On 3rd February I attended my first Oxford Bibliographical Society session on ‘Digital Approaches to Manuscript Studies: Problems, Potential and DigiPal’. I wasn’t sure what the session would be like because I am unfamiliar with the subject area but by the end of the presentation, I was far more knowledgeable.
The presentation concentrated on palaeography. Ten minutes in I decided to get my phone out and find out what it means because it became clear it would not be defined. I’m guessing the usual audience were familiar with the subject area so there was no need to. What I learnt is that palaeography is “the study of ancient writing and inscriptions; the science or art of deciphering and interpreting historical manuscripts and writing systems” (OED). Once I knew that, I was better able to understand what the presenter was talking about.
The session was quite complex and I did not understand everything but what I did understand was that technology can be used to help those who study or practice palaeography. Software offers the ability to view scripts in a different form and helps to analyse the text. This was interesting to me because I just viewed digitisation of text as a way to make material easier to access, by multiple people at any time of day, unrestricted by library opening hours and the fact that there is only one copy of the text. To be shown how digitisation is improving the analysis of manuscripts was fantastic to learn.
The presenter and his team are working on a project called DigiPal, funded by the European Research Council, which aims to combine digital photographs of manuscripts with descriptions about the handwriting. Whilst digitising manuscripts offers new ways to look at text, the software is not able to analyse it for you. In that sense, analysing the handwriting is still very much a task for the human. The software can, for example, pull out all of the examples of the letter ‘a’ in multiple scripts but the person still has to look at the letters and decipher what they can from it, like whether the same scribe wrote the text.
This led on to the criticism of digitisation that it is making the art of seeing and comprehending the text a measuring exercise, that is, using technology to measure letters and compare them in place of a person. Our presenter offered the counter-argument that it is simply offering an alternative way to look at manuscripts.
Although, at the moment, there is no software reliable enough to analyse the text without human intervention, it is possible that in the future there will be technology able to do that job. Whether that will be appreciated by people who have specialised in interpreting ancient handwriting I am not sure. Perhaps it would make their job easier but on the other hand, maybe it would take away the exercise of analysis that they really enjoy.
I don’t understand the study of ancient handwriting enough to form an opinion on whether digitising manuscripts to analyse them is good or not but in attending the session I have, for starters, learnt about the discipline of palaeography, which I was unaware of before. I have learnt about how digitisation is used for more than just making texts more readily accessible. I have also discovered that the University of Oxford offers courses in palaeography, so there is potential for librarians to become acquainted with such websites as DigiPal for the sake of their library users.