Learning by Doing:
For the past fifteen months, I've been the CLIR postdoctoral fellow in Data Curation for Medieval Studies at Stanford. In this position, I spent part of my time working as a data curator based in DLSS where I work primarily with large collections of digitized manuscripts and fragments. For example, I've been getting our own teaching collections searchable on the item level. I've also been bringing together partner institutions' XML-encoded descriptive metadata to refresh and enrich DMS-Index, a collaborative Mellon-funded project on digital manuscript interoperability.
What this means in practice is that I write code to transform batches of 70, 300, 500, or 1000+ manuscripts at a time: I've gotten very comfortable thinking of medieval manuscripts in the tens, hundreds, and even thousands. But the truth is that these large batches of digital-medieval manuscripts I curate are built of unique, single objects. Single objects that--just like the physical objects they grow from--are made by individual people, in particular environments, under specific institutional, financial, and social pressures.
Some of these pressures I can begin to decode by close reading particular XML forms. Others, though, can only be learned by seeing--up close and hands-on--how digital-medieval manuscripts are made. In order to better understand those particular pressures and how they influence the final form of the digital-medieval book, I recently followed the digitization of a fifteenth-century book of hours, Stanford University Libraries, M0379, from my initial request for digitization, through the slow hard work of taking the images and hours of post-production labor, to its arrival in Stanford Digital Repository (SDR).
Actually, I got to do something rarer and more wonderful than just "following" others' work. When Astrid Smith, our digitization specialist in rare and fragile materials, learned of my interest, she invited me to join the project as her assistant.
Her offer was irresistible. Medieval manuscript scholars are increasingly interested in experiencing how medieval books were made. In the name of experiential learning, we have our students to craft books, medieval-scribe-style, and we attend professional seminars where we get to learn to do the work ourselves. For me, getting to step in as Astrid's assistant on the digitization of M0379 was the next logical step in this kind of experience-based research in the History of the Book. If I wanted to understand what really went into the objects I was curating--and if I wanted to understand the digital books at the heart of my own scholarly research--there was no better way than by getting to roll up my sleeves and learn by doing.
Going in, I fully expected that digitizing a medieval book--much like making a physical medieval book--was going to require a fair amount of physical labor.
It's one thing to know that, and quite another to feel it as your own aches and pains. The first day my back hurt. The second day, it was my knees. My body felt like it had when I'd been a waitress and worked an especially long and tiring double shift. In post-production, it was my back again: I'd get lost in the subtleties of positioning leaves "just so," only realizing after the fact that I'd been crouched in the same position for hours. I found myself worrying about the younger members of the post-production team. Did they look up frequently enough to exercise their eye muscles, or were they--like so many PhD students--on the fast track to wrecked eyes and bifocals? When I asked my fellow workers, they mentioned weeks of eye-strain and headaches as their bodies grew used to the new wear-and-tear this kind of digital making entails.
We chuckle fondly at medieval scribes who write about the physical aspects of their labor into the margins of the books they copy. One of the things I knew abstractly before--but now know deeply, in the way you only can by experiencing a thing--is that making digital-medieval books is also hard physical work.
I also found a striking level of asceticism in the digitization studio. In my daily work as a scholar, data curator, and teacher, I'm an absent-minded snacker. I always have a cup of something--coffee, hot chocolate, or tea--at my elbow and I graze almost constantly. But in a digitization studio dedicated to the long-term access and preservation of rare objects, this is a forbidden luxury. In order to be sure that the objects she serves are protected, Astrid does not even allow herself water in her studio. She doesn't notice the constant mild dehydration anymore, but my lips were chapped by the end of the week. The room where I did post-production work on M0379 also contains rare objects and a digitization set-up: here, we are allowed water. But nothing else. To put it another way: the hidden laborers who make our digital-medieval books maintain a level of attention that boggles the mind--and they do it all without the help of constant caffeine.
One particular detail brought home to me the physical cost of making digital objects. Before beginning my PhD program, I worked in food service off-and-on for almost ten years. I vividly remember the necessary constant hand washing that, especially in winter, chapped the delicate skin on the back my hands until I couldn't bear to have anything touch them. At this point, I'd turn to lanolin-rich lotions and eventually my skin would heal. In the weeks of making M0379 I saw that master-digitizers don't have the luxury I enjoyed as a waitress. To protect the objects she works with, Astrid washes her hands frequently to keep them perfectly clean. Because any oil on her hands might leach into any rare book she touches, she foregoes lotions. When I pressed the issue she admitted, with some mild surprise, that, yes, the skin on her hands hurts almost constantly. The trick, she says, is to not pay attention to that pain, to pay attention to what you're digitizing instead.
I went into the digitization studio because I wanted to learn the hidden lives of the digital-medieval books I use as a researcher and which I manage en masse as a data curator.
I wanted M0379, in particular, to be digitized because it is a book that has been used, hard, by centuries of readers--many of whom have left their notes and names scratched across its flesh. Uncovering these people is the history of this book.
The story of M0379 is the story of Joanna Theresa van der Velde (see f.108r). It is also the story of Astrid, Micaela, Selina, and all the other librarians and technologists who labored to create this newly accessible digital copy. As the History of the Book increasingly becomes a story of recovering previously hidden and neglected laborers, and as digital manuscripts become ever-more integral to Medieval Studies, those of us who work with digital-medieval books would do well to extend our scholarly curiosity to tell these new chapters and stories.
Venture into the digitization studio, like I've been lucky enough to do with M0379, and you'll find stirring echoes of the medieval scriptorium and late medieval book culture in the hidden labor and laborers who make and maintain our digital-medieval books.