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  • Symposium

Manuscript Studies in the Covid-19 Age

13th Annual Lawrence J. Schoenberg Symposium on Manuscript Studies in the Digital Age

With the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic in the early spring of 2020, virtual access to manuscripts and manuscript-related metadata became more important than ever before. The symposium will focus on the opportunities and limitations offered by digitization and lessons learned from the pandemic.

This event has already occurred

November 18-20, 2020
Open to the Public
Medieval manuscripts: 11 openings. The arrangement imitates a gallery of participants at a Zoom conference.

In the early spring of 2020, as the world shut down, scholarship and teaching were thrown into a virtual, online world. In the hands-on world of manuscripts studies, students, teachers, researchers, librarians, and curators lost physical access to the very objects upon which their work centered. But we were ready. Thanks to world-wide digitization efforts over the past twenty years, scholars at all levels and around the world have, by all counts, virtual access to more manuscripts and manuscript-related metadata than even a generation ago and are benefited by a broad array of digital tools, technologies, and resources that allow them to locate, gather, analyze, and interrogate digitized manuscripts and related metadata.

But in a Covid-19 Age, have these resources and tools been enough to continue manuscipt research and study? Has scholarship and teaching been supported by these resources and tools in the ways that those who created them intended? Has access to these artifacts of our shared intellectual heritage become more open and equitable or are there still hurdles for scholarship around the world to overcome?  Has a forced reckoning with digital tools, technologies, and resources spurred new questions or avenues of research or thrown up barriers? As creators and users of digital tools, technologies, and resources, have we learned anything since March about the success or failure of such projects? We will consider these questions and the opportunities and limitations offered by digital images and manuscript-related metadata as well as the digital and conceptual interfaces that come between the data and us as users. Our goal is to offer a (virtual) space to discuss lessons learned since March and how those lessons can push us to better practice and development of strategies in the future.

The symposium will take Wednesday, November 18 to Friday, November 20. Each day will consist of a 90-minute session with papers in the morning, followed by a 90-minute panel discussion led by invited moderators in the afternoon.  All sessions will be recorded and made available after each session. 

Recordings of the event are available on the SIMS Youtube channel.

Accordion List

  • Alessandro Bausi, Universität Hamburg
  • Alberto Campagnolo, University of Udine and Ca' Foscari University, Venice
  • Orietta Da Rold, University of Cambridge
  • Lisa Fagin Davis, Medieval Academy of America
  • Doug Emery, SIMS, University of Pennsylvania Libraries
  • Bill Endres, University of Oklahoma
  • Johanna Green, University of Glasgow
  • Daniel Gullo, Hill Museum and Manuscript Library
  • Nicholas Herman, SIMS, University of Pennsylvania Libraries
  • Alicia Maria Houtrouw, Getty Research Institute
  • Samantha Kelly, Rutgers University
  • Erik Kwakkel, University of British Columbia
  • Laura Morreale, Independent Scholar
  • Dot Porter, SIMS, University of Pennsylvania Libraries
  • Kim Richter, Getty Research Institute
  • Sarah Bowen Savant, Aga Khan University, Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilizations
  • Peter Stokes, École Pratique des Hautes Études – Université PSL (Paris)
  • Kelly Tuttle, SIMS, University of Pennsylvania Libraries 
  • Bridget Whearty, Binghamton University
  • Whitney Trettien, University of Pennsylvania

Two events will be held conjunction with the symposium:

  • Scholarly Editing Covid19-Style: Laura Morreale will lead a 3-day crowd-sourcing effort to transcribe, edit, and submit for publication an edition of Le Pelerinage de Damoiselle Sapience, from UPenn MS Codex 660 (f. 86r-95v). Sounds crazy? Well, that's 2020! For more information, click here.
  • Virtual Lightning Round: Pre-recorded 5-minute lightning round talks featuring digital projects at all stages of development, from ideas to implementation. Scroll up and click on the Lightning Round Videos tab to view the program and  get the links or just go straight to the Youtube playlist here.

Event Series


Looking Back and Aiming Forward

Moderator: Lynn Ransom, Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies (SIMS), Penn Libraries

Access and Discovery/Inclusion and Exclusion

Moderator: Amey Hutchins, SIMS, Penn Libraries

Interrogating Interfaces and Digital Representation: Images, Metadata, Screens

Moderator: Jessie Dummer, SIMS, Penn Libraries

Presentation Abstracts

Accordion Column of Lists

Peter Stokes, École Pratique des Hautes Études – Université PSL (Paris)

As the Schoenberg Symposium and the Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies have long been demonstrating, access to digital images of manuscripts has grown enormously in recent years, particularly with IIIF and the movement towards increasingly open and rights-free content. At the same time, we have also seen increasing access to relatively powerful computers, fast internet connections, and now access even to hardware and software for deep learning such as free software libraries, increasingly affordable GPUs, and, in some cases, high-performance computing clusters. At the same time, however, librarians are often reporting less time for cataloguing and metadata, and at least in some cases access to original items is becoming increasingly difficult, not to mention the increasing complexity of computational methods and the widely-recognized fact that the ‘reasoning’ of modern machine learning is inaccessible even to specialists. The current health crisis seems to be accelerating these trends, which leaves the question: what of paleography? Looking at the past and present of digital and computational methods, in this talk I will attempt to identify some of the promises and problems of where we are now and where we seem to be going.

