Yvonne Seale

Making Women Matter, One Medieval Manuscript at a Time

Category: Digital Humanities (Page 1 of 2)

Notes from a DH Classroom

This semester, my students have learned the narrow streets of the Marais, traced the path once taken by Paris’s city walls, and considered how the spires of the cathedral of Notre Dame would have drawn the eye of the medieval city dweller: all without leaving upstate New York.

Like the other 300-level seminars offered in Geneseo’s history department, “Hacking the Middle Ages” is designed to introduce sophomore history majors and minors to the process of conducting independent research and prepare them for our upper-level seminars. Unlike those other classes, this class is explicitly built around a digital history project. The students collaborated to read Guillebert de Mets’ fifteenth-century Description de la ville de Paris and then used the information which it contains in order to build their own traveller’s guide to the city in the late Middle Ages.

A sixteenth-century guinea pig. Detail of “Three Unknown Elizabethan Children”, ca. 1580. London, National Portrait Gallery.

As I stressed to the students from the beginning of the course, this made them guinea pigs in a way—and put me in the very same position. The class was a new one for me to design and teach. The topic arose out of my own expertise in the history of medieval France, and my long-standing interest in digital humanities and spatial history, but I had not previously had the opportunity to teach a DH class. While some DH projects were underway at Geneseo before I and the rest of the Computational Analytics Cluster were hired last year (the Digital Thoreau project is probably the most prominent example), more robust and formal connections needed to be forged between the History Department and CIT to make sure that innovations in digital pedagogy and research projects were fully and consistently supported.

And then there was the really big structural issue: dealing with students’ anxieties about using technology. The term “digital native” gets bandied about a lot, but I find it a term that’s not just vague but actually harmful. Being born after a certain date doesn’t mean that you innately understand how computing technology works. (For all that my three-year-old niece can find her way around YouTube like nobody’s business.) “Digital native” doesn’t take into account the broad range of student socio-economic and educational backgrounds, or that in the age of the tablet and the smartphone app, students are more used to a passive and siloed use of technology than they are to the creative and experimental use of computers. It steers people—educators, administrators, policy makers—towards thinking that “the flipped classroom” or “the hybrid classroom” or whatever buzzword we’re employing this week will work simply because, well… millennials, right?

Olivier Truschet and Germain Hoyau, Map of Paris, ca. 1550. [Universiteitsbibliotheek Vrije Universiteit, LL.06979gk.]

In fact, many of the students in this class confided in me that they actively dislike computers and technology, and had signed up for the class not understanding what the terms “digital history” and “digital humanities” in the course description actually meant. (“I thought you just meant ‘hacking’ like with a longsword,” said one.)

I had built some flexibility into the course timetable, but soon realised that I needed to increase that as it became clear to me that the prospect of undertaking a digital project felt scary to students in ways that writing a more traditional research paper did not. Sure, it’s intimidating to be asked to scale up from writing a 3-4 page paper to one that’s 18-20 pages long, but the fundamentals of the task are still familiar. Asking students to get comfortable with Omeka or Neatline or Fusion Tables is asking them to learn a whole new toolkit before they ever start to construct an argument or think about their prospective audience. We ask students to read primary sources; we rarely ask them to think about the metadata choices that let us find and access those primary sources in the first place.

So I made a deliberate choice to engage with the students where they were: to openly acknowledge that they were grappling with something new and that I acknowledged that it was difficult; to stop and consider my own assumptions on a regular basis. (My Irish convent secondary school in the late ’90s insisted that all students learn how to use word processing and spreadsheet programs; American students in the No Child Left Behind age can graduate high school never having opened Excel and without grasping the distinction between a footer and a footnote.)

And, with so many of them anxious about being asked to acquire both content knowledge and skills in one fell swoop, I was as explicit as I could be, as often as I could be, that their tastes and interests would have primacy in shaping the resulting website (which they dubbed Mapping By the Book). I ditched most of the parameters I’d planned to ask them to include in the final project, and stripped it down to “base it on Guillebert’s text, include a mapping component and a scholarly bibliography, go nuts.” At first that seemed infinitely more overwhelming to them; I think there was widespread suspicion that there was some unknowable Platonic form of a mapping project that I was just expecting them to intuit. I had to stress that yes, they had agency over their own intellectual output—I wasn’t interested in seeing them blandly copy the kind of website I would build.

Mapping medieval churches on a georectified version of the Truschet and Hoyau map.

Once they realised that I really was giving them their head, their work blossomed. They tried new things, taxed Interlibrary Loan with the volume of books they called up about Parisian churches and the travels of Philip Augustus, got frustrated because they had experimental ideas that Omeka and Neatline wouldn’t let them accomplish, and seemed to spend half of their class time teaching one another how to recreate this cool new things they’d discovered. Classes got noisier, less predictable, and students were proud to claim ownership of their work. Did we get to everything I’d wanted to cover in the course originally? No. But it was an excellent reminder that sometimes giving up a little bit of control results in better scholarship and better pedagogy.

