Episode 8: Material Manuscripts in a Digital World

“How do we communicate the materialities of the items in our collections to different audiences? And how do we do that digitally?”

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About this Episode

Recorded November 12, 2020. Produced and edited by Aylin Malcolm.

Guest: Johanna Green

Content: Dr. Johanna Green speaks with Aylin Malcolm and Caitlin Postal about manuscript materiality, digitization projects, and increased access to physical objects. Dr. Green shares the importance of valuing the digital to make use of new technologies that allow different kinds of access to physical objects.

“Emerging trends in social media content relating to medieval written heritage invoke the presence of curatorial hands—both visible and inferred—which act as tactile and haptic intermediaries to materially disenfranchized audiences.”

Johanna Green, “Digital Manuscripts as Sites of Touch” in Archive Journal

In addition to her work on manuscript studies via social media and in light of the COVID-19 remote learning circumstances, Johanna has been thinking about how to interact with the medieval book during lockdown. In this episode of Coding Codices, she shares her experiences with sensory cues and digital manuscript studies.

Johanna is a lecturer in Information Studies at the University of Glasgow and co-director of the University of Glasgow Digital Cultural Heritage lab. Starting in 2019, Johanna was a visiting research fellow at the Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Johanna has also worked on many large scale digital projects, including the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary, The Production and Use of English Manuscripts 1060 to 1220, and Livingstone Online. Through the Innovate UK-funded Project Mobius: Edify, Johanna developed an education-oriented app that provides a Virtual Reality early printing press experience. She is, with Bill Endres, developing a second app with Edify on “Virtual Codicology.” Follow her on Instagram @UofGCodicologist and on Twitter at @Codicologist.

Resources and Further Reading

Resources mentioned in this episode:

Episode Transcript

Automated transcription by <https://otter.ai>, manually corrected by Caitlin Postal. Click here to open a .pdf of the transcript.

[Music: TeknoAXE, “Chiptune Nobility,” CC BY 4.0]

Aylin Malcolm  0:15  

Hello, and welcome to Coding Codices. I’m Aylin Malcolm.

Caitlin Postal  0:18  

And I’m Caitlin Postal.

Aylin Malcolm  0:20  

And we’re from the Digital Medievalist Postgraduate Subcommittee.

Caitlin Postal  0:24  

In this episode, we’ll be talking with Dr. Johanna Green. Say hello!

Johanna Green  0:28  


Caitlin Postal  0:28  

Dr. Green is a lecturer in Information Studies and co-director of the Glasgow-wide Digital Cultural Heritage arts lab. Her research interests cluster around book history, digital materialities, textuality, and technology and public access to special collections. In 2019 to 2020, Johanna was a visiting research fellow at the Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies at the University of Pennsylvania.

Aylin Malcolm  0:30  

Her recent publications have looked at the cultural impact of manuscript digitization and the potential for social media to offer new ways of interacting with manuscripts, particularly through touch. She has also worked on many large scale digital projects, including the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary, The Production and Use of English Manuscripts 1060 to 1220, and Livingstone Online. We’re so excited to have you with us today, Johanna.

Johanna Green  1:19  

So lovely to be here. Thank you for inviting me.

Aylin Malcolm  1:28  

Just to get us started, I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit about the projects that you’re working on right now, what you’re most excited about, what’s in the works?

