Keys to Success

Having (almost) complete four years of university I marvel at the fact that I have gone so long without a professor in any of my classes assigning a group project. This has meant that, for most of my university career, the only assessments I have submitted were individually-based essays, exams and the rare solo presentation. Due to this past experience I will admit that I came to this group project a little nervous but it is actually a refreshing change of pace. With this context in mind I would now like to outline what I have learned thus far as ‘Team Leader’ for the exhibit portion of this project.

The first key takeaway I gathered concerns the importance of scheduling. This means setting a clear deadline for when each team member has to finish a component of the project. The nature of the exhibit means that it is not something we can piece together the week before our launch date—the mere thought of this procrastination makes my hair stand on edge—rather it is best to break the project into little tasks that reduce this endeavour to manageable stages. As the type of person who needs to assign herself deadlines for completing work it was not too much trouble, in consultation with my teammates, to figure out a rough timeline for the exhibit. For example, on March 1st I hope our team will have come up with the content we would like to discuss in the exhibit as well as reach a firm consensus on all the pieces and objects that will go into the display case. Though this may sound like a large goal hopefully the upcoming reading week will provide enough time to accomplish this objective.

Another takeaway deals with the importance of communication across the various teams involved in this project. Not only it is crucial that the exhibit team members communicate amongst themselves but we should also keep in touch with the publicity and website teams to know what they have planned. As this exhibit is kind of a ‘spotlight on’ the manuscripts scholars, students and the general public can find on the website it is vital that we ensure our content does not overlap too much with this team. Also, as we would like people to actually see the finished product (the exhibit) it is crucial to maintain conversation with the publicity team. How can we expect the publicity team to get people excited for the exhibit if we keep all our information about the display to ourselves? Communication between every member in the Medieval Book team is vital for success!

As a conclusion to this post I just want to take a moment to appreciate the research and work everyone put into their Omeka entries. In selecting manuscripts for this exhibit my teammates and I are able to draw on the information about the folios provided by our classmates earlier in the course. One of the benefits to this group project has been the ability to watch as the information learned in the first term contributes to this term’s work!

A Crash Course in IIIF

We have finally come to a topic that has been hinted at throughout this course and, as a matter of fact, is something that we have come into contact with through our Medieval Ottawa website. As you likely know already the topic of this week is the International Image Interoperability Framework or IIIF for short.

As someone with only a vague understanding of IIIF these readings were helpful in clarifying exactly what IIIF entails. Also, the readings outline the benefits of IIIF for researchers and digital humanities projects. I suggest starting with the Intro to IIIF reading as it not only introduces you to IIIF it also explains why IIIF was created in the first place. Following this intro you will have a better understanding of IIIF when you then check out projects like the Demo Search site for IIIF images via Biblissima and the British Library’s latest project on Medieval England and France manuscripts from 700-1200 (check out all the neat images here.

There is also a section in the Intro to IIIF dedicated to API (Application Programming Interfaces) that illustrates how an Image API differs from a Presentation API. This difference comes down to the information each one provides, i.e. the Image API is the data of the image whereas the Presentation API provides data about the image. This is just a brief explanation that the readings will explain more thoroughly with pictures! I also recommend watching the IIIF Vatican video at the bottom of the Intro to IIIF page. It’s a bit long but I discovered it really clarifies the possibilities of IIIF alongside its collaborative component.

Furthermore, the readings not only define IIIF they also provide us with examples of this framework in action through Gallica, e-Codices and the Sinai Palimpsest project. Keeping in mind what you have recently learned about IIIF here are some questions to consider:

  • Look at the list of the current institutions using IIIF. Though it looks vast there is definitely room for growth. How could more institutions be encouraged to adopt IIIF? Why should more institutions use IIIF?
  • Why was there a need for IIIF in the first place? How did IIIF combat the problem facing images displayed digitally?
  • How does Gallica, e-Codices and the Sinai Palimpsest project benefit from IIIF?
  • Why might it be important to clarify that IIIF is “not a finished project but rather the steps/guides to assist in the use of digital special collections”? What might be some misconceptions about IIIF?

For our class, IIIF represents an important step forward in the field of digital history but, the benefits of IIIF stretch far beyond us. While we will eventually investigate annotating with IIIF for now at lease we understand this resource!

Looking Forward to the Future

Two weeks into the second half of this course and it’s occurring to me that there is much to explore around the subject of ‘Digitizing Medieval Manuscripts’. While the previous semester provided some crucial information about medieval manuscripts, going forward our class will consider how to present digitally what we have learned to a wider audience. The following post contains some of my initial thoughts as we enter this new phase of the course.

In my research into what a ‘digital humanities project’ could encompass I came across a few different examples that presented history (a subject I have devoted a decent amount of time and energy towards) in a manner that would appeal to my friends and family who do not necessarily share my passion for the discipline. Additionally, I saw examples of projects that could assist scholars with their research. Perhaps one day a scholar will be able to use the information around medieval manuscripts that my classmates and I have collected.

When it comes to essays, exams and other assignments I have completed in university I will admit that these rarely cross my mind after I receive a mark. That being said, the Omeka entry (as well as our class’ upcoming project) will hopefully be pieces of work that I will think about years from now. The idea of long-lived assignments ties into one of the key aspects (longevity) my classmates and I will have to consider as we develop our digital humanities project. How can we ensure that our work does not disappear over time or become ‘out of date’ in terms of its usefulness and appeal? I do not have the answers to those question just yet but perhaps I will by the end of the term.

