Avoiding the Tower of Babel: Week 19 Discussion Reflection

The author of Genesis chapter 11 lays out the story of the tower of Babel: Mankind, in their pride, built a great tower reaching the heavens. God was not pleased with their actions and so He   “confused their language so they would not understand each other”. As a result the tower never got completed since there was no common language anymore. An interesting story about pride and an explanation for the development of language. But imagine if there was a universal language, a standardized form with the potential for adaptability,  think about what we could accomplish.

The potential universality of Text Encoding Initiative (TEI) and its contribution to preventing a scholarship that cannot be collaborative due to the hindrance of language or formatting is an impressive ideal to seek after. The TEI enables greater accessibility and greater movability through the use of tools such as schemas(TEI lingo) or the development of new a schema especially when the source material is unique, since not every source can be standardized. TEI allows and encourages building off existing tool sets and relying on other scholarship rather than reinventing the wheel and doing redundant work. Furthermore, it attempts not to compromise what the text is and or what it will become in the future.

During our in class discussion around TEI in week 14, I asked the question “to what extent can TEI accurately represent a source in a digitized form- what is lost through digitization”? Now, this might be an old and antiquated question but is important to consider and Professor Saurette offered an answer. To summarize his words, the TEI’s purpose is not to create an all immersive experience to replicate, or replace, the physicality and materiality of a source but rather the TEI is focused on creating an online version of the key components of the source. Digitization is not used as a replacement but rather a supplement to the real deal, and even with all the immersive technology, all the sound scaping and the appeal to the senses, there is no way to do away with tangibility. When I was younger I went into Action Packed Comics in Kingston looking for MTG card singles  and I heard a gentleman ask the owner if he thought online comic books would put him out of business. A legitimate question and one that intrigued me. The answer replied with confidence: “It’ll never happen. People love the feeling, the smell and physically owning a comic book and nothing can replace that- the nostalgia is what people pay for more than the stories”. A sentiment that can be applied to DH but I digress and realize this blog post is a buck shot as opposed to a slug.

The point I am making is that the TEI is a great initiative and opens up the possibility of greater accessibility and collaboration between scholars. Professor Shawn Hawkins stated that if he attempted to Encode all of the Roman poet Catullus’ poems and the accompanying commentary, that awkwardly occupies the margins caging the poems, it would take him a lifetime of work but through collaboration he can focus on the finer points of interest. It’s incredible to think about the completion of our final project and how collaborative the journey has been- anyone of us would be hard-pressed to do the work we’ve done all on our own. But as a community of scholars, a class, we began building on the foundation of skills, laid by Professor Saurette, that we developed in first semester and now, in second semester, we’ve built a tower, a mighty Digital Tower… let’s hope we didn’t offend any jealous gods along the way.


The Visage of Vellum

Oral interviews and pursuing an individual’s story through the mode of videography has become a passion of mine during my undergraduate degree. In my third year I had opportunity to work with Professor John Walsh in a historical practicum course during which myself, and another student, performed oral interviews with long-time members of the Alpine Club of Canada. Being able to engage with people on a personal level, with all the emotional navigation that accompanies it, allowed me to encounter a history that was not merely held in books or journals but in people’s lived experiences, in their visages. Seeing a person’s face change and hearing their vocal inflections when they are leading their mind through the memory palace of their experiences is truly something to behold and makes history much more alive than, dare I say it, a book. For the final project in HIST 4006 A I had the opportunity to yet again sit down with individuals, this time peers of mine, and flush out their experiences handling Medieval manuscripts.