Johanna Green  1:36  

It’s such a big question, to be honest, because I think so much of what’s happened over the past year with the pandemic has kind of influenced what we’re doing at the moment. I’m kind of just into about six weeks worth of teaching at Glasgow, and, of course, we’re all working remotely right now. And a big part of this year was figuring out, way back in April, how on earth do we teach item handling, object-based learning when we’re working remotely? How do we do that? Glasgow has invested hugely in technology that allows us to do that, so over the shoulder cameras and things like this. So a big part of my work at the moment, it’s kind of crossing over from the research into the teaching and figuring out, how do we make use of this new technology for different types of access? How do I make those classes not lectures where I’m just showing them objects and telling them about it, but making it interactive? So that’s one of the main projects and it’s connected to a lot of other things that are going on, as we’re thinking about, actually, how do we teach in Special Collections? Like what kinds of things do we do in that space? How do we make use of those items within our teaching? At Glasgow, we have a four year undergraduate degree, and the students kind of specialize once they get to junior and senior honors, so the third and fourth years, and they would probably usually get access to Archives and Special Collections only in those final two years, because the numbers are just too big at level one and two, but with the technology we’ve got, we’ve kind of got an opportunity to Zoom straight into like a 500 to 700 student lecture, and make that come alive for them in a new way. So working with students to figure out new ways of teaching with that technology is starting to become really exciting. The final thing is thinking about, how do we communicate the materialities of the items in our collections to different audiences? And how do we do that digitally? What kinds of things do we want to capture? What purposes? For me, I’m really interested in different kinds of public access, thinking about how we might use virtual reality, and also how we might use perhaps more everyday technologies like social media to do that as well, to kind of open up those archives and connect folks with the items that exist in their local collections.

[Music: Shane Ivers, “The Medieval Banquet,” CC BY 4.0]

Caitlin Postal  4:00  

I was wondering if you might be able to talk to us about what kinds of new questions come up when we’re thinking about manuscript materiality from afar, when we can’t touch the object itself, in its flesh and in our flesh? What kinds of questions do digitized versions of manuscripts prompt us to ask?

Johanna Green  4:16  

It’s such a great question, Caitlin, thank you for asking it. I think before I ever really realized this was what I was going to end up doing, career-wise with my life, this idea of what happens when we access our collections, and what that looks like, has always been there I think, for me. The last major conference presentation I did was 2018. At the beginning of that, I wanted to reflect on what my first manuscript experience was like, thinking that it would obviously be something that I met during my studies. And actually, when I thought back, the first experience was digital. It was all the way back in the year 2000. And the British Library had just come out with the Lindisfarne Gospels Turning the Pages CD-ROM, and I’m originally from the northeast of England, so local community has a massive interest in that particular manuscript. And I think my mum and dad had bought it excitedly. And we all sat around, like looking at this thing on a computer, you know, and turning the pages and being like, wow, we’ve got access to this thing like in our own living room, how amazing is this? Now I look at digital manuscripts and there’s a whole conversation around it about what is it that we’re looking at when we’re looking at digital objects? But actually, for me, right back then in 2000, I was looking at the manuscript, those things were one in the same for me. And I think a lot of those conversations, or certainly the early conversations, are focused around what the digital doesn’t do that you get in the reading room. So we can’t smell it, we can’t feel the weight of it, we can’t touch it and feel the materiality of it, we can’t hear it. Unless, of course, the digital has been added with some kind of artificial noise. So there’s that kind of idea of loss, which I think is kind of fascinating, because, to me, the digital offers me lots and lots of new ways of accessing that original that I cannot do with the original. So even just very simple things. I can’t zoom in with my own eyes. I can’t physically take an item apart. I can’t draw on it, can’t chop it up and move it around and save it. So all of those very basic things, of course, the digital offers us that. A big kind of issue for me happened in 2018, I got diagnosed with bowel cancer, with stage four bowel cancer wasn’t particularly great, but one of the side effects of that treatment was my chemotherapy gave me peripheral neuropathy. So I essentially had nerve damage in my hands. My hands kind of burned and then peeled. So I lost my fingerprints, which was super weird. But it meant I couldn’t sense any texture, and I actually couldn’t really use my hands properly. I couldn’t pick up a mug, I couldn’t type, I couldn’t write. And of course, once I got back to work, the first thing that you do at work is trot up to special collections, your happy place, and I couldn’t feel anything, I couldn’t even feel the edges of the page to turn. A lot of these conversations they talk about, you can’t really understand the book unless you can handle it. But here I was with that access. And I still didn’t have actual sensory access to the item. So what is that argument really about? And I think a lot of those conversations, they’re quite elitist in who gets access to our collections and what that means. And I think for communities who are never ever going to have that physical kind of access, those digital versions, just like it was for me back in 2000, those are the real things. So I think we need to start thinking about the value of the digital in a new way.