When the class brainstormed what we could do for our final project the possibilities seemed endless! Our ideas ranged from various websites to games and apps that we could use on our phones. Of course we recognized that while these ideas sounded great on paper we had to be realistic when it came to our skill level and the time that we have to complete this project. In a way our brainstorming session demonstrated the beauty of digital humanities projects. There were so many routes we could have pursued that I cannot wait to see what future undergraduate students create when they are tasked with their own projects of this nature. There may have been a little bit of a challenge staying focused at first but that was just because we each had our own ideas concerning how to approach this project. Though there are some plans to finalize, each step in the process gets us closer to the final result!

As anyone who tries something different for the first time knows, the experience includes a fair share of challenges that need to be overcome. Last term I did not think it would be possible to transcribe Medieval Latin but, take a look at my Omeka entry and you will see that I managed to do it. I cannot wait to see my classmates and I will create as we craft our own digital humanities project that will (hopefully) survive long after our days at Carleton.

A ‘Not-so-New’ Practice

I used to believe that certain practices from the past were lost to current society as time moved on. For example, how often do you find a piece of paper today that has been made by hand? It came as a startling eye-opener then when I learned that the practice of shortening words to write quicker was not as new as I initially thought. Avid texters and tweeters should be made aware of the fact that, though the actual abbreviations change throughout history, part of the reasoning for this habit remains the same.

Prior to the ‘lols’ and ‘btw’ that currently dominate text messages, medieval scribes possibly used abbreviations to lessen the amount of time it took them to transcribe. Does this sound familiar to anyone? When you look at a manuscript with abbreviations there can be various dashes and amalgamations of letters (for example xpi and di) that represent condensed words. Also, as a student I often use punctuation to shorten words in my class notes (n. often stands in for the word ‘north’) because it means I can keep up with the professor. This is not an original idea or practice because Adriano Capelli notes this exact form of abbreviation in his dictionary on medieval abbreviations. With the realization that abbreviations are part of our history, ’lols’ and ‘omgs’ then signify the present generation’s role in the story of human communication.

For anyone investigating medieval abbreviations, they know that it can be a frustrating process. The urge to scream ‘what does this mean’ or ‘why would you write that’ indicates that what was once common knowledge to these scribes has disappeared over time. It is interesting to make a comparison between a modern historian studying medieval abbreviations and one who, centuries from now, investigates twenty-first century abbreviations. No doubt this scholar will experience a similar frustration considering how rapidly our abbreviations change. Furthermore, the understanding that ‘lol’ does not necessarily mean someone literally ‘laughed out loud’ is important contextual information future academics might not possess. This comparison demonstrates the importance of the context that lies in every abbreviation. I know that ‘g2g’ stands for ‘got to go’ because I grew up with this knowledge, just as a scribe might have known that ‘xpi’ represents ‘Christi’ because he transcribed it multiple times. Additionally, future historians will have a difficult time decoding our abbreviations due to the emotional meaning often lurking in our text messages. While sometimes I lament the task of decoding a medieval manuscript I certainly do not envy historians who examine twenty-first century abbreviation.

Abbreviations did not magically appear alongside the growth in texting. This is a practice with strong historical roots, evident in the presence of abbreviations in medieval manuscripts. Even students today who try to transcribe their professor’s lecture employ a technique these monks used, suggesting that the technique lingers as well. Next time I hear someone complain that texting words like ‘ppl’ (people) and ‘pls’ (please) signals the downfall of written language I hope this person is ready for an impromptu history lesson.

A Whole New World

Prior to my first year in university I remember various high school teachers cautioning me about laptop use in the classroom. “You’re in the Arts, you don’t need that computer for much” they said, installing in me a belief that Arts students should only use their computers for research, essays and nothing more. Flash forward to fourth year where I learned that the digital world can benefit Arts students as they use online platforms to share ideas and work together on projects. Although this will be a gradual process presenting certain challenges, students who engage online with one another (for educational purposes) expand their understanding of what it means to be in academia.

My university experience largely consists of various one-way exchanges with professors in which I research, outline an argument and then hand in an essay for a mark. When I read about academics using open source notebooks to share their research it came as a startling revelation. It turns out that my research process and essay crafting has the possibility for a much more dynamic life. In articles discussing the academic use of Github and Twitter, the imaginary wall existing between the online community and university students shattered. Through talking with classmates on Slack and ‘following’ scholars on Twitter I realized that there is a community out there (potentially) interested in my academic pursuits. Or, at the very least, this community can point out inconsistencies and errors along the way.

It will take a while before others scholars share the view that students should interact with academics on Twitter and collaborate on projects through online platforms. Unless a course focuses explicitly on digital humanities or the professor is an avid spokesperson for online platforms, Arts students will not discover their place in the digital world. There is still too strong of a belief that Arts programs should not go anywhere near platforms used by computer science majors. Until students consistently use online platforms for academic purposes, the barrier between the Arts and the digital world will remain stronger than ever.

For students to benefit from online academic engagement they must first be able to access these resources. If we want to encourage students to use online programs is the onus on educational facilities to provide laptops or tablets for everyone? If universities decide to provide these resources will it increase tuition? I can say that students should use their laptops to work together along but I speak from the privileged assumption that everyone has to access a computer.

Using online platforms to share ideas and research as well as social media to observe interactions between academics expands my understanding of how one can learn. A history degree does not necessarily exclude me from learning about Markdown or Github, instead I can develop my research through these (initially) computer-science based programs. For all those high school teachers warning Arts students about computers in the classroom rather than contributing to this barrier they should consider the positive side to embracing technology and the digital world.