Is This Your Book? What we call digitized manuscripts and why it matters

This is a version of a paper I presented as a Rare Book School Lecture at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia on June 12, 2018, originally entitled “Is this your book? What digitization does to manuscripts and what we can do about it.” 

Good afternoon and thank you for coming to my talk today. The title of my talk is “Is this your book? What digitization does to manuscripts and what we can do about it.” However I want to make a small change to my title. I’m not entirely sure if there’s anything we can do about what digitization does manuscripts but I do think we can think about it, so that’s what I want to do a bit today. I want us to think about digitized books – specifically about digitized manuscripts, since that’s what I’m particularly interested in.

So, like any self-respecting book history scholar, I’m going to start our discussion of digitized manuscripts by talking about memes.

Memes

Definition of the word “meme” from the Oxford English Dictionary.

The word meme was coined in 1976 by Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene. In the Oxford English Dictionary, meme is defined as “a cultural element or behavioral trait whose transmission and consequent persistence in a population, although occurring by non-genetic means (especially imitation), is considered as analogous to the inheritance of a gene.” Dawkins was looking for a term to describe something that had existed for millennia – as long as humans have existed – and the examples he gave include tunes, ideas, catchphrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or building arches. These are all things that are picked up by a community, ideas and concepts that move among members of that community, are imitated and modified, and which are frequently moved on to new communities as well where the process of imitation and modification continues. More recently the term meme has been applied specifically to images or text shared, often with modification, on the Internet, particularly through social media: If you’ve ever been RickRolled, you have been on the receiving end of a particularly popular and virulent meme.

This is all very interesting, Dot (I hear you say), but what do memes have to do with digitized manuscripts? This is an excellent question. What I want to do now is look at a couple of specific examples of memes and think a bit in detail about how they work, and what it looks like to push the same idea through memes that are similar but that have slightly different connotations. Then I want to look at some different terms that scholars have used to refer to digitized manuscripts and think a bit about how those terms influence the way we think about digitized manuscripts (if they do). My proposition is that these terms, while they may not exactly be memes, function like memes in the way they are adapted and used within the library and medieval studies scholarly communities. So let’s see how this goes.

In the film The Black Panther, which was released back in February of this year, there’s a scene where a character has come to the country of Wakanda to challenge the king for the throne. This character, N’Jadaka (also named Erik Stevens, but better known by his nickname Killmonger), is a cousin of the king, T’Challa, but was unknown to pretty much everyone in Wakanda until just before he arrives to make his challenge. At the climax of this scene, during which Killmonger and T’Challa fight hand-to-hand in six inches of water, Killmonger – who is clearly winning – turns to the small audience of Wakandans gathered to witness the battle and exclaims, “IS THIS YOUR KING?” If you haven’t seen the film I’m about the spoil it for your: it turns out the answer to that question is NO.

This is a phrase that was born to be a meme, and within a month that’s exactly what happened.

According to the Know Your Meme website the first instance of the “Is this your king” meme appeared on March 20 on Twitter when @TheyWant_Nolan tweeted a screen shot of the scene with the caption “is this your spring”. If you think back to March, the weather was pretty terrible everywhere around the country. It was long and tedious going back and forth between snow and heat then back to snow. Is this your Spring? NOPE.

This type of meme is a snowclone, defined as “a type of phrasal templates in which certain words may be replaced with another to produce new variations with altered meanings, similar to the “fill-in-the-blank” game of Mad Libs.” I would like to note here that this term, snowclone, was coined in 2004 by American linguists Geoffrey K. Pullum and Glen Whitman specifically to describe this phenomenon. The concept of a snowclone has been around for much longer than the term – think of “I’m not an X but I play one on TV” which was the most hilarious phrase when I was a kid – and the “Is this your king” meme works the same way, where we replace king with some other word to make a phrase that is understood to elicit a negative response.

Here are some other examples of this meme featured on its Know Your Meme page. These all supply the identity of the question asker, they vary widely by topic, and one of them makes a slight modification to the image, but they all imply a negative response to the question.

I made one myself. My meme features a screen shot of my favorite manuscript, UPenn LJS 101, as seen through the Penn in Hand manuscript interface. In my meme, the question asked is, is this your book? As we know from the context of the original meme, the answer to the question is no. This is not my book. Or: It’s not my real book.

I’ve made a few other memes and for some reason most of them play with the relationship that a digitized version of a manuscript has with the physical object.

Memes such as “Is this your king” and this next one, the “Is this a pigeon” meme, enable us to ask questions with assumed answers. In this meme, the original scene is from an anime where a human-like android sees a butterfly and asks, “Is this a pigeon?” This is another snowclone, where the question asker, the object of the question, and the question itself can be replaced with almost literally anything else. I find these snowclone memes work well for my needs, though I find the differences between the emotions that these two memes elicit fascinating.

As before, I’ve replaced the object of the question with digital images of LJS 101 and specifically identified myself as the question asker. As with the previous meme, we know the answer to the question posed is no, although the context is different: while the king meme is used to express aggressive negativity, the pigeon meme is used to express mild but total confusion. The same idea can be pushed through both memes – is this digital thing a manuscript? – and while the answer is the same – no it’s not – the negative response of the pigeon meme is “oh you silly thing, thinking the digitized manuscript is the same as the manuscript” while the negative response of the king meme is “that thing is NOT the same as the manuscript, I’m offended you think so, and I’m going to throw it off a cliff so you don’t try it again.”

Although both of these memes can be used as a kind of mirror for us to view the relationship between a manuscript and its digitized version, they expect different responses and elicit different emotions, much as different words used to refer to the same situation or person might invoke different emotions. The memes are, in effect, acting as a kind of terminology, so now I want to pivot and talk about how terminology might act as memes.