Aylin Malcolm  7:33  

I love that so much. And that brings me to one of my favorite lines from your article “Digital Manuscripts as Sites of Touch,” where you write that on Instagram images that contain curatorial hands — the hands of curators — “act as tactile and haptic intermediaries to materially disenfranchised audiences.” So while many people never have the opportunity to touch a physical manuscript, the digital medium allows for real and imagined tactile engagement with rare books. Maybe if we could come back to that question of sound as well. Is there a role for sound in digital manuscript studies?

Johanna Green  8:08  

I absolutely think so. I’ve had to come back to it really, quite strongly this year with teaching remotely is thinking: how can I give my students access to those things that perhaps you take for granted in a reading room? So I’ve been kind of playing around with that and taking inspiration from Dot Porter’s video orientations at Schoenberg and capturing those my students so they can see items being moved in real time, but then also putting the microphone right next to the object and stripping out the audio. And they don’t know this yet but they’ll have those sounds to listen to first before they see the images, because you can get so much information from that. The sound of an enormous gradual page being turned is not the same as a very tiny book of hours page being turned. It’s really made me realize that materiality in this kind of distance scenario that we’re working on right now, it’s not something we can easily access, because it’s not necessarily what we’ve captured digitally. We’ve prioritized text for a really good reason. But we haven’t really gotten a way with capturing the materiality of an object. A lot of the places that I go to for that, it’s my own personal library of images that I’ve collected, or it’s where or the people have shared, and most of that is social media. And actually, that’s probably where collections have shared those items as well, because they’ve started to take those kind of DIY digitization images as part of their outreach and engagement. The issue with that is that we don’t really treat that like, I suppose, a research resource. We’re not adding it to catalogs. If you looked up a digitized item, there wouldn’t be this link to that post on social media or anything like that. But I’m certainly using that more as primary source material now than I’ve ever done before and I think we need to really think about that. Because, for me at the moment, Special Collections catalog it serves textual scholars, not book history scholars. I think one of the few catalogs that I’ve seen that really speak to the things that I need, apart from Schoenberg where you have the images that you can download and the videos, it’s actually one from Glasgow. It’s our Incunabula Project. So we’ve got a collection of over about 1000 incunabula, at Glasgow, and the catalog that they produced for that project has copies’ specific details, and a couple of example images. And the fact that you can search those copies’ specific details is kind of brilliant. But of course, it’s for a very specific collection. And then how do you integrate that, within other catalogs is always the question.

Aylin Malcolm  10:35  

I think that’s so interesting, in terms of this sense that you make a social media post to engage the public and to encourage them to go to the catalog and look at the manuscript a little bit more carefully. It’s very rarely in the opposite direction. It’s very rarely treating those social media posts like an archive in themselves.

Johanna Green  10:52  

Yeah. And I think we’re kind of missing a trick with this as well, in terms of the resources that we produce, because I’ve never really thought of social media as being edutainment, I think it has a proper educational value. And of course, you have projects that exist already that have started to notice this shift in image collection by researchers. So we have the DIY digitization project at Oxford a couple of years ago that encouraged researchers to upload the items that they take and of images they were researching, and particularly for items are digitized, of course, then you’ve got a whole repository of images to look up. But what do you do with that data after that? You know, how do you manage it and bring it together?

