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!


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