IMC 2017: Manuscript Images in Theory & Practice

From The Telegraph article Young Yoda turns up in medieval manuscript, 18 April 2015

As part of the Leeds conference this year, the Models of Authority team and DigiPal sponsored several sessions that included material on palaeography, Scottish charters and the Digital Humanities. One particular subject was the implications of the use of digitised surrogates, my particular field of interest, and I participated in a strand of discussion on digital methods alongside Bill Endres from the University of Oklahoma and Thomas Konidaris of Universität Hamburg. The opening session, with Stewart J. Brookes, Michael McPherson and Peter A. Stokes

Having never attended the IMC before, despite its international reputation, and being unable to attend the whole event, I was determined to experience as much as possible within the space of the day I was in attendance. And Leeds delivered: with glorious sunshine, replica Iron Throne, craft fair and sword fighting display on the day of my attendance. My partner came away from the event with almonds in honey, a bottle of mead that apparently blew his socks off, and a sudden passion for medievalism. As a stonemason, he was particularly annoyed that he had missed the talk on medieval building methods.

Plunging into the darkness of the intimate theatre, I opened Session 1639 by noting that a digital surrogate serves as the digital version of the material item. Digital surrogates are utilised for a wide range of reasons, and there are clear benefits for their use; but there are consequences that often undermine the success of digitisation projects and lead to the development of data silos. I suggested that the introduction of digitisation to something as ephemeral as our connection to literature might erode something that meant to be evanescent and uncontrollable.

I really enjoyed reading some of Katie L Walters’ Reading without Books, and in particular the element wherein she discussed Pecock’s understanding of a physical reading assisting in the development of a virtual reading. I hopefully haven’t misread her statement, but I felt this tied in wonderfully with the notion that it is the physicality of an artefact that we miss when we digitise, and that without that physicality we cannot really undertake a true reading of a book or manuscript. What I believe, however, is that by emulating the structure of a manuscript page in order to replicate physicality, we reinforce the hierarchical implications that are inherent in that presentation.

I also cited Baudrillard’s consideration that the exact replica should stand as a warning: ‘Everyone can dream, and must have dreamed his whole life, of a perfect duplication or multiplication…but such copies only have the power of dreams, and are destroyed when one attempts to force the dream into the real’.

We are seeing that the digitisation of cultural artefacts simply reinforces canonicity and isn’t the democratisation of knowledge that we anticipated. Many previous digitisation strategies enervate, rather than invigorate. What is the answer to the practical and theoretical problems inherent in the digitisation of a manuscript? It must be innovation, and reaching out from beyond the canon; embracing haptic technologies, utilisation of the Internet of Things, even AI. For academics, it could be something like the ResearchSpace development, which uses the CIDOC Conceptual Reference Model for micro and macro level analysis.

Bill Endres discussed the capacity of the digital to assist in scholarly research with his talk, snappily entitled Color Literacy: What Every Medievalist Should Know Who Has Taken a Photo of a Manuscript with a Smartphone and Thought, It Might Be a Palimpsest. He gave a spontaneous, interesting talk on how digital image processing can be used to find meaning in damaged scripts. The software Bill uses, ImageJ, manipulates the level of saturation to allow erased elements to be seen, or to eliminate blots that might otherwise obscure images or text. This allows for discovery of things long since hidden by damage or fading, and allows for serendipitous discoveries to still be made, even with technologies that might otherwise seemingly erode the element of surprise.

Thomas Konidaris‘ talk was even more profoundly technical, and I am not ashamed to admit that I lost the thread almost entirely during his discussion, but he very importantly acknowledged the benefits and limitations of collaboration between scientists and humanists. What is integral, Thomas said, is finding commonality in terms of language used, and understanding the limitations and controls that are inherent in the use of algorithms.

Afterwards, after a good Q&A session (the details of which have been erased from my memory by the panic of participating in the discussion at all) I re-emerged into the blinding sunshine of a summer’s afternoon in Leeds, to the sounds of swords and cheering. It seemed to me to be entirely appropriate to my experience, and delightfully uplifting.

It would be remiss of me not to mention the #otherness strand of the conference, and the important discussions undertaken by far more eloquent commentators such as @dorothyk98 and @JonathanHsy, together with the subsequent petition. If we align ourselves with medieval studies we have a duty to show as broad a spectrum as possible, and not simply focus on a white-centric notion of medieval literature and history. This is re-enacted again and again, and from my perspective as a budding digital humanist, it is important that we are not once again replicating a problematical canon in the digital domain, lest the digital landscape become yet another “brave new world” that is colonised exclusively by white Europeans.

Very grateful thanks to Stewart Brookes for chairing the session, and for his subsequent interest in my work.