Medieval Studies in the Age of Big Data: A serial forum

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Tweeting codicologists, text-mining Chaucerians, geospatial church archaeologists, open-access iconoclasts: it’s hardly controversial to note that the digital revolution over the last ten to twenty years has changed the face of medieval studies. Nearly every major manuscript archive has launched a digitization project, with hundreds of high-resolution images added every week, it seems, and eye-catching portals inviting new users to click through and examine the treasures within. The Index of Christian Art, which consisted of a huge card catalogue and demanded painstaking cross-referencing when I was in graduate school, has become a staggering on-line resource for the history of iconography and the visual culture of Western Christianity. Text databases like the Corpus of Middle English Prose and Verse are now readily accessible and easy to use, while field-specific resources (for example the Digital Image Archive of Medieval Music) have quickly become invaluable tools for teaching and research. Even medievalists who would still insist that their scholarship has nothing to do with the digital humanities will find that their published work now forms part of gigantic searchable databases that have already reshaped the contours of inquiry across a number of disciplines.

Much has been written and spoken about the digital efflorescence of medieval studies in recent years (see here, here, here, here, here, and here for a selection of provocative posts on the subject from In the Middle). The field is hardly alone in its warm embrace of Humanities 2.0 and the exponential increase in information and data it has enabled; Dan Cohen’s recent release of a million syllabi as a single searchable database is a case in point. Nowhere are the quantitative dimensions of this transformation more apparent for medievalists than in the ongoing digitization of the parchment inheritance. Some of the most followed medievalists on Twitter are also some of the world’s leading scholars of medieval manuscripts, several of whom are now posting upwards of a dozen screen-shots a day from on-line digital collections: Erik Kwakkel, whose brilliant Twitter feed I described in an earlier post, has almost 1500 followers. I would hazard to guess that more unique images of more individual folios from more medieval manuscripts have been Tweeted, Tumblred, Pinterested, or Facebooked in the past year alone than most scholars in the field have seen in situ over their entire careers. The easy availability of this expanding and increasingly global medieval archive is pushing quickly against the narrow confines of our disciplines and training, and the coming years will surely witness a sea-change in the sorts of collaborations across specialization among scholars of the premodern world this immeasurable resource enables.

As my tone above indicates, it’s easy to be Pollyanna about all of this. Some scholars rightly worry that digitized images have already started to displace the physical book as a primary object of inquiry, with all the intellectual and practical limitations this substitution might entail. Only a fraction of medieval manuscripts have been digitized thus far, giving a very skewed sample, and despite the gains in visual resolution and accessibility, a digital image can hardly convey the physicality of the membrane codex in all its sensual and creaturely plenitude–as an object of touch, smell, sight.

Of course, no one is suggesting that digital images of membrane pages should or can replace physical books as objects of study and teaching, and it must be noted that digitization projects, as they crack open manuscripts that may not have been examined carefully in many years, have led to immediate and significant discoveries on the ground. The point is that the digitization of the parchment inheritance yields (or at least has the potential to yield) a fundamentally different kind of information than that afforded by extended immersion in a much smaller number of manuscripts.  This is one of the principles of digital humanities, of course: that the computerized transformation and geometric expansion of the world’s archives invites new sorts of questions tied intimately to the modes of preservation, enhancement, indexing, and so on that capture the objects of digitization. Given the speed with which so much information (textual, visual, codicological, palaeographical, etc.) has become so widely available in such a short amount of time to such a broad array of users, it’s worth asking hard questions about the implications of this and similar transformations of our collective archive for the field as a whole.

In short, medieval studies has entered the era of Big Data, a phrase that emerged a couple of years ago to capture the character of information storage, retrieval, accessibility, and usage in the networked worlds of the early twenty-first century (for an illuminating set of perspectives on Big Data and its implications for the humanities look here). And it’s this specifically quantitative transformation in the character of our archive and its accessibility that provokes this post and the contributions that will follow.

In The Googlization of Everything, Siva Vaidyanathan (my colleague in Media Studies at the University of Virginia) has this to say about the implications of Big Data for everyday life in our era:

We are flooded with data, much of it poorly labelled and promiscuously copied. We seek maximum speed and dexterity rather than deliberation and wisdom. Many of our systems…are biased toward the new and the now. The habits and values of markets infect all areas of our lives at all times of day. And even after living intimately with networked computers for almost two decades, we lack understanding of what such complex information systems can and cannot do, or even how they work. We trust them with far too much that is dear to us and fail to confront or even to acknowledge their limits and problems.

When I first read this passage I couldn’t help but think about medieval debates over the active vs. contemplative lives, and indeed one of the reasons I find the emergence of Big Data as a concept so intriguing is that it recapitulates some of the same tensions over the quantitative vs. qualitative dimensions of reading and learning that obtained in the Middle Ages.

With these and related issues in mind, Burnable Books will feature over the next several months a series of invited guest posts on the topic “Medieval Studies in the Age of Big Data.” Here are some of the questions that contributors might engage (though as I’ve told the initial posters, they’re welcome and encouraged to take the conversation in any direction they’d like):

  • How has the quantitative transformation of our archive over the last twenty years affected our comprehension of the era we study and teach? What are the opportunities and limitations represented by Big Data as it has absorbed more and more of the medieval textual and visual heritage?
  • If, as Marshall McLuhan put in in a well-worn dictum that helped found the field of media studies, “The medium is the message,” what is the message of Big Data? Has the digital revolution transformed the very nature of the media we teach and study? What are the intellectual and cognitive differences between paging through and touching that single medieval manuscript in front of you and scanning through ten thousand manuscript images on your laptop?
  • What are the limitations of digital philology in the age of Big Data? Will we come to favor “speed and dexterity” as we mine and sort mountains of digitized data over the “deliberation and wisdom” that we’ve traditionally found in the half-light of the library and the dust of the archive? And if so, with what implications for a discipline that has long prided itself on the slow, patient accumulation of knowledge from sources hard to find and difficult to read? And what do we do with our nostalgia?
  • Will the potent combination of mass and availability lead to a New Amateurism in and beyond medieval studies as awareness of the digital archive spreads? Carolyn Dinshaw’s new book How Soon Is Now? shows with loving detail how past generations of amateur medievalists reimagined the archives they curated in their own ways. What will digital amateurism look like?
  • Is the question of Big Data even relevant to much of what’s going on in medieval studies? Aren’t we dealing in much smaller pools of data than those being mined by our colleagues studying, say, the novel? Here readers and contributors might want to take a look at “Computational Approaches to Small Data in the Digital Humanities,” a helpful post by Scott Kleinman, a medievalist at Cal State Northridge who blogs at scottkleinman.net and makes some salient points about digital medieval studies in relation to the broader field of digital humanities.

Again, while some of these issues have been pondered by medievalists in one form or another, the particular emphasis here will be on the Question of the BIG: the quantitative transformation of our archive and its implications for how we study, teach, and write about the Middle Ages. Here are the conversation’s initial contributors:

The forum will also feature sporadic glossing by Bethany Nowviskie (@nowviskie), Director of Digital Research and Scholarship at the University of Virginia and one of the leaders in the international digital humanities community (she blogs at www.nowviskie.org).

I invite other guest posts as this discussion unfolds, as well as suggestions for potential contributors. As always, the comments thread is open to all.

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