New Digital Projects I: Vernacular Aristotelianism and Digitized Archives at the Wellcome Library

Re-blogged from my original guest post for Early Modern Online Bibliography.

The University of Warwick, in association with the Newberry library, has been conducting a long-term research project on “Reading Publics.” This project, led by Professor Simon Gilson, Dr. David Lines, and Dr. Maude Vanhaelen, encourages conversations about communities of readers, evidence of readership and reception, and the social and cultural involvement of individual and networks of readers on the print marketplace. This research is possible in great part due to the growth of digitization projects and increasing availability of data and archival materials. As the project’s webpage outlines, however, “the availability of these resources not only varies greatly depending on language, author, country, and period, but also calls for careful methodological reflection.”

This summer, the program leaders organized three activities designed to foster conversation and scholarship on the topic of “Reading Publics” and digitization. I, along with nineteen other scholars from the United States, England, and Italy, was selected to participate in their final activity, a two-week workshop at the University of Warwick. During this workshop, we attended presentations on two new, exciting database and digitization projects: Vernacular Aristotelianism in Renaissance Italy, c. 1400-c. 1650 (University of Warwick); and the on-going project to digitize the entire catalogue at the Wellcome Library, one of the world’s largest collections of history of medicine materials. The following, the first of a two-part post, will focus on the Vernacular Aristotelianism.

The Vernacular Aristotelianism database was launched in May 2012. So far, the catalogue accounts for over 400 titles, half printed books and half manuscripts. The goal of its developers is to catalogue all vernacular works that reference Aristotle or interpret Aristotelian works, (including falsely-attributed texts)—a helpful addition to those researching reception and production of Aristotelian texts in early modern Europe. One of the greatest features of this database is the flexibility of its search engine. A sidebar menu allows searches to be conducted solely on “manuscripts,” “printed editions,” “authors,” “dedicatees,” and “printers.” Thus, a scholar interested in how many times Cosimo de Medici was the chosen dedicatee for Aristotelian-related works would quickly and relatively easily discover at least five works on her first attempt. The catalogued texts still appear in varying degrees of detail. All works, I believe, already have a basic listing, including date and location of first publication, author, printer, and a short description of the work.

A shorter, yet still impressive, number of records contain further detail: if the database’s current webmaster, Eugenio Refini, has physically visited the copy, he has shared his notes on the size, condition, and title-page details of particular editions. Since a lot of his notes pertain to specific copies, he will also note which edition he has seen, and where. Even better, Refini has put considerable effort in cataloguing paratextual information, including what kinds of paratexts are available in the work (epistles, indexes, notes) and whether or not the book includes any visual elements (though no specifics are given as to what kinds of visuals). A few texts also contain “internal descriptions,” where sections of the work are either fully transcribed or generally outlined.

This kind of deep-level information is still lacking from most North American databases and catalogue searches. Although it would be recognizably difficult to restructure a large website like EEBO so that it contains more non-authorial details (and do so consistently across records), many projects like Brown’s fantastic Women Writers Online or the University of Michigan’s Renaissance Liturgical Imprints could benefit from more comprehensive and transparent search options. Of course, that is not to mention many potentially exciting projects like British Literary Manuscripts Online and Arkyves, which are largely available by subscription only. This reliance on existing catalogues and older cataloguing methods, especially ones originally designed for material holdings, holds back many digital projects from their full potential as new search tools.

When the database was first presented at the workshop, we were impressed with the range of detail and information Dr. David Lines and Dr. Eugenio Refini have been able to gather. However, most of us were skeptical about their ability to offer the same level of detail for all their records. One pertinent suggestion from the group was the possibility of “crowd sourcing.” Although it could take a single scholar (or even a small group of scholars) a long time to add bibliographical details to all 400 works (their goal, I believe is to expand the database in the future), if users could submit their own notations, that work could happen quickly and effectively. This would no doubt enrich the database beyond its already incredible achievements and make a number of new kinds of research possible.

There are, of course, a few limitations to the database. In order to make so many search terms immediately within reach, the page is visually overwhelming. The search button at the top is easily missed amongst all the information on the center of the page, and the preloaded first record that opens with the database might at first be confusing. Once the search is successfully performed, the user will need to find the browsing buttons at the top left of the page to sort through each result. For those uneasy with technology, these immediate challenges might be intimidating, and the researcher would unfortunately be missing out on a valuable and incredibly detailed resource.

Even for those of us not performing research on Aristotle, this database raises some important issues. First, the range of non-canonic texts yet to be properly catalogued and annotated, let alone studied, remains overwhelming. Smaller, single-focused websites like Vernacular Aristotelianism highlight how crucial the Digital Humanities have been to providing new and productive avenues for scholarship. We need more projects like this (and perhaps more government funding to make them possible).

Secondly, the organizers have taken into consideration an important shift (by no means wholly “new” anymore, but still time-consuming due to limited search methods) in bibliographical studies, having to do with the analysis of paratextual material and surface-level concerns as integral aspects of textual production and reception. Although scholars like Helen Smith and Michael Saenger have greatly contributed to the study of paratextual and material elements, most of these materials remain uncatalogued. What’s left to the scholar of paratexts is a manual archival search, browsing through texts one by one either digitally or at national archives. Vernacular Aristotelianism provides a helpful starting point of information that, although it does not replace visiting the physical copy, broadens the scope of research and expands the specificity of academic projects.

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