Terms

I would like to take it as a given that that how we talk about things influences how we think about them; therefore, the terms we use to describe things matter. The terms we use to describe other people matter; the terms that we choose to refer to digitized manuscripts matter. I would also like to reiterate the proposition I made a few minutes ago that our terminology, while perhaps not memes themselves, are meme-like. In his 2016 article “’ut legi”: Sir John Mandeville’s Audience and Three Late Medieval English Travelers to Italy and Jerusalem,” Anthony Bale discusses Jerusalem as a meme in medieval English travel writings, but I find that his description of meme fits well with what I would like to do here. He says, “the meme proposes a model of cultural transmission based on audiences’ ongoing use and appropriation of the source, as opposed to the scholarly desire to return to the source as the “best” or “original” iteration.” (for a term, this would mean common usage points not to the original meaning of the word, but to the word as it is being used. That’s a bit of a circular argument but I think it makes sense) He continues, “Memes have not one stable author, no unitary point of origins, and are not retrospective, but rather change with their audiences, causing people to do things; stimulating actions and changing behaviors; leading people to take a particular route, see a particular site, notice one thing but not another, find new meanings in an old source.” (Bale, p. 210)

Following this theory, terms work like this:

  1. A term begins with a specific meaning (e.g., outlined in the OED, citing earlier usage),
  2. A scholar adopts the term because we need some way to describe this new thing that we’ve created. So we appropriate this term, with its existing meaning, and we use it to describe our new thing.
  3. The new thing takes on the old meaning of the term,
  4. The term itself becomes imbued with meaning from what we are now using it to describe.
  5. The next time someone uses that term, it carries along with it the new meaning.

Some scholars take time to define their terms, but some scholars choose not to, instead depending on their audience to recognize the existing definitions and connotations of the terms they use. For example, in her 2013 article “Fleshing out the text: The transcendent manuscript in the digital age,” Elaine Treharne (coming out of a description of how medieval people would have always interacted with a physical book) says: “for the greater proportion of a modern audience on any given day, one has necessarily to rely on the digital replication: the world of the ironically disembodied and defleshed simulacrum, avatar, surrogate.” (Treharne, p. 470) [emphasis mine] Here Treharne uses the terms simulacrum, avatar, and surrogate without defining them, and she groups them together, in that order, placing simulacrum first in that list. More than the other two, simulacrum has a negative connotation – as we can see from its entry in the OED, a simulacrum is a “mere image”; it looks like a thing without possessing its substance or proper qualities; it is a “specious imitation”. Although it is near identical in meaning and from related Latin roots as the term facsimile, which I’ll discuss in a moment, facsimile lacks the negative connotations that simulacrum has. Although the terms are undefined by the author, it seems that this was a purposeful word choice intended to elicit a negative response.

Compare this with Bill Endres, who in his 2012 article “More than Meets the Eye: Going 3D with an Early Medieval Manuscript” spends several paragraphs defining his terms and arguing for why he chooses to use some terms and not others. Endres says, “I will refer to 3D and 2D images as digital artifacts or digital versions, although not totally satisfied with either term as it relates to epistemology. I am tempted to refer to them as digital offspring, the results of a marriage between digital and manuscript technologies, with digital versions having unique qualities and a life of their own. This term is problematic but it speaks to the excesses, commonalities, and deficits when digital versions are measured against their physical antecedent.” (Endres, p. 4) Endres then discusses some other terms, including two of the ones I will consider in a moment, so we’ll return to his thoughts later. The point here is that Endres defines his terms and explains why he is using them, while Treharne relies on us to understand her meaning through the known definition of her terms.

Facsimile

For each term I will discuss pre-digital definitions of the term, using the Oxford English Dictionary as the source.[1] I’ll also include a few quotes where scholars refer to digitized manuscripts using that term, although these quotes are meant to be representative and not exhaustive (that is, I couldn’t tell you the first time that the term was used by someone to refer to a digitized manuscript, but I can give you an impression of how the term has been used or is being used currently).

Let’s begin with the term facsimile.

 

It is from the Latin meaning literally make similar. The earliest attestation of the term is from 1661, and refers to a transcribed copy of a text, and not necessarily something that looks just like the text it is being copied from. About 30 years later, facsimile is being used to mean an exact copy or likeness; an exact counterpart or representation, and the citations refer to written texts or drawings. The term continues to be used according to this definition into the later 19th century, by the time photography of books and manuscripts has become well-represented in the scholarly landscape. (David McKitterick, Old Books, New Technologies, pp. 117-118)

By the late 19th century, facsimile has been adapted to refer to the communication of images through radio, wire, or similar methods – the modern day “fax” machine, for example. This meaning maintains the previous definitions focusing on a facsimile as some kind of copy, but adds the meaning of communicating over distance, and I expect these combined uses of the terms – print facsimiles plus the sharing of images over distance – are why digital facsimile became an obvious term to use to describe these new representations of old objects.

The use of facsimile to refer to textual materials clearly varies over time and from individual to individual. In his 1926 article ‘Facsimile’ Reprints of Old Books, A. W. Pollard seems to use the term according to its 1661 attestation, not according to its 1691 attestation. He says “It is intended to cover any reprint the form of which has been influenced to any considerable extent by the form of the edition reproduced.” (Pollard, p. 305) Pollard’s ‘Facsimile’ reprints include “1) Photographic facsimiles, 2) Type-facsimiles, i.e. editions in which types of similar founts to those used in the original are set to follow the original setting as closely as possible; 3) more or less luxurious reprints which seek to reproduce the general effect of the original with such concessions to modern usage as the producer may think desirable.” (Pollard, p. 306)

Facsimile or digital facsimile has been, for as long as I can remember, the default term that libraries use to refer to their own digital copies, and that scholars use to refer to the digital images they incorporate into their online projects. In November 1993, Kevin Kiernan gave a presentation at a symposium of the Association of Research Libraries [Kiernan, “Digital Preservation, Restoration, and Dissemination of Medieval Manuscripts”] in which he says that the Electronic Beowulf  “will in its first manifestation make available in early 1994 a full-color electronic facsimile of Cotton Vitellius A. xv to readers in the British Library and at other selected sites.” He continues,  “As this electronic archive grows, it will incorporate facsimiles of many other documents that help us restore parts of the manuscript that were lost or damaged by fire in the early eighteenth century.” Kiernan is referring not only to straightforward digital images, but also to images taken under ultraviolet light that were included in the edition. As he says later in the presentation, because of the UV images “Readers of the electronic facsimile will thus acquire a reproduction of the manuscript that reveals more than the manuscript itself does under ordinary circumstances.”

