Among Digitized Manuscripts

A book about Codicology, Paleography, and Philology in a Digital World

Among Digitized Manuscripts

At a Glance

This is a handbook for bringing together Digital Humanities and Manuscript Studies. It is especially suitable for students and scholars who have been classically trained in handling manuscript materials and who want to take advantage of the incredible computing power they know they have literally at their fingertips.
This book gives a conceptual and practical toolbox to work with digitized manuscripts.


Among Digitized Manuscripts

Overview of Chapters

1. Manuscript, Print, and Digital World

Chapter 1 is a theory-heavy chapter that provides a framework to see how the manifestations of a manuscript, print publication, and digital document relate to each other. In the chapter, I introduce the concepts ‘manuscript world,’ ‘print world,’ and ‘digital world.’ I discuss how our work can be explained through the different relationships between these worlds. The manuscript world is a realm in which participants use and produce texts by writing them with ink by hand, on parchment or paper. The print world is a world understood through engaging with texts machine-printed on mass- produced paper. The digital world, finally, is created by typing on a computer keyboard and reading back text on an electronic screen. When we edit, we base our work on artifacts from the manuscript world. We work, meanwhile, on a computer, thereby working in the digital world. Our final product, however, is often times a printed book, part of the print world.

2. The Digital Materiality of Digitized Manuscripts

Chapter 2 is the core of the conceptual part of the book. I discuss the perception scholars have of digitized manuscripts. They consider them ‘larger than life,’ that is, they emphasize the ability to zoom in and make visible tiny details invisible to the naked eye. I discuss how this perception rests on larger trends of thinking about mechanical reproduction and digital surrogates. In essence, I see scholars use digitized manuscripts as though they are a window onto which one can look at the physical manuscript. As such, it is unsurprising to see scholars cite the physical manuscript when in fact they made use of a digital surrogate. I then proceed to criticize this attitude. In fact, I tear it to shreds. This attitude rests largely on ignoring the ‘digital materiality’ of digital photos, which in turn is because we do not have a vocabulary to describe its important aspects. I introduce ten aspects to evaluate a digitized manuscript and its repository: 1) size of the collection; 2) online availability; 3) ability to download; 4) the portal; 5) the viewer; 6) indication of page numbers; 7) image resolution; 8) color balance; 9) lighting; and 10) how the image is cut.

3. A Comparison of Repositories

Chapter 3 takes these aspects and applies them to twenty repositories that were chosen to give a representative picture of the state of digitization of Islamic manuscripts worldwide. As many of these libraries also host manuscripts of other disciplines, readers from beyond Islamic Studies should still find this of ample interest. The result is that quality and usability varies wildly. Not all manuscripts are downloadable, which is worrisome, as is the often ambiguous legal restrictions. On the whole, digitization seems to be firing on all cylinders which is promising. I end with a SWOT-analysis to speculate on the future of these repositories.

4. Among Digitized Manuscripts

Chapter 4 takes serious one of the most heard complaints of using digitized manuscripts, namely, that it would destroy the pure reading experience a physical manuscript gives. Some scholars go so far as to argue that only such a pure experience could allow for a true understanding of the contents. Since I found this personal relationship towards manuscripts so excellently described in Ignaz Kratchkovsky’s memoir Among Arabic Manuscripts, I decided to write short stories about my experience of engaging with thousands of manuscripts (be it digitized manuscripts), in a similar style as Kratchkovsky. With these stories, I wish to show that the experience of reading a physical, actual manuscript may be destroyed with a digital surrogate, but other experiences of equally personal and emotional quality come about.

5. Codicology: Programming with Python and OpenCV

Chapter 5 provides a counter example for those who argue that codicology requires the physical manuscript. This chapter takes on a notably technical character, as I explain how I used the programming language Python and the library OpenCV to analyze the cover of several thousand digitized manuscripts. The method is automated image recognition, the aim is to say meaningful things about the shape of the codex, focussing on one particular aspect of Islamic manuscripts. Preliminary results are explained, but the chapter revolves more around introducing programming in general and Python in particular.

6. Paleography: Drawing Vector Shapes of Glyphs

Chapter 6 has two topics, both connected to paleography. First, I discuss the sprawling field of big-budget team projects related to digital paleography and I notably discuss when such big projects work well and when they do not at all seem to deliver what they promise. Next, I provide a practical example of how a tablet and free drawing software can be used to do simple yet effective paleographic work. This part of the chapter is an extended, more formal, and more in-depth version of my article “Mysterious Symbols in Islamic Philosophy.” That article discusses three glyphs that appear in a text by twelfth-century philosopher Suhrawardī. Suhrawardī says that only the initiate will understand how these symbols represent the essence of his philosophy. By (literally) drawing from a number of medieval manuscripts and combining different versions of the glyphs, I come to the interpretation that the symbols are constructed from Arabic letters.

7. Philology: Digital Editing or Editing Digitally

Chapter 7 takes on the concept of ‘digital edition.’ I draw on the extensive literature available, and emphasize that a digital edition as a general concept, and TEI as a specific building block of it, is not to be universally adopted, but a solution for specific cases. One such case is the editing of commentaries from the post-classical period. Their intertextuality is multidimensional to such a degree as can hardly be explained by conventual print techniques. Thus we stand to benefit in preparing our analysis and in publishing our results from a digital environment in which different layers (i.e. authors) can be turned on and off. In the chapter I describe the technology behind it. I further point out the merits of a good digital edition: give back control to the reader to make decisions for theirselves, while clearly also adding editorial value yourself. Lastly, I show how setting up your computer just right can be very helpful. For example, I demonstrate how to create your own keyboard lay-out so that when you press a key on your keyboard, a character (or multiple characters) of your choice is displayed.

8. Cataloging: From Fieldwork to the Internet

Chapter 8 explains why knowing web development is a great asset for students and scholars in the Humanities, and why catalogues should be among the first to be turned into digital assets. I explain the entire process of creating an online catalog of a hitherto uncatalogued collection, from how computers helped me in my fieldwork to how I created an interactive website to make the catalog available to anyone else.

9. A Digital Orientalist

Chapter 9 brings together some issues arising in our everyday workflow, and legal issues of our work. I make a case for the usefulness of self-sufficiency; a scholar in the humanities is much better off establishing their own digital repository and implementing automatized solutions themselves, rather than doing this on a project basis made possible through grants. Of course, I end with an eye towards the future.

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Cornelis van Lit

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