Over at the Geneseo History Department blog, the “Hacking the Middle Ages” students have written about their project this semester, and shared what they thought was most valuable about the exercise of making the Mapping by the Book website. Their enthusiasm and good humoured embrace of being the departmental guinea pigs means that I’m feeling much more confident about the next stage of digital history projects here at Geneseo: a series of student independent studies this summer that will be conducted jointly with CIT.

None of us are teaching digital natives. We’re acting as a tour guides for digital explorers.

A screencap of the students’ Neatline exhibit mapping the colleges of medieval Paris.

How to Embed a Zotero Bibliography in a Web Page

If you use Zotero as a citation manager, there’s a relatively quick way to embed your Zotero library (or a sub-section of it) on your own web site using a free service called BibBase. I’ve done so over here, setting up a bibliography on the history of the Premonstratensian Order in the Middle Ages. This takes a minimum of technical know-how and it updates automatically. In other words, if you add an item to your Zotero library or collection, or edit it, the embedded bibliography will reflect that.

Screen Shot 2016-08-10 at 21.09.39

Here’s how you set up an embedded bibliography for a collection. Set up a collection in your Zotero account and add the relevant items to it. Make sure that you sync up your account with the Zotero server, and that your Zotero account is set to public. Without those two steps, BibBase won’t be able to “see” your collection.

Once you’ve done that, make sure that you’re signed in to Zotero.org and then go to http://bibbase.org/service/zotero. You should now have a list of URLs to choose from: your entire library or any one of your collections. Right click and copy the link to the collection you want to embed.


Now go to the HTML file (for most people who’ll be reading this, either a WordPress or Omeka page) where you want to host the embedded bibliography. Paste the URL you copied into the file surrounded by this little bit of code:

<script src=”http://bibbase.org/show?bib=[URL-YOU-COPIED]&jsonp=1″></script>

In the case of the bibliography I set up, the code looks like this:


And that should be it! All you need to do now is hit publish, open the page, and watch your new bibliography load. It will be ordered according to publication year by default, but you can use the drop-down menu to rearrange the bibliography according to author’s last name.

A caveat that this isn’t a perfect service for people working in the humanities—BibBase hasn’t been set up with us in mind and so the style in which the references are displayed isn’t standard for historians, and it doesn’t really know what to do with, say, a collection of essays by various authors with one or more editors (Looking at the accompanying documentation, that might change in the future if support for Chicago style is implemented.) However, if you’re looking for a quick way to set up a bibliography, BibBase has a lot to recommend it.

Mapping Hugo’s “Annales”

For historians, one of the most useful things about new digital mapping technologies are the new ways in which they let us approach our body of sources. As someone who wrote her doctoral dissertation on the Premonstratensian Order in medieval France, I’ve spent much of the last few years immersed in the works of one man: Charles-Louis Hugo. His books—particularly the magisterial but uncompleted Sacri et Canonici Ordinis Praemonstratensis annales—preserved the text of many medieval documents which are otherwise lost to us. Without the Annales, my doctoral work—and the work of other people interested in the Premonstratensian Order over the years—would have been much more difficult, if not impossible.

However, when I mapped out the Annales—visualising the places from where Hugo got his information—it was very clear to me that it’s a work shaped by the particular moment in history when it was produced. The Annales has been shaped by the fact that it was produced in post-Reformation Europe, and we need to keep that in mind when using it as a source for the history of the order in the Middle Ages.

Who was Hugo?

The abbey church of Pont à Mousson. [Source]

The abbey church of Pont à Mousson. [Source]

Born in 1667 into a middle-class family into a small town in eastern France that had been profoundly affected by conflicts between Catholics and Protestants, Hugo took his religious vows while still a teenager. He did so in the Premonstratensian abbey of Pont à Mousson, the mother house of the reform branch of the order. Hugo spent time at the abbeys of Jovilliers, Jandeures, and Étival, before becoming prior of Saint-Joseph de Nancy in 1700. There he helped to reconstruct the priory and establish its library.

In 1713, Hugo moved to the abbey of Étival, one of the largest religious institutions in Lorraine. There he undertook his greatest works, the two-volume Sacræ Antiquitatis (1725) and the Annales (1734). His involvement in ecclesiastical in-fighting saw him sent away from Étival for a while, but papal and ducal favour allowed him to eventually return to the abbey. He died there in 1739 at the age of 71, having been a Premonstratensian for 54 years.

The Annales

Hugo acquired the material for the Annales by corresponding with people across Europe—much more material than was ever published, in fact, owing to Hugo’s death. (His notebooks containing a wealth of still-to-be-mined transcriptions and observations are now held at the municipal library in the French town of Nancy.)

Title page of the first volume of Charles-Louis Hugo's Annales.

Title page of the first volume of Charles-Louis Hugo’s Annales.

