Anticipation

This is my test post for the  Day of DH 2010; it’s my first year blogging it, although I was a devoted lurker last year. Here’s hoping I actually manage to fit in some digital activity on the day itself…

Preparation/frustration

Less than twelve hours to go until my Day of DH begins, and all is not well in the land of photoblogging. The laptop’s bluetooth connection seems to have given up the ghost, and it won’t recognize my cameraphone even when it’s plugged in via USB. And why is the phone software only PC-compatible? Grrrr.

All set for the day of analogue humanities

Incipit

I’m on research leave this semester, which means that I am trying to work from home as much as possible. The upside of this is that I get a clear  and uninterrupted run at my writing once the children are delivered to their school and childminder, but the downside is that I become responsible for the morning frenzy as we try to get three people out of the house. Some blissful days I get to leave the chaos behind me and catch the train into work, but this is not one of those days. Today was a relative success: three breakfasts served and eaten, only one ending up on the floor, two tantrums from the toddler, (one major, one minor), everybody dressed in clean-ish clothes, teeth cleaned, shoes on and GO!  I did forget to pick up the story bag with Lisa The Literacy Dog to take back to school, but everybody fights not to take her home with them, so I am considering this a public service to the other parents in the class.

The walk to school was beautiful, as usual. I live in a Pennine mill town between Leeds and Manchester, whose previously dark satanic mills are now considered to embody the pinnacle of aspirational real estate for the commuter classes.  The photo of the weir below demonstrates the gentrification process, with the ostentatious sculpture adjacent to the mill race (with still-working water wheel, out of shot).

But enough of the walk to work; I must get on to the digital humanities… My work plan today is actually about as analogue as it could be: I’m editing a book chapter and will mostly be working in pen and ink in a notebook.  I have a couple of posts planned on my digitization project for later on, but I’m going to try and get some research out of the way first so as to assuage the writing guilt upfront. Meanwhile, here is another shot of the town for contemplation while I spend some time with Laurent de Premierfait and the French translations of Boccaccio’s De casibus virorum illustrium.

In which a kitchen knife makes an appearance

My resolutely non-digital day continues with a reversion to pre-modern methods of reading, with a blade in my right hand to access the still-uncut gatherings of a journal. It’s quite rare to come across uncut books in daily life, but I see them quite often, dealing as I do with fairly obscure material. I really enjoy the change of pace and the careful engagement with the object that the uncut pages demand.

I’ve always loved the tactility of reading, and tend to manipulate my books in a very hands-on manner, as it were – I write in them, underline bits, fold back the corners, bend back the covers, use them as doorstops, stepladders, occasional projectiles, and so on. They’re the building blocks of my daily life, which is one of the reasons why the immaterial (i.e., digital), book interests me so much in my research and teaching. But back to the knife.

Getting into this article took up a good half hour of my morning. I couldn’t find my craft knife anywhere – I used to keep it in my laptop bag, but then a security guard at the British Library found it on a bag search (somewhat embarrassing, and the occasion for a great deal of panicky grovelling), so after that I put it somewhere safe, never to be seen again. So I spent a good twenty minutes searching the house for my book-binding box which contains some razor blades, also to no avail, and then just went and got one out of the knife-block in the kitchen. Thus:

I tried to get an action shot of cutting the pages, but since you need two hands for the cutting and at least one and preferably two hands for the camera, it didn’t quite work. Also on the desk you can see my tasks for the afternoon: 7 or 8 articles to read, plus 3 books to consult; when all that is mastered I can start rewriting the chapter. I’m looking at the Neapolitan Angevin court as a conduit for the transmission of Boccaccio’s  Latin works into mainland France in the late fourteenth century.

As a medievalist working mostly on manuscript culture (this month), I suppose I take quite a long view of textual culture. Moments like this with the knife remind me that not so much separates me from the fourteenth-century Italian reader of Boccaccio as one might think.

The distractions of connectivity

Since the last post, I suppose I’ve managed to make a substantial dent in my reading list, but it feels as though it’s been a very fragmented kind of research day. It’s always like this for me when I start  working up to writing something; there is a certain amount of new ground to cover before you can begin typing, but these preliminary stages still feel a bit like prevarication. Normally when I have a writing day I try to cut myself off from the siren lures of the Internet, which hasn’t been possible today, it being perfectly in opposition to the aims of the DoDH.

But for posterity I will record what I’ve done so far. On my book, I’ve reviewed  the 8000 words I did last week on the originating context of Boccaccio’s De casibus, added in a couple of new paragraphs and some seriously ropey translations from the Latin. I’ve planned the next section of this chapter on its transmission and translation into French, skimmed Zaccaria’s Boccaccio narratore, storico, moralista e mitografo (my description of the manuscript tradition all in order, phew), and read the first 103 pages of Sabatini’s Napoli angioina: Cultura e societa’, with 5 sides of notes. On the blogging/tempting distractions side, I’ve probably done about 1000 words so far on my day, plus a few tweets, too much checking out of other people’s Days, and about ten urgent emails.

The next few hours will be the morning routine in reverse: back up the hill in the rain to collect child from after-school club, return of toddler, making supper, and hopefully getting them into bed early enough to be back at my desk by 8.30pm or so. See you in a few hours…

Digitizing the premodern book

This is the post that should have been, in the parallel universe where I was working on digital humanities today.