[Music: Shane Ivers, “The Medieval Banquet,” CC BY 4.0]

Thinking right back to that first manuscript that I looked at, the “Turning the Pages,” materiality was totally embedded in that. It’s not in a way we particularly enjoy now. We think we look at it and think it’s really dated, but it was turning the pages, right. It wasn’t just clicking through images. The page moved. It moved artificially, but it moved. And in 2000, I thought that was really, really cool. And actually, some of the earlier turning the page technology like that, they do include sound. It sounds like, kind of, Star Trek doors opening. Like paper moving against each other, it’s so artificial, and yet, they’ve included it for a reason. And it reminded me of a project that happened between Glasgow and Malaga 13 to 20 years ago coming up. It’s their Corpus of Late Scientific Prose. And when you go on to this project page, which now to our eyes, it looks quite dated, you could probably date it quite easily from the way that it looks. But once you go into it, the manuscripts there appear on a shelf, and you click on their spines in order to access the manuscript viewer. There was obviously a step to artificially, for sure, but to convey some sense of the materiality of a collection and an item back then, that we now don’t do. The title of it is amazing, because it’s animated, so little hand comes out and puts its quill and ink apart and writes it out. And every time it gets to a rubricated letter, it changes and goes to the red ink.

Caitlin Postal  13:03  

I think that I’ve used that site, actually.

Johanna Green  13:06  

I just love it. There’s an element of play there that I kind of like, but there is also a sense of, why wouldn’t we do this if we could? And we learn so much more, even about an individual item, for being able to see it with its whole materiality. That’s certainly true for collection.

Caitlin Postal  13:23  

I think, to that point, maybe you could share with us what some of the tools or projects for digital manuscript studies are really exciting to you right now, or what types of things you’d like to see developed in the future. Hint hint, graduate students listening to this.

Johanna Green  13:37  

I think one of the most transformative things for me to see over the past couple of years is actually two projects. And my students will be absolutely sick of hearing about both of them, but I’m going to mention them again here. Bill Endres’s 3d manuscripts of the St. Chad Gospels, and Dot Porter’s VisColl, visual collation modeler. Because both of them essentially do what we can’t do in any other way in that they help us visualize the materiality of items and how pages are put together in a way that’s usable for research. Bill’s project kind of blew my mind when I first saw it, like a 3d image of a manuscript, you kidding me? One of the best things about it, when I saw him present, was that he talked about the idea of producing this image that creates almost like a 3d mesh onto which you’re overlaying this digital image. And he printed out this 3d mesh. He 3d printed out this and brought it along to the conference. I think it was the first 3d printed item I’d ever touched. One of the things you can see on it are all these kind of swirls of the mesh. It looks like topography. It looks like a map, but it tells you huge amounts of information. Because where those like circles are really tight, that gives you information about kind of the conservation of the manuscript and where pigment loss might be possible, for example, but it also makes you think about the item in a completely different way. As much as I’m all about the entire object, I don’t think even I have thought about kind of crouching down at open book level and looking at the open book from the point of view where the page is flat straight out in front of me and I can see its topography. I think with Bill, he started to drop those images into virtual reality and we were able to get him over to Glasgow in 2019. This was about two months after I’d been diagnosed and had surgeries, so it’s the first time I’d been back onto campus. But it was amazing for that moment to experience these things in 3d. And I think a big part of my soul has always essentially wanted to be part of the book, you know, to walk along the top of the letters and experience what that’s like. I essentially got to do it that day, because, you know, I zoomed in too fast and essentially face planted a manuscript and it was the best thing ever, it was great. But then you start to think about, okay, if those images are in virtual reality, what else can we do with them? And that kind of opens up huge amounts of possibility for me. So I think, again, this kind of goes back to that intersection for me between public access and teaching and research. A big thing for me, especially with my students is being able to explain to them a process in book production or book history that they don’t just learn about and read about and then regurgitate back, but they could experience in some way. So a couple of years ago, Glasgow invested in virtual reality,and got money for a project that essentially started to develop virtual reality teaching apps. There was a competition, you could bid to develop an app. So my idea was to do a virtual printing press so the students could virtually embody and live this experience. They could put pieces of type into a form, they could transfer it to the printing press, and then whatever mistakes they’ve made in terms of putting the ink on or the letters, that came out in the results, and they download that as a PDF. And we’re just at the point of testing that with our students now, which is fantastic, and delivering that testing over Zoom as well. And it relates back to the stuff with Bill as well, because you’ve got those images. Think about what you can’t do with the original object in a collection. And one of the big things for me goes back to that collation idea. How do you teach collation, that’s really tricky. And what you really want to do is to get a student to pull apart an entire book and see how it’s put together, and put it back together and move it around and see how it changes. Of course you can’t do that with an original object, I’d be absolutely thrown out. It also opens up those opportunities for different members of the public to experience these things as well. And of course, at the moment in Glasgow, the Burrell Collection, which has a huge collection of medieval objects, it’s closed for redevelopment. And a big part of that is to start to think how do we use AR and VR technologies in that space to connect younger audiences. So families and under-fives with really quite complex objects. This technology is becoming more and more familiar in those spaces. And I think there’s a lot for us to learn and to apply to Archives and Special Collections as well.