The use of the term facsimile makes it possible for scholars to consider how digital facsimiles relate to older ways of making similar. In “The Ghost in the Machine: Digital Avatars and Medieval Manuscripts“, Sian Echard discussion of the restoration of manuscripts by Matthew Parker and his circle, which she interprets as a kind of facsimile. Dr. Echard says “Today, digital technologies continue to recreate medieval books for a variety of audiences, and the digital facsimiles, like the hand and machine produced examples … both reproduce and relocate their medieval objects. But our current attitudes toward facsimile differ from Parker’s and Dibdin’s, and may in fact inhibit our ability to see the extent to which we too are recreating medieval text objects according to our own tastes. As technology has enabled ever more exact reproduction, the cheerful refashioning proposed by Parker has been replaced by an emphasis on the photographic, on the exact, with at times an accompanying confidence that perfect reproduction can approach the revelation of an object’s truth.” (Echard p. 201)

Surrogate

The term surrogate is interesting because, unlike facsimile – which is a fairly straightforward synonym for a copy – the term refers to something standing in for, or perhaps replacing, something else.

It was first used in the 16th century to describe the act of appointing someone as a delegate or a substitute. In the 17th century the term is adopted to be a noun – to refer to a person who is thus delegated. Other uses of the term, meaning more or less similar things, are attested through through the 17th century,

until 1644 we have a general meaning substitute.

 

 

 

Since the 1970s the term has been used in a more intimate way, to refer to sexual surrogates and surrogate mothers. As my colleague Bridget Whearty pointed out to me while we were discussing the word surrogate, the term is almost always used to describe bodies – either a person having power delegated to them, or a body acting as a substitute for another body. So the implication is that using this term to refer to digitized manuscripts doesn’t only mean the digital is standing in for the physical, but it also – by virtue of previous uses of the term – may imply some sort of embodiment or materiality of the digital object that is acting as the surrogate.

Paul Conway has an extensive discussion of the digital surrogate in his 2014 article “Digital transformations and the archival nature of surrogates”, and although he is referring to archival materials and not medieval manuscripts, I would expect that the use of the term comes from the same place, so I will quote him here. He reflects my own thoughts about a surrogate being more than a copy, saying “The creation of digital surrogates from archival sources is fundamentally a process of representation, far more interesting and complex than merely copying from one medium to another. Theories of representation – and the vast literature derived from them – are at the heart of many disciplines’ scholarship and of particular relevance for scholars who work primarily or exclusively in the digital domain.” (Conway pp. 2-3) He then continues to cite several other scholars – Mitchell, Scruton, Geoffrey Yeo, Matthew Kirschenbaum, Michael Taussig, and Johanna Drucker – who discuss the relationship that digital copies continue to have with their sources well after they have been created, even as they have their own materialities.

Bill Endres, who I quoted above, continues his thoughtfulness in the same piece as he considers surrogate as a term for his own use in describing 3D images of manuscripts. He says, “a term that has gained some commonality in 3D is digital surrogate. Bernard Fischer uses the term for 3D renderings of archaeological sites, like the impressive Rome Reborn. Fischer’s interest in 3D is to construct digital cityscapes and large spaces, thus his use of surrogate, the virtual environment functioning as a substitute or proxy, a stand in for the likes of a dig site or what once was, like ancient Rome, as a means to generate and test hypotheses, fulfilling a specific epistemic function. Surrogate fits Fischer’s needs but does not speak as readily to the full range of epistemic considerations that I want to explore for a manuscript, particularly the excesses of a digital artifact that add to our knowledge in other ways and its effect on looking and knowing.” (Endres, p. 4) The excesses that Endres is referring to here are things like special lighting and the affordances of 3D imaging, and he feels that the term surrogate isn’t sufficient to include these things, although Endres’s excesses and are very similar to those things that Kiernan was thinking of in 1993 when he used the term electronic facsimile. However Kiernan did not use the term surrogate in 1993 – it would be interesting to see when the term surrogate was first used to refer to digital objects, and if it would have been available to Kiernan in 1993.

Avatar

The third term, avatar, is relatively new to me, although Sian Echard used it in the chapter quoted above, and the term was also used by classicist Ségolène M. Tarte, in her 2011 presentation “Interpreting Ancient Documents: Of Avatars, Uncertainty and Knowledge Creation,” and is also mentioned by Endres and very recently by Michelle Warren, in a just-published article “Remix the Medieval Manuscript: Experiments with Digital Infrastructure.” This term is not yet common, but it may be gaining purchase because of its inherent complexity.

I really like avatar because of the connotations brought along with its original definition. According to Hindu mythology, an avatar is the incarnate, human manifestation of a deity. It is thus the avatar that is embodied, not the thing that the avatar represents. This can be contrasted with the term surrogate, which is also embodied, but the surrogate embodiment is in replacement of something else, while the embodiment of the avatar is the same thing, but in different form. And compare both of these again with facsimile, which again is a copy – these are three very different terms, and yet we have the desire to apply these terms to… if not the exact same things, than at least to the same kind of things.

The term avatar has also been used to mean more generally a manifestation, and I actually think that this is the usage of the term that is closest to its application to digitized manuscripts, although there is another recent usage that is relevant: avatar as a term to describe a character in a computer game on environment, a character that represents a person or a player within that virtual environment (think of Second Life, or, to use a more current example, Minecraft).

(There was also a popular movie by this name that came out in 2009, right around the same time Second Life was reaching peak popularity, and I can’t give short shrift to Avatar: The Last Airbender, an animated show that ran from 2003-2008.)

So what is an avatar when it comes to medieval manuscripts? Echard uses the term to refer both to physical objects and to digital ones, first describing the digital avatars of the Sherborne Missal included in the British Library exhibit celebrating its purchase. These include large-screen installations in the Library gallery, a CD-Rom available for purchase, an online version, and a 3D animation sequence that plays as an introduction to the CD-ROM. However as Echard says, “The avatars for these rare objects have … been books themselves- manipulable, tangible, physical … the physicality of the book is part of its cultural role, whether as public object or private delight. The digital facsimiles I have discussed here all attempt in one way or another to offer these medieval and early modem books to the fulfilling of both roles, and yet I would argue that they are ultimately stymied by the requirement to disembody the objects they display. The resulting tension, between access and absence, creates the ghosts that haunt the digital realm.” (Echard, p. 214) I’ve always loved this description of the tension of digitized manuscripts, and I am tickled to notice only now that the term avatar as attached to it.

