You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘history’ tag.

I’ve drawn on the images from this site (http://www.godecookery.com/afeast/afeast.htm) in teaching, especially for a class that I have taught on food in pre-modern Europe, using several of the images to illustrate points in a lecture. It’s the simplest sort of a digital collection, really, maintained by a single person out of personal interest. The images are grouped thematically on separate pages, and each theme page has thumbnails and brief descriptions of the images; the images themselves can be reached by clicking the thumbnail. So it’s not a particularly sophisticated collection in terms of organization or labeling, but since it’s also not that large of one, the way that it is set up suffices for the purpose.

Given that I’ve just been thinking about copyright issues, it’s notable that the site’s owner is erratic in attributing the origins of the images displayed. Some are; for instance, an image of a baker (http://www.godecookery.com/afeast/kitchens/kit055.html) is said to be from a 1432 Flemish manuscript of Boccaccio’s Decameron. Others, like this merchant with a nutmeg (http://www.godecookery.com/afeast/foods/food005.html) merely have an approximate date given, but no other indication of where the image came from. The images from A Canterbury Calendar, originally from a manuscript dated to about 1280, are taken from a book published in 1984, and I’d hazard that probably no permission was given to display them online, although I might be wrong.

This is one of those areas where I find copyright law problematic. Frankly I doubt that having these images available online is going to prevent anyone who might want that book from buying it; the dozen images alone hardly comprise the information that would normally be wanted. So it’s not going to cut into sales or use of the book (the edition from which the images are drawn is out of print, in fact, although there is a revised edition in print). It’s hard to see how enforcing copyright here would encourage greater creativity. Actually I’d suspect that having the images out there on the web is what might stimulate interest and possibly new thoughts and ideas on the topic of medieval food.

Advertisements

As someone trained in European, and particularly British, history rather than American history, I have used the National Archives (NA) of the UK on a number of occasions but never the Library of Congress (LoC) which is to some extent the equivalent, inasmuch as both institutions house various collections of original documents considered significant in the nation’s history, although in other respects the type of materials collected may differ quite a bit.

Both institutions have digitized some of their holdings, but their purposes and how they make these accessible can be quite different.

The Loc states, “The mission of the Library of Congress is to make its resources available and useful to Congress and the American people and to sustain and preserve a universal collection of knowledge and creativity for future generations. The goal of the Library’s National Digital Library Program is to offer broad public access to a wide range of historical and cultural documents as a contribution to education and lifelong learning.

“The Library of Congress presents these documents as part of the record of the past. These primary historical documents reflect the attitudes, perspectives, and beliefs of different times. The Library of Congress does not endorse the views expressed in these collections, which may contain materials offensive to some readers.”

This is part of their general boilerplate for each online collection; I found it at http://lcweb2.loc.gov/ammem/sfbmhtml/sfbmhome.html, the collection of Samuel F. B. Morse’s papers at the LoC.

The overall statement of purpose for the Loc (at http://www.loc.gov/library/about-digital.html) states:

“The Library of Congress has made digitized versions of collection materials available online since 1994, concentrating on its most rare collections and those unavailable anywhere else. The following services are your gateway to a growing treasury of digitized photographs, manuscripts, maps, sound recordings, motion pictures, and books, as well as “born digital” materials such as Web sites. In addition, the Library maintains and promotes the use of digital library standards and provides online research and reference services.

“The Library provides one of the largest bodies of noncommercial high-quality content on the Internet. By providing these materials online, those who may never come to Washington can gain access to the treasures of the nation’s library. Such online access also helps preserve rare materials that may be too fragile to handle.”

As far as I could tell, the digitized collections at LoC are all freely available via the web, regardless of the location or identity of the potential user.

This is not the case with the digitized collections at the NA. There it is stated (http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/documentsonline/about.asp): “DocumentsOnline allows you online access to The National Archives’ collection of digitised public records, including both academic and family history sources. We are committed to providing online access to the records, and DocumentsOnline forms a key part of this strategy. DocumentsOnline can be used free of charge on public access PCs at The National Archives.”

