Friday, 15 July 2011

Review of the colloquium "Digital Methods for Medieval Hispanic Studies" (8-9 July 2011, Magdalen College)

Last 8th and 9th of July Magdalen College has been the venue for the first international colloquium of the Medieval Hispanic Text and Manuscript Seminar (MHTMS) "Digital Methods for Medieval Hispanic Studies" (visit its website here). During two days, reputed scholars in the fields of Digital Humanities and Hispanism have presented their on-line projects and shared their "know-how" with all the attendants, as well as discussed the current and future applications of technology to Medieval Hispanic Studies.

In representation of the project Philobiblon, Harvey Sharrer (University of California) presented the new interface of this well-known bio-bibliographical database of texts written in the various Romance vernaculars of the the Iberian Peninsula during the Middle Ages and the early Renaissance. Based on four different bibliographies (BETA, BIPA, BITAGAP y BITECA), Philobiblon provides a search engine that allows multiple kinds of search (by bio-bibliographical data, by geographical information, by secondary references, etc.) and comprehensive information about each record, which is kept as up-to-date and as free of errors as possible. Despite some problems with special characters, the site works quickly and effectively so that, once discovered, it becomes an essential tool for the researcher. On the other hand, Philobiblon benefits from the feedback of its users, therefore it is a project in continuous development and aspires to become the most comprehensive and reliable source of information on Iberian medieval and early Renaissance texts.

A most useful tool for the researcher will be the Corpus Hispánico y Americano en la red: textos antiguos (CHARTA) network, presented by Paul Spence, acting head of the Department of Digital Humanities at King's College (London). Its aim is to provide digital editions of archival documents written in Spanish from its origins to the XIXth century, with the double task of preserving those documents and making them accesible for reserachers all over the world. Therefore, the project contemplates facsimile, paleographic and critical editions of texts, which cover the needs of scholars of the most different fields. In the next months, the first digital editions are expected to appear, but similar experiences have been done in the fields of epigraphy and classic studies before, from which CHARTA has learnt a lot and is a direct heir, so that there is no doubt about the utility of the project.

The afternoon session was opened by Andrés Enrique-Arias (Universitat des Illes Balears) with the on-line project Biblia medieval, originally conceived as a tool for linguistic research but which can be used for other kind of research too, e.g. literary or historical. Because of the uncommon amount of medieval biblical translations in Spanish and the considerable size of the linguistic corpus available in it (about 800.000 words), the Bible is an almost perfect text for the linguistic research, therefore, the search engine that accompanies this project offers, apart from the typical search by vers, chapter and book; the possibility of looking for concrete words and word forms. Two are the main uses of the project: first, comparing the different versions of the biblical texts among multiple versions of the Bible or parts of it; second, counting and locating the appearances of a certain word form. This reflects in its table format, although efforts are being made to improve the presentation of the results and making comparison easier.

A different kind of corpus, the literary The Digital Library of Old Spanish Texts, was  presented by Francisco Gago Jover (College of the Holy Cross). Its main purpose is to provide semi-paleographic transcriptions of not so well known medieval texts, despite having started with the extensive work of king Alfonso X, and to follow up with more accesible texts. As it is conceived as a digital repository, it does not include but the text, leaving to other projects the ellaboration of new tools to work with them (what I, personally, considered the most relevant contribution of this presentation). The transcription can be accessed in "labelled format" (plain text + labels) or formatted and accompanied by concordances. These concordances are static, which means the loading time of the site is shorter than if the search was dynamic.

The presentation of the Corpus del español and the Corpus do português by Michael Ferreira (Georgetown University) was useful to discover the multiple utilities of both projects, their database and search engines being the most complete and comprehensive a researcher could require. Not limited to the usual searches by lemma, chronology or semantic field, these corpuses provide us with varied search possibilities and multiple ways of sorting the results, so that almost all research needs are covered. Moreover, the attendants to the colloquium were able to take a short look at a different concept of digital editing which maintains and reproduces the layout of the original text, including annotations, illustrations, catchwords, etc.; by taking advantage of styling tools.

