Quadrivium XI – Day Two

Day Two of Quadrivium XI at De Montfort University highlighted the past, present and future of academic books for medievalists.

We started with hands-on workshops: ‘The making of a book in pre-digital age. How was a book “created” before digital technologies were introduced in the world of publishing? The participants made and wrote with quill pens in the Trinity House Scriptorium and experienced type-setting and hand-pressing in the printing workshop at the Centre for Textual Studies.

One thing for sure: we — as medievalists — appreciate handwriting and printing technologies, but we cannot ignore the impact of the digital technologies either.

Earlier in the 20th century, an academic book for medievalists was relatively easy to identify. It often embodied at least 20 years of rigorous scholarship. It was often a thick volume, hardcover, and published by a reputable publisher. It was often expensive, but that was acceptable, as the book was meant to be bought by university libraries and guaranteed to be kept on their shelves for hundreds of years. It was a big, significant and eye-opening book, which would be read, referred to and used over and over by all scholars in the field. Digital technologies have brought about a modification in the methodologies for researching, producing and delivering scholarship, however, and the impact of digital environments on scholarly publishing seems to be more than self-evident.

Prof. Wendy Scase remembers the days when she was a student. A computer back then was a huge machine, which filled up an entire room in a university. Since then, things have changed rapidly. In 2012, she and her team published a facsimile of the Vernon manuscript — one of the largest surviving medieval manuscripts, 22 kg, 350 leaves, 544mm x 393mm — on a single DVD-Rom.

For Dr Ryan Perry, the key academic book was, and still is, A manual of the Writings in Middle English. He was, however, also involved in many manuscript based online projects (Imagining History, Geographies of Orthodoxy), and is now thinking about a new project with ambitious digital aspects.

Dr Orietta Da Rold‘s career as a medievalist also started with a multi-volume hardcover academic book: Manly and Rickert’s The Text of the Canterbury Tales. Scrutinising a catalogue description in this book made her think further about the use of paper in Medieval England, and she is now working on a digital project The Mapping Paper in Medieval England.

Dr Hollie Morgan is probably one of the first medieval scholars to used “word clouds” in her PhD, ‘Between the Sheets: Reading Beds and Chambers in Late-Medieval England’. She is now working on Imprint Project, where the medieval texts meet the material and cutting-edge digital technologies.

Dr Takako Kato asked the participants to come up with their own ideas of how they would tackle the challenges and difficulties they might encounter, should they start digital projects now. Using The Production and Use of English Manuscripts 1060 to 1220 as a springboard, the participants discussed topics such as:

  • Longevity of the research data and how to keep the data updated.
  • Ideally the online framework should be updated regularly to incorporate the new technologies, such as apps for reading on hand-held devices.
  • An option to print the websites as books on demand.
  • The significance of sophisticated search engines.
  • Possibility of incorporating subscription fees to maintain the website.
  • Create a collaborative working environments using social media.
  • Interactive resources, for example, pronunciation guide.
  • Use of manuscript images online.
  • Use of word crowd.
  • Collaboration with other digital projects.

After two days of intensive discussions, QuadXI concluded with food for thought:

  • Do we read differently in print and on screen? Some of us do, some don’t; it depends on the nature of the texts too.
  • What are the perceptions of digital books? Are we happy to publish digital-only monographs? Or, do we still consider print books to be “better”?
  • Are current PhD students more equipped and trained to work in digital environment than PhD students 10-20 years ago? Not necessarily! We identified that current PhD students strongly feel the necessity of training in how to ask right questions using digital technologies.
  • Using digital technologies would make medievalists talk to specialists from different disciplines, like Dr Morgan, who now regularly discusses the taxonomy with a Forensic team.
  • If you work as a team member in a digital project, how is your work recognised?

We hope to see you at  Quadrium XII in Glasgow to continue these discussions!


Life and times of an independent researcher: Publish or be damned?