Alberto Campagnolo, Università degli Studi di Udine

The digitization of books is generally understood as the capture of the page contents through photography and imaging. Not all features of books can be digitally acquired in this manner— we will refer to these as untransferable characteristics— and models and descriptive metadata are necessary steps to computerize important information about the structure and materiality of documents. Digitization, in fact, can do much more than reproducing books as texts to be read, and books are much more than flat sequences of pages: there is much information in books that has been largely ignored— so far. Among these, we find the physical form of books (e.g., bindings, the form and materials of its pages, inks, decorations, usage accretions, stains, and so on). While digitization tends to concentrate on the remediation of the content of books, we argue for an increased interest in the transmediation of the materiality of books. This digital representation and manipulation of an object’s materiality is achieved through a number of means, metadata designation being one of the most established processes to bring these untransferable features into the digital. Digital surrogates created in this manner have the potency to be more than mere replacements of the original objects. Instead, when the transformative nature of the digitization process is more fully harnessed, they can become digital cultural objects: digital objects that transcend the originals, work in synergy with them, and make them something more.

Sarah Bowen Savant, Aga Khan University, Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilizations

At present, the KITAB project – a collaboration between historians and computer scientists – has assembled a corpus of 1.7 billion words of Arabic texts and is seeking to understand how transmission practices (ca. 700-1500) resulted in a tradition that is both enormous and also hugely intertextual. In this presentation, I will discuss, first, our efforts to build a corpus of machine-readable texts, including through an Optical Character Recognition pipeline. I will then focus on two research lines. In the first, we are modeling “text reuse” (meaning, the reuse, in whole or in part, of substantial chunks of texts by later authors). The extensive recycling of texts in new ones explains partly the large size of the Arabic tradition; it is also important also for understanding the transmission of ideas and the workings of cultural memory broadly. Secondly, I will focus on our work to study citation practices, and especially the chains of previous authorities frequently cited by Arabic authors. Oftentimes, our authors tell us precisely how they reused earlier texts, but their explanations are so many and so complex, that interpreting them without digital methods is nearly impossible. Models help us to capture this information. Through this lecture, therefore I hope to show the frontiers of what we might learn about one of the world’s richest and most complex written traditions. 

KITAB is a European Research Council Consolidator Grant project funded under Horizon 2020 and also receives funding from the Qatar National Library and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Laura Morreale, Independent Scholar

The restrictions imposed by COVID19 have challenged all who work in academia, and particularly those who work with material sources like medieval manuscripts, to reconsider normal practices of research exchange and how they might transfer to the online environment.  Rather than slavishly replicating previous in-person formats which are invariably less effective when staged virtually, we have the chance instead to think creatively about how to capitalize on the digital medium, to investigate why people already willingly dedicate so much of their time to computer-based forms of communication. By identifying and co-opting what makes some kinds of virtual exchange successful, we can inspire new forms of academic exchange that re-invent rather than mimic older forms of teaching, research, and learning.

My talk will explore a series of manuscript-based transcription events that took place from May to October of 2020 (the La Sfera and Image du Monde Challenges) to determine what made these events successful, and how we might transfer these well-received techniques to future academic and manuscript based gatherings. I will also explain the essential components of what makes such events so compelling, and report on the status of the event that will take place concurrently with the conference, a three-day group project to transcribe and prepare for publication a digital version of Le pelerinage de dame sapience, a text housed at University of Pennsylvania's Rare Book and Manuscript Library, MS 660.

Alessandro Bausi, Universität Hamburg

The project Beta maṣāḥǝft: Manuscripts of Ethiopia and Eritrea, based at the Hiob Ludolf Centre for Ethiopian and Eritrean Studies, and funded by the Union of German Academies in the Academies Programme through the Academy of Sciences of Hamburg, started in 2016 with the aim at creating a comprehensive research environment for the description and multimedial display and access of the written heritage of Christian Ethiopia and Eritrea. At the centre of the environment there is a relational database on Gǝʿǝz and Amharic manuscripts and inscriptions collecting data and information on works and texts, paratexts and paracontents (colophons, additional notes), but also authors, owners, scribes, places, and institutions, as well as data on all available physical features of the manuscripts. The project website provides digital images, supplied wherever possible, and some of the texts and passages edited and linked to lexica. The portal interoperability with other online repositories allows search from one central place across several existing platforms and the users can thus perform queries on texts, authors, scribes, and codicological elements for most known and accessible manuscripts from Ethiopia and Eritrea. Given the specific goals of the project and its structure since its very inception, the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic has prevented field trips, research, and digitization in the Horn of Africa, but has not affected the research work based on the platform, that, quite on the contrary, has proved effective and sustainable—of which the presentation will provide some examples.

