Posted by: viscenter | July 22, 2010

Digitization will make classics available for research

The EDUCE research team has moved to el Escorial, a Monastery and Basilica in San Lorenzo, Spain, outside of Madrid. The magnificent library of the Escorial holds an amazing collection of manuscripts, including the medieval copies of the Iliad, E3 and E4, both dating to the eleventh century.

While the long tradition of scholarship in the Classics has produced transcriptions, editions, and references to these manuscripts, no complete facsimile of them exists. Our goal is to capture them digitally and include them in the developing Homer Multitext . In fact, the very editorial lens used by scholars who study these works and then publish articles about them is what the EDUCE team hopes to amplify and improve. This deserves some explanation.

It has long been accepted that scholars must make editorial judgments and that facsimiles of complete manuscripts are normally too extensive and expensive to publish as complete works. In the editorial process, details are unavoidably omitted altogether or represented through a particular interpretive framework. Without the ability to evaluate this scholarship in the context of the original material, it becomes difficult to reconstruct the details that support assertions and conclusions. The scholar may note certain features of the manuscript as being significant, and simply not remark on others. This interpretive lens is accepted as standard practice but makes it difficult to independently reconstruct and judge conclusions, especially when original material is selectively used and is largely inaccessible to all but a few privileged scholars.

The EDUCE team is treating the digitization process as one of data collection, where careful imagery of manuscripts becomes more than just the creation of an artful facsimile. To be sure, a beautifully and faithfully rendered facsimile is a product of the work. But more importantly, when gathered under the right conditions, the imagery becomes a primary source for the scholarly community – measureable, detailed, and complete. What’s more, the data can be made available to the global community, directly referenced by editorial and interpretive frameworks. Assertions and conclusions can hinge on transparent, observable data, opening editorial scholarship to a wider critical review process.

What makes a representation into a data collection rather than just a set of beautiful images? The EDUCE project captures images under different lighting conditions (“multi-spectral” images) and ties them together with a 3D backdrop. It is the only system doing this right now. The result is that every pixel reveals its unique appearance under many colors of light, and is pinned down to an exact 3D location. Under these conditions, inks may reveal their likely chemistry. Brush strokes have thickness, and letters can be measured exactly for size. The first step toward science is measurement, and this representation makes exact measurement possible.

The E3 Iliad manuscript at the Escorial is a particularly challenging one. Its binding holds the parchment pages tightly and they are far from flat. There are almost one thousand years worth of stains and strains on those storied pages, showing the parchment’s battle against the ravages of time. Yes, the work is tedious: it takes two minutes of imaging to capture the data for a single page, and at least that much time again to turn the page to prepare for the next capture. But once collected, these images can become a definitive benchmark reference for this and other collections.

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