LAS in Action: Old Books and New Technologies

As one of the new recruits to the Liberal Arts and Sciences team of tutors I’m gaining new perspectives on multi- and inter-disciplinarity within and beyond the University of Birmingham and, in turn, on my own work and that in my field.

As a medievalist I’ve long practised inter-disciplinarity in my research and teaching. I specialise in early English literature and one of my main interests currently is manuscripts and documents and all other material records of early writing. You might think that we would know almost all there is to know about them as they’ve been around for such a long time. Nothing could be further from the truth. As hand-written and hand-made artefacts, each manuscript and document is a unique witness to cultures of text production, writing and reading. Yet we don’t even know how many medieval manuscripts survive, and we only have sketchy pictures of, for example, how they were produced, who the scribes were, how readers engaged with books – the list of unanswered questions is endless. This means that a major source of evidence for a millennium’s human history still has huge untapped potential.

The LAS spirit of breadth across disciplines is crucial to unlocking the possibilities. In particular, sciences are beginning to play a key role. To give just a few examples, DNA analysis is being applied to the animal skin used to make parchment and spectroscopy has been used to discover the components of the pigments used to decorate books. Such techniques offer the possibility, eventually, of linking books to aspects of the wider economy and environment, to agriculture, butchery, and trade.

The key development, though, is digitisation. Medieval manuscripts are little known and understood in most part because they are scattered across the world in hundreds of different libraries and archives. A further barrier to accessibility is their sensitive conservation status. Over the past two decades major digitisation initiatives have been launched and for the first time in human history these unique objects are becoming available to anyone with a computer and an internet connection.

Digitisation, though exciting, is producing its own problems. Digital media rapidly become obsolete: how can we ensure sustainability? Unlike digitised books, digitised manuscripts are not searchable automatically: how can we speed up analysis of this ‘big data’? Digital images are often subject to copyright restrictions: how can we resolve the intellectual property issues involved in using them in publications? Computer scientists, intellectual property lawyers, information scientists, archivists and librarians, and manuscripts scholars are working together to tackle these problems.

What better illustration of the relevance of the LAS ethos to solving today’s problems?

Wendy Scase (Liberal Arts team)

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