At the time of writing, my Manchester Digital Dante project is well underway, and we’re aiming to launch it sometime in Autumn 2010. It’s a very simple but effective online resource: complete digital surrogates of three different editions of Dante’s Divine Comedy held in the Special Collections of the University of Manchester. On completion of the project, the images will be accessible to all via the library’s LUNA Insight viewer, thus:

The screengrab shows an image from the fifteenth century manuscript of John Lydgate’s Fall of Princes, English MS 2 of the JRULM. It’s his verse paraphrase of Boccaccio’s De casibus, via Laurent de Premierfait’s French version, and in fact the subject of my book chapter I’ve been editing today.

The John Rylands Library of the University recently acquired National Research Library Status (one of only five in the country and the only one in the North) and currently operates a JISC-funded Centre for Digital Excellence in the field of heritage digitization. You can access their extensive digital collections here.

All the photography for the Dante project has been completed, and we are now in the process of creating the associated metadata for each image file. The project’s postgraduate research assistant, Jonathan, is going through each of the three editions and recording the span of the poem on each leaf, as well as other paratextual and marginal features of interest. Since all three of the editions include a different commentary, he’s also adding details of those to the metadata. The idea is that researchers will then be able to cross-reference the image of the physical page with other Dante resources already online, such as the Dante Dartmouth commentaries.

This image shows the beginning of Inferno I in the 1481 Florence edition, with commentary by Cristoforo Landino, complete with the paratextual features of the elite manuscript book (hand-illuminated initial letter, rubrication), and the cutting-edge of print technology in the form of the copperplate print at the foot of the page.

We’ve been piloting the use of these digital surrogates in my final-year undergraduate course on the cultural history of the Divine Comedy. As you might expect, they work really well from both a conservation and accessibility perspective (not least because students tend to write their essays at the times when the reading room is closed), but I think their greatest value is in the extraordinary level of detail in which you can view the page.

Resources like this are what digital humanities are about for me: not a substitute for but an expansion of the scope of the artefact, in which functionality and the sheer mind-boggling awesomeness of content can be combined.

I’ll be running my course again in Semester 1 next year (and the year after, and the year after, probably- there are literally thousands of items in the Dante Collection to study), so if anyone is interested in my experience creating and using these resources, then do feel free to get in touch with me at guyda.armstrong@manchester.ac.uk. I would love for us to collaborate with some other Dante students in another institution, so if the Manchester collections appeal, then just let me know.

Buonanotte

I was hoping to be able to write a state-of-the-nation summation of my day of digital humanities, but think that’ll have to wait for another time as I am now falling asleep on my poor overheated laptop. I still have some cryptic potential post headings that I might come back and address, though, so I’ll leave them here as my signing-off thoughts for now: ‘Libraries and tech graveyards’; ’Genealogies of readers’; and ‘where will we find the future signs of reading?’.

(I also have the enticingly weird ‘compatibility horrors’, but can’t quite remember where that one was going. Feel free to extemporize if the theme takes you.)

And thanks for reading, goodnight.

Update: 24/3/10

I’ve now spent a few days thinking through my nebulous headers, and have realized that they’re actually all elements of the same train of thought; that is, how will we measure the practice of reading when we inhabit a more fully digitized textual culture? Many academics, I think, will have had the experience of ‘inheriting’ some books from a previous academic generation, those who donate their books to the department on retirement, or when they change jobs, or (very rarely), on the occasion of a thorough clean-out. (I suspect the hoarding tendencies of many academics means that this tends not to happen very much in the humanities, although I imagine the world of science is full of tidy desks and gleaming surfaces and no clutter.) Anyway, anyway, anyway; my office is full of books acquired this way, and sometimes I look at them and think about the development of the discipline, or genealogies of academics, or readers more generally, whose books might move to a different shelf but still endure, etterno.

The most precious books for me are those teaching copies of the classics, marked up by my predecessors, maybe even while they were students themselves, which provide a record of their reading experience, written and overwritten again and again, and utterly expressive of a single person’s understanding of what it means to read Dante, or Ariosto, or Boccaccio, or whoever.

I don’t actually believe the digitized text will ever replace the physical book, but I think we’re already at a point when most of our work is done on screen. We’re therefore no longer marking our books, or making our notes the way that we used to. [And here he comes, the point...]  Digital humanists have the tools to analyse the genetics of composition of the text, the means to track the reader’s eye patterns as they view a webpage, to see which are the areas of interest, and so on. But  the objects will go; in fact, have gone already in many cases.


The dear departed PCW in full 1991 essay crisis

In 300 years time, academics working on, say, the sociology of reading of female medievalists working in universities in the North of England in the first decade of the twenty-first century won’t be able to excavate my Amstrad PCW from the municipal tip, and use it to reconstruct the world of the early-1990s undergraduate, complete with patchouli smears, fag ash, and band stickers. (‘On this, Armstrong wrote her famous (um) second-year essay on Guinizzelli’s Al cor gentil rempaira sempre amore, and also her rather less than groundbreaking essay on Rousseau’s Confessions… Unidentified traces suggest that the “word-processor” came into contact with liquids, perhaps alcohol, which may have affected her performance, etc.’


Such grandiosity! And Will Self dealt with this rather better in The Book of Dave. But I do like the long view, and when our obsolete computers and readers and iPods and iPads go in their turn to the ever-expanding tech graveyard, they’ll take with them the evidence base of much of our materiality as readers. Does it matter? I think so. But by then, who knows how we’ll be accessing the world’s knowledge? Maybe we won’t even notice.