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

The following has been re-blogged from my original guest post for EMOB and is the second of two parts. See part one here.

In a previous post, I discussed the Vernacular Aristotelianism database featured during the first week of a two-week workshop at the University of Warwick this past summer.  During that workshop, Chris Hilton, senior archivist at the Wellcome Library, presented that library’s massive restructuring of its archives and plans to digitize their entire collection.

As if that were not already an impressive undertaking, the Wellcome promises that all their material will be available, not only for open access (with a library membership card—free with in-person visit) but also for sharing: users will be free to copy, link, and even embed any digital materials from the Wellcome for any non-commercial purposes.

However, as Hilton demonstrated, digitization is not enough: without the proper coding and re-cataloguing of the material, most users won’t know where to look, or what to look for. What he calls the “white box” syndrome is a constant challenge to digital archivists: how does one translate the intricate, detailed knowledge of the archivist into a blank search box? In a way, that is largely impossible; having heard many tales of “found treasures” from scholars who took the time to get to know a librarian and talk to them about their research, I am not one to underestimate the value of physically visiting an archive.

Of course, not everyone is able to do so, and that is where the digital archive comes in. While digitization cannot fully supplant true archival research, it allows instead for new kinds of research. Take, for instance, the already fully digitized Wellcome Arabic Manuscripts. Thanks to a very generous grant by the JISC’s Islamic Studies Program (and, no doubt, some very hard-working grad students), this digital archive is an online researcher’s dream. Each manuscript has been photographed in full, including the covers, binding, and original coloring and detailing. Because the whole book, and not just a close-up of the pages, has been photographed, the researcher is better able to grasp the sizing, page setting, and general condition of the manuscript. From this broader view, the reader can then zoom in to a specific page and actually read its contents. Granted, this process is a little slow—however, given the quality and viewing options, I can’t see that as a major flaw.

Another fantastic improvement is that the thumbnails of each page appear in a separate frame, allowing the viewer to browse the entire work while inspecting specific pages. This kind of “horizontal browsing” (although in this case the frame is vertical) is something Hilton hopes will be applied to the rest of the Wellcome digital materials. According to Hilton, this extra frame will also contain information about related materials, cross-searching, and external links. I imagine that due to monetary and time constraints the rest of the materials will not be as detailed as the Arabic Manuscripts. Nonetheless, this collection demonstrates the incredible amount of information and details that are possible for those implementing digitizing projects. Thanks to those who catalogued and annotated the Arabic collection, researchers have the option to investigate even material details like binding and physical conditions of a manuscript and never have to pay more than the price of an internet connection.

While digital projects may not (and perhaps should not) replace material archives, they offer new possibilities for research. Scholars interested in statistics, for example, are now better able to quantify and analyze data at the speed of a search engine. One of the workshop participants, for instance, questioned the use of “Publics” in the title “Reading Publics,” arguing that it was not a word contemporary to Renaissance audiences and therefore inaccurate to describe their acts of reading, purchasing, and engaging with books. His claim was backed by a database search for the use of the word “public” in sixteenth and seventeenth-century texts, which revealed only a few works using the word anywhere in the text. He quickly realized, however, that his initial search had failed to elicit books that included variant spellings or synonyms. What’s more, his research was limited to English texts, and (more importantly) texts that had already been transcribed by the Text Creation Partnership for EEBO (another exciting project that is not yet entirely available to the public).

This example makes clear some of the limiting aspects of digital research: we are always, sometimes unawares, conditioned by the parameters of the search box—and, more specifically, by whoever coded the keywords into the database. This example also highlights a new kind of conversation that is made possible by virtue of digital projects.  New endeavors like Vernacular Aristotelianism and the Wellcome Arabic Manuscripts show us that digital archives have the opportunity (perhaps even, I dare say, the responsibility) to rethink literary categories, to open up new angles for research, and to foreground aspects of book production and reception beyond the figure of the author.

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