Special Issue Essays

Digital Medieval Manuscript Cultures

Edited by Michael Hanrahan, Bridget Whearty
September 2018

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 Although they are frequently celebrated for democratizing manuscript studies, digital manuscripts have just as often catalyzed divisive interactions. Medievalists who study digitized manuscripts, whether to try to gain information about an unreachable physical object, or because these manuscripts are complex objects worthy of study in their own right, may face colleagues’ dismissive questions—“Yes, but why don’t you just study the real thing?”

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 While these fault lines between scholarly camps are well known, there are further, less-discussed fault lines that crack open between those who hold research- and teaching-oriented faculty positions and those working in digital libraries and technology. This is a curious divide, given that many digital-manuscript technologists and librarians are trained—like those in research and teaching faculty positions—as medievalists and manuscript scholars, including both editors of this special issue. We both have PhDs in English. We both publish on traditional medievalist topics, have active research agendas on libraries and the scholarship of teaching and learning, and also are involved in digital scholarship. One of us is an associate director of Curricular and Research Computing within an academic library, the other is an assistant professor of English and former CLIR Fellow in Data Curation for Medieval Studies. In co-editing this special issue titled “Digital Medieval Manuscript Cultures” we hope to trouble, and ultimately to bridge, any persistent medievalist-faculty/librarian-technologist divide, and to highlight how much is to be gained by collaboratively analyzing, from multiple perspectives and career paths, digital medieval manuscripts as real things.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 More than two decades into the ‘incunabula’ period of digitization, as digital manuscripts are regularly incorporated into research, teaching, and outreach, we must treat them with the same rigor that we apply to physical manuscripts and analyze their creation, reception, and reuse. Doing so is important not just for fostering a more rigorous and more just present and future for medieval studies; these emerging methodologies can be extended beyond the medieval period to enrich the ongoing study of text technologies more broadly. At the same time, taking digital manuscripts seriously requires us to consider questions that we would never need to ask of their physical medieval exemplars. Questions such as: What is the relationship between physical materials and their digital representations? What can we do with the digital manuscript that we cannot with the physical book? What do we lose when we work primarily, or even solely, with digital manuscripts? What are the ethics of digitized labor? Who are digitized manuscripts really for? Why do we digitize?

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 Our authors reach across disciplinary boundaries, traditional academic careers, and any perceived senior/junior faculty divides. They include leading critics of digitization, scholar-librarians who have been involved in groundbreaking digital projects for decades, early career professionals who have always lived in “the digital age,” and collaborative teams that bring together established scholars and practitioners with undergraduates and nonacademic volunteers.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 Together, these essays provide a sense of the emergent debates in the field of digital manuscript studies, a field defined more at times by heated discussion, dialogue, and process than by consensus or finalized product. One writer’s “drifting hulk” of a failed digital project is another’s example of a successful evolution of mission and aim—while still another meditates on the vital power of learning to fail usefully.  Our contributors demonstrate, in aggregate, how the critical conversation on digitized manuscripts is expanding. To mirror this expanding debate, we have foregone Archive Journal’s usual alphabetical arrangement of authors and have ordered the essays in a self-conscious arc. Readers who move sequentially through this special issue begin in careful critiques of digital manuscripts before moving into the hands-on and increasingly experimental and speculative essays.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 A. S. G. Edwards, “The Digital Archive, Scholarly Enquiry, and the Study of Medieval English Manuscripts,” highlights some of the possibly corrosive effects of digitization on existing economies of scholarship, showing the great potential for harm that attends new technology.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 Andrew Prescott and Lorna Hughes, “Why Do We Digitize?  The Case for Slow Digitization,” show that the current limitations of digital scholarship need be contextualized and engaged rather than identified and dismissed. That is, the limitations should be a part of the scholarly discussion. They argue, furthermore, that digitization must be seen not as a one-off transaction but a technical continuum.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 Johanna Green, “Digital Manuscripts as Sites of Touch: Using Social Media for ‘Hands-On’ Engagement with Medieval Manuscript Materiality,” demonstrates how the use of social media can create for the public the sort of “meaning-making” sought by museum and library curators as a way to engage with a medieval object.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 Julia Craig-McFeely, “Recovering Lost Texts; Rebuilding Lost Manuscripts,” shows us how digitization enables not just the recovery of medieval manuscripts but their reconstruction. Moreover, by showing how different communities can come together to engage in this reconstructive work, she demonstrates how the research process itself can become more inclusive to a wide constituency beyond the academy.