I know that I keep quoting Endres, but I find here that again his thoughtfulness in exploring the terminology is really refreshing and I wish more scholars did this kind of intellectual work. He says,  “I find Ségolène Tarte’s impulse to call digital versions avatars most consistent with my needs, the digital version as an incarnation, the physical artifact crossing over and into a digital form. Since I am working on a gospel book, I cannot help but to think about this issue’s echo in early Christian prohibitions against depictions of Christ in the flesh, the prohibition motivated by the belief that physical matter is mundane, not divine, and therefore a painting or statue could not portray Christ’s divine nature, thus could not portray Christ and was blasphemous. In a similar vein, without the blasphemy, a digital version cannot portray all of the features of a physical artifact, but as mentioned, it also includes excesses. I appreciate Tarte’s choice of the word avatars, its recognition that digital artifacts have excesses and exist in a different reality and with different rules and potentials, offering unique advantages and experiences, a recognition that I want to carry forward in my sense of digital artifact or version.” (Endres, p. 4)

Before I conclude, I would like to remark on our apparent desire as a community to apply meaning to digital version of manuscripts by using existing terms, rather than by inventing new terms. After all, we coin new words all the time – just in this paper, I’ve mentioned snowclone and meme, so it would be understandable if we decided to make up a new term rather than reusing old ones. But as far as I know we haven’t , and if anyone has it hasn’t caught up enough to be reused widely in the scholarly community. I expect this comes from a desire to describe a new thing in terms that are understandable, as well as to define the new thing according to what came before. After all, both snowclone and meme are terms for things that have existed long before there were words for them, while digital versions of manuscripts are new things that have a close relationship with things that existed before, so while we want to differentiate them we also want to be able to acknowledge their similarities, and one way to do that is through the terms we call them.

Although we use these three terms – facsimile, surrogate, and avatar – to refer to digitized manuscripts, it is clear that these terms don’t mean the same thing, and that by choosing a specific term to refer to digitized manuscripts we are drawing attention to particular aspects of them. If I call a digitized manuscript a facsimile, I draw attention to its status as a copy. If I call it a surrogate, I draw attention to its status as a stand-in for the physical object. And if I call it an avatar, I draw attention to its status as a representation of the physical object in a digital world. Not a copy, not a replacement, but another version of that thing. Like pushing an idea through different memes, pushing the concept of a digitized manuscript through different terms give us flexibility in how we consider them and how we explain them, and our feelings about them, to our audiences. That we can so easily apply terms with vastly different meanings to the digital versions of manuscripts says something about the complexity of these objects and their digital counterparts.

Thank you.

Sincere thanks to Bridget Whearty, Keri Thomas, Johanna Green, and Anna Levine, for their help getting this paper ready for the public eye.

[1] In the paper presented at the Rare Book School (which was recorded; I will add a link here when it becomes available) I used the Historical Thesaurus of English as the source for the term definitions, but I found during further editing that the Thesaurus timelines weren’t doing what I needed them to. If I continue this work, I expect to bring the timelines back in again.

Zombie Manuscripts: Digital Facsimiles in the Uncanny Valley

This is a version of a paper presented at the International Congress on Medieval Studies, May 12, 2018, in session 482, Digital Skin II: ‘Franken-Manuscripts’ and ‘Zombie Books’: Digital Manuscript Interfaces and Sensory Engagement, sponsored by Information Studies (HATII), Univ. of Glasgow, and organized by Dr. Johanna Green.

The uncanny valley was described by Masahiro Mori in a 1970 article in the Japanese journal Energy, and it wasn’t translated into English completely until 2012.[1] In this article, Mori discusses how he envisions people responding to robots as they become more like humans. The article is a thought piece – that is, it’s not based on any data or study. In the article, which we’ll walk through closely over the course of this presentation, Mori posits a graph, with human likeness on the x axis and affinity on the y axis. Mori’s proposition is that, as robots become more human-like, we have greater affinity for them, until they reach a point at which the likeness becomes creepy, or uncanny, leading to a sudden dip into negative affinity – the uncanny valley.

Now, Mori defined the uncanny valley specifically in relation to robotics, but I think it’s an interesting thought exercise to see how we can plot various presentations of digitized medieval manuscripts along the affinity/likeness axes, and think about where the uncanny valley might fall.

In 2009 I presented a paper, “Reading,
 Writing,
 Building: 
the 
Old
 English
Illustrated
 Hexateuch,” (unpublished but archived in the Indiana University institutional repository) in which I considered the uncanny valley in relation to digital manuscript editions. This consideration followed a long description of the “Turning the Pages Virtualbook” technology which was then being developed at the British Library, of which I was quite critical. At that time, I said:

In my mind, the models created by Turning the Pages™ fall at the nadir of the “uncanny valley of digital texts” – which has perhaps a plain text transcription at one end and the original manuscript at the other end, with print facsimiles and editions, and the various digital displays and visualizations presented earlier in this paper falling somewhere between the plain text and the lip above the chasm.

Which would plot out something like this on the graph. (Graph was not included in the original 2009 paper)

Dot’s 2009 Conception of the Uncanny Valley of Manuscripts

Nine years of thinking on this and learning more about how digital manuscripts are created and how they function, I’m no longer happy with this arrangement. Additionally, in 2009 I was working with imperfect knowledge of Mori’s proposition – the translation of the article I referred to then was an incomplete translation from 2005, and included a single, simplified graph in place of the two graphs from the original article – which we will look at later in this talk.

Manuscripts aren’t people, and digitized manuscripts aren’t robots, so before we start I want to be clear about what exactly I’m thinking about here. Out of Mori’s proposition I distill four points relevant to our manuscript discussion:

First, Robots are physical objects that resemble humans more or less (that is the x-axis of the graph)

Second, as robots become more human-like, people have greater affinity for them (until they don’t – uncanny valley) – this is the y-axis of the graph

Third, the peak of the graph is a human, not the most human robot

Fourth, the graph refers to robots and to humans generally, not robots compared to a specific human.