[Music: Alexander Nakarada, “Marked,” CC BY 4.0]

Aylin Malcolm  18:26  

So you have a lot of experience speaking beyond our discipline. You’re trained as a medievalist, but you now work in Information Studies, you work a lot with the library. Public engagement has been a core component of your work for a long time. I wanted to know, with us being in November 2020, a time of great turmoil around the world, why does medieval studies matter today? Why does this kind of work matter for people beyond our field?

Johanna Green  18:51  

I think in terms of our collections, it’s really important I think, to me, that our collections are accessible to the entire community because they sit within the center of our community. I think about that a lot with Glasgow, our university is in the West End, and we’ve got this amazing collection sitting on top of the library that most people don’t know about. And yet, it’s part of our shared history. It’s part of the issues with the history that we collect. Because there are obviously massive gaps in the things that we collect, and the folks that we don’t represent. To use a kind of term from museum studies, that there’s an opportunity for us to make meaning with these items. That’s really important. But we’re not always great at doing that, because we don’t have permanent exhibition spaces. So getting in to see those items is particularly complicated. And I think you mentioned before, a link to my article was talking about the use of curatorial hands. I think that’s the thing if you see curatorial hands and you’re putting your own hands on top of it, you can kind of put yourself in that situation. And the big question there is whose hands are being shown? Before I went off on sick leave two years ago, I was collecting those images on Instagram. 99.9% white hands. So the white gloves are still on. And this should surprise absolutely none of us really, but we’re replicating all those inequalities that exist in our collections in the way we do it digitally. We’re at a point where we can make our items more accessible than ever before. But we have to think really critically about what it is that we’re doing here. And who we’re giving access to, who we’re prioritizing. Who should we be prioritizing. 

Caitlin Postal  20:20  

I think that, for me, a question that comes up out of that is that balance between, does the item or object matter because it by itself is meaningful? Or then does it matter because we have experiences with it that are meaningful to us, or to our communities, or to our relationships with each other? And with the past? And I don’t quite have an answer to that. Because I think, traditionally, it’s “this object by itself is meaningful because of what it is or what it’s done or who it represents.” I don’t know that I necessarily buy that. I’m a big fan of reworking the canon or just throwing it out into Puget Sound.