Lyn Abrams notes that oral history is more than just asking a question and getting an answer but that the interview is, “a give and take, collaborative and often cooperative, involving information-sharing and autobiographical reminiscence, facts and feeling.” (1) Abrams principle of fluid dialogue and a built relationship between the interviewee and interviewer was something that I applied to each interview I conducted for this project. Before the interview would begin I reminded the interviewee that it would be very informal and not to worry about answering all the questions I had; I wanted the interviews to be as organic as possible and not push an agenda filled with assumptions. As I interviewed my peers a golden thread slowly began to emerge from the great tapestry of interwoven encounters: the experience of physically handling the manuscripts. Each one expressed their surprise of being allowed to handle a 500 year old, in some cases older, manuscript. They talked about being able to feel the parchment, the gesso from the illuminations, and utilizing new skills to determine provenance and genre. The more the interviews carried the more my peers noted the uniqueness of their experiences within Digitizing Medieval Manuscripts.

Part of the reason I thought it would be a wonderful idea that the project website host videos was to not only showcase the work done by students, but also to allow the students to curate their own experiences and by doing so put a face to these manuscripts, a face filled with experiences of its own. These interviews were also a great time of self-reflection to wrestle with the reality that we were not only enabling greater accessibility to these manuscripts through curating an exhibition, online and analogue, but also that we had become “producers of knowledge” (To borrow Professor Saurette’s words). It is my hope, and that of my peers, that our scholarship throughout this project will enable other Carleton students to grasp the potential available to them while studying in University and hopefully spur them onto to become contributors and collaborators of these manuscripts in future projects. That they will weave their experiences into the tapestry of academia and stand back and marvel at their accomplishments, just as we have ours, and say “There is more to be done”.


  • Abrams, Lyn. Oral History Theory. 2nd ed, New York: Routledge, 2016, p. 21.


Capturing the Music

This past weekend I decided to revisit some of the old material on medieval liturgical manuscripts and so I went back to those wonderful videos of Thomas Kelly describing the different developments in musical notation. I agree with Liv “he is a cute old man” and would add that he is a cute old man who loves medieval liturgical manuscripts, he’s passionate about them and that passion makes the viewer excited about them too. In one of the videos on Musical Notation, being the cute old man that he is, Thomas Kelly plugged his then new book Capturing Music which was published in 2015. Hmmm. I wonder if the library has a copy of it I thought to myself and lo and behold they did!! So, the past few days I’ve been reading through it and have been enjoying it immensely: Kelly is just as entertaining a writer as he is a speaker. He begins with a preliminary look at a chant from Switzerland recorded in the tenth century and explains the rough notations of the “quilisma” (PS. Kelly says that the quilisma, a small dot followed by three swiggles, was to be sung in “an authoritative shout” and disappeared in square notation- hmm I wonder why) and “liquescence” saying that these tell the singers “there are three notes ascending and how to sing them” but these notations did not convey the pitch or what the notes were: which is what our modern musical notation does[Thomas Kelly, Capturing Music, 12].

Kelly explains that the singers would have been familiar with the songs and that these notations were reminders, like rubrics-red-letter words, that explained how to vocally perform the notes. If you recall from a few weeks ago when Prof. Alexis Luko was in class she mentioned Guido of Arezzo and explained how he invented various methods for teaching music such as the Guidonian hand with its mnemonic device of ut-re-me-fa-so-la. But more importantly it was Guido who invented the musical staff notation to record pitch and it is these sorts of technological developments which Kelly deals with in the book: he explores everyone from Guido to Franco of Cologne. But even more useful for me, since my folio has musical notation, is that Kelly explains in detail what each of the square notations, which appear in my folio, mean and how the melody is constructed from them.

image provided expresses the square notation that was developed in the 12th and 13th century in Northern France and became the standard musical notation that replaced Aquitaine notation [Michal Olejarczyk, “The Origin of Square Notation”, Roczniki Teologiczne, 2015:127] Punctum “dot”, Virga “stick”, Pes “foot”, Clivis “slanted”, Torculus “little turn”, Porrectus “stretched”, Scandicus “climb”, and Climacus “Gk. ladder”.

If your folio has any musical notation I highly recommend that you take a look at Kelly’s book and there are also several fantastic articles on JSTOR that deal with Square Notation such as the one cited above. Happy to see the below blog post too, Yawhoo for medieval musical notation!!