The first two volumes of the Annales are a kind of gazetteer of the order’s houses, with each entry consisting of a historical notice, together with a list of abbots or abbesses where known. Entries vary in length from a paragraph or two to several pages. The second two volumes are the probationes, the evidence—in other words, they contain the text of the charters, papal bulls, privileges, letters, and other documents on which Hugo drew. Publishing transcriptions of these documents was a substantial undertaking. As you can see from the index which I compiled of the two probationes volumes, there are 767 documents transcribed in the first volume, and 792 in the second. Some of these sources survive in the original, or in other medieval or early modern copies. Others are known to us only from Hugo’s transcriptions.

Mapping the Sources

Each circle on the map below represents a Premonstratensian community which was the subject of a document contained in the probationes volumes. The circles are sized proportionately: the larger they are, the more documents about that house. (In instances where a document is an agreement between, say, Abbey A and B, I counted that towards the total of both abbeys since Hugo could have potentially obtained a copy from either institution and he rarely states how he specifically came across a document. In instances where the document concerns the order as a whole, as with some papal bulls, I omitted it from the count.)

You can see straight away that there are regions which are home to clusters: where many Premonstratensian houses produced documents transcribed by Hugo and in large numbers. Unsurprisingly, these are in places like northern France and the Rhineland—where the order got its start—and in Magdeburg, where the order’s founding figure ended his days. Yet there are also some anomalies which appear when you compare this map with the distribution of the order’s houses as a whole. There were Premonstratensian houses in Ireland, Scotland, Scandinavia, Cyprus, the Holy Land, but you would never know that from looking at this distribution.

This hints right away at there being regions which couldn’t answer Hugo’s requests for information. The eastern Mediterranean was largely under Muslim rule; Scotland and Scandinavia were decidedly Protestant in inclination; and while most people in Ireland were still Catholic, the English crown had ordered the dissolution of the island’s monasteries. The likely destruction of the medieval records from these regions means that there were histories which Hugo could neither write nor transmit—and so we have to be careful not to presume that the Premonstratensian Order in the Middle Ages was everywhere similar to those regions which remained politically and culturally Catholic.

Of course, this realisation raises yet another question: if the dissolution of houses in Ireland and Scotland meant that Hugo couldn’t gain access to documents from those houses, then why are English Premonstratensian monasteries represented on the map? Returning to the text of the Annales provides a possible answer. While Hugo generally copies out a medieval document in full, including preamble, date, and witness list, he doesn’t do so for the documents from English houses. They are all transcribed in a truncated format, and so my sense is that Hugo was copying from a register of charters that had been sent from England to a house on the continent at some point prior to the Reformation—most likely to the mother house at Prémontré.

If this register did exist, it has long since vanished—but mapping out the sources of Charles-Louis Hugo’s Annales lets us see the echo of it and other lost sources in the historical record.

Hugo’s Works:

  • Critique de l’histoire des Chanoines. 1700. [Read online]
  • La vie de Saint Norbert. 1704. [Read online]
  • Traité historique et critique sur l’origine et la généalogie de la maison de Lorraine. 1711. [Read online]
  • Sacræ Antiquitatis Monumenta Historica, Dogmatica, Diplomatica, Notis Illustrata, 2 vols. 1725. [Vol. 1] [Vol. 2]
  • Sacri et Canonici Ordinis Praemonstratensis annales, 4 vols. 1734. [Vol. 1] [Vol. 2] [Vol. 3] [Vol. 4]

Doing Medieval Latin Palaeography Online

DIY History is a project run by the University of Iowa Libraries, which seeks to digitize some of its Special Collections’ holdings and make them available for crowd-sourced transcription. Now, thanks to a tool launched in Saturday’s workshop, DIY History also allows for translation. In collaboration with Professors Sarah Bond and Katherine Tachau, and my colleague Heather Wacha, I led a workshop this Saturday to explore the medieval manuscripts which have been newly added to the DIY History corpus.

The translate tool adds functionality to the site both for researchers and for the classroom. It will also be available for the site’s other non-English language holdings, such as the archival material related to the history of Germans in Iowa.

The workshop was introduced by Professor Sarah Bond (Classics), who is a member of the UI’s digital humanities cluster hire and a staunch advocate of bridging the disciplinary divide between Classicists and medievalists. Professor Katherine Tachau (History) then provided participants with an overview of the development of palaeography, from the daunting Late Roman cursive through to the scripts championed by the early Humanists.

After lunch, it was my turn to speak, and I introduced the participants to some digital tools for budding palaeographers.

Next up was my colleague, Heather Wacha, who talked about the particular medieval manuscripts which are hosted in DIY History, and the peculiar joy of a really good palaeographical puzzle.

With the foundational material covered, participants could dive into exploring the material themselves, transcribing and translating leaves from Books of Hours, sermons, psalters, and bibles.

