The Opportunities (and Limits) of Lockdown Digital Fragmentology
Keynote Address by Lisa Fagin Davis
Given at the Dark Archives 20/20 conference, on September 9, 2020
Abstract: It might seem that the present circumstance is a perfect and fertile environment for the growth and flourishing of the methodology known as Digital Fragmentology, the digital reconstruction of fragmented books and manuscripts. In its most sophisticated form, Digital Fragmentology depends on digitization and interoperability, taking advantage of interoperable platforms and frameworks to allow for the reuniting of fragments in a single shared digital space, fragments that may in reality be separated by thousands of miles. In one respect, then, the enforced dependence on digital access during the pandemic lockdown has provided opportunities to promote and grow the field, as more scholars, denied access to the actual objects of study, have been forced to turn to the internet for access to these primary research resources.
An increased interest in digital modes of scholarship has also fed a demand for training, as scholars come to realize that these methodologies are quickly becoming more and more necessary for all medievalists, not just for those who style themselves digital medievalists. In the rush of these developments, however, it is important to remember that, in spite of advances in visualizations and graphics, codicology cannot truly be digitized. Manuscripts are three-dimensional objects, comprising much more than words and images on a flat surface. Some features of medieval manuscripts must be seen, touched, smelled, and even heard in order to fully engage with and interpret them.
In Digital Fragmentology, it can be important to distinguish hair side from flesh side in order to reconstruct divided bifolia, a feature than can often only be determined by touch. Digital imaging does not always capture all of the pertinent features of a manuscript leaf – such blind ruling, effaced inscriptions, or evidence of sewing holes – and most institutions are unable to invest in MSI or other specialized imaging that might capture such features. Some institutions simply do not prioritize the digitization and cataloguing of fragment collections, even though such objects are much simpler and less expensive to image and catalogue than are bound codices. In-person visits are the only way to access such collections. Until we can get back to the libraries, however, there is much work to be done with images that have been already been captured and uploaded, with or without comprehensive metadata. There are thousands of images of medieval manuscript fragments already online and discoverable, in dedicated resources such as Fragmentarium, in library and museum digital repositories, and in private spaces such as Flickr and Pinterest.
See also Manuscript Road Trip
Top Image: Manuscript leaf used as pastedown – Wikimedia Commons