MMSDA 2014 – A Report of the Modern Strand

If there is one word that describes the program of MMSDA 2014, it is abundance. In the best sense possible. On the first day, Elena Pierazzo emphasizes the tight schedule: being late is not appreciated; keeping a London pace is advised. The first two days take place in Cambridge, where morning lectures by a variety of speakers provide a theoretical base for the library visits in the afternoon. Then, in spite of the tube strike, the party moves to London for more lectures, practical introductions in (digital) editing and a third library visit. The evenings are filled with guest lectures, receptions, or “informal drinks”; tactfully indicated on the schedule from 17:00 to “whenever”.

Albeit tight and intensive, the schedule was carefully constructed and highly stimulating, alternating hours of listening and vigorously note taking with practical courses. One of the main goals of the MMSDA and a recurrent theme during the week is “combining traditional and digital”. According to their profession or their interests, the participants followed either a modern or a medieval strand. My fellow DiXiT-fellow Francisco will discuss the medieval strand in further detail, but it is safe to say that in either case, it was a privilege to take part in the MMSDA course. Librarians willingly took precious manuscripts out of their vaults; speakers shared inside knowledge; and in between, participants enthusiastically exchanged ideas over cups of coffee and pints of ale.

The program in Cambridge concentrated on the traditional disciplines of codicology and palaeography, and several digitization projects. This provided a theoretical basis for the following three days, which focused on (digital) editing of different types of documents. In the first lecture of the week, Peter Stokes touches upon some essential issues that will recur the rest of the week: it is easy to say “we digitize these manuscripts and put them online”. But how do you convey the properties of the document and the importance of the object? You could spend millions on high-definition scans, but for what reason? The general solution is that you need to be aware of what you are interested in before your start your digitization project: what is important, what do you want to convey and present? For instance, the bindings of a book are often not included in the digitization project, although they might contain useful information on storage and provenance.

Throughout the week, the speakers emphasize how “old” knowledge can be of use in the digital age. It is important to know about provenance, binding, types of parchment and paper, structure, ink and coloring, for all of this can be of use in determining the date, origin, provenance, author, production means, forgery, etc. That is, the conditions of your material can affect your digitization project. Accordingly, before commencing on any project, it is important to have both a complete collection description and a clear project plan. Conservator Alberto Campagnolo explains that book conservators are one of the biggest dangers to books, apart from the obvious threats (children, water and fire). Despite honorable intentions, a lack of knowledge could irreversibly destroy a book and the information it contains.

Another continual theme of the MMSDA is how new technology often imitates the traditional model for a while, because it is what people are used to, and subsequently introduce a new model adapted to its salient characteristics. For instance, long after they became redundant ridges were still placed on the back of a book. It is always most interesting to see what functions remain constant: what is of use or of interest to us, regardless the medium?

Wim van Mierlo of the London School of Advanced Studies gives two lectures on modern palaeography and modern manuscripts, on Monday and on Tuesday morning. His knowledge of the subject is great and his time limited, but he within one and a half hours he manages to relate the core of a discipline that did not even exist before he published an essay about it.

The Monday afternoon session takes place in the Cambridge University Library and held two interesting presentations. First, Huw Jones holds a talk about the digital library of Cambridge University. The digital library has especially been designed for showcasing their best assets and enabling access to it. It is in the first place a special collections library: their scope is narrow; they use special techniques and high quality images and transcriptions. For the latter, they collaborate with other digitization projects (e.g. with the Newton project for the images and transcriptions of Newton’s letters). Their aim is to make their collection accessible to anyone in the world and bring together different worlds by creating a permanent, secure platform for research output. In practice, this could mean that they present high quality facsimiles and academic transcriptions, but also secondary literature or a video describing the folio. Although they still encounter some problems with different data-output, it is an interesting example of how linked open data could work.

Subsequently, Dirk van Hulle talks about Darwin’s notebooks. He could not have a better illustration of his subject than the actual notebooks of Darwin, which are put on display on their little cushions. When confronted with these treasures, the MMSDA participants try to keep a professional and neutral posture, but succeed only partly. After some moments of hesitation, they follow the example set by Dirk van Hulle and carefully take them up. In his talk, Van Hulle demonstrates how the originating of the origin of species can be detected in Darwin’s notes and mariginalia.

Darwin's Letters

Apart from keeping several notebooks, Darwin was a devoted correspondent. During his lifetime, he discussed his findings and ideas with over 200 correspondents. Accordingly, his correspondence provides insight in the originating of his ideas, his working practice, and his thoughts that did not make it into print. Darwin had the habit of cutting up incoming letters and pasting them in his notebooks. The result –a good example of a hybrid form of manuscript and print- poses quite a challenge for the editors of his correspondence. Alison M. Pearn of the Darwin Correspondence Project describes some dilemmas they are confronted with. First of all, the editors have to try and piece together the cut up letters. Subsequently, they have to decide what to encode, and how: the notebooks with the fragments, or the recomposed letter? The goal of the Darwin project is to establish the network of incoming and outgoing letters and to show how this correspondence influenced and inspired Darwin’s work as a scientist. Since the project started back in 1974 (“not so much pre-digital, but pre-anyone thinking about doing anything digital”) they would not make the same choices as they did then.