Four parallel points can be drawn to manuscripts:

First, digitized manuscripts are data about manuscripts (digital images + structural metadata + additional data) that are presented on computers. Digitized manuscripts are pieces, and in visualizing the manuscript on a computer we are reconstructing them in various ways. (Given the theme of the session I want to point out that this description makes digitized manuscripts sound a lot more like Frankenstein’s creature than like a traditional zombie, and I’m distraught that I don’t have time to investigate this concept further today) These presentations resemble the parent manuscript more or less (this is the x-axis)

Second, as presentations of digitized manuscripts become more manuscript-like, people have greater affinity for them (until they don’t – uncanny valley) – this is the y-axis

Third, the peak of the graph is the parent manuscript, not the most manuscript-like digital presentation

Fourth, the graph refers to a specific manuscript, not to manuscripts generally

I think that this is going to be the major difference in applying the concept of the uncanny valley to manuscripts vs. robots: while Robots are general, not specific (i.e., they are designed and built to imitate humans and not specific people), the ideal (i.e., most manuscript-like) digital presentation of a manuscript would need to be specific, not general (i.e., it would need to be designed to look and act like the parent manuscript, not like any old manuscript)

Now let’s move on to Affinity

A Valley in One’s Sense of Affinity

Mori’s article is divided into four sections, the first being “A Valley in One’s Sense of Affinity”. In this section Mori describes what he means by affinity and how affinity is affected by sensory input. Figure one in this section is the graph we saw before, which starts with an Industrial Robot (little likeness, little affinity), then a Toy Robot (more likeness, more affinity), then drops to negative affinity at about 80-85% likeness, with Prosthetic Hand at negative affinity and Bunraku Puppet on the steep rise to positive affinity and up to Healthy Person.

For Mori, sensory input beyond the visual is important for an object’s placement on the x-axis. An object might look very human, but if it feels strange, that doesn’t only send the affinity into the negative, but it also lessens the likeness. Mori’s original argument focuses on prosthetic hands, specifically about realistic prosthetic hands, which cannot be distinguished at a glance from real ones. I’m afraid the language in his example is abelist so I don’t want to quote him,

Luke Skywalker’s prosthetic hand in The Empire Strikes Back

but his argument is essentially that a very realistic prosthetic hand, when one touches it and realizes it is not a real hand (as one had been led to believe), it becomes uncanny. Relating this feeling to the graph, Mori says, “In mathematical terms, this can be represented by a negative value. Therefore, in this case, the appearance of the prosthetic hand is quite humanlike, but the level of affinity is negative, thus placing the hand near the bottom of the valley in Figure 1.”

The character Osono, from the play Hade Sugata Onna Maiginu (艶容女舞衣), in a performance by the Tonda Puppet Troupe of Nagahama, Shiga Prefecture. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bunraku#/media/File:Osonowiki.jpg (CC:BY:SA)

Bunraku puppets, while not actually resembling humans physically as strongly as a very realistic prosthetic hand visually resembles a human hand, fall farther up the graph both in terms of likeness and in affinity. Mori makes it clear that likeness is not only, or even mostly, a visual thing. He says:

I don’t think that, on close inspection, a bunraku  puppet appears similar to a human being. Its realism in terms of size, skin texture, and so on, does not even reach that of a realistic prosthetic hand. But when we enjoy a puppet show in the theater, we are seated at a certain distance from the stage. The puppet’s absolute size is ignored, and its total appearance, including hand and eye movements, is close to that of a human being. So, given our tendency as an audience to become absorbed in this form of art, we might feel a high level of affinity for the puppet.

So it’s not that bunraku puppets look like humans in great detail, but when we experience them within the context of the puppet show they have the affect of being very human-like, thus they are high on the human likeness scale.

For a book-related parallel I want to quote briefly a blog post, brought to my attention earlier this week, by Sean Gilmore. Sean is an undergraduate student at Colby College and this past semester took Dr. Megan Cook’s Book History course, for which he wrote this post, “Zombie Books; Digital Facsimiles for the Dotty Dimple Stories.” There’s nothing in this post to suggest that Sean is familiar with the uncanny valley, but I was tickled with his description of reading a digital facsimile of a printed book. Sean says:

In regards to reading experience, reading a digital facsimile could not be farther from the experience of reading from the Dotty Dimple box set. The digital facsimile does in truth feel like reading a “zombie book”. While every page is exactly the same as the original copy in the libraries of the University of Minnesota, it feels as though the book has lost its character. When I selected my pet book from Special Collection half of the appeal of the Dotty Stories was the small red box they came in, the gold spines beckoning, almost as if they were shouting out to be read. This facsimile, on the other hand, feels like a taxidermy house cat; it used to be a real thing, but now it feels hollow, and honestly a little weird.

Sean has found the uncanny valley without even knowing it exists.

The Effect of Movement

The second section of Mori’s article, and where I think it really gets interesting for thinking about digitized manuscripts, is The Effect of Movement. In the first section we were talking in generalities, but here we see what happens when we consider movement alongside general appearance. Manuscripts, after all, are complex physical objects, much as humans are complex physical objects. Manuscripts have multiple leaves, which are connected to each other across quires, the quires which are then bound together and, often, connected to a binding. So moving a page doesn’t just move a page, much as bending your leg doesn’t just move your leg. Turning the leaf of a manuscript might tug on the conjoined leaf, push against the binding, tug on the leaves preceding and following – a single movement provoking a tiny chain reaction through the object, and one which, with practice, we are conditioned to recognize and expect.

Mori says:

Movement is fundamental to animals— including human beings—and thus to robots as well. Its presence changes the shape of the uncanny valley graph by amplifying the peaks and valleys (Figure 2). For illustration, when an industrial robot is switched off, it is just a greasy machine. But once the robot is programmed to move its gripper like a human hand, we start to feel a certain level of affinity for it.

