Edwards – Question 4
4What do recent developments in archival representation mean for the use of specific archives in teaching and public engagement?
A. S. G. Edwards
Professor of Medieval Manuscripts, School of English – University of Kent
¶ 1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 Obviously images, which form one aspect of “archival representation,” have some potential value in any form of teaching, as does any other kind of illustrative material. But I am unclear as to what “recent developments in archival representation” the question is referring to. Some of the more successful online editorial projects, for example, have succeeded in providing forms of hyper-textual access to explanatory materials aimed at increasing the user’s understanding of particular points in a text; once again, the Auchinleck digital project is a case in point. Other examples could include the University of Birmingham Vernon Manuscript Project1 and various projects to assemble records of regional manuscripts, like those based at the University of Birmingham2 and the University of Nottingham.3 On a different scale, the Digital Scriptorium at University of California, Berkeley,4 makes available a limited number of images from a large number of medieval manuscripts, thus allowing students a restricted understanding of a range of representational possibilities. The extent to which such materials can be effectively used in the classroom is not easy to assess. There may be danger in encouraging students to perceive the virtual as providing some exact equivalence to the actual if they are using such images as the basis for research.5 My suspicion is that for many without proper training in palaeography and codicology to appreciate such materials, these so-called “archival representations” can be no more than eye candy. Without training in skills that afford the possibility of basic comprehension, it is difficult to see what pedagogical use such materials can have. And a work can only be fully understood through necessary access to both the original and surrogate images, and through proper appreciation of the limits of the latter. (I speak as one concerned with teaching students the necessary paleographical, codicological, and bibliographical skills to study medieval manuscripts).
¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 Nor am I clear what “public engagement” means in the context of the archive. If it means the growth of accessible digital materials, then it seems impossible to generalize about the usefulness of such enterprises for reasons stated above. It is the case that many institutions seem increasingly to feel that they have a responsibility to make rare materials digitally accessible. But the cost of such activities, both initially and in terms of ongoing maintenance, have a potentially significant impact on the capacity of any institution to maintain levels of service in other respects, including further acquisitions. And there seems (at least in the United Kingdom) to be little in the form of responsible auditing of funded digital humanities projects to determine whether they actually provide value for the money spent. My suspicion is that in a number of instances they do not. “Public engagement” ought to have as its corollary “institutional responsibility,” responsibility to both funding bodies and grant recipients to provide accountability for expenditure. How many digital projects drift uncompleted and uncompletable in the ether?
- ¶ 3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0
- The Vernon Manuscript Project, University of Birmingham, http://www.birmingham.ac.uk/schools/edacs/departments/english/research/projects/vernon/index.aspx. [↩]
- Manuscripts of the West Midlands, University of Birmingham, http://www.hrionline.ac.uk/mwm/. [↩]
- Wollaton Medieval Manuscripts, University of Nottingham, http://www.nottingham.ac.uk/manuscriptsandspecialcollections/aboutus/projects/previousprojects/wollatonlibrarycollectionahrc.aspx. [↩]
- Digital Scriptorium, http://bancroft.berkeley.edu/digitalscriptorium/. [↩]
- See, for example, my article, “Back to the Real?” Times Literary Supplement, June 17, 2013, 15, for a discussion of some of the risks involved. [↩]