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How the lockdown squeezes researchers out into the digital world and ‘hackathons’

Hackathons

As the lockdown continues, Dr Laura Cleaver, senior lecturer in manuscript studies and principal investigator of the European Research Council (ERC)-funded CULTIVATE MSS project at the Institute of English Studies, discusses how her team is keeping connected via database hackathons.

The closure of libraries, archives, and university buildings across Europe in March 2020 has had an obvious impact on accessing resources for many researchers, and changed the way we work. There has been a significant switch to digital and online work because of the paucity of physical materials.

This has had an impact on our CULTIVATE MSS project, which analyses the global trade in medieval manuscripts in the early 20th century and its impact on the study of the Middle Ages. We are currently unable to access the unpublished materials, such as dealers’ records, letters and the manuscripts themselves, that are the core of our research.

However, thanks to our partnership with the Schoenberg Database of Manuscripts at the University of Pennsylvania, we have been able to continue one aspect of our research: group hackathons to augment the database’s own records of the movement of manuscripts.

Collating information from more than 13,000 auction and sales catalogues, inventories, library catalogues and other documents, the database captures descriptions of manuscripts and allows these to be linked to create a ‘manuscript record’ that documents both the movement of a manuscript between collectors and changes to descriptions of a book. It is continually updated by an international community of scholars, who can create new records, improve existing entries, and otherwise add new details. This collaborative, ever-growing project is a vital tool in helping to map the travels of medieval manuscripts between auction houses, book dealers, and other buyers and sellers over the centuries.

During our hackathons, the CULTIVATE team has been inputting and cleaning up data to build a detailed picture of the movement of manuscripts in the period 1900-1945. In addition to cleaning up data from major auctions, we have been adding catalogues published by lesser-known dealers and information from unpublished sources, such as the stock books and ledgers of the firm J & J Leighton (held in the British Library).

We started these meetings in January, with the London team gathering in our Senate House office and others joining by video link. Now that we are all working remotely, the whole meeting is, of course, online (and we have to provide our own coffee), but we have now invited other interested researchers in the UK and US to join in, and regularly meet as a group of about ten people.

Working from the UK, Ireland, France, Switzerland and the US, team members have become extremely resourceful at finding digitised catalogues and sharing material. Everyone has his or her own area of interest, whether a geographic region, individual dealer or collector, or the formation or dispersal of a particular library. Dr Federico Botana is investigating the international activities of Italian bookdealers, Dr Angéline Rais is tracing the movement of manuscripts in German-speaking areas, and Dr Hannah Morcos is exploring the manuscript trade in France, while PhD students Natalia Fantetti and Pierre-Louis Pinault are researching women in the trade and the role played by bibliophilic clubs and societies.

Working on the data as a team means we can ask questions about technical issues as well as our research interests as we go along. We’ve been able to share information and ideas about obscure names and pseudonyms, the challenges of identifying a particular Bible or Book of Hours from a vague description, and different systems for numbering a dealer’s stock. We can also alert team members to particular entries that may be of interest to them – for example, a manuscript sold in Paris to a Munich-based dealer may be significant to both Hannah and Angéline’s projects.

In between we chat, comparing the current lockdown rules in our different countries, maintaining English stereotypes by commenting on the weather, and admiring team members’ pets when they decide to make unscheduled appearances.

These sessions are not a replacement for the rest of our research, and we all look forward to getting back to the libraries when they reopen. Nevertheless, the virtual meetings are a reminder of the intellectual and social benefits of collaborative research. At the end of the session we have achieved something measurable, and the user statistics provide a satisfying graph of the records added and updated. But we have also benefitted from something less tangible: a reminder that other people care about tracking the movement of medieval manuscripts and what this can tell us, and about our shared yet individual experiences of life and work in isolation.

The lockdown therefore provides us with challenges, not only about how we work in the spring of 2020, but what we want our research culture to look like in future. Humanities research has traditionally been conducted individually, enabled by a complex infrastructure of institutions and specialist services, encompassing archivists, childcare and much more. The increasing use of digital tools not only necessitates discussions with colleagues who specialise in digital humanities, but also enables collaborative research to tackle new issues or approach old questions in new ways.

It also prompts questions about new infrastructure and accessibility, in a world in which access to the internet is increasingly crucial for research. This period of limited movement draws attention to things we have often taken for granted and gives some of us the chance to reflect on how we might move towards more productive, equal and supportive working conditions in the future.

In the meantime, the Schoenberg Database is one of many crowd-sourced research tools. Beginners can learn to interact with the database by playing the De Ricci Name Game, which links entries for names and places connected with the manuscript trade from a card index created by bibliographer Seymour de Ricci and held by the University of London Library with entries in the database. Those wishing to join in by entering catalogues can contact us at cultivatemss@sas.ac.uk.

Dr Laura Cleaver is senior lecturer in manuscript studies and principal investigator of the European Research Council (ERC)-funded CULTIVATE MSS project at the Institute of English Studies, School of Advanced Study, University of London.

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