The last presentation of the day was devoted to the Biblioteca Digital de Diálogo Hispánico (Dialogyca BDDH), whose working was explained by Esther Gómez-Sierra (University of Manchester). Apart from the usual bibliographical information, the project provides the user with scanned images of some of the texts and links to relevant secondary sources or parallel sites, so that its interactivity and the use of internal links are remarkable. Some of this information is for registered users only, but it is still a very useful tool.

The second and last session of the colloquium started with the presentation of The Cantigas de Santa María database and critical edition, a project lead by Stephen Parkinson (University of Oxford) that has experienced recently the dangers of the internet: it has suffered a severe hacking attack which has kept it offline for several weeks. However, this is an experience from which can be learnt too, as security, compatibility and portabiblity of the data involved in any project in the field of Digital Humanities have been a major concern during the colloquium. With regard to the project itself, its comprehensiveness is the most appealing characteristic of it, as it includes not only the usual bibliographical information, but information related to the music and, in a future, it could include the information regarding the miniatures that accompany the text too.

As comprehensive as the latter is the Electronic Corpus of 15th Century Castilian Cancionero Manuscripts, a project that was presented by Fiona Maguire and Dorothy Severin (Liverpool University). Following the spirit of Brian Dutton, who was himself a pioneer in applying new technologies to his own work on Cancionero poetry, this project pretends to supply researchers with the whole range of Cancionero texts, included those left out by Dutton. Apart from this and some digitalised manuscripts, the project applies computing techniques to aspects of the philological work other than textual edition, providing automatically generated stemmata in the form of an unrooted phylogram and/or a bootstrap cladogram, which give us useful information about the relations among witnesses and their reliability thanks to genetic algorithms and other tecniques used in the field of biology. This shows how other disciplines can contribute to Digital Humanities.

The project Biblioteca digital de escritoras medievales hispánicas, represented by Isabel Navas Ocaña (Universidad de Almería/Cambridge University), is not available on-line yet, but will be soon. Its more didactic nature makes this a general interest project that could be of some use for researchers wanting to access the work of not so well known medieval female writers, but its main purpose seems to be to popularise the writings by female authors that have not been widely edited or published. Therefore, it will focus in a selection of primary and secondary texts, with some extra didactic support, instead of providing the researcher with the complete textual sources or dealing with comprehensive critical bibliography.

The Dictionary of Portuguese Paleographic Abbreviations is an individual project by Susana Pedro (Lisbon University) that will be on-line soon too, which pretends to provide the scholar with a very useful on-line tool but, at the same time, wants to honour the life-long work of her mentor. The purpose of this project is to digitalise and automatise the numerous handwritten cards gathered by the latter, so that it can be easily accessed through the internet.

In the last presentation of the colloquium John Coleman (University of Oxford) spoke about the collaboration of the Oxford Virtual Research Environment for the Study of Documents and Manuscripts with the Bamboo Project. Its purpose being quite similar to the CHARTA project presented by Paul Spence, the most interesting contribution of this last talk was to inform us about an existing initiative of creating tools for the Digital Humanities so that researchers can devote most of their time to research, without having to spend too long conceiving and developing the technical side of their projects. This lead us to the question of duplication of efforts and projects as a result of an important lack of communication among projects in the Digital Humanities, and the colloquium concluded with the honest intention of trying to solve the problem.

Apart from making known all the above mentioned projects, the most  important contribution of this colloquium has been to put in common experiences, concerns and desires regarding the application of new technologies to the study of hispanic medieval texts. Moreover, this has been the first step to finish with the lack of communication among current, past and future projects, and we expect this first colloquium of the MHTMS to signal the beginning of an intense dialogue among medievalists interested in digital humanities.
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