And here, finally, we find our zombie, at the nadir of the “Moving” line of the uncanny valley. The lowest point of the “Still” line is the Corpse, and you can see the arrow Mori has drawn from “Healthy Person” at the pinnacle of the graph down to “Corpse” at the bottom. As Mori says, “We might be glad that this arrow leads down into the still valley of the corpse and not the valley animated by the living dead.” A zombie is thus, in this proposition, an animated corpse. So what is a “dead” manuscript? What is the corpse? And what is the zombie? (I don’t actually have answers, but I think Johanna might be addressing these or similar questions in her talk)

Reservoir Dogs (not zombies)
The Walking Dead (shuffling zombies)
28 Days Later (manic zombies)

I expect most of us here have seen zombie movies, so, in the same way we’ve been conditioned to recognize how manuscripts move, we’ve been conditioned to understand when we’re looking at “normal” humans and when we’re looking at zombies. They move differently from normal humans. It’s part of the fun of watching a zombie film – when that person comes around the corner, we (along with the human characters in the film) are watching carefully. [13] Are they shuffling or just limping? [14] Are they running towards us or away from something else? It’s the movement that gives away a zombie, and it’s the movement that will give away a zombie manuscript.

 

I want to take a minute to look at a manuscript in action. This is a video of me turning the pages of Ms. Codex 1056, a Book of Hours from the University of Pennsylvania. This will give you an idea of what this manuscript is like (its size, what its pages look like, how it moves, how it sounds), although within Mori’s conception this video is more similar to a bunraku puppet than it is like the manuscript itself.

It’s a copy of the manuscript, showing just a few pages, and the video was taken in a specific time and space with a specific person. If you came to our reading room and paged through this manuscript, it would not look and act the same for you.

e-codices manuscript viewer
e-codices viewed through Mirador

Now let’s take a look at a few examples of different page-turning interfaces. The first is from e-codices, and is their regular, purpose-built viewer. When you select the next page, the opening is simply replaced with the next opening (after a few seconds for loading). The second is also e-codices, but is from the Mirador viewer, a IIIF viewer that is being adopted by institutions and that can also be used by individuals. Similar to the other viewer, when you select the next page the opening is replaced with the next opening (and you can also track through the pages using the image strip along the bottom of the window). The next example is a Bible from Swarthmore College near Philadelphia, presented in the Internet Archive BookReader. This one is designed to mimic a physical page turning, but it simply tilts and moves the image. This would be fine (maybe a bit weird) if the image were text-only, but as the image includes the edges of the text-block and you can see a bit of the binding, the effect here is very odd. Finally, my old friend Turning the Pages (a newer version than the one I complained about in my 2009 paper), which works very hard to mimic the movement of a page turning, but doing so in a way that is unlike any manuscript I’ve ever seen.

Escape by Design

In the third section of his article, Mori proposes that designers focus their work in the area just before the uncanny valley, creating robots that have lower human likeness but maximum affinity (similar to how he discussed bunraku puppets in the section on affinity, although they are on the other side of the valley). He says:

In fact, I predict that it is possible to create a safe level of affinity by deliberately pursuing a nonhuman design. I ask designers to ponder this. To illustrate the principle, consider eyeglasses. Eyeglasses do not resemble real eyeballs, but one could say that their design has created a charming pair of new eyes. So we should follow the same principle in designing prosthetic hands. In doing so, instead of pitiful looking realistic hands, stylish ones would likely become fashionable.

Floral Porcelain Leg from the Alternative Limb Project (http://www.thealternativelimbproject.com/project/floral-porcelain-leg/)

And here’s an example of a very stylish prosthetic leg from the Alternative Limb Project, which specializes in beautiful and decidedly not realistic prosthetic limbs (and realistic ones too). This is definitely a leg, and it’s definitely not her real leg.

 

In the world of manuscripts, there are a few approaches that would, I think, keep digitized manuscript presentations in that nice bump before the valley:

 

“Page turning” interfaces that don’t try to hard to look like they are actually turning pages (see the two e-codices examples above)

Alternative interfaces that are obviously not attempting to show the whole manuscript but still illustrate something important about them (for example, RTI, MSI, or 3D models of single pages). This example is an interactive 3D image of the miniature of St. Luke from Bill Endres’s Manuscripts of Lichfield Cathedral project.

Visualizations that illustrate physical aspects of the manuscript without trying to imitate them (for example, VisColl visualizations with collation diagrams and bifolia)

 

I think these would plot out something like this on the graph.

Dot’s 2018 Conception of the Uncanny Valley of Digitized Manuscripts

This is all I have to say about the uncanny valley and zombie books, but I’m looking forward to Johanna, Bridget and Angie’s contributions and to our discussion at the end. I also want to give a huge shout-out to Johanna and Bridget, to Johanna for conceiving of this session and inviting me to contribute, and both of them for being immensely supportive colleagues and friends as I worked through my thoughts about frankenbooks and zombie manuscripts, many of which, sadly, didn’t make it into the presentation, but which I look forward to investigating in future papers.

[1] M. Mori, “The uncanny valley,” Energy, vol. 7, no. 4, pp. 33–35, 1970 (in Japanese);  M. Mori, K. F. MacDorman and N. Kageki, “The Uncanny Valley [From the Field],” in IEEE Robotics & Automation Magazine, vol. 19, no. 2, pp. 98-100, June 2012. (translated into English) (https://ieeexplore.ieee.org/document/6213238/)

Ceci n’est pas un manuscrit: Summary of Mellon Seminar, February 19th 2018

This post is a summary of a Mellon Seminar I presented at the Price Lab for Digital Humanities at the University of Pennsylvania on February 19th, 2018. I will be presenting an expanded version of this talk at the Rare Book School in Philadelphia, PA, on June 12th, 2018

In my talk for the Mellon Seminar I presented on three of my current projects, talked about what we gain and lose through digitization, and made a valiant attempt to relate my talk to the theme of the seminars for this semester, which is music and sound. (The page for the Mellon Seminars is here, although it only shows upcoming seminars.) I’m not sure how well that went, but I tried!

I started my talk by pointing out that medieval manuscripts are physical objects – sometimes very large objects! They have weight and size and heft, and unlike static objects like sculptures, manuscripts move. They need to move in order for us to read them. But digitized manuscripts – the ones you find for example in Penn in Hand, the page-turning interface for Penn’s digitized manuscript collection – don’t really move. Sure, we have an interface that gives the impression of turning the pages of the book, but those images are flat, static files that are just the latest version in a long history of facsimile copies of manuscripts. A page-turning interface for medieval manuscripts is the equivalent of taking a book, cutting the pages out, and then pasting those pages into a photo album. You can read the pages but you lose the sense of the book as a physical object.