A Beginner’s Guide to Digital Palaeography of Medieval Manuscripts

[Header Image: Cambridge, Queen’s College MS C.13.16]

Today, together with my colleagues, Heather Wacha, Sarah Bond, and Katherine Tachau, I led a workshop on “Latin Paleography and Transcription”, under the auspices of the University of Iowa Digital Scholarship and Publishing Studio. The workshop celebrated the launch of a new feature of UI’s DIY History website: a translation feature to join the site’s pre-existing transcription function. It also introduced participants to the hundreds of medieval Latin manuscript leaves held at the University of Iowa Special Collections, but which DIY History now makes available worldwide to students, scholars, and anyone with an interest in the Middle Ages. This is a great new tool for both research and teaching.

Palaeography is the study of historical handwriting; reading archaic hands is a highly necessary skill for historians, but one that takes a lot of practice to acquire. Digital tools can help make it easier for a budding medievalist to get to grips with sources in the original, both in terms of transcription and of translation. They can also help more established scholars to push discussion of manuscripts in new directions, by allowing for the easier comparison of a whole corpus of digitised manuscripts, their letter forms, and internal structures.

The resources listed here are some of those which I touched on in the workshop. This isn’t an exhaustive list, but one designed to provide a jumping off point for future exploration of digitized manuscripts.

British Library Cotton Caligula A.xv, f. 132r.

British Library Cotton Caligula A.xv, f. 132r.


DigiPal is designed to allow you to see samples of handwriting from the period and to compare them with each other quickly and easily. It is focused on eleventh-century English hands, like the one in the manuscript pictured left. It uses lots of different kinds of annotations applied to individual letter forms or symbols so that you can really drill down and compare different manuscripts on a fine-grained level. This is good practice for working out how to identify individual scribal hands.

The Album interactif de paléographie médiévale, hosted by the University of Lyons, offers a useful selection of practical introductory exercises that will help you get your eye in on a variety of Latin, French, and Italian scripts from the 9th to the 15th centuries. (Thanks to Rosemary Moore for the heads up about this site!)

If your focus is on a slightly later period, the French Renaissance Paleography site, recently launched by the University of Toronto and the Newberry Library in Chicago, is a really great resource. It contains more than a hundred French manuscripts dated 1300-1700, with tools for teaching and transcription and some associated historical essays.

And if you really want to practice on the go, you can download the Medieval Handwriting App [iOS/Android] that lets you get your eye in on 26 different manuscripts. It includes primer pages and the opportunity to check your work.


Every so often, even the most intrepid paleographer can be stumped by a word—whether because of damage to the manuscript, because a string of minims can be difficult to parse, or because of an unusual word abbreviation. There are some digital tools that can help you out in these situations, like Enigma. If you type the letters you can read and add wildcards for those you can’t, Enigma will list all the Latin words that it could be. This tool has saved me from tearing my hair out on a number of occasions.

Portrait of the scribe Eadwine. English, ca. 1147. Cambridge R.17.1, f.283v.

Portrait of the scribe Eadwine. English, ca. 1147.
Cambridge R.17.1, f.283v.

Latin was the language of scholarship, law, administration, and diplomacy in the Middle Ages, but it was not quite the same language that had been spoken during the Roman Empire. Christian terms were borrowed from Greek and Hebrew, while regional vernaculars also shaped the vocabulary and syntax of medieval Latin. This means that medieval Latin manuscripts often contain words that you’re not going to find in a standard Latin dictionary.

That’s where the work of a French nobleman, Charles du Fresne, sieur du Cange (1610-88), still comes in useful for modern scholars. Du Cange wrote a multi-volume work, the Glossarium mediae et infimae Latinitatis (“Glossary of medieval and late Latin”, though it’s almost always referred to simply as “Du Cange”), which has gone through various editions over the centuries. One of its later iterations is now available online courtesy of the Sorbonne in an easily searchable digital edition. (I’ve also previously put together a handlist of dictionaries for those working with medieval Latin and French (langues d’oïl) texts which might be useful.)

Capelli’s dictionary of Latin abbreviations was published in 1912, but it remains an indispensable reference for medievalists. My ever more battered print version accompanies me on all my archival research, but if it’s too bulky for you or you want to look things up on the fly, you can refer to a copy which has been scanned and put online. There is a browser-based app (which is also mobile compatible) called Abbreviationes which draws on a much larger range of manuscripts than does Capelli, and is updated occasionally; however, it’s pretty expensive and has some clunky restrictions on how a subscription can be used.

If you’d like to work on transcriptions of medieval manuscripts that are not part of the University of Iowa collections, it’s worth checking out the T-PEN project at the University of St Louis. It hosts more than 4000 manuscripts that can be transcribed or annotated, and also allows you to upload your own manuscript images to create transcriptions through its online interface. You can work alone or in small groups, but for copyright reasons—and unlike DIY History—the projects can’t be public or crowd-sourced on a large scale.

