A NeDiMAH travel bursary allowed Dr Courtney J. Campbell to attend the ‘New methods of manuscript imaging and analysis’ workshop in Aberystwyth, Wales. Here she reflects on the event and provides a snapshot of some of the highlights.
It was a very strange dance. On the floor lay a French book of prayers from the 15th century with corners resting on a few playing cards and a couple of poker chips, carefully placed to make the book’s surface level. Above it hovered a camera attached to a large tripod, and pointing downward. In the space between the camera and the tripod, Professor William Endres’ left hand held the end of a piece of string close to the open book, while in his right was a flash and the other end of the string.
The flash whined then lit up as the camera clicked and captured the image. The string held taught, Professor Endres repositioned the flash just a few degrees higher. Whine, flash, click. A few degrees to the right. Whine, flash, click. A few degrees down. Whine, flash, click. In the end, he captured 42 images of the same page, each with the light of the flash reaching the page at a different angle.
Professor Endres was demonstrating one of the many techniques for manuscript imaging highlighted in the ‘New methods of manuscript imaging and analysis’ workshop. It was organised by the Network for Digital Methods in the Arts and Humanities (NeDiMAH) and held at the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth, and the Roderic Bowen Library of the University of Wales Trinity St David in Lampeter from 30 March–1 April.
The technique, Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI), is the process of creating multiple images with light reflected from several angles and then melding them together with computer software to reveal impressions on the surface or pigment changes that are often missed by the naked eye (see examples here).
RTI and other new techniques of digital imaging go beyond reproducing images; they also inspire new approaches to texts and open up new areas of research. These methods are what Professor Andrew Prescott referred to as ‘slow digitisation’ – using digital technologies as tools for image analysis, instead of just image copying.
Professor Kevin Kiernan’s project, Electronic Beowulf, the fourth edition was recently released for testing, is a great example of this slow digitisation. Electronic Beowulf provides an interface within which a digital image is displayed, alongside a transcription and notes. The reader can choose between different types of page views and can search within the transcript. Hence, Electronic Beowulf goes beyond document imaging to provide readers with new tools for analysis.
The workshop also highlighted the need for intense collaboration in the digital humanities. The use of synchrotron radiation (presented by Professor Koen Janssens) and spectroscopy (Dr. Polonca Ropret) for revealing the history of texts and works of art require a knowledge of physics and chemistry that historians, for example, cannot be expected to obtain in their spare time. Instead, chemists, information scientists, mathematicians, and others join historians, literature specialists, and art historians to work on projects.
The ‘Closer to Van Eyck’ project, for example, has no less than six working groups, each focused on a different field of study: art history, climate, communication, education, scientific research, and technical imaging and web application. In this way, the project relies not only on infrared macrophotography, infrared reflectography, and X-radiography, but also on knowledge of historical context, artistic techniques, and effects of climate on art. In the end, while Professor Endres seemed to be dancing alone with the prayer book in Lampeter at the beginning of the workshop, a multi-discipline team worked on the completed images, made them available online, and analysed them. To be successful in our digital humanities projects, we have to avoid dancing alone.
Dr Courtney J. Campbell is a Past & Present Postdoctoral Fellow at the Institute of Historical Research (IHR). She received her PhD in History from Vanderbilt University in 2014 and researches Brazilian social and cultural history through an international perspective. She is also director of the British Library Endangered Archives Programme Project ‘Digitising seventeenth to nineteenth century ecclesiastical and secular sources in São João do Carirí and João Pessoa, Paraíba, Brazil’ – a two-year project aimed at digitising the oldest, most endangered historical documents in the Brazilian state of Paraíba.