Accordion Column of Lists

Daniel Gullo

The HMML Authority File, funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, addresses two primary challenges that confront access to endangered manuscripts from understudied traditions digitized by the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library (HMML): the need to identify and standardize understudied and unknown names and titles used to describe and search manuscripts in literary traditions that lack a national infrastructure to create authority files, and the need to create a system to share this data with the Library of Congress Linked Data Service and the Virtual International Authority File. HMML Authority File, or HAF, will also include different types of metadata, unicode characters, and other identifiers not supported by traditional MARC record creation to create better files for unique persons, works, and places. The complex database will be designed to allow faceted advance searching, thus removing the obstacles of string searching found in systems like VIAF and Library of Congress Linked Data Service. The goal is a robust database of authority files that will be submitted to the Library of Congress and be harvested by VIAF and Wikidata to help create a reference resource for librarians and scholars worldwide. 

Alicia Maria Houtrouw and Kim Richter, Getty Research Institute

The Florentine Codex is a sixteenth-century Mexican manuscript produced collaboratively by Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagún and a team of Nahua authors and artists. Its twelve books contain a primary Nahuatl text (an Indigenous language of central Mexico), a Spanish interpretation of the Nahuatl text by Sahagún, and over two thousand images painted by Nahua artists. Modeled after ancient Roman and medieval encyclopedias, the codex is renowned as a critical source on central Mexican culture and for its history of the conquest of Mexico.

The collaborative Florentine Codex initiative, initiated at the Getty Research Institute in 2016, leverages Getty’s expertise in digital scholarship and vocabulary standards to produce: 1) the Digital Florentine Codex, a critical digital edition giving full online access to the manuscript and its transcriptions and translations; 2) a scholarly digital publication on the codex’s Mexica perspective of the conquest of Mexico; 3) K-12 lesson plans on the conquest contrasting Indigenous and European perspectives; and 4) 4,000 entries contributed to the Getty Vocabularies (in English, Spanish, Classical Nahuatl, and contemporary Eastern Huasteca Nahuatl) drawn from the codex’s unique linguistic content.

The Florentine Codex was completed in the midst of a devastating epidemic of 1575. Consequently, pigment supplies ran dry and illustrations went unfinished. Almost 500 years later, we tackle this digital initiative during a global pandemic and face a new set of unexpected circumstances. Although our born-digital outcomes were planned from the outset, today’s obligatorily virtual world makes plain the urgency for more comprehensive access to cultural heritage. 

Johanna Green, University of Glasgow

Digitally communicating the materiality of medieval manuscripts has long been a subject of conversation and debate; where older scholarly arguments bemoaned the lack of sensory engagement offered by digital medieval manuscripts, more recent work has sought to demonstrate the myriad ways manuscripts exist as sensory objects both through and within the digital realm. While there are many more important things to have been impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic, access to our medieval manuscript collections was nevertheless also affected. Working remotely, and initially without any physical access to Collections, practitioners and users alike were left with the digital manifestations of our manuscript collections as their only material witness; rather than occupy the position of “surrogate”, these digital remediations suddenly took on “object” status. And yet the question remained: given the 2D and text-focused nature of our professional digitizations, where is the material manuscript to be found when we are all working at a distance, and experiencing the material codex through a digital lens? This paper considers various spaces the material codex might be located digitally, considers how our former use and opinion of DIY digitization and Collections’ social media content might now shift from “edutainment” to consider them “source material”, and, via a case study of use at the University of Glasgow, evaluates how lessons learned from those spaces might influence investment in Virtual Collections technology, to continue to expand how we digitally communicate the material book at a distance.

Bill Endres, University of Oklahoma

Another way to write this title: “A Transformative Space within a Transformative Space: Cool!” Manuscripts have long been transformative spaces, as have scrolls, books, and computer screens. For manuscripts, such transformational energy occurs through engagement with pages but also through ceremonies, such as the “opening of the ears” ceremony (Apertio aurium), performed during Lent and involving the choreographed movement of four illuminated manuscripts. How, then, can VR, as a transformative space, transform how we study the transformative energy of manuscripts, that is, open the dynamics of one transformative space through another? In this talk, I will explore different types of affordances for various spaces, focusing on embodied engagement, to highlight how VR invites new methods for researching manuscripts. 

All Lightning Round Videos have been pre-recorded. They can be accessed via the Schoenberg Symposium YouTube playlist or individually via the links provided.

Accordion List

The 13th Annual (Virtual) Schoenberg Symposium on Manuscript Studies in the Digital Age is delighted to present 25 5-Minute Lightning Round Videos featuring digital or digital-enabled projects at all stages of development, from ideas to implementation. Thanks to all those who contributed!