Edwards – Question 5
5How do digital representations of archival materials change our perceptions of those materials, and in particular, aspects of those materials not considered previously editable or archivable?
A. S. G. Edwards
Professor of Medieval Manuscripts, School of English – University of Kent
¶ 1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 This is a complicated set of questions. One element in the complexity is that quite a lot of libraries or archives seem to have given little thought to the issues raised here, thus assuming that the act of digital representation is in itself inherently meaningful. This is not necessarily the case. One way of imposing some dimension of enhanced understanding may be by digitizing specific categories of material systematically. For example, the University of Manchester John Rylands Library has sought to digitize on the basis of language, starting with all its own Middle English manuscripts and others in this language from other regional repositories.1 The result is the creation of a coherent corpus that provides the basis for extended study. Other libraries may adopt more selective, less systematic approaches, depending on both the availability of funding and of specialist staff capable of providing appropriate metadata. Indeed it is the provision of such metadata that can be a key factor in using digital representations most fruitfully. An example is the current attempt to understand the activities of the American collector and dealer, Otto Ege (1888-1951), who cut up a large number of medieval manuscripts and dispersed them leaf by leaf over a period of more than thirty years. Some of the manuscripts he destroyed are of historical importance. Digitization provides the most effective means of reassembling what he put asunder, provided, however, that it is possible to accompany images assembled with coherent data about details such as leaf size and provenance.
¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 There are other ways in which the digital archive offers possibilities to retrieve significant data. These involve the strategic potential of digitization in terms of special kinds of manuscript materials, such as those that have suffered forms of damage by fire, water, or reagent. While it does seem that, in particular instances, physical fragility has been a significant criterion for digitization, it is not clear that much systematic thought has been given, for example, to whether new digital techniques might enable the retrieval of portions of manuscripts in the Cotton collection damaged in the fire of 1731.2 The Cotton manuscripts form an obvious, large body of material that invites prioritization in terms of digitization because of the new possibilities of textual retrieval it might afford.
¶ 3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 However, libraries often do not seem to have strategies for digital projects that extend to the prioritization of material in hierarchical or categorical terms. Hence, they tend to proceed on the assumption that the same problems exist, and the same strategies for resolving them apply, across the spectrum of a repository’s holdings. It is clear that this is not necessarily a secure or useful assumption. For example, manuscripts (and printed books) from later periods may, because of their greater fragility, have more pressing claims to digital conservation than medieval ones. Criteria such as script, decoration, language, and place of production all offer the possibility of assembling data into meaningful forms.
- ¶ 4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0
- In the Bigynnyng, Manchester Middle English Manuscripts, http://www.library.manchester.ac.uk/inthebigynnyng/. [↩]
- Mark Faulkner has helpfully pointed me to the work of Kevin Kiernan on some of the Otho manuscripts, which provide one exception to this broad generalization: http://www.uky.edu/~kiernan/resume/. [↩]