From Manuscript to Metadata

Delighted to welcome back here for a guest post Kate Carté Engel, Professor of Early American History at Southern Methodist University, and author of Religion and Profit: Moravians in Early America, which we covered previously on the blog.

From Manuscript to Metadata
Kate Carté Engel

As an early Americanist, I love the periodic “know your archives” (and see also here) series that appears here, and I love the physicality and intimacy of working with centuries-old manuscripts.  Last month I spent a lovely week at Lambeth Palace Library in London, a place that met all my early modernist expectations of an archive:  quiet room, pleasant staff, antiquated finding aides that don’t quite match either the online catalogue or the actual documents, and incredible manuscripts.  To top things off, there is a fabulous coffee stand just across the street, overlooking the river.  My favorite part of the place, however, was passing through an incredibly charming door set in an old wall, through which one entered a courtyard surrounded by the ancient seat of the Archbishops of Canterbury.  A colleague asked if I ran into Archbishop Laud while I was there, but since I’m working on international Protestantism and the American Revolution, I was searching for Thomas Secker and Frederick Cornwallis.  Secker thoughtfully left exactly the document I was looking for, and I went home happy.

All of that was very calming.  The head spinning part started the following week, when I arrived at the University of Victoria’s annual Digital History Summer Institute.  I confess to loving new computer tools, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the period posts here by folk like Michael Pasquier, Michael Altman and Chris Cantwell on the developing world of DH.  So, I was primed and ready to learn new ways to handle the thousands of digital images and hundreds of pages of notes I’ve been accumulating in the archive.  Now, after a week of classes, colloquia, and un-conference sessions, I’m frankly awed by the staggering ways that humanists are using technology: data visualizations, complex digital editions, mapping of all kinds of things

On an aesthetic level alone, these efforts bring the beauty, playfulness and art of the humanities into a shared space in a way that seems genuinely to complement the solitary intellectual pleasure of finding the perfect document in the archive.  What if I could post on this site a visualization of that perfect text Secker left for me?  What if I could visually render the intertwining threads of his concern for international Protestantism as a concept, for foreign Protestants as residents within his nation, and his difficulty understanding why the American colonists were so upset about the prospect of a bishop? What really appeals to me about this idea is that these tools offer the prospect of accessible and companionable scholarship, not unlike the maps of language differentiation by region that have been spreading around facebook in the past few weeks.  The work is still single-authored, still ultimately manifested in long-form prose and with nuanced argument, but at the same time it can be shared in an accessible form, with those might like to have a gander just for the sake of the aesthetic and intellectual pleasure.

The most thought-provoking part of DHSI for me (as opposed to the most aggravating, which was most certainly my inability to export my bouncing baby MySQL database out of my mac’s command structure and into the regular folder structure.  Curse you - access denied error!) was a presentation on the ChartEx project.  Scholars from five countries are digitizing and analyzing thousands of medieval deeds.  In the process they are mapping a long-past spatial world that can only be understood relationally, because medieval boundary lines -- trees, buildings -- are not easy to plot on even a fantasy version of Google-earth.  At the same time they are tracing out the human relationships that bound that world together.  This project required its authors to engage in a collective ontological shift in the way deeds have been understood for centuries.  The end product then is not the database, but the scholarship that will result from it, which will be based on both fresh questions and fresh data.  The key here is that this kind of collaborative engagement, engagement between diverse scholars and computer data-management tools that can turn medieval deeds into “big data,” can prompt humanistic questions that would never otherwise be asked.

I hope (and assume) that historians will not lose sight of the joys of long hours spent in an archive, often somewhere near the place where those documents were produced or received.  Metadata can record that an author’s quill was running dry or fracturing at a certain part of the document, and a digital image can render that fact in full color, but holding the page still matters to me.  I believe the slow process of reading in the archive builds empathy for our historical subjects.  On the other hand, the excitement of the digital humanities community, especially in the opportunities it offers to work collaboratively with other people who love the same sources, is infectious.  (This blog is certainly proof of that.)  Moreover, the work done by projects like the Dissenting Academies Online Project and the Clergy of the Church of England effort have been hugely helpful to me.  I’m sure we’ve all used data from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life and enjoyed the thoughtful essays on frequencies.  Yet I have to confess ignorance to much of what is going on in the world of digital history of American religion. So please consider this a plea for one and all to promote their favorite project, whether it has a public access point or not.  Meanwhile, I’ll be getting ready for my next research trip, to Halifax in Nova Scotia.  If any one has good coffee or restaurant recommendations, please send them my way too.


Christopher said…
Thanks for the thoughtful post, Professor Engel. It resonates with my simultaneous love for (and belief in the importance of) archival research and the excitement and possibilities DH provides.

One of my favorite DH projects is that building off of Cassandra Pybus's research on Black Loyalists and their journeys from slavery to freedom throughout the world:

And not surprisingly given my own research interests, I especially appreciate the effort to reconstruct and visualize the the Black Methodists from southern Virginia within that larger diasporic community:

And finally, I'll just add my own thumbs up to Lambeth Palace Library. I spent a few days there in April and really had a wonderful and productive time.

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