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 Michelle R. Warren, Bay Lauris ByrneSim, and Laura Braunstein, with the collaboration of Monica Erives, Logan Henderson, Deborah Howe, Divya Kalidindi, Scott Millspaugh, Benjamin Patrick, Emily Ulrich, Qingyu Wang, and Jennifer Zhong, “Remix the Medieval Manuscript: Experiments with Digital Infrastructure,” pursue “close readings” of digital infrastructure in order to develop a new, and more expansive, understanding of the ontology and epistemology of digital forms.

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 Elizabeth Robertson, “Julian of Norwich and the Digital,” shows how the devotional philosophy of Julian of Norwich on the topic of the void and the infinite presaged the very binary system that allowed computer technology.

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 One notable thread emerging from these wide-ranging discussions is a shared emphasis on nondigital text technologies. While debates often pit “the physical” against “the digital” (a binary, in fact, that we leaned on earlier in this introduction), our authors develop a more capacious sense of “the digital” by situating it in a larger ecosystem of text-technologies. CD-ROM, microfilm, black-and-white print facsimiles, and Photostat all play important roles, both in essays that theorize the digital manuscript and in those that trace the practical growth of particular projects. The authors together suggest that we cannot theorize what digitization is today without placing it in its much longer history of imaging technologies. Furthermore, data from these older technologies are being reused in digital projects, layering together more than a century of images to offer new insights into damaged physical texts. As these real digital projects show, the relationships of “the physical” and “the digital” are far from an evolutionary opposition.

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 Another important theme is the heated ongoing debate about digital access. Edwards, for instance, gives voice to the fear that access may be a zero-sum game. He asks about the ways the provision of increased access to digital medieval objects might contribute to decreased access to their physical exemplars. Although Prescott and Hughes debate some of Edwards’s arguments about specific digitization projects, they share concerns about the distorting effects of digitization and, in particular, argue that too many digitization projects end up providing a kind of flattened access modeled on one-size-does-not-really-fit-all methods of mass digitization—à la Google Books—rather than the specific needs and particular gifts of any given manuscript.

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 Other contributors highlight how access reaches beyond an exclusive focus on academic audiences and manuscript scholars.  Green, for instance, moves from what might be termed “scholarly access” to consider social media as hands-on engagement for what she calls “materially disenfranchised audiences.” In doing so, she queries the underlying rationale for digitization as a whole—are scholars alone the audience? Or, by focusing on our own desires and research needs, are we overlooking opportunities to invite new (and, importantly, not always scholarly) audiences to engage with premodern and early modern texts, art, and cultures? Craig-McFeely shows what one version of that expanded access might look like. Faced with an almost impossibly time-intensive task of restoring Tudor partbooks eaten by their own acidic ink, she discusses how communities across academic and nonacademic divides can digitally restore—or reconstruct—texts no longer usable today. In doing so, she introduces important questions that, too often, are elided in scholarly contexts. Do we digitize in order to quietly study alone, or to create texts that are useable, and pleasing, for performers as well as paleographers, singers as well as scholars? And, in seeking to serve and include these increasingly diverse audiences, what compromises can—and must—be made?

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 Warren and her team push questions of access even further. By partnering with artists who “rematerialize” digitized medieval texts and with librarians and undergraduate researchers pursuing their own lines of inquiry, Warren et al. demonstrate how “architectures of digital access” give rise to new research questions “just as urgent as those about textual transmission and the manuscript ‘itself.’” Finally, Robertson expands notions of access in at least two different, significant ways. First, she offers striking examples of how digital access is not a simple binary of yes-we-have-access or no-we-do-not. By tracing what resources about Julian of Norwich are and are not freely available online, Robertson shows how ideals of access contract in the face of expensive standard editions and research companions locked in print and strict copyright. Second, by bringing together Julian’s “one” and “nought” with binary computing’s 1 and 0, Robertson stretches the possibilities of modes of thinking that medievalists have allowed ourselves to access in our own arguments. What happens when medievalists take the history of computer as seriously as thirteenth-century theology? What discoveries can be made? What old challenges can be brought forth against today’s sometimes-reckless information economies?