Read More

If you’ve been bitten by the palaeography bug (it happens) and want to know more about how to read manuscripts and how to use them as historical artefacts in and of themselves, there are lots of resources out there for you to explore. The Sorbonne’s Theleme website hosts a bibliography with over 1500 entries (French language), all on palaeography from Late Antiquity to the modern era.

There are an ever-increasing number of websites which host manuscripts digitised by libraries and archives across the world. The easiest way to get a sense of the breadth and variety of digitised medieval manuscripts is to visit the Digitized Medieval Manuscripts site. It hosts links to more than 400 institutions and tens of thousands of manuscripts. DMMaps is a crowd-sourced project and is updated regularly.

If you know of any tools or resources that you think are useful for the budding digital palaeographer, feel free to drop a link in the comments below!

The Space Age and the Digital Age: Linking Museum Exhibits and the College Classroom

View of the exhibit space and the "Explorer's Legacy" exhibition.

View of the exhibit space and the “Explorer’s Legacy” exhibition.

When I first came to the University of Iowa, the north lobby of the Main Library was a drab, dated, and draughty area that had little sense of identity or purpose. It was used to display holdings from the library’s Special Collections, but students passed through in a hurry, on their way to classes, coffee, and maybe even to check out some books. Now, after almost three years of renovations, the old lobby has been transformed by the library’s staff into a much more welcoming gallery and exhibit space, one that invites the visitor to linger.

I was really excited to get to explore the new gallery and its first exhibition, “Explorer’s Legacy”, and to see how this new space has the potential to blend digital humanities, archival research, public engagement, and the hands-on teaching of history. Teaching history at the college level is less and less confined to teaching in the college classroom—or rather, there’s an increasing recognition that there are multiple places on the college campus and in the wider community that can function as a history classroom.

Plus, hey, outer space: exciting even to a medievalist.

Just in case you hadn't figured that one out. UI Special Collections RG99.0142.

Just in case you hadn’t figured that one out. UI Special Collections RG99.0142.

James Van Allen

The inaugural exhibition focuses on the career of renowned UI astrophysicist James Van Allen (1914-2006), particularly his work on the Explorer missions. A native of the state, Van Allen earned his MS (’36) and PhD (’39) here before beginning his long career as one of the university’s most distinguished faculty members. In the 1950s Van Allen and a team of his graduate students created a set of scientific instruments that were launched with the first US satellites to reach space: Explorer 1 and Explorer 3. The data collected on these missions led to the discovery of the Van Allen Radiation Belts.

Though Van Allen is most well known for his involvement with the Explorer missions, he was the principal investigator for scientific investigations on no fewer than 24 Earth satellites and planetary missions, and discovered one of Saturn’s moons in 1979. That’s the kind of legacy that gets you a building named for you on the UI campus.

Bounding Space…

The exhibition contains many of the elements which you might expect to find in a museum: photographs and maps, physical objects and labels, and there’s a lot to linger over. But for me, one of the most evocative parts of the exhibition is its audio element: the visitor moves through the space to the soundtrack of the low rumble of static and frequent, steady pings. This is the sound of the Van Allen Explorer tapes, of data beamed back to Earth from the satellites and stored on hundreds of reel-to-reel magnetic audio tapes. The preservation and digitisation of these tapes was a difficult and expensive challenge, but Special Collections staff were able to save this unique part of the Explorer mission’s historical legacy.

Close your eyes and listen for a moment, and you’re transported to a place very far from Iowa. It’s a wonderful way to create a connection between a visitor to the exhibition and the sense of discovery which no doubt Van Allen and his team experienced. There’s no seeming pattern to the sounds (at least to this non-physicist) but you can’t help straining to detect one anyway. Nowadays, it’s easy to call up sophisticated visualizations of the Van Allen Belts online without ever leaving the comfort of your own living room, but there’s a visceral quality to standing in a quiet, shared place and listening to the dawn of the Space Age that just can’t be beat.

That, to me, is one of the most appealing aspects of the digital humanities—the ways in which it lets me, as a scholar and a teacher, create whole new sensory experiences for people. History becomes more than a series of dead letters, pinned to a page. It’s got a rhythm you have to learn to listen to.

Each dot on the globe represents a place associated with Van Allen's experiments.

Each dot on the globe represents a place associated with Van Allen’s experiments.

… and Expanding the Classroom’s Scope

The exhibit also ties into larger archival and historical projects here at UI. There’s the Explorer’s Legacy website, which combines long-form historical narrative with some of the archival materials relating to Van Allen held in Special Collections. It fleshes out the story of the Explorer missions for those whose appetites have been whetted by the exhibit, and would make great reading in the history classroom.

But even more useful for those of us who want our students to get to grips with the nuts-and-bolts of historical research are the archival materials related to Van Allen and the Explorer Project which have been uploaded to DIY History. DIY History is a crowd-sourced transcription project which was launched in 2011 by the UI’s Digital Scholarship and Publishing Studio, which helps to make large quantities of digitised primary sources searchable and therefore accessible to the general public.