This guest post is written by Catherine White, an independent researcher currently writing a biography on May Morris – the daughter of William Morris, Pre-Raphaelite, Socialist, and leader of the Arts & Crafts Movement. Catherine met the Project’s Research Associate, Rebecca Lyons, at the recent two-day conference on May Morris, co-organised by the V&A’s Clothworkers’ Centre, The William Morris Society, and the William Morris Gallery. Catherine’s experience of writing a distinctly interdisciplinary crossover book (i.e. one with appeal to both academia and the general public, and which crosses several areas of interest) and searching for a publisher whilst both an independent researcher and a new mother touches upon several key areas of the Project. Here she openly shares that experience.

May Morris

Image of May Morris from the George Grantham Bain collection at the Library of Congress.

In 2011, I saw a reference to May Morris. I had studied the Pre-Raphaelites and their circle for my Art History degree but had never come across her before. I subsequently found out she was a designer, embroiderer, jewellery-maker, writer, Socialist, part of the Arts & Crafts movement, and the daughter of William Morris. I was hooked. There has never been a sole biography of May, and so I decided that I would write one. Just after this, by sheer coincidence, I was introduced to a lady whose great aunt had worked for May Morris. She has generously allowed me to research her family archive, which contains an unpublished memoir and letters – and the rest is (art) history.

At the time I had a young daughter at home, and I took the chance to read as much as I could, whenever I could, to prepare for writing the book. Thanks to the wonder of the internet, any second-hand book I wanted to order could be delivered to my door. For those that were outrageously priced, I discovered that I could order in books from the British Library to my local library. Once my daughter started preschool, I used the two mornings a week to write. It was occasionally frustrating to have to leave a section mid-sentence, but it was mainly beneficial to have thinking time between each instalment. I recently came across a book called The Ladybird book of The Mid-life Crisis (Michael Joseph 2015), which had an illustration with the text caption of ‘Gwen has a 2:1 in Ancient History. She always planned to write a series of novels about Boadicea. Gwen is covered in apple sauce and has spent the afternoon clapping.’ Luckily it proved possible to combine the two (apple sauce and the book). It doesn’t seem to have done my daughter any harm, except that she has grown up sure that May Morris must be part of our family somehow.

In 2013, I approached my first publisher. Whilst knowing this would not be easy, I was fairly hopeful that the book was an attractive proposition because it was intended for a general rather than a specific audience. Although it is footnoted, and has unpublished information of interest to the academic community, May’s life has an appeal for a much wider audience, including those interested in the Pre-Raphaelites, the Arts & Crafts Movement, or social and political history, including the changing role of women – plus did I mention that May had a significant liaison with George Bernard Shaw? Yet this concept has actually brought its own challenges because it does not fit in a traditional publishing box. Publishers have expressed an interest in the proposal, but so far say that it doesn’t quite fit with their catalogue. It appears that academic publishers are more interested in a sole subject book, but this is not a purely academic book. I want this book to be accessible because it has such a great story to tell. An academic price tag of perhaps £50 or more would take it out of the reach of my core audience; those having heard of May Morris, or visiting an historic house associated with her, are unlikely to make such a purchase on a whim. General interest publishers could make this book affordable, but seem more wary of investing in a book on the single subject of May.

My other problem is that this book has to be illustrated. May Morris was responsible for making exquisite textiles and jewellery, and these have to be included, and in colour – which doubles the cost of production. This cost also means that self-publishing isn’t viable, nor was the offer from a publisher (my favourite rejection to date) who said they would publish it if I found £10,000 or a gallery willing to purchase 1000 copies of my book!

So where does this leave me? I am continuing to write the book, of course, and continuing to submit it to publishers. Finding a publisher has never been easy, and even May Morris despaired of finding one for her final book, which was eventually produced in 1936, just two years before her death. Overall, so far, I do not feel my book has suffered from not having a confirmed publisher; it has meant it could evolve at its own pace without the pressure of a deadline. There is a tipping point on the horizon though, which is a major May Morris exhibition planned by the William Morris Gallery in the autumn of 2017. Confirming a publisher now would enable me to prioritise my writing and aim for completion in time for the exhibition, but without one, I need to continue to combine writing with other work. But watch this (hopefully book-shaped) space!