Feb 20, 2023

Modern Scribes: How Medieval Books Go From Parchment to the Cloud

Many genealogists owe a debt to the many unsung heroes and heroines who convert  medieval documents from print to photography and finally to the internet where we all can read them while conveniently seated in our homes.

While Thomas Hoccleve was a 15th-century scribe, his workday complaints slipped into his poems: eyestrain from long hours staring at text, backaches from a lack of ergonomics, difficulty standing up straight.

His experiences aren’t that far removed from the teams who digitize texts today, which include librarians, curators, imaging specialists, conservators and preservation experts, catalogers and metadata specialists, technologists, project managers, production coordinators and sometimes students. As Hoccleve himself knew, copying texts is exacting and complicated work — and often unappreciated by readers.

That’s a dynamic that Binghamton University Associate Professor of English Bridget Whearty hopes to change. In her new book, Digital Codicology: Medieval Books and Modern Labor, she introduces readers to the digitization process and the highly trained professionals who perform this work.

“In medieval studies, we use digital copies constantly. If you’re a literary scholar, it’s really easy to pull up a copy of a poem you’re working on and see it in a 15th-century scribe’s handwriting,” she said. “But even though we use them, we don’t necessarily think about who makes them and how and why they’re made. And that’s funny, because we spend a lot of time thinking about those exact questions when it comes to the original copies.”

Whearty traces the preservation of manuscripts through media history, from print to photography and finally the internet, demystifying digitization along the way. To that end, she examines late-1990’s projects such as Digital Scriptorium 1.0 alongside late-2010’s initiatives like Bibliotheca Philadelphiensis, and world-renowned projects created by the British Library, Corpus Christi College Cambridge, Stanford University and the Walters Art Museum against in-house digitization performed in lesser-studied libraries.

She also traces the story of one manuscript: a book of Hoccleve’s poetry, created in the 1420s by his own practiced hand, which now resides at the Huntington Library in California. First printed in 1796, it was put on microfiche in the late 20th century and photographed for digitization in the early 21st century. During each rendering, editors, printers and copiers made choices about what needed to be represented and preserved.

You can read a lot more in an article by Jennifer Micale published in the Binghamton University web site at:

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