It sounds like I’m complaining, but I’m really not. I like that digital photographs of manuscripts are readily available and relatively standard, but I do think it’s vitally important that people using them are aware of how they’re different from the “real” manuscript. So in my talk I spent some time deconstructing a screenshot from a manuscript in Penn in Hand (see above). It presents itself as a manuscript opening (that is, two facing pages), but it should be immediately apparent that this is a fake. This isn’t the opening in the book, it’s two photos placed side-by-side to give the impression of the opening of the book. There is a dark line down the center of the window which clearly delineates the photo on the left and the one on the right. You can see two gutters – the book only has one, of course, but each photo includes it – and you can also see a bit of the text on the facing page in each photo. From the way the text is angled you can tell that this book was not laid flat when it was photographed – it was held at or near a 90 degree angle (and here’s another lie – the impression that the page-turning interface gives us is that of a book laid flat. Very few manuscripts lay flat. So many lies!).

We can see in the left-hand photo the line of the edge of the glass, to the right of the gutter and just to the left of the black line. In our digitization lab we use a table with a spring-loaded top and a glass plate that lays down on the page to hold it flat. (You can see a two-part demo of the table on Facebook, Part One and Part Two) This means the photographer will always know where to focus the camera (that is, at the level of the glass plate), and as each page of the book is turned the pages are the same distance from the camera (hence the spring under the table top). I think it’s also important to know that when you’re looking at an opening in a digital manuscript, the two photos in that composite view were not taken one after the other; they were possibly taken hours apart. In SCETI, the digitization lab in the Penn Libraries, all the rectos (that is, the front of the page) are taken at one time, and then the versos (the back of the page) are taken, and then the system interleaves them. (For an excellent description of digital photography of books and issues around it please see Dr. Sarah Werner’s Pforzheimer Lecture at the Harry Ransom Center on Early Digital Facsimiles)

I moved from talking about how digital images served through page-turning interfaces provide one kind of mediated (~fake~) view of manuscripts to one of my ongoing projects that provides another kind of mediated (also fake?) view of manuscripts: video. I could talk and write for a long time about manuscript videos, and I am trying to summarize my talk and not present it in full, so I’ll just say that one advantage that videos have over digitized images is that they do give an impression of the “real” manuscript: the size of them, the way they move (Is it stiff? How far can it open? Is the binding loose or tight?), and – relevant to the Seminar theme! – how they sound. I didn’t really think about it when I started making the videos four years ago, but if you listen carefully in any of the videos you can hear the pages (and in some cases the bindings), and if you listen to several of them you can really tell the difference between how different types of parchment and paper sound. Our complete YouTube playlist of video orientations is here, but I’ll embed one of my favorites here. This is LJS 280, a 13th century copy of Decretales Gregorii IX in a 15th century chain binding that makes a lot of noise.

I don’t want to imply that videos are better than digital images – they just tell us something that digital images can’t. And digital images are useful in ways that videos aren’t. For one thing, if you’re watching a video you can see the way the book moves, but I’m the one moving it. It’s still a mediated experience, it’s just mediated in a different way. You can see how it moved at a specific time, in a specific situation, with a specific person. If you want to see folio 45v, you’re out of luck, because I didn’t turn to that page (and even if I had, the video resolution might not be high enough for you to read it; the video isn’t for reading – that’s why we have the digital images).

There’s another problem with videos.

In four years of the video orientation program, we have 74 videos online. We could have more if we made it a higher priority (and arguably we should), but each one takes time: for research, to set up and take down equipment, for the recording (sometimes multiple takes), and then for the processing. The videos are also part of the official record of the manuscript (we load them into the library’s institutional repository and link them to records in the library’s catalog) and doing that means additional work.

At this point I left videos behind and went back to digital images, but a specific project: Bibliotheca Philadelphiensis, which we call BiblioPhilly. BiblioPhilly is a major collaborative project to digitize medieval manuscripts from institutions across Philadelphia, organized by the Philadelphia Area Consortium of Special Collections Libraries (PACSCL) and funded by the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR). We’re just entering year three of a three-year grant, and when we’re done we’ll have 476 manuscripts online (we have around 130 online now). If you’re interested in checking out the manuscripts that are online, and to see what’s coming, you can visit our search and browse site here.

The relevance of BiblioPhilly in my talk is that we’re being experimental with the kind of data we’re creating in the cataloging work, and with how we use that data to provide new and different manuscript views.

Manuscript catalogers traditionally examine and describe the physical structure of the codex. Codex manuscripts start as sheets of parchment or paper, which are stacked and folded to create booklets called quires. Quires are then gathered together and sewn together to make a text block, then that is bound to make the codex. So describing the physical structure means answering a few questions: How many quires? How many leaves in each quire? Are there leaves that are missing? Are there leaves that are singletons (i.e., were never part of a sheet)? When a cataloger has answered these questions they traditionally describe the structure using a collation formula. The formula will list the quires, number of leaves in a quire, and any variations. For example, a manuscript with 10 quires, all of which have eight leaves except for quire six which has four, and there are some missing leaves, might have a formula like this:

1-4(8), 5(8, -4,5), 6(4), 7-10(8)

(Quires 1 through 4 have eight leaves, quire 5 had eight leaves but four and five are now missing, quire 6 has four leaves, and quires 7-10 have eight leaves)

The formula is standardized for printed books, but not for manuscripts.

Using tools developed through the research project VisColl, which is designing a data model and system for describing and visualizing the physical construction of manuscripts, we’re building models for the manuscripts as part of the BiblioPhilly cataloging process, and then using those models to generate the formulas that go into our records. This itself is good, but once we have models we can use them to visualize the manuscripts in other ways too. So if you go to the BiblioPhilly search and browse site and peek into the records, you’ll find that some of them include links to a “Collation View”

Following that link will take you to a page where you can see diagrams showing each quire, and image files organized to show how the leaves are physically connected through the quire (that is, the sheets that were originally bound together to form the quire).

Like the page-turning interface, this is giving us a false impression of what it would be like to deconstruct the manuscript and view it in a different way, but like the video is it also giving us a view of the manuscript that is based in some way on its physicality.