Some of the online records can be downloaded for free from other computers, but by no means all. I happen to have used records (wills) from the Prerogative Court of Canterbury, several hundred of which I looked at in the originals at the archive some years back. To download a single will costs £3.50 (about $5.40 at today’s exchange rates). It would be impossible to carry out the research that I did without either very substantial funding or going to the archive and looking at documents the old-fashioned way.

One drawback to digital collections from either institution is that in neither case are they comprehensive. This is completely understandable – the total collections held are enormous, and the sheer time needed to digitize the documents (not to mention adding metadata and other necessary steps, or the costs invlved) is prohibitive. Nevertheless having even some of this national-historical information available in digitized format, even for a fee, is potentially a tremendous benefit.

As reported by the BBC. This time it’s the oldest known manuscript of the Bible, the Codex Sinaiticus, which has been in several pieces in different countries since its 19th-century discovery. The digital version is expected to be online in 2009, and will enable not just scholars but anyone to view the entire text together. The article indicates that a translation of the original Greek will also be available.

This brings up several issues. First, there is the fact that when historical texts like this are digitized, they are often in languages which are not familiar to many potential users. Even someone who speaks modern Greek is likely to have difficulty with a text in the fourth-century version of the language, which furthermore does not have the modern convention of space left between words. Thus although digitization does improve access, that alone is not sufficient for many.

Translations are therefore necessary in order to make these texts truly available for wide use. Then more questions are raised: Who will do the translation? Into what language(s)? Will the translations be copyrighted and who will own the copyright? For a text like the Bible, where the choice of wording for translation can have significant effects on interpretation and thereby affect religious understanding, the problem of who will translate and how is especially critical. In the case of the Codex Sinaiticus, which includes two additional books in the New Testament and which has other important textual differences from other manuscripts, this may be a major consideration.

The article doesn’t mention how the digital form will be made available – through a website, on a cd-rom, or what other means. Nor does it give any indication of image format, methods of searching/viewing, etc.; these may be things as yet in flux. It will be interesting to see how the digitization of the Codex is carried out and presented, and what effects the availability of this text has on Biblical studies and indeed on religion generally.

The John Rylands University Library at the University of Manchester has over 4600 images in its digital library, including several hundred images of papyri (http://rylibweb.man.ac.uk/insight/papyrus.htm). The largest numbers are written in Coptic and Greek, but there are also some Demotic and hieroglypic texts. The library plans to add more digitized materials over time, as this is only a fraction of their holdings (none of their Arabic-language papyri have yet been digitized, for instance).

Of interest is the fact that there are two methods for accessing the materials: a browser, and a downloadable client which provides greater functionality in searching and viewing.  The client requires a username and password, but the page that explains the two options also provides a public username and password, so access is not restricted to University of Manchester users. This option strikes me as an excellent one, allowing individual users to choose what will be most effective for them.

The same page also gives overall copyright information on the collection (with a note that individual images may have different copyright restrictions). In general, private study and educational uses are permitted, although the latter must acknowledge the university, and boilerplate acknowledgment language is provided. Other uses require written permission and usually fees, and links to the request forms appear on the page.

I’m finding the differences between the ways that scholarly digital image collections are organized to be very interesting. The best of them have good searchable metadata, easy-to-use interfaces, and images that can be viewed in different resolutions. These are all obviously things to think about when creating or revamping such a collection.

The John Rylands Library is continuing to put additional rare and fragile manuscripts online (not just papyri). There’s a recent article from the Telegraph that indicates that a 14th-century recipe book is among the items to be digitally photographed and added to the collection in the next year. It’s really quite astonishing (and wonderful!) to see all of this work being done.

Oxford University has digital facsimiles of more than 80 medieval manuscripts scanned and online here: http://image.ox.ac.uk/. The images are copyrighted but personal research use is permitted.

The project of digitizing occurred in several phases. First a number of Celtic MSS were digitized, then additional medieval manuscripts deemed particularly valuable, useful, and/or fragile. These two phases were carried out with government funding. A server failure led to the takeover of the project by the Oxford University Library’s automation department, which also redesigned the website, and it now is controlled by the Oxford Digital Library.

During the site redesign, it was discovered that some images are missing from some of the MSS. A statement on the site indicates that the library is in the process of determining what is missing and what resources are needed to correct the problem.

