Monday, 26 January 2015

Digitization and manuscripts as visual objects: effects of a media change

As many of you have surely noticed, libraries and collections worldwide are slowly, but steadily, digitizing their manuscript collections, making them available online. Just during the last couple of months I have seen announcements from the Vatican Library, from the HMML, from St Petersburg, from the National Library of Greece in Athens, and from the Yale University Library saying that they will digitize their collections or provide online reading rooms for scholars. In effect, these and other recent digitization projects are making manuscripts available as visual objects online.

And it does not stop there. Manuscripts are not only there for scholars who consciously seek them up in their online locations. In their capacity as visual objects, manuscripts may in fact be seen as among the winners of the new, digital world, being the perfect aesthetical objects in an increasingly visual culture online. Images of manuscripts are favored objects of tweeting and retweeting (e.g., @DamienKempf), Facebook groups are dedicated to them (“Sexy Codicology”: 6458 followers, Alin Suciu’s “Coptic Literature and Manuscripts”: 3533 followers [accessed 21 January 2015]), and specialized blogs update their followers regularly (the blogs of Roberta Mazza, Adam McCollum, and The British Library Medieval Manuscripts blog, just to mention some).

First, due to the ongoing digitization of manuscript collections as well as the steady flow of images in social media communication, scholars in the relevant fields are more regularly exposed to pictures and will become more familiar with the visual aspects of manuscripts.  Second, as time goes by and libraries feel the raising pressure to digitize their collections, scholars will probably expect to find manuscripts available online. And let me add, just briefly, that all of us, and scholars too, to a large degree are living digitized lives, surrounded by an increasingly visual culture.

I see the digitization of manuscripts and the resulting transformation of the representation of the manuscripts as visually available objects as an interesting and important media shift, and I wonder how this shift in media technology and media format will affect the ways scholars engage with their source material. As has been pointed out at several occasions in the fields of sociology of knowledge and media studies, change in technical media will typically change media practices, as well as the perception, communication, and social practices surrounding the mediated object (cf., e.g., Kittler 1985; Altheide and Snow 1988; Reckwitz 2002; Meyer 2006).

So, how will the transformation of manuscripts into visual objects online change scholarship on texts and manuscripts? As has also been pointed out in the above mentioned research on media shifts, there is no one-to-one relationship between technological change on the one hand and change in social practices (what people do with media [Kratz 1959]) on the other. Until someone decides to answer the question based on actual empirical research we don’t yet know how this shift influences scholarly practices. For now, all answers will necessarily be hypothetical and suggestive, and I’ll phrase them in the form of follow-up questions.  

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?

Until recently manuscripts have primarily been available (and perceived of) as being material artefacts kept on, e.g., library shelves or in private collections. Some of these manuscripts have even been hard to get access to. In addition, due to a traditional division of labor in many fields (although not all) between editors of texts on the one hand and interpreters of text on the other the manuscripts have typically been seen and engaged with only by the few. However, when manuscripts are digitized they become visually accessible objects which are only “a click away”, and when more and more libraries digitize their collections they will be expected to be no more than a click away. Hence, during the next decade(s) manuscripts will be visually available to new groups of scholars who may already have the necessary language competence and who know the contents of the texts from editions very well but who traditionally have not engaged much with manuscripts.  

Those who have worked on texts based both on study of the manuscripts and the use of text editions know how different the visual impression of a manuscript page and a page of edited text may be, and also how poorly the critical apparatus may sometimes represent the various features on the manuscript pages (cf., e.g., Nongbri 2006). The hand may for instance be difficult to read, words and letters open to interpretation, texts may be lacunose, the script may be continuous, or there may be no chapter division or other markers of sense units. Manuscript folios may be messy too. They may contain notes, glosses, corrections and erasures. Folio layouts may also contain paratextual features, study and memory aids, designed to communicate between text and reader. So far, some of these features may have been represented in a critical apparatus, while others have been overlooked, regarded unimportant or even as clutter, or it has simply been difficult or too expensive to reproduce paratextual features such as these in a text edition. Now, when the manuscripts are available online, the unruly elements of a manuscript page are there for everyone to see. Maybe these elements may even come as a surprise to those who did not know of their existence.

When users of text editions know that the manuscripts (i.e., the basis of the text edition and the artifactual realities behind sigla) is there for them to consult online, will the representation of the messy variability present on manuscript pages in the form of a critical apparatus be satisfactory to them? And when editors know that their readers will probably consult pictures of the manuscripts, will they change the way they represent the manuscripts and the various elements found on manuscript pages because they know that the elements of the manuscript page is visually available? The practice of publishing text editions is already starting to change due to new, online formats of publishing and advances in digital humanities, as can be seen for instance herehere and here  (note: collaborative effort, online work process, inclusion of wiki- and social media logic). The increased presence of manuscripts online will probably speed up this development.

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.

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