Report from ‘Digital Britain’

Easter weekend was a promising date for a conference on the theme of renewal (or at least reconsideration) of the field of medieval literature. Hosted by Harvard University’s English Department and exploring new approaches to the early Middle Ages, ‘Digital Britain’ provided a perfect opportunity for the World-Tree Project to report on our method of community collection, and to enlist the advice of some of the leading proponents of digital medievalism.

Untitledconf The conference ran over two days and packed in 23 papers and reports, which can’t all be mentioned here (the schedule is available on the project website and the storify here). The presentations covered everything from computational approaches to place-name studies to reflections on the theory and practice of editing in a digital environment, via calls for collaborative forms of peer-review and the use of digital tools in the teaching of medieval literature. The plenaries were delivered by Prof. Timothy Stinson, who gave lots of practical advice about digital editions arising from his work on The Siege of Jerusalem Electronic Archive, and reminded us that mouvance is not a concept that would have been recognised by the medieval scribe working with the manuscript in front of them. The second plenary, Prof. Martin Foys, delivered a lecture on ‘Formal Materialism in Early Medieval Media’, using the intriguing case study of an Old English translation of a redaction of Amalarius of Metz’s Retractatio and its attempted erasure by Matthew Parker in the sixteenth-century to explore concepts of the material in the Anglo-Saxon scriptorium and our ability to reconstruct this in the digital age.

In our own panel on ‘Data and Databases’ we were in the esteemed company of the Bosworth and Toller Online Dictionary, and the RuneS Project – which will soon be the primary corpus edition for study of the older futhark runic inscriptions. Jenny Robins’ presentation included a replica runic inscription to transcribe, which gave us something tangible to hold on to during this discussion of data!

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The Data and Databases Panel at the ‘Digital Britain’ Conference, Harvard

Our own presentation was focused on the challenges involved in our approach to international crowdsourcing of material on the Vikings. The talk outlined the project and set it in the context of some recent community collection initiatives in the field of cultural heritage (with reference made to the splendid Woruldhord Project run by Dr Stuart Lee at OUCS, which has provided an excellent model and methodology to build on). The paper then discussed challenges under four headings: managing quality, using multiple languages, engaging with hidden communities, and curating unknown items.

The section on managing quality (dealing with the knotty issue of how to deal with misinformation and the limited potential for crowdsourcing to produce ‘academically credible knowledge’ (Hedges and Dunn) was the challenge taken up most readily by our fellow attendees in the Q&A session. The successes and failures of the Wikipedia model of peer review and policing of quality was discussed, and a useful distinction made between gate-keeping at the point of collection, and interpretation and quality control in curation. We stressed the need for any community collection database to include an option for community curation, and discussed the possibility of mobilising participants to help correct factual errors, provide feedback and advocate for quality of submissions. It was also pointed out that it is possible to get too hung up on quality and accuracy in metadata, when this is the task of the moderators to correct – the value might be thought of as the engagement with shared heritage rather than the quality of individual items. The issue of racist agendas was also raised (inevitably), which is something we will refuse to tolerate in any of the submissions made public on the website. Finally, the question of legacy and longevity was raised. The specter of ambitious projects which quickly became obsolete hangs over any new online archive, and we have to take every step to ensure that this archive is inter-operable and extensible. Our use of the open-source platform Omeka and use of Dublin Core standards is just the first step in ensuring that the World-Tree Project is a lasting resource.

All in all, this was a fascinating conference which gave us a great deal to think about in the run-up to the call for contributions, and we are very grateful to Erica Weaver, Joey McMullen, and Sam Berstler for organising the conference, and to the Irish Research Council for facilitating the World-Tree Project’s participation.

 

 

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