For most students, the scholarly labour which goes into producing editions of texts is invisible, but primary source documents don’t magically appear in sourcebooks or on websites. They are the product of hours of transcription and translation, of puzzling over sometimes illegible handwriting, of figuring out the most accurate way to translate an idiom from Latin, of compiling the footnotes and other scholarly apparatus that help to provide a fuller picture of a document’s historical context.

When students are encouraged to contribute to DIY History, they’re not only furthering the reach of these archival resources, they’re also acting as historians—practising the kinds of skills that historians find invaluable in their everyday work.

(Not to mention that this medievalist is pleased that even in the Space Age, knowing how to read cursive is still a very useful skill.)

“Explorer’s Legacy” runs from now until April 8, and is free and open to the public. Gallery hours:

Monday-Saturday: 10am—5pm
Sunday: 11am—5pm

Escaping the Shallows

Crossposted from my HASTAC blog; you can find my original post here at the HASTAC site.

I attended a very thought-provoking installment of the University of Iowa’s PDH4L lecture series yesterday, entitled “Escaping the Shallows: Deep Reading’s Revival in the Digital Age”, given by Professor David Dowling of the School of Journalism.

Professor Dowling was exploring some of the recent reaction to digital culture and practices, likening the recent push back against the pervasiveness of technology in our lives (as written about by Harkaway, Carr, Turkle et al) to the Romantic reaction against the Industrial Revolution. Dowling accepted a number of their points: the mediums we use to communicate shape us more than we’d like to think, and there’s pretty irrefutable scientific evidence that, say, the kind of multi-tasking promoted by digital culture does damage some of our cognitive skills. Readers of hyperlinked texts, for instance, have lower recall than readers of plain scrolling text, while the kinds of “scan and skim” reading that people tend to use when reading online work against deep text processing and the formation of long-term memory. (When you read a hyperlinked text, in other words, your brain is always thinking about not just what you’re reading, but what you’re reading and whether you should click on that tempting link.)

This is pretty frightening stuff—the click click click online reading culture has the potential even to damage our ability to feel compassion for others—made all the moreso when we realise that much of the internet is designed to be what Prof. Dowling termed an “ecosystem of interruption technologies”, amplifying these negative effects. Basically, it’s in the interests of Internet Goliaths like Google and Facebook to make us click on as many different things as possible as quickly as possible. Online, our attention is a commodity, so our attention needs to be parcelled out into as many different saleable units as possible.

While acknowledging these issues, Dowling feels that these “Romantic” critics mischaracterise the nature of pre-digital reading, and that they’re too apocalyptic about digital reading’s implications. They advocate a return to “linear” deep reading, but Dowling argues that was never the case. Nineteenth century texts, for example, were often demanding, densely allusive works which required outside knowledge in order for the reader to appreciate them. The reader needed to return to texts in order to understand them more fully and on a richer level—a practice which Dowling terms “radial” or recursive reading. In other words, the relative disappearance of long-form linear texts is not the problem.

Indeed, Dowling points to a recent resurgence in long-form texts online to argue that online reading doesn’t have to mean the abandonment of long-form reading: for instance, LongReads.com (a social network for those interested in long-form pieces) or “Snow Fall”, a recent New York Times piece (which is I think a pretty stunning example of how video, images, infographics, maps, etc, can be integrated with text). Dowling also argues that the development of “affinity spaces” (where people come together around a shared interest, engaging in peer-to-peer learning or discussion, motivated by the desire to gain new knowledge and insight or sharper skills), like collective reading projects online such as #1book140, work as collaborative attempts to sustain focus and make connections.

This is an intriguing idea: the concept of new forms of reading emerging which allow for collaborative engagement with texts. There is undeniably
potential for people to subvert or work around platform limitations—I’m sure that a lot of work has been done on this in, for instance, fan studies. And yet if your conversation is taking place on Twitter or Tumblr, how thorough can that subversion be? The architecture of the site works against that deep engagement. Here is where I start having issues (and sadly we ran out of time at the Q&A so I didn’t get to ask Prof. Dowling about this in any depth): how do we learn to engage in deep long-form reading that nurtures a serious engagement with a text in a digital context? How do we mitigate those damaging effects on our attention span, our long-term memory and so on, all of which is so thoroughly documented? I felt that there was a gap there between the idea of (digital) reading as individual exercise and praxis, and collaborative reading response.

The latter, I agree, seems to hold a lot of promise in the digital age, but I’m still not so sanguine about the former. I know that the plural of anecdote isn’t data, but I’ve definitely noticed a change in my concentration patterns and work habits over the last couple of years. What do you guys think—is there an ability for us to “retrain” our brains to work, concentrate and focus more effectively within this digital ecology? Or is there a connection, a possibility, here which I’m just not seeing?


These are some of the texts referenced by Professor Dowling in his presentation.