Johanna Green  20:55  

And I think that’s an important point, because, you know, I’ve just recently been teaching kind of objects as evidence and material culture theory with my students. And of course, a big proponent of that is objects are completely useless if they’re not engaging with the body. That’s the point of an object, right? But that’s the problem with all our collections is that the people who get to engage with that object are really, really select. This comes back to me again, and again, I think, because I’m so interested in what happens in those exhibition spaces when we see those items is that they are completely removed from the way we’re meant to engage with them. Particularly with books, you know, you’re looking at something behind glass, it might be in a language that you don’t speak, it might be from a culture that you know nothing about, how are you meant to understand everything, the complexity of that object. And we know how complicated that is because we can research a single manuscript for an entire lifetime and still not have all the answers and still not be done. Andrew Prescott‘s talked a lot before about immersive technologies, and not just VR, but things like conductive ink, and he kind of got me into this, this is entirely his fault. Essentially, conductive ink is exactly what it sounds like: you touch it and then it produces something. Your touch completes a circuit. So you could embed it with a projection or an image or a sound or something like that. Rather than putting our items onto a kind of digital screen for people to turn the pages in front of, are there other ways we could have them engage with the materiality of our objects? I think, a couple of years ago, at Leicester, a PhD student there developed an exhibition where you actually got to taste and smell the things that went into producing a manuscript. And I think at one point, I talked about it so much that our Special Collections librarian came to me and was like, “Don’t lick the manuscripts, Johanna, okay?” Like genuinely concerned that I might just try it one day.

Caitlin Postal  22:57  

I think that this brings us back to things that you were saying earlier about social media, where we don’t have physical exhibitions right now so a lot of the exhibitions that are happening are virtual and remote and distant. But then social media curates that at all times, not simply when we’re in a pandemic. And I love your 2018 piece about the haptic experience via social media, I basically tell everybody about it. But thinking about how social networking makes space for that kind of informal curation as meaningful for both the person who is posting it, as well as the people who are following them, who are interacting, who come across it by chance in their exploration feed, where they might not otherwise find like the museum’s digital exhibition that you have to like, type in, “Oh, here’s the website to the museum, I have to know about it already, and then experience it.”

Johanna Green  23:47  

I think one of the things is that we don’t really know a lot about the communities that engage with those posts online. Individual collections perhaps might, but you know I wrote that entire article being like, “Yeah, this is totally a thing that’s really meaningful, it’s really impactful.” But we don’t actually have the data from members of the public that say it’s been impactful for them. I’m inferring that from what it’s been like for me, but I’m coming at it from a completely different point of view. So I’m really glad that you enjoyed the article, but I’m also massively aware it has its limits. And I think this is something that we can do. We can collect this data, bring it together, and actually learn what is the value of these types of posts, because actually, until we know that, we can’t really use it, and that work’s still to be done.

Aylin Malcolm  24:31  

Speaking of future work, what are your plans for your Schoenberg Institute fellowship? And how has that been going?

Johanna Green  24:37  

The point of that fellowship actually, was to collect some of that user data. So to find out what folks were feeling about the ways in which we share our items on social media and what brought them there and what they enjoyed and what they didn’t enjoy, etc. And to perhaps do some kind of co-creation in asking them well, what would you want to see that we don’t already do? And trying out different types of content, using Schoenberg’s collections based on that. So that may well still go ahead remotely. It will be demonstrably less fun for me because I wouldn’t get in to see the collection, but it could still go ahead. But of course, those issues of the pandemic continue. And I mentioned it before so I’ll mention it again, but I’m in remission from cancer. So actually, a lot of folks might listen to this and think “why are you talking about your personal life when we’re talking about manuscripts,” but you can’t separate the two things out. We are one complete person. So, for me, that has a continuing impact on what I’m able to do and how far I’m able to plan into the future. But with any luck — touch wood — at some point in the next two years, I might get out to Philly to look through their collections and do this stuff, which will be fantastic. Fingers crossed.

Caitlin Postal  25:54  

Thanks for listening to Coding Codices, a podcast by the Digital Medievalist Postgraduate Subcommittee, and thank you, Johanna, for sharing your time with Aylin and myself. You can find Joanna online at @Codicologist on Twitter and @UofGcodicologist on Instagram.

Aylin Malcolm  26:09  

You can also catch up on Coding Codices on our website and SoundCloud or get in touch at dmpostgrads@gmail.com