so to think of it as a substitute, and not as its own text can be problematic for the labor and the work that went into the digitized version. Yes, it fills a place in terms of accessing the the the material text in a different form, but it’s not really a substitute. It’s like its own thing. And I guess that’s where “surrogate” kind of frustrates me.
Hannah Busch 37:43
And also to maybe add another point, people consult the digital facsimile, but still cite or refer to the original object. And I think that’s something that a lot of people still have to learn, that we have to also to acknowledge the the labor that goes into digitization and data curation, that one should always cite and refer to the digital facsimile if they consult it. And I think still a lot of users of digitized manuscripts think they use the lesser good version, ignoring, a bit, all the potentials of digitized images, digital images, because it’s what we work with most of the time. And also, because they give us a lot of guidance and help before we go to the original object, but also because of all the labor that goes into digitizing.
Aylin Malcolm 38:47
Before or even during. Honestly, I will often pull up the digital facsimile as I’m sitting next to the object because you can’t zoom in on a manuscript.
Hannah Busch 38:57
I’ve talked to a curator last month, and she said that she actually liked how the consultation of manuscripts changed since they have high-resolution facsimiles online, because people come and they know exactly what they want to look at. So they are much more focused. It’s much more easier for them to say, “yes, of course you can come and we’ll give you what you need,” because they know that people are already prepared. And before scholars often came to just browse, because they were not really sure if they needed to consult that manuscript. So she emphasized the quality of, or how it how it helps to make also manuscript trips more effective by having the option to consult earlier and she said, it’s not, like when someone comes and says, “I have looked at the digitized, at the digital collection,” she knows that they have an intention, and that they know what they’re looking for. So there’s no need to say, “oh, no, you can’t consult it, because it’s online.”
Aylin Malcolm 38:58
Your question about surrogates reminds me of the way that I learned palaeography actually, which was not by going to look at manuscripts because I learned it in Ohio, where we had a pretty good collection of manuscripts, but we didn’t, you know, have many examples of Beneventan script in the collection. And so I learned it from photographic reproductions printed in textbooks. I don’t know, I think it’s just worth thinking about the fact that not everyone who would have been learning palaeography pre-digital humanities would have been going to the archive. A lot of them, us, would have been learning it from mediated sources.
Hannah Busch 40:40
I think this might be, we have might have learned palaeography in the dark ages of palaeography studies, because I had the same experience and I was studying it in Berlin. And there is a big collection of manuscripts. And we learned from, like, we studied photocopies and we had to transcribe them and from photocopies, from a book, so really, really bad quality. And for the more modern stuff, it was photographs, photocopied from the originals. And it was two semesters of palaeography from 400 to the 20th century. And we went to the library for one hour, in a year, final stage after the exams, to look at originals. And I totally agree with you that, yeah, we almost don’t talk about that time, we say oh, there’s the archive and the manuscript trips. And people who did their PhDs like 30 years ago still dream about their amazing PhD time when they were just traveling the world to look at manuscripts. And that nobody can do it anymore, because you won’t get the funding for it. But that is not the normal case for for most of us.
Aylin Malcolm 41:55
And your sense of the script would be sort of shaped by those photocopies. You know, my sense of Old English minuscules are shaped by the photocopies of particular manuscripts, but rendered in black and white in my textbooks.
Seb Dows-Miller 42:11
I suppose I was lucky in that things were digitized reasonably well by the time I was kind of making my first forays into palaeography. But given that that was basically at the beginning of the pandemic, that I was starting to think more seriously about palaeography, I had, I suppose a similar experience, but in different ways, that I was, for some of it at least, in a city surrounded by all of these libraries with fantastic collections of manuscripts, but couldn’t visit any of them and had to had to look at them online. And in a way, I think we kind of, we do the the digital facsimile, surrogate, whatever we want to call it down a little bit, I suppose, don’t we, but that really was a lifesaver, in that this is the reason that I’m able to be in this field, because otherwise I would have had to go and do something else. That actually, it’s had such a significant role to play over the last couple of years in a way that no one could ever have imagined.
Hannah Busch 43:17
So many things we discussed. And I think, yeah, so much input and so many good thoughts about what what we consider accessibility in our fields, and the many faces of accessibility concerning the the user, the scholar, people with different needs.
Aylin Malcolm 43:37
Maybe just to conclude—Jamie, before we started recording, you mentioned that you were planning to use this in a course. And so maybe that’s an interesting way to finish our discussion: by thinking about the accessibility of the article itself and its potential uses for students.
James Harr 43:52
Yeah, so next semester, I’m teaching Texts and Technologies. Coming from a medieval background, you know, I feel like there’s going to be, it’s going to be very text, manuscript heavy. But I think an article like this talking about, you know, digital projects that a lot of the students I anticipate will be interested in working on. And some of the stuff that we’re even doing in our tiny library at Christian Brothers, some historical documents that have been found that they’re looking to archive and create digital editions of and annotate and even do some markup. I think this is a nice, really great introduction to some of the things that they need to consider as they are digitizing documents or thinking about documents that are going to be publicly accessible. Some of the things that popped out at me is their discussion on the FAIR guiding principles of Findable, Accessible, Interoperable and Retrievable, you know, keeping those in the purview of students’ minds as they’re as they’re kind of creating digital projects, I think, is really, really important. But yeah, the whole article itself, I think there are plenty of opportunities to pull the discussion out of Iberian manuscripts and into texts that they would be using on a daily basis if they’re working with this, with technologies to digitize them, so. And it also gives us a really nice Work Cited page at the end. There are some additional resources to kind of build on that. You could build a nice module for a syllabus out of this one article, which I think is great.
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Aylin Malcolm 45:38
Well, I think that’s a probably a good place to wrap up. So thanks again for listening to Coding Codices. I’m Aylin, joined today by Seb, Hannah, and Jamie. You can listen to more episodes of Coding Codices on our website, podcast.digitalmedievalist.org—or codingcodices.com, we now have a domain of our own. Or get in touch with us at email@example.com.
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- Theme music: TeknoAXE, “Chiptune Nobility” (CC BY 4.0).
- Interludes: Random Mind, “The Bard’s Tale” (CC0).
- Featured image: https://unsplash.com/photos/1K4Gfl6i63E, ed. by Tessa Gengnagel.