  • Carr, Nicholas. The Shallows: what the Internet is doing to our brains. 2010
  • Harkaway, Nick. The Blind Giant: being Human in a Digital World. 2012
  • Howe, Jeff. Crowdsourcing: Why the Power of the Crowd Is Driving the Future of Business. 2009.
  • Jenkins, Henry. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. 2006
  • Lanier, Jaron. You are Not a Gadget: a Manifesto. 2010
  • Lee, M. J., & Tedder, M. C. “The effects of three different computer texts on readers’ recall (based on working memory, risk-taking
    tendencies, and hypertext familiarity and knowledge).” Computers in Human Behavior, 19 (2003: 6), 767-783.
  • Shirky, Clay. Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations. 2008.
  • Turkle, Sherry. Alone together: why we expect more from technology and less from each other. 2011
  • Welch, Matt. “When Losers Write History” in Will the Last Reporter Please Turn out the Lights: The Collapse of Journalism and What Can Be Done To Fix It. 2011.

Putting Iowa on the WorldMap

Crossposted from my HASTAC blog; you can find my original post here at the HASTAC site.

Yesterday’s University of Iowa Digital Studio for Public Humanities lunchtime talk, “Iowa on World Map”, was given by Professor Colin Gordon of the Department of History. Professor Gordon provided an overview of WorldMap, an open source web mapping platform that is being developed by the Center for Geographic Analysis at Harvard to allow scholars to visualise and share geospatial information.

Professor Gordon’s talk focused mainly on the interactive mapping project hosted on WorldMap which he created as an accompaniment to, and extension of, his book Mapping Decline: St. Louis and the Fate of the American City. Mapping Decline examines the causes and consequences of St. Louis’s urban crisis, arguing that both private and institutionalised racism and classism, as well as subsequent attempts at urban renewal, resulted in “white flight” from the city’s centre. Gordon briefly discussed other mapping platforms which he had considered at the start of his project, such as Map Story, ESRI/Story Maps and Hyper Cities, some of which he liked but all of which he found limited in that they are designed for use with a single, discrete data set and are not necessarily scalable. He far and away prefers the WorldMap platform, and listed the following as its pros:

  • Open access and open source
  • Ability to host multiple maps on one digital ‘globe’
  • Plug-ins for Google Earth to allow 3D views
  • Accepts geo-rectified historical maps, and has access to scanned and geo-rectified maps from the David Rumsey Collection
  • Can import data from other geo-servers
  • Sustainable and scalable, and does a pretty good job at accepting different kinds of data layers
  • Allows for links with geo-referenced YouTube and Picasa feeds
  • Layers can be public or private, and if the former scraped and reused for other maps.

Certainly both the St Louis mapping example which Professor Gordon showed, and his most recent project (Digital Johnson County, bringing together digitised historical maps and other data to do with the county in which the University of Iowa is located) are impressive examples of the kinds of projects which can be carried out using this platform. There’s a real sense of immediacy which comes from being able to connect the visual with the interpretive so readily—with being able to compare, say, a map of St Louis in 1900 with one of the city in 1950 and to do so on multiple scales, from the metro level down to individual streets or neighbourhoods. History does seem to be taking a spatial turn at the moment (it’s something I’m trying to do with my own work, and I’m excited at the prospect of being able to incorporate the maps that I’ve gathered of medieval France into this platform and seeing if it helps me discover new connections about my data).

However, there are still some downsides to the WorldMap platform:

  • Data layers must be created somewhere else and then uploaded to the site; no real editing capability in the platform
  • No true inbuilt feature that provides temporality as yet; current revision should add feature to allow for time slider
  • 1900+ projects already on the site, but no real way to search for completed/active projects, etc.
  • No double-checking for layer/data accuracy, so scrape layers at your own risk!
  • Adding narrative/interpretive panes only possible in very limited, clunky fashion

That last element is the one which gives me particular pause. Professor Gordon at one point said that he thought the future of historical research was digital projects like this—that “the book is dead.” Now, you can tease me for being a Luddite if you want to, but I don’t think that statement’s true. Maybe it’s just that being a medievalist means I spend a lot of my time working with very ancient texts which have survived centuries more or (admittedly sometimes often) less intact, but if you take the long view, the codex form is pretty durable, and it does offer a lot of advantages which I just don’t think digital texts have yet surpassed. Many of these mapping platforms haven’t yet figured out a good way to marry visual and textual explanation—and sometimes complex ideas do require more than just an infographic in order to convey them. I have a Kindle, and it’s great for travel, but when I’m reading and taking notes I still default to physical book, paper and pen. For me, I think digital projects like this are fascinating, but I think they are complementary to the monograph/extended textual essay (and vice versa); just as radio didn’t replace live music, or TV the radio, or so on.

What do you guys think? Are you likewise taking the spatial turn with your research? What do you think are the pros and cons?

The Classroom Rewired

Crossposted from my HASTAC blog; you can find my original post here at the HASTAC site.

