Will the increased visual presence of manuscripts online change editing practices, as well as the academic reader’s expectations to the content and format of text editions?
Will we see more and different studies of manuscripts and manuscript practices?
Here’s a guess: when manuscripts become relatively easily available, visible objects online they will appeal to other categories of scholars and lend themselves to other kinds of studies than the ones we have commonly seen so far. These scholars may bring in new interpretative tools to the study of manuscripts and their various texts. During the last decades we have seen a general rise of interest in the materiality of artefacts, in the role of the medium and in aesthetics, scribalism and scribal cultures, paratexts, reader practices and interventions, etc. Now manuscripts are an increasingly available source material for scholars who are influenced by these recent research debates.
I expect that we will see more studies of the various relationships between text and manuscript, between text, manuscript and their readers, the role and importance of manuscript layouts and aesthetic elements, as well as the clutter, notes and other text units sharing the manuscript pages (This has of course already started, cf. e.g. and importantly, Caruthers 1992). We may for instance see more studies of manuscript pages as discursive and dialogical spaces, as spaces where the text of the column is sometimes contested and negotiated by later readers (cf. e.g. Penn 2010). And we may see more studies of manuscripts that were transformed and provided new and different functions by later readers than the ones envisioned by the producers of the artefact (cf., e.g. Childers forthcoming). Studies such as these will probably both add to and challenge studies that primarily take interest in the text in the column and the manuscript’s function as a mere text witness or text carrier.
Will libraries and collections restrict access to the manuscripts?
Here’s another guess: they will. I have heard that this is already happening. One may well imagine that some libraries and collections will argue that since the manuscripts are digitized and generally available online, there is no longer a need to consult the actual material artifact.
If so, this is very unfortunate for at least two reasons. Just as a traditional text edition and its critical apparatus is but a representation of the text and the manuscripts that contain it, so are digitized pictures of manuscripts only visual representations of the material object. Pictures are not identical with the object, and the visual aspects do not account for all the qualities of a manuscript.
First, pictures may hide and misrepresent features of the manuscript. The only way to find out if what looks like a fold in the picture is in fact a fold (and if so: which letters might be hidden behind that fold), or whether that stain in the margin is ink or dirt is to consult the actual artifact. And second, some studies will still be dependent on an exploration of the actual, physical thing. There is more to the manuscript than its visual appearance. Texture, weight, and smell, which may matter to a study of, e.g., manuscripts as ritual objects, do not reach us through the computer screen. Hence, I hope digitization of manuscripts will be regarded by libraries and collections as added value which will not replace the possibility to consult the actual manuscripts.
This post may be read as a reflection on one of the many transformations brought about by digital humanities. I have written about this before and I will write more about it on later occasions.
Thanks are due to John W. Kaufman, Eystein Gullbekk and Alin Suciu.