And this is where my talk ended. We had a really excellent question and answer session, which included a question about why I don’t wear gloves in the videos (my favorite question, which I answer here with a link to this blog post at the British Library) but also a lot of great discussion about why we digitize, and how, and why it matters, and how we can do it best.

Thanks so much to Glenda Goodman and Stewart Varner for inviting me, and to everyone who showed up.

 

The Historiography of Medieval Manuscripts in England (and the USA)

The text of a lightning talk originally presented at The Futures of Medieval Historiography, a conference at the University of Pennsylvania organized by Jackie Burek and Emily Steiner. Keep in mind that this was very lightly researched; please be kind.

Rather than the originally proposed topic, the historiography of medieval manuscript descriptions, I will instead be talking about the historiography of medieval manuscripts specifically in England and the USA, as perceived through the lens of manuscript descriptions.

We’ll start in the late 12th into the 15th century, when monastic houses cataloged the books in their care using little more than a shelf-list. Such a list would be practical in nature: the community needs to be able to know what books they own, so as books are borrowed internally or loaned to other houses (or perhaps sold) they have a way to keep track of them. Entries on the list would be very simple: a brief statement of contents, and perhaps a note on the number of volumes. There is, of course, an entire field of study around reconstructing medieval libraries using these lists, and as the descriptions are quite simple it is not an easy task.

c. 1190-1200. Cambridge, Jesus College MS 34, fol. 1r. First catalogue of the library of Rievaulx. (Plate 3 from The Libraries of the Cistercians, etc. Vol. 3 in Corpus of British Medieval Library Catalogues, 1992)
Late 13th c. Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Rawlinson B. 336, page 187. Catalogue of the library of St Radegund’s abbey at Bradsole. (Plate 5 from The Libraries of the Cistercians, etc. Vol. 3 in Corpus of British Medieval Library Catalogues, 1992)
1400. London, BL MS Additional 70507, fol. 2r. Description of the library at Titchfield (Plate 6 from The Libraries of the Cistercians, etc. Vol. 3 in Corpus of British Medieval Library Catalogues, 1992)

In the 15th and 16th centuries there were two major historical events that I expect played a major role both in a change in the reception of manuscripts, and in the development of manuscript descriptions moving forward: those are the invention of the printing press in the mid-15th century, and the dissolution of the monasteries in the mid-16th century. The first made it possible to relatively easily print multiple copies of the same book, and also began the long process that rendered manuscripts obsolete. The second led to the transfer of monastic books from institutional into private hands, and the development of private collections with singular owners. When it came to describing their books, these collectors seemed to be interested in describing for themselves and other collectors, and not only for the practical purpose of keeping track of them. Here is a 1697 reprint of a catalog published in 1600 of Matthew Parker’s private collection (bequeathed to Corpus Christi College Cambridge in 1574). You can see that the descriptions themselves are not much different from those in the manuscript lists, but the technology for sharing the catalog – and thus the audience for the catalog – is different.

1600. Ecloga Oxonio–Cantabrigiensis, tributa in libros duos, quorum prior continet catalogum confusum librorum manuscriptorum in illustrissimis bibliothecis, duarum florentissimarum Acdemiarum, Oxoniae et Catabrigiae (London, 1600; reprinted in 1697)

In the later 16th and into the 17th century these private manuscript collections began to be donated back to institutions (educational and governmental), leading to descriptions for yet other audiences and for a new purpose: for institutions to inform scholars of what they have available for their use. The next three examples, from three catalogs of the Cotton Collection (now at the British Library) reflect this movement. The first is from a catalogue published in 1696, the content description is perhaps a bit longer than the earlier examples, and barely visible in the margin is a bit of a physical description: this is a codex with 155 folios. Notably this is the first description we’ve looked at that mentions the size of the book at all, so we are moving beyond a focus only on content. This next example, from 1777, is notable because it completely forefronts the contents. This catalog as a whole is organized by theme, not by manuscript (you can see below the contents listed out for Cotton Nero A. i), so we might describe it as a catalog of the collection, rather than a catalog of the manuscripts comprising the collection.

1696. Catalogue of the manuscripts in the Cottonian Library, 1696 (facsimile 1984)
1777. A catalogue of the manuscripts in Cottonian library: to which are added many emendations and additions. With an appendix containing an account of the damage sustained by the fire in 1731; and also a catalogue of the charters preserved in the same library. British Museum Dept. of Manuscripts, 1777

The third example is from the 1802 catalog, and although it’s still in Latin we can see that there is more physical description as well as more detail about the contents and appearance of the manuscript. There is also a citation to a book in which the preface on the manuscript has been published – the manuscript description is beginning to look a bit scholarly.

1802. A catalogue of the manuscripts in the Cottonian library deposited in the British museum : printed by command of His Majesty King George III. &c. &c. &c. in pursuance of an address of the House of Commons of Great Britain. British Museum Dept. of Manuscripts, 1802

We’ll jump ahead 150 years, and we can see in that time that concern with manuscripts has spread out from the institution to include the realm of the scholar. This example is from N.R. Ker’s Catalogue of Manuscripts Containing Anglo-Saxon, rather than focusing on the books in a particular collection it is focused on a class of manuscripts, regardless of where they are physically located. The description is in the vernacular, and has more detail in every regard. The text is divided into sections as well: General description; codicological description; discussion of the hands; and provenance.

1957. N. R. Ker, Catalogue of Manuscripts Containing Anglo-Saxon. Oxford, 1957.

And now we arrive at today, and to the next major change to come to manuscript descriptions, again due to new technology. Libraries around the world, including here at Penn, are writing our manuscript descriptions using code instead of on paper, and publishing them online along with digital images of the manuscript pages, so people can not only read about our manuscripts, but also see images of them and use our data to create new things. We use the data ourselves, for example in OPenn (Primary digital resources available to everyone!) we build websites from our manuscript descriptions to make them available to the widest possible audience.

I want to close by giving a shout-out to the Schoenberg Database of Manuscripts, directed by Lynn Ransom, which is pushing the definition of manuscript descriptions in new scholarly directions. In the SDBM, a manuscript is described temporally, through entries that describe where a book was at particular moments in time (either in published catalogs, or through personal observation). As scholarly needs continue to change, and technology makes new things possible, the description of manuscripts will likewise continue to change around these, even as they have already over the last 800 years.