On February 23, the University of Iowa was host to Rewiring the Classroom, a symposium which focused on critical applications of digital technologies in undergraduate classrooms. My fellow University of Iowa HASTAC scholars (Audrey Altman and Craig Carey) and I were so excited about the enthusiastic response we received (and a little scared, it’s true: nothing like having to close registration early because we had no room to put more people!) from both people who wished to attend and from departments and centres across campus. We owe particular thanks to the Obermann Center and to the Digital Studio for Public Humanities, who provided some invaluable logistical support and advice.

Our presenters (who all braved the bitter Iowan February weather—troopers all) offered practical, hands-on workshops about new technologies,
paired with critical discussions about the pedagogical values of these technologies. As you can see from the programme, they covered an astonishingly wide array of topics in just one day: WordPress, Wikipedia, badge systems, Omeka, recorded sound, public engagement, OS Grid, geographical information systems, and bringing research and archives into the classroom.

The one real downside of being a conference organiser is, of course, that you don’t have the time to experience all the wonderful discussions that people are having because you’re too busy making sure that there’s still enough coffee and everything is running on time. I can’t sit down to write and reflect about the sessions because I experienced them only in bits and pieces, refracted through the conversation of our participants in the
hallways and at lunchtime.


Luckily, our conference attendees have stepped in to bridge the gap, and to both provide commentary about Rewiring the Classroom as it happened, and to discuss it afterwards! Several people live tweeted throughout the day, and you can follow along with them at #uirewire. One of our speakers, Prof. Bridget Draxler of Monmouth College (and a former University of Iowa HASTAC fellow), has written a fantastic post about Rewiring the Classroom. Check it out for her discussion of the sessions in which she participated: on Omeka and Google Sites, on engaging a diverse public through the digital classroom, and on public writing and social media. Sadly, one of our microphones decided that Saturday was a good day to give up the ghost, but we did manage to get recordings of two of our roundtable discussions, which you can check out embedded below.

And of course, if you were an attendee and have links to other reactions/reflections about the day, please drop me a comment or an email! We’d love to hear from you.


Love, Death and Digital Memorials

Crossposted from my HASTAC blog; you can find my original post here at the HASTAC site.

The University of Iowa’s Digital Studio for Public Humanities‘ lunchtime talk series continued this past Thursday with a thought-provoking journey through some recent trends in the interactions between digital and memorial culture, ably conducted by Jennifer Shook (Dept. of English).

The trip began at Mount Rushmore. The monumental memorials of the eighteenth and nineteenth century are, as Jennifer pointed out, particularly ripe for subversion, parody and other forms of commentary. (As you may be able to see in the image accompanying this post, where one of the US presidents has been replaced with Michael Jackson; a similar image featuring Miss Piggy from the Muppets drew quite the giggle from the audience.) With their monolithic narratives about what it is to be American, and with their often imposing physical presence, they often inspire people to physically “recreate” them, to Photoshop images of them, to create online narratives which rely on people’s pre-existing knowledge of the monuments for their impact.

(This was really fascinating to me inasmuch as now that I reflect on it, I don’t know how much this occurs to the same extent in my home country of
Ireland. We have, of course, a rich tradition of often very dark satire, but perhaps we tend to site that more in words than centring it around physical memorials? And when subversion and mockery happens, it doesn’t tend to centre around the statues of famous Irish people such as Daniel O’Connell or Big Jim Larkin, but on the non-anthropomorphic Spire or the Floozie. Perhaps it’s simply a reflection of the fact that we tend not to build on as grand a scale.)

Most of Jennifer’s talk focused on what’s happening now that this long-standing tradition of memorialising has entered the digital age. She shyed away from using the word “democratising” (rightly, I think, as it’s problematic to think that we now live in an age of a level playing field), but instead emphasised how digital memorials offer more scope for a multiplicity of voices. Many of these projects, like the AIDS Quilt Touch project, take the physical memorial and make it more widely accessible; others, like the Bdote Memory Map, restore new layers of meaning to existing physical memorials which exclude subaltern voices.

I found many of these new digital memorials to be fascinating, particularly in their abilities to alter and grow as more people add their voices to them. The first iteration of the Bdote site, for example, was very different to its current form, and Jennifer’s talk was very celebratory of their activist and inclusive potential. Yet these digital memorials raise as many issues as they address—what about someone who doesn’t wish to be memorialised? Who finds, for instance, the thoughts of being represented to millions of people for decades to come by their elementary school photos to be quite horrifying? What happens when there’s no one left to pay for the annual domain renewal, or when the server crashes and there are no backups?

One of the images Jennifer showed was of a cemetery in England which offers people the ability to have a QR code engraved on their headstone. Any curious passer by can scan this code with their smartphone and be taken to the person’s life story, hosted on the cemetery’s website. For now, QR codes represent an expanding form of technology, and perhaps for the next twenty or thirty years those life stories will be comprehensible and legible to people. But what will happen when technology moves on, when people forget how those blocky symbols were once supposed to function—will we have unwittingly created a digital Linear B?

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