By Julie Somers
At the Huygens ING in The Hague, researchers and program developers convened last week to discuss the creation of tools that are intended to help all ‘scholars-at-large’ of medieval manuscripts use digital technologies in useful ways. The two-day workshop, Easy Tools for Difficult Texts: Manuscripts & Textual Tradition (18-19 April 2013) brought together projects that addressed the varieties and difficulties of managing medieval manuscripts in a digital medium. Wonderfully organized, the first day focused on Digitization and Transcription Tools for Medieval Manuscripts and Markup Tools, while the second day dealt with Editing and Publishing Texts and Browsing and Linking Texts and Corpora. One of the many highlights of the workshop was the demonstration hour (ImageJ, Transcribe Bentham, TPen, EVT, Shared Canvas, eLaborate) where we could watch the tools in action, handling those difficult texts with ease. It was a nice opportunity to ask questions and discuss methods, with the tool right in front of us.
The title of the workshop gives a hint that there is a dilemma in using digital tools for medieval manuscripts. The texts are difficult to begin with, the tools should not make things harder, yet an easy tool may not be able to handle a difficult text. What to do? The workshop presented a variety of approaches to this question. From crowd sourcing to Creative Commons, project developers are devising solutions to the wants and needs of the medieval ‘scholar-at-large’. Many of the tools presented invite collaboration, expanding the work environment beyond your own library walls.
For example, Robert Sanderson (Los Alamos National Laboratory, US) presented the project Shared Canvas which allows “multiple institutions and individuals to independently contribute to the descriptions, digitization, transcription and commentary regarding a manuscript.” Annotated Books Online, (Els Stronks, Utrecht University, NL) and Transcribe Bentham, (Tim Causer, UCL London, UK) work with public volunteers on transcription of often difficult documents.
The presentation by Michael Toth (Walters Art Museum, US) focused on the high quality digital image dataset creation and preservation project of the Walters Art Museum. Toth stressed the structured dataset, high resolution images, and “unmediated presentation of the data” as core functions of their texts available for tools. Wary of the changeable nature of the end user, Toth spoke of the standardization of the image metadata, and the use of Creative Commons licensing, so that different people are able to do different things with the data. Karina van Dalen-Oskam (Huygens ING, NL) and Ronald Haentjens Dekker (Huygens ING, NL) presented eLaborate, a tool that provides an online work environment for transcription and annotation of text, offering different possibilities of functionality for project leaders.
So much more was discussed and new, up-coming projects were introduced. (A digital work environment for the transcription, editing and publication of manuscripts, Pundit, CATMA, The Elwood Archive Viewer, HisDoc Retrieval Module, Parzival Database) In all, this workshop created an overview of the current development in digital tools as they are applied to manuscript studies. These tools represent the steps beyond displaying a static image of a folio on a webpage. At various levels of interaction with the manuscript, an ‘easy tool’ can help you navigate through the digital image, let you annotate, transcribe, and publish your work. The main point that seems to come across at this workshop, like many others, is to admit to the limits of functions a tool can provide, and, paradoxically, to admit there are never enough functions a tool can provide. The digital needs (and wants) of the scholar dealing with a medieval manuscript will always be too many and not enough, all at the same time. As the conference description states, “a true convenient and intuitive means of re-representing medieval text in the digital medium seems elusive.” I am so happy people are trying.