This week’s topic is the product of serendipity: a chance encounter with two projects that reminded me of each other, combined with a project I’ve had my eye on for a while. The broad theme that unites these projects is the possibility of using digital means to reassemble or recreate texts or collections that have been separated.
The first one that I came across recently was the case of the Otto Ege Manuscripts. The Special Collections of the University of Massachusetts Amherst (my own institution) has a nice little description of Ege’s work here, but briefly, Ege (1888-1951) was a manuscript collector and bibliophile, one of whose lasting contributions to the manuscript world was the dismemberment of 50 medieval manuscripts and the sale of sets of individual pages, one from each manuscript. Eventually, forty sets of pages were sold, to collectors and institutions all over. (Julia Bolton Holloway has a page on her website that is subtitled “Towards a virtual and interactive reconstruction of fifty dismembered manuscripts,” and consists partly of a list of known owners of Ege sets. No date is included, so it is unclear how updated this list is.)
I was in the Smith College Mortimer Rare Books Room the other day while the curator, Martin Antonetti, was putting away the leaves of Smith’s set. He mentioned the Five College Digital Manuscripts Project, which involves the digitization of all of the medieval manuscript holdings of the Five Colleges (Smith College, Amherst College, University of Massachusetts Amherst, Mt Holyoke, and Hampshire). He added that one of the side effects of this project would be that we could contribute two sets of scanned images to a project out at the University of Saskatchewan to digitally reassemble the manuscripts from which the leaves of the Ege collections were taken. (Both Smith College and UMass own sets.) Peter Stoicheff, one participants in the Saskatchewan project, has a lovely article in Digital Studies / Le champ numérique (Vol. 1, No. 3, 2009) that describes some of the motivations behind the project in human, historical, and bibliographical terms.
The second project came, as so many interesting news tidbits seem to these days, through my facebook feed (my facebook is liberally peopled by academics, so my feed is mercifully light on certain aspects of pop culture and heavy on international politics and the kinds of news that shake the literary world). This particular link was for a New York Times article about a digitally recreated museum exhibition. The project is titled “What Jane Saw,” and is the work of Professor Janine Barchas of the English Department at the University of Texas Austin. Barchas and her team used a combination of digital and manuscript art to recreate both the setting and the layout of the 1813 exhibition of the work of Sir Joshua Reynolds, an exhibition that goes down in history not only as having been attended by Jane Austen, who lends her name and prestige to the project, but also as historically significant in its own right. The first single-artist exhibition staged by an institution, the British Institution’s Reynolds show was a document of social and political life that up until now had survived only as commemorated in its catalogue.
The last project is one that I came across last year, while copyediting the Fall 2012 issue of Digital Philology. One of the articles, “Digital Devotion from Carolingian Reichenau and St. Gall,” by Richard Matthew Pollard and Julian Hendrix [preview], discussed the impact of a digitization project that recreates the plan for the Carolingian monastery of St. Gall in Switzerland. The article approaches the question of how the plan for the library illuminates Carolingian thought on spirituality. Although the plan does not seem to have been implemented (the website notes that “the design does not fit the actual terrain of the river valley in which St. Gall is located, nor does the Carolingian church of St. Gall reflect the design of the church on the Plan”), the website provides a beautiful way to access the contexts and material aspects of the monastic culture that produced it. In particular, the project includes a digital recreation of the libraries of Reichenau and St. Gall, including digitized manuscripts from across Europe that have been identified as having been at Reichenau and St. Gall in the ninth century based on library records.
I’m drawn to all of these projects because of their use of digital media to remediate different types of loss. Obviously there are still holes in the records that may ultimately prove impossible to fill. I don’t know as I write this, for example, whether all 40 Ege collections have been identified or whether the owners will all participate in the University of Saskatchewan project (in 2009, Stoicheff writes that 32 had been found). And yet this seems one of the wonderful powers of digital work– reassembly and recreation. These projects permit a kind of communication between objects that seems connected to the power of the internet to facilitate human communication.
Barchas, Janine et al. What Jane Saw. N.d. Web. 7 June 2013.
Carolingian Culture at Reichenau & St. Gall: Manuscripts and Architecture from the Early Middle Ages. UCLA Digital Library. 2012. Web. 7 June 2013.
Holloway, Julia Bolton. “The Otto F. Ege Paleography Portfolio. Fifty Leaves from Medieval Manuscripts, XII-XVI Century: Towards a Virtual and Interactive Reconstruction of Fifty Dismembered Manusripts.” 2009. Web. 7 June 2013.
Otto F. Ege, “Fifty original leaves from Medieval manuscripts” (MS 570). Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries. 7 June 2013.
Pollard, Richard Matthew and Julian Hendrix. “Digital Devotion from Carolingian Reichenau and St. Gall.” Digital Philology 1.2 (2012), 292-302.
Schuessler, Jennifer. “Seeing Art through Austen’s Eyes: A Preview of the Exhibition ‘What Jane Saw.'” NYT. 24 May 2013. Web. 7 June 2013.
Stoicheff, Peter. “Putting Humpty Together Again: Otto Ege’s Scattered Leaves.” Digital Studies / Le champ numérique 1.3 (2009). Web. 7 June 2013.