Several potential issues with the creation of digital collection are thus highlighted. Funding may be temporary, and insufficient to digitize as much material as might be desired (by no means all of the medieval MSS held by Oxford colleges are included). If later problems are discovered, the funding may no longer be available to correct those problems. The technology may also fail, as happened with the server that originally housed this collection. This meant that the material was moved and now falls under the auspices of a different body.

The copyright restrictions on the images mean that although an individual may download a single copy of each for private personal use (they may also be displayed in an academic lecture), from another website only a URL linking to the image location may be used, not the image itself. This is a reasonable restriction, under copyright law, but if the image locations were again later to be changed, it would make access difficult. That’s merely something to be considered.

The descriptions of the MSS (i.e., the metadata) are quite limited and not really searchable; the MSS are listed by college and shelfmark, with brief descriptions in the browsing area and longer ones when you click through to a specific MS. Medievalists are used to such things, though, so it’s less of a limitation than would be the case for born-digital items.

The Dead Sea Scrolls are going to be digitized! (Article in the Guardian.) This will be a great boon to ancient historians and religious historians. There’s been a tremendous amount of scholarly controversy (with political implications at times, even) since their discovery, and because of the extremely fragile nature of the fragments, very few people have been allowed to examine the originals. Digitizing them will involve multiple extremely high-res photographs using regular light, infrared, and multispectral cameras, which will actually be better than looking at them in person since it will enable the researchers to see ink that has faded to badly to be seen by the naked eye. Wow.

It will be about five years before the project is completed, but that’s a blink of the eye, historically. I’ll be interested to see how they structure the finding aids, and how readily available these images will be (will there be a fee, for instance?).

According to the first reading (Lee 2000), it would appear that one of my favorite sites to use with students who are writing research papers on medieval history does indeed qualify as a collection: Internet Medieval Sourcebook. This site collects many medieval texts, mostly short selections in translation, mostly from public-domain works and occasionally donated by contributors. The texts are organized thematically (with sidebar links to each of these general topics), and then either topically and/or chronologically within the theme. The collection is aimed at a user group of students studying this general topic, and indirectly at the instructors teaching them. Although the website resides on the servers of Fordham University, it is freely accessible to outsiders and also incorporates links to additional online sites and resources. One neat thing about this site is that it has been around since 1996 (so it’s positively ancient in web terms) and was created by someone who at that time was a graduate student in history, rather making it up as he went along. So in itself it’s kind of a historical artifact as a collection.

I don’t have a lot of experience finding online digital collections, so I decided I’d take a look at the library website for the University of Minnesota, where I did my PhD in history. I know that they have a number of special collections and I wondered if they’d have digitized some of them. I found out that there’s a really nifty collection of posters and postcards from WWI and WWII that has been put online, as a cooperative project between the university and the Minneapolis Public Library which also owns many of these items: “A Summons to Comradeship” – World War I and II Posters and Postcards. Each image is identified with a set of metadata, which can then be used to search the whole collection. One drawback I see is that there appears to be no way to simply browse at random except by doing a search for all the items.  A search results in a page with thumbnails of the found items, each with a truncated title as caption, so a user can’t just flip through readable-sized images and see what might be interesting; you have to click on the thumbnails one at a time to get a larger image. Nevertheless this is a fabulous and well-organized resource.

Clearly historical collections are the ones that I’m most directly interested in. A friend pointed me at the Bethlehem Digital History Project, which has digitized images of primary source materials (texts, art, etc.) also transcriptions and translations, and some information on the context, of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania from 1741-1844. There are also some more modern items. From an educational perspective, the fact that there are transcriptions/translations of the older documents is very helpful, since students might find it difficult to cope with the original paleography and orthography; but having the photographs of the originals makes it useful for more professional-level researchers as well. The items are reasonably well identified (even including the locations of the original documents) but the collection is not searchable in the way that the WWI and II poster collection is; one has to basically browse through, with the documents divided by general content and then subdivided by type.

Lee, Hur-Li. 2000. What is a collection? Journal of the American Society for Information Science 51 (12): 1106-13.

Categories