I am immensely grateful to Eric Kwakkel of Leiden University for drawing my attention via Twitter at the weekend to an important piece of recent work which to my mind provides a model for the sort of innovation we should be developing in the digital humanities. It is a completely experimental approach which doesn't produce a sustainable digital resource, raise questions about standards or encourage us to integrate data in different fashions, but it is more provocative and thought-provoking than a thousand lavishly-funded TEI online editions. Of course, there is room within the big tent of the digital humanities for all such approaches, but my anxiety is that the Digital Humanities, as it grows increasingly complacent, inward-looking and risk-averse, will lose touch with this kind of avowedly experimental work, which was perhaps more commonplace fifteen years ago than it is now.
The BBC story which Erik posted described a piece of research by the St Andrews art historian Kathryn Rudy under the headline 'Secrets Revealed by Dirty Books from Medieval Times' and suggested that measurement of dirt on medieval manuscripts could indicate which pages were most frequently handled by their medieval owners. My immediate reaction was to feel doubtful about the validity of such an approach, knowing how frequently major libraries frequently clean manuscripts. However, reference to the full article, published in the Journal of Historians of Netherlandish Art and available from the St Andrew's Institutional Repository here, revealed a much more subtle and important piece of research. It is common in medieval manuscripts to see how oil and dirt from constant handling discolours certain pages. Dr Rudy used a device called a densitometer which measures the reflectivity of a surface in a way that will not damage the manuscript. As pages are handled, then the surface of the vellum becomes darker. Densitometer readings will in theory indicate which pages were most frequently handled:
Dr Rudy offers fascinating analyses of the way in which the densitometry data provides evidence of how different owners of particular manuscripts made use of them, and in particular which sections of the manuscript they read most often. Securing this information was not easy - Dr Rudy used as densitometer on about 200 manuscripts, but only got useful information on 10% of them. As I suspected, one of the main problems is modern cleaning of manuscripts. Large institutions such as the British Library and the Victoria and Albert Museum have historically tended to clean the surface of manuscript pages at the same time as rebinding or repairing them, and the huge swathes of rebinding of medieval and other manuscripts which caused such immense damage and loss of evidence in the British Library up to the 1970s also destroyed evidence which could now be explored by the densitometer. Historically, as the conservation wiki notes, bread crumbs were often used for this surface cleaning. The Conservation Wiki gives the following advice for baking bread for use in cleaning your manuscripts: 'Bread has been historically used as a surface cleaning material, but is no longer in general use. Bread should be baked without oils, yeast, or (potentially abrasive) salt. (SD) Traditionally, day old bread was preferred, as it was not as moist as fresh bread and may have had “tooth” to facilitate better cleaning. Crusts were removed and the bread was pressed into the paper surface with a rolling motion. (EO) Residual bread may support mold growth. (RA)'.
Another issue in the use of densitometers with manuscripts not noted by Dr Rudy is that modern usage of manuscripts also causes discoloration. In a volume which contains a number of different medieval codices bound together, it often striking how a well known section which has received a great deal of scholarly attention is very seriously discoloured, whereas a less well-known part of the manuscript is much cleaner. Because of the way in which the reconstruction of the Cotton Library in the British Library was undertaken and documented, there are two or three medieval manuscripts which are shown in all the catalogues as destroyed but which were in fact restored and have been preserved. These manuscripts have not been touched by more than half-a-dozen people since they were restored in the middle of the nineteenth century. It is striking how very much cleaner these volumes are than those Cotton Manuscripts which have been regularly consulted in the Manuscripts Reading Room during that time.
There is clearly a great deal to do in developing this new method of manuscript densitometry, and this is a task which should be taken up by scholars working in the digital humanities. Nevertheless, the scholarship of Dr Rudy's first experimental use of this technique is very striking and it is difficult to disagree with Dr Rudy's claim that 'We can add densitometrical analysis to the manuscript scholar's toolbox of forensic techniques, which also includes the use of ultraviolet (UV) light or other techniques to help to disclose texts that have been scratched out'. The potential value of densitometry is not restricted to manuscripts. It would be interesting to compare how different owners approached the same copy of a book by analysing some early printed books. Or we could take a library like that of Thomas Jefferson or Edward Gibbon, and analyse which books they were most interested in. There is a huge new potential field of investigation here.
This is a real challenge, and scholars working in the digital humanities must wonder how far, in their naive techno-enthusiasm, they are culpable here. By giving us new means of exploring and investigating cultural artefacts such as books and manuscripts, digital technologies made access to and engagement with original objects more and not less important. Yet too often scholars working in the digital humanities give out the message that what counts is data and information, and that this can somehow be investigated in a fashion disconnected from its physical roots. This is a route to a major cultural disaster. We may throw up out hands in horror at the Victorian and early twentieth century destruction of bindings and other aspects of medieval manuscripts, but the digital humanities is actively colluding in encouraging approaches which are potentially equally destructive. We can help avert this looming disaster by showing how digital technologies give us more tools to engage with the original manuscript and printed book, and by leading a renewed engagement with books and manuscripts in library and archive reading rooms. The slogan of many librarians in the 1990s was 'access not collections'. Practitioners of the digital humanities should aim to replace this with 'collections and access'.