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Renaissance Studies, Digital Humanities and the Library | posted April 27, 2015

Demmy Verbeke

Aletheia, a system for ground truthing.

Looking for patterns through digital mechanisms.

[1] To me, personally, Renaissance Studies has always been a multidisciplinary affair. Renaissance Studies are mostly defined by time (i.e. the various possible meanings of ‘Renaissance’) sometimes in combination with spatial boundaries (e.g. ‘the Italian Renaissance’ or ‘the Northern Renaissance’, as is the case with the journal associated to this blog), but never by object. Literary texts, archival documents, pieces of art, musical compositions, … are all studied in Renaissance Studies, so they bring together elements from literary studies, linguistics, history, musicology, art history, and many more. I admitted a couple of years ago (Verbeke 2009) that few of us can boast competence in enough fields to call ourselves a true Renaissance scholar, since we tend to specialize in one or a limited number of sub-disciplines. But I do not see this is as a real problem, as long as we also draw on outside expertise when confronted with the multidisciplinary reality of our field of research.

[2] It will then also come as no surprise that Renaissance Studies have been relatively quick in welcoming the Digital Humanities. Not only can the methodology of Digital Humanities help to grasp the diversity of the research field known as Renaissance Studies, but the scholarly tradition of this field of research tends to be as multidisciplinary and collaborative as the Digital Humanities are. This is easily illustrated in an array of well-known or lesser-known projects which might not all call themselves ‘Digital Humanities projects’, but which others might thus qualify, such as Architectura (http://architectura.cesr.univ-tours.fr), the Map of London (http://mapoflondon.uvic.ca/index.htm), the Medici Archive Project (http://www.medici.org), Mesolore (http://www.mesolore.org), Renaissance Cultural Crossroads (http://www.hrionline.ac.uk/rcc) or the Venice Time Machine (in which the Renaissance is only one of the timeframes treated, http://vtm.epfl.ch).

[3] What we see in a lot of these projects is driven by the multidisciplinary nature of the research field, which occasions the collaboration which we notice in most successful Digital Humanities projects. And this collaboration is not just academics working together with other academics, but also academics working together with IT people and with the people working in the institutions which house the objects studied, such as libraries, archives and museums. I defend such a collaboration not only because experience teaches that it tends to yield the best results, but also because it helps to position the institution again at the centre of research (Verbeke 2014, Truyen and Verbeke 2015). This would imply incorporating elements from research & development within the workings of the institution in question. In my opinion, R&D and service are complementary, rather than exclusive, in such a setting. Researchers frequently turn to, e.g., their university’s library for support in digital scholarship. If academic librarians want to avoid having to turn away these requests, then they need to proactively garner competence, develop workflows, and prepare an (at the very least basic) digital infrastructure. Obviously, few institutions have money and staff to spare to fully prepare for requests which are not even expressed yet, but good will (both from an institution’s administration and from the researchers themselves) goes a long way to providing a context in which the staff of a library, an archive or a museum feels encouraged and empowered to get actively involved in research projects by accepting responsibility for work packages devoted to tasks which are traditionally expected of them anyway, such as preservation, curation, discovery, dissemination and/or digitization (Showers 2012).

[4] One example in this context is Optical Character Recognition (OCR) and Named Entity Recognition (NER) for non-mainstream materials such as manuscripts and early printed books. Renaissance scholars turning to a library or archive for the provision of Renaissance texts typically want one of two things. Either they want the original documents (e.g. because these documents have not been digitized yet or because they do a type of research which is still not obvious in a digital world, such as studying Renaissance watermarks or book bindings), or they want a fully digitized corpus which they can search and/or manipulate as they see fit. Full digitization starts with captioning the original document in high-quality, but goes further than that, e.g. by providing an automated transcription of the text through OCR (so that it also becomes fully searchable) or by automatically recognizing all names of individuals, places or organisations through NER (which also enables building automated indices). The problem is that the technology does not yet follow the desire of Renaissance scholars in the sense that both OCR and NER for books in non-mainstream typefaces (such as early printed books) or non-mainstream languages (such as Neo-Latin or Renaissance French) – let alone OCR and NER for manuscripts of a similar nature – are not developed enough yet. However, this does not mean that this has to remain so: several teams are working in several places on the problem of OCR and  NER for non-mainstream materials, and the results yielded, for instance, by the Early Modern OCR Project (http://emop.tamu.edu) prove that we might be closer to a solution than originally thought.

[5] The European Union in its turn also recognizes the need for mass digitisation of textual material which would benefit researchers and thus also, amongst others, Renaissance scholars. One of the initiatives taken was the support action succeed (http://www.succeed-project.eu), initiated to promote the take-up and validation of research results in mass digitisation, e.g. by assisting libraries which test, evaluate and integrate digitisation tools. One of these libraries is the University Library of the KU Leuven, which tested a range of OCR- and NER-tools for rare prints in (old) Dutch in 2013-14. The results of this project were presented at library conferences such as ELAG2014 (Bath, 10-13 June 2014), Digital Humanities conferences such as DH2014 (Lausanne, 8-12 July 2014) and the closing conference devoted to Succeed in Digitisation. Spreading Excellence (Paris, 28 November 2014); but perhaps more important is the fact that this project provided an opportunity to further develop OCR and NER for non-mainstream materials and to integrate OCR and NER in the digitisation workflow at the University Library of KU Leuven. The problem of OCR and NER for Renaissance texts might still be far from solved, but the fulfilment of the desires of Renaissance scholars has become a tiny bit closer in Leuven.

KU Leuven, April 2015

Texts cited

Showers 2012 = . Ben Showers, ‘Does the Library Have a Role to Play in the Digital Humanities?’ [http://infteam.jiscinvolve.org/wp/2012/02/23/does-the-library-have-a-role-to-play-in-the-digital-humanities].

Truyen and Verbeke 2015 = Fred Truyen and Demmy Verbeke, ‘The library as a valued partner in Digital Humanities projects: The example of EuropeanaPhotography’, accepted for publication in Art Libraries Journal (2015), 28-33.

Verbeke 2009 = Demmy Verbeke, ‘The need for Latin textual scholarship in Renaissance musicology’, Music and Letters 90 (2009), 205-214 [doi: 10.1093/ml/gcn091]

Verbeke 2014 = Demmy Verbeke, ‘The opportunistic librarian’, dh+lib [http://acrl.ala.org/dh/2014/08/06/opportunistic-librarian]

About the author

Since 2012, Demmy Verbeke has been working as head librarian at KU Leuven (first of the Faculty of Arts and since 2015 of Artes), where he also teaches Heuristics and Methodology. He is the author of Latin Letters and Poems in Motet Collections by Franco-Flemish Composers (c. 1550 – c. 1600) (Turnhout: Brepols Publishers, 2010) and produced numerous articles and chapters discussing the history of the book, Renaissance humanism (especially in the Low Countries and England) and the Classical Tradition. His current research focuses on the history and future of the book, library management (particularly in the field of research/academic libraries) and scholarly communication.

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