In his lecture Tuesday evening, director of Digital Services at KCL Simon Tanner affirms how the best digital projects “grew” in an organic way. Their tools and functions often originate from a library or technological unit. They were “invented” long before the digital and have proofed their worth. Tanner recognizes the temptation of the word “digital” or “digitization” in a project description, but emphasizes that true value of these projects lies elsewhere. Usually, the innovation lies not in flashy technology, but in using existing concepts in new, inventive ways. In the end, any (digitization) project should facilitate research that could not have been done before. Like Peter Stokes, Tanner advices to have a complete and clear project description before embarking on any digitization project.

The morning sessions of the following three days are dedicated to the theory and practice of editing manuscripts. Elena Pierazzo sets the tone for these intensive sessions by giving an overview of the editorial field and tradition in less than 90 minutes. The participants learn that concepts such as “original text” are tentative, that editing and transcribing are often confused but not the same thing, and that there is no correct edition of a text: it depends on the views of the editor, his methodology, what he wants to convey, preserve and present. In other words: “sometimes textual scholarship means doing the best you can do”, or as Pierazzo’s put it: “every edition is an hypothesis; trying to recreate the Urtext is bullshit.” Afterwards, Susan Schreibman of the University of Maynooth offers a first hand experience in the dilemma’s of an editor when presenting her digitization project Letters of 1916.

The Wednesday afternoon session consists of a visit to Senate House Library. By acquiring the collection of Harry Prince, the library has a fascinating collection of books on magic, witchcraft and the occult. They also hold the books of Sir Edmund Durning-Lawrence, who collected all material supporting the theory that Lord Francis Bacon actually wrote Shakespeare’s plays. Historian Guido Giglioni enthusiastically relates about modern manuscripts and how they offer a fascinating tension between the act of thinking and the act of writing: a draft manuscript can show how ideas are shaped and formed. Consequently, it is both a visual and a textual artefact. A transcription can never entangle the visual complexity completely and is therefore always an interpretation.

The focus shifts from manuscript to pen nib when Alan Cole of the Museum of Writing presents his collection of writing tools. As so often happens, his collection started out of personal interest and has now grown to considerable proportions. Cole’s humoristic presentation does not conceal his dedication to the subject: to recreate old medieval ink he would get op at 5 am every day and collect the morning dew the recipe called for.

Collection of the Museum of Writing

The last two days are in the spirit of digital editing. For those unfamiliar with the concept, XML can be quite intimidating. However, according to Pierazzo “a little bit of fear and terror is always useful”. In theory, XML is an easy and sophisticated way to work with data and primarily used as an interchange format. Humanist scholars can lose their apprehension towards XML by considering it as a language with its own vocabulary and grammar, which can be mastered through enough practice. Admittedly, it is not the best format for text encoding. It requires for instance the use of one single hierarchy, although the material is almost never hierarchical. XML is best considered a form of documentation and representation of the text. It forces the editor to be very consistent and is therefore a great format for sharing.

After an energetic week, the MMSDA participants are well-grounded in all aspects of working with manuscripts in the digital age. They acquired knowledge on writing materials and writing practices, variants and variation, editorial dilemmas and methodologies. They sniffed the draft manuscripts of Byron and held a 15th century inkhorn. They got fit walking through London and were told valuable trivia that come in handy during awkward conversation stops –did you know that Sir Thomas Philipps did not want his book collection to be seen by Catholics, women, his son-in-law, and people who eat cheese? Furthermore, they raised glasses with participants of the EpiDoc workshop and were the honoured guests at receptions sponsored by the department of ASNC in Cambridge and the London School of Advanced Studies. They were told that when it comes to Summer Schools, the Shakespearians are “a boring old lot”, whereas a T.S. Elliot Summer School can get quite wild. They were urged to resist the temptation of the digital, or at least not to forget the value of existing tools and methods, and advised to befriend book collectors at any price. They grasped the basics of XML encoding and understood the possibilities and challenges it presents. But above all, the MMSDA confirmed what they already knew: these are great times to be a part of the fascinating world of manuscripts, print and their digital counterparts.

Cite this blog post
Elli (2014, June 6). MMSDA 2014 – A Report of the Modern Strand. DiXiT. Retrieved June 25, 2024, from

1 Response

  1. 29/10/2017

    […] reading back on my private notes from the first time we met, it was hardly surprising to see how I moved back and forth from sheer excitement to pure […]

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