Martha Rust (NYU) recently organized an inspiring conference on digital tools called “The Past Has Arrived: The Digital Middle Ages and the Renaissance.” The tools discussed usefully supplement books in both teaching and scholarship.
Annotation tools like Digital MappaeMundi–now re-branded as DM–allow users to annotate and link images and texts. In the image below, downloaded from the DM web site, purple annotation selects material on the twelfth-century world map from Sawley Abbey in Yorkshire (left screen) and links it to text on the right screen. The text can similarly be formatted or annotated to include links to relevant sites, images, or glosses, such as entries in the Dictionary of Old English. Martin Foys and Shannon Bradshaw (Drew) and Asa Mittman (Cal. State, Chico) presented an introduction, a technological context, and an application of this tool.
Image from Digital MappaeMundi
Visualization tools, such as Mapping Gothic France, allow users to view representations of medieval buildings in staggering detail. MGF presents twelfth- or thirteenth-century cathedrals in France “in terms of sameness and difference found in the forms of multiple buildings within a defined period of time and space that corresponds to the emergence of France as a nation state,” according to its web site. The photographs–and there are tens of thousands of them–are strikingly clear and the site is interactive, so that one can navigate the interior of cathedrals as if one were flying through them. Those raised on Harry Potter will be particularly happy with this feature. The views would once have been considered nearly unobtainable. Click on the following screen shot for a larger image.
Screen shot of Mapping Gothic France home page
What’s striking about this project is that it supplements book technology. “Architecture doesn’t fit tidily into the pages of a book,” co-administrator Andrew Tallon (Vassar) explains in an interview with Chronogram. Indeed, this five-year project designed by Tallon and Michael Murray (Columbia) demonstrates how digital media can provide features that a book can’t or rarely offers. Using MGF, students can manipulate maps to see the sequence in which Cathedrals were built, zoom in on architectural details, view floor plans, read narratives associated with a building, and even use a simulation tool to experiment with the physics of stone arches.
Michael Witmore’s keynote talk “What Is Access?” provided an overview of the history of Docu-Scope, which was designed to help teach freshman English but functions in surprisingly innovative ways to annotate texts. It categorizes words into types, and generates charts of word strings that force a re-consideration of texts, such as Shakespeare’s plays, in new ways. Witmore distinguished between archives–that maze of material books shelved within a given collection–and the archive available by a digitized database or tool. Docu-scope might be said to re-shelve Shakespeare’s oeuvre by suggesting surprising points of contact between plays divided generically. As noted in an earlier emob entry, Witmore finds points of contact between Othello and the comedies. It also exposes what is odd about a given play. The following screen shot downloaded, not from Witmore’s NYU talk, but from his blog, Wine Dark Sea, shows how Docu-scope found a high frequency of words denoting motion and spatial relations in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Those words appear underlined in yellow below (click on image to enlarge and clarify):
The preponderance of such motion words, once we see them, makes immediate sense in a play featuring fairies and other supernatural creatures that move in ways that humans cannot. One of Docu-scope’s gifts is to help us see formal aspects of a text that we might not otherwise see. In this sense, digital tools can provide access to linguistic features of a text less likely to be found by human reading.
Cataloguing tools was the topic of my discussion of EEBO Interactions. EEBO Interactions facilitates “relational cataloguing,” allowing entries to link to ODNB entries, or to related texts within EEBO, or to articles, or to spaces where bibliographical and critical issues can be discussed. In the past, an EEBO user might have found the following entry to be something of a dead end:
Clicking on the text bubble by the author’s name calls up the corresponding EEBO Interactions page, which identifies J.V.C. as a Catholic priest and provides brief biographical information.
Scrolling down the EEBO Interactions page, one would also find relevant links. Because users can add pertinent information for either the author or the text title, those working on little known work can, if they wish, share their expertise and enhance catalogue entries. This kind of relational cataloguing capitalizes on current technology and points the way to the future.
Pedagogical tools were the focus of several talks. These included the Medieval Narrative Project, designed by Evelyn Birge Vitz and Marilyn Lawrence (both at NYU), which collects video clips of performances of medieval texts. Other teaching aids included Second Life, which Martha Driver (Pace) had her students use to construct avatars engaged in medieval contexts. The afterlives of these projects, which continued to be used beyond the end of a given course, suggest that students enjoyed imagining medieval life through this technology.
Theoretical and practical issues were also probed. On the practical side, Consuelo Dutschke, Curator of Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts at Columbia University, argued eloquently for the value of projects like the Digital Scriptorium, which, in addition to collecting images segregated by disparate archives into one database, also allows a “diverse community of medievalists, classicists, musicologists, paleographers, diplomats and art historians” to help strengthen cataloguing. Similarly, Stephen Nichols (Johns Hopkins) and Nadial Altschul (Johns Hopkins), editors of Digital Philology: A Journal of Medieval Cultures, discussed some of the technical and pragmatic issues that emerged regarding digital publication, including the difference between a link to a work of art and its printed reproduction, or how royalties affect what can be included in digital publications. More theoretical speculations included concerns expressed by Alan Galey (University of Toronto) regarding textual variation: how can interface design help organize text, textual notes, and commentary? The Visualizing Variation project demonstrates how digital media provides innovative features, such as animated variants, for textual editing. Nicola Masciandaro mediated on how digital tools produced “textual shapes” other than the article or the monograph. Bill Blake discussed keywords, a topic he broached at the ASECS meeting in April and developed further here. How can searching be conceptualized so as to explore, rather than reproduce an archive?
A final keynote delivered by Stephen Nichols on “The Anxiety of Irrelevance: Digital Humanities and Medieval Literary Scholarship” probed the ambivalence prompted by digital humanities projects. He argued that there need not be a disconnect between the goals of Digital Humanities projects and those of traditional humanists, but that more attentive listening and understanding of questions at hand is necessary. The day-long conference and the discussions that it fostered well into the evening, including at a lively dinner, helped advance that needed conversation.
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