Digital Humanities in Practice
A visit to Special Collections – UCC
Special collections in the Boole Library at UCC has a few rules that perhaps would have prevented Vittoria Vetra in Dan Browne’s Angels and Demons, from removing a document from the Vatican Vaults. Elaine Harrington briefed our class group on basic safety protocols – such as no bags, coats, pens, markers, and so forth – allowed in the rooms. Pencils and paper are the only items allowed to be brought in. Photographing items without first making an application in writing and being granted permission is prohibited. The items held at Special Collections all have different copyright status, and this needs to be checked before any reproduction, even for personal use, is allowed.
Our class was instructed as to the safety precautions necessary when handling artefacts of significant age and value. The oldest item handled by our class group was the Roche Family papers dating from 1607-57. Books of such age are often damaged to the point of the binding no longer being sturdy and so foam blocks are necessary to support the delicate navigation of the artefact.
I handled a 1715 edition of The History of the Reformation of the Church of England. The experience of discovering this book firsthand was fascinating. Though I am not the first person to handle this book, it still held the weight of a first time exploration. Discovering the hidden watermarks, analysing the imagery on the frontispiece and reading English that is different to the English we have now, was exhilarating. The thick dark ink has leached through the weighty pages making some of the text laden passages a challenge to read.
Unlike Professor Langdon’s experience in Angels and Demons, no gloves were necessary to handle this book. Most universities and libraries with special collections now shun the use of gloves when handling such delicate pieces. The risk posed by dirty hands and skin oils versus dexterity has been weighed up. It has been found that gloves impair dexterity to the point of greater risk of damage when wearing gloves than not wearing gloves. Instead, clean dry hands are encouraged.
Archive.org has a copy of the 1715 edition of The History of the Reformation of the Church of England. However, after handling the physical artefact, I can’t help but feel a little let down by the 2D representation of this 3D object. Though there are very few images in the book, the ability to fully interpret these images is lost as there is little facilitation to zoom in on specific anomalies. There is also no facility to discover watermarks and other hidden treasures. Details relating to watermarks and binding are critical when dating and determining the unity of a body of work. (Roy 13-18)
Ultimately, my visit to Special Collections in the Boole Library of UCC has impressed on me the importance of getting digitisation right. Bill Enders has employed a variety of digital tools, beyond basic imaging, to ensure as much information is gleaned from manuscripts as possible. For just one example, see Enders YouTube video here for his approach on Dry-Point Glosses and his use of Reflectance Transformation Imaging.
A flat digital experience of this book is a little like handling the book with thick gloves on. Some of the experience is lost, and while the damage may not be physical, it may impact analysis, interpretation and scholarship. Making historical artefacts available through digital archives is a noble pursuit, but true scholarship will require more than basic digital access to these works. Perhaps we can consider the digital availability of artefacts as a pre-search tool; a means by which scholars and interested parties can know whether a visit to the physical archive or museum is worth-while.
Some online archives and resources – feel free to comment below and suggest your favourites.
Curated in Cork:
Curated in Dublin:
Irish National Archives:
Internationally curated archives:
Burnet, Gilbert 1643-1715. “The history of the reformation of the Church of England : Burnet, Gilbert, 1643-1715 : Free Download & Streaming.” Internet Archive, London : Printed by T.H. for Richard Chiswell, 1 Jan. 1681, www.archive.org/details/reformationofchu01burn. Accessed 30/10/2017.
Burnett, Gilbert. The History of the Reformation of the Church of England: in two parts. Vol. 1, London: Printed for J. Walthoe and B. Tooke [etc.], 1715.
Raab, Nathan. “The White Glove Myth.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 24 Apr. 2013, www.forbes.com/sites/booked/2012/03/21/the-white-glove-myth/#7d311b771ed9. Accessed 30/10/2017.
Roy, David Karl. “The unity of Edmund Spenser’s Complaints.” CORA Home, University College Cork, 2017, cora.ucc.ie/handle/10468/3915. Accessed 30/10/2017.
Seb2009aetd. “Angels & Demons Clip Watermark.” YouTube, 1 May 2009, www.youtube.com/watch?v=ejY5jJM3Slc. Accessed 30/10/2017.
wendres09. “The St Chad Gospels: Reflectance Transformation Imaging and Dry-Point Glosses.” YouTube, 26 Mar. 2015, www.youtube.com/watch?v=YQN5n-hjVaE&feature=youtu.be. Accessed 30/10/2017.