An Unrevolutionary Revolution: The Other 99% (Medieval Studies in the Age of Big Data II)

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Editorial Note
This is the second in a series of guest posts on the subject “Medieval Studies in the Age of Big Data,” described in an earlier post here (the first contribution, by Martin Foys, can be found here). Timothy Stinson teaches at North Carolina State University and is the co-founder of the Medieval Electronic Scholarly Alliance (MESA); his full bio follows the post. Thanks to Tim for such a provocative and engaging post!
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Has medieval studies entered the age of big data? Yes and no, but certainly less so than many would have you believe. Such a claim may seem surprising given that medievalists were among the earliest adopters of computing technologies for humanistic inquiry and that many of the most prominent and innovative digital humanists working today are medievalists. All of that is true, but the fact is that almost all of us lack the raw materials to do “big data” in our fields of specialization. No one knows for certain how many medieval manuscript books have survived to our time; conservative estimates place the count at around 600,000, but others argue that the number is more likely as high as one million. And of course we need to add to this the very large (but unknown) number of loose leaves from codices as well as documents that often weren’t bound into codex form, such as leases, charters, and papal bulls. But our big data is still on the shelf: of these surviving medieval codices, fewer than one percent have been digitized, and of that group, most exist in digital form as images unaccompanied by textual transcriptions that can be mined or machine processed.

In his guest post for In the Middle, Martin Foys recalls a question that Dan O’Donnell posed at a Kalamazoo session devoted to digital scholarship some years ago, a question that he says has haunted him since:

Well, okay, is all this just improving what we already do, or is it actually changing what we do?” Sitting there, I was appalled — not at the question, but at the answer I myself had — which was “no, not really.”

A couple of years ago, I had the good fortune of attending a workshop entitled “Digital Manuscript Uses and Interoperation” that was sponsored by Stanford University Libraries & Academic Information Resources (SULAIR). Both Martin and Dan, whom I count among my friends and among those doing some of the most important work in our field, were present, and I witnessed something of a reprise of this conversation. Martin argued (as he does in his post) that too many digital humanists are in thrall to the idea of doing things “better, faster, stronger (a.k.a. the Bionic Man hermeneutic),” i.e., that they try to use computing technologies to amplify what they do rather than to reimagine it. Continue reading