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 Yet another significant thread across these essays is the issue of labor. Digital manuscripts, like all digital projects, do not simply spring into being. They take a great deal of work. Uncovering who those workers are and what they are owed is an important and growing topic in the field of digital humanities. Who is doing what in these projects? How is credit being shared—or monopolized? Who is praised? Who is blamed? How are workers’ existence foregrounded or erased? How are these workers’ intellectual and creative contributions valued—or elided? Within digital manuscript cultures, these questions are perhaps even more pressing, due in large part to the much longer history of erased labor that manuscript scholars have inherited. While each essay addresses these issues of labor and laborers differently, all engage, if at times in a subterranean fashion, with the fact that digital manuscripts are inevitably shaped by workers and working conditions that manuscript scholars often do not see.

17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 The debate about invisible labor unfolds across these essays on at least two levels. First, there is the foundational question of what we owe these workers, what respect are they due, and what credit should they be given. What equality of contribution, of training, of passion and engagement does the common (untrue) binary of “researcher” versus “librarian” elide? Second, and perhaps more difficult and exciting, is this question’s logical extension: who are “we” in the digital age? In other words, when thousands of digital images of medieval manuscripts are widely available online, accessible to those with the technology, electricity, internet connection, and time to work on them, who gets to claim the label of “manuscript scholar”? This is not an invitation for banal platitudes of universal welcome, nor for utopian declarations that digitization has radically democratized manuscript studies. Education and publication opportunities are still uneven. Hierarchies still remain. “We” do ourselves no favors by eliding these inequalities. Instead, as these essays show, this small but powerful pronoun, and the expectations of community it carries, must be self-consciously analyzed and unpacked in every project. “We” may be groups of workers brought together in digitization and restoration teams. Or “we” may be the members of an ever-shifting research team. Or the “we” may be an even broader and more diverse swath: “we people who care about our fields and those fields’ possible futures.”

18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 Between and across these essays, different debates, consensuses, and disagreements open and close about the process and effects of digitization, its audiences, access, use, and more. We hope that readers find in these discussions new ways to consider medieval texts and textuality. Moreover, we hope readers see in these essays a provocative emerging discussion about aesthetics and the pleasure of the digitized medieval text. It is not just with the physical text that readers feel visceral delight in touching the distant past. There is an undertheorized joy in working with medieval manuscripts through keyboard, mouse, trackpad, and screen. Digitization and digital medieval manuscripts may create new challenges and concerns, but they also promote new methods of enjoyment. As the age of digitization rolls on, it is high time that our analyses engage more deeply with these highly charged affective experiences growing from increasingly rich combinations of camera, software, text, people, and screen.

Digital Medieval Manuscript Cultures

Michael Hanrahan

Assistant Director of Curricular and Research Computing, Information, and Library Services – Bates College

Digital Medieval Manuscript Cultures

Bridget Whearty

Assistant Professor of English and Medieval Studies – Binghamton University-SUNY

Why Do We Digitize? The Case for Slow Digitization

By Andrew Prescott, Lorna Hughes

Remix the Medieval Manuscript: Experiments with Digital Infrastructure

By Michelle R. Warren, Bay Lauris ByrneSim, Laura Braunstein, with collaborators (in alphabetical order): Monica Erives, Logan Henderson, Deborah Howe, Divya Kalidindi, Scott Millspaugh, Benjamin Patrick, Emily Ulrich, Qingyu Wang, and Jennifer Zhong

Julian of Norwich and the Digital

By Elizabeth Robertson

Source: http://www.archivejournal.net/essays/digital-medieval-manuscript-cultures/