Friday, January 19, 2007

Visual Display of Manuscript Information

I now really, really appreciate the work of Matt Cavnar, my genius sound editor for Recorded Books. I've spent the past week editing my Beowulf Aloud (n.b., that link may not take you to the website for a day or two) recording of all of Beowulf in OE. It is truly exhausting, and just a little more than three hours of recording has taken at least twenty hours to edit (and it's not done yet, and it was already been edited to some degree--it's just that a regular editor isn't going to know what to edit for dramatic effect in OE; for example, reducing or increasing the length of pauses).

But in between listening to Beowulf files, trying to finish off Tolkien Studies 4, which goes to the printer at the end of the month), and writing that "basic library for an Anglo-Saxonist" post (not quite done), I've been working on a couple of other projects, and I wanted to show the early stages of this one to my readers and solicit opinions and suggestions.

Background: whenever I've worked with manuscripts, I've been both excited and frustrated by the way that information is presented. Excited, because the traditions of manuscript description have remained (mostly) unchanged and there is a wonderful element of ritual to reading someone's formal description of a manuscript (I imagine that the feeling I get is like what Stephen J. Gould describes in Wonderful Life about reading pages of anatomical description about the Burgess Shale fossils). Frustrated, because it is very difficult for me, from the descriptions, to get a real idea of how the manuscript is put together.

If you've used Ker's Catalogue of Manuscripts Containing Anglo-Saxon, you may know what I mean: I read all these detailed descriptions of the manuscripts, but it is very hard (for me) to get a picture in my head of the arrangement of texts and the relationships between texts, scribes, glossators, etc. In fact, even with the manuscript in front of me (in facsimile or microfilm or even when I've been in the British Library), I have trouble really grasping the entirety of the manuscript (Ok, so I was trying with Tiberius A.iii., but still...)

So, with the help of a colleague in Computer Science, I am developing an interface that will take data about a manuscript and present it in graphic form. If this works, a user will be able to see the relationships within the manuscript. This is hard to describe but easy to show, so I've pasted in my sketch of the interface below. You'll note that you can see, immediately, the place of each text in the manuscript, the relationship of scribes to each other and to the texts (i.e., if Scribe A copies text 1 and part of text 2, while Scribe B copies the rest of text two and all of text 3). The date and provenance of the manuscript (and the Scribes, when they are identified) can then be used to link the manuscript to others of the same type (i.e., pull up all Winchester MSS from the 2nd quarter of the tenth century). These relationships will all be in the database (the design of which is the trickiest aspect of this project) and will be easily manipulated (i.e., a user can change a date or provenance on his or her own: you won't be constrained to Ker's judgements).

The basic idea is for us to design the database and the interface and then just start putting the information from Ker into it. Eventually I can imagine a huge database that could be mined by different techniques to try to identify relationships between manuscripts. But mostly I was thinking of it as a tool for me and for my students so that we could more easily understand the way any given manuscript is put together.

So, what do you think? Does the representation make sense? Is it intuitive? Would it help you to understand a given manuscript?

Specific questions include: where do you think I should put Script? I had thought about putting it along the back edge, with the capability of being separated by text, but there are additional problems if you have different scripts for texts and glosses, though I imagine that could be solved by having multiple rows.
Also, can you see a need for codicological data or additional physical description? The system is designed to have space in it for every single leaf, so pricking and ruling, dry-point drawings, etc. could be contained there. I was thinking that codicological units could somehow be marked along the front edge (where each "leaf" is, using some kind of color scheme), but I don't want things to get too out of hand, as the design is already very busy.

We're still at the early stages of the project, so there's plenty of opportunity to make changes. I'm hoping that the many eyes/many brains of the web can help make the system useful.


Tiruncula said...

Michael, I wouldn't say that your diagram is intuitive, precisely; I need to study it some more to think about the possibilities. But I think the idea is fantastic. I have the same kind of visualization problems you describe. As my 4th-grade math teacher always said, "When in doubt, draw a picture."

When we have our half-full/half-empty drinks at Kalamazoo, I'd love to talk (and draw on napkins) about how this might relate to a manuscript database I'm planning.

Dr. Virago said...

And when you're done with the OE database, can you do one for ME manuscripts, too! :) Seriously, I think this is a fantastic idea. I'm trying to teach myself manuscript studies in the late Middle Ages and I have all the same problems you do.

Prof. de Breeze said...

I'm curious: were you working from a microfilm of Tib. A.iii or just Ker's description? I've been waiting for ASMMF to release it on microfiche, as I can't find a film anywhere. Incidentally, Paul Szarmach's website has said that he is in the progress of editing the "Tberius A.iii group" volume of ASMMF for at least two years now. But still I wait...

Richard Reitz said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Richard Reitz said...

For the visual display of information, and the creation of a tree to access particular subgroupings of that information, I would suggest that you read Edward Tufte. He has published several works on the subject.

Although I'm sure the diagram of the information you intend to make accessible presented above is clear enough to experts in the field, I would hope that you build in an 'old english texts for dummies' capability as well.

One last thought: for the sake of simplicity, just make the elemental sections searchable and sortable by text, scribe, date, scribe, glossator, shelfmark, leaf, etc. (&-or). The resulting pages should then appear in a series or gallery of preview panes that can be expanded to larger size for full page, or side-by-side viewing.

Prof. de Breeze said...

It seems to me that some physical desription may well be desirable. It might be interesting to be able to see on the database (i.e., without actually seeing the physical pages) how various texts are entered into the MS. Is there a change in format (line spacing and placement, initials, etc.) from one text to the next, for example?

Furthermore, if Ker is your starting point, you probably need to figure out what to do with his tendency to assign multiple short texts to a "group" within the MS. Since you mentioned Tiberius A.iii, I'd refer you to his Items 9a-l. I don't agree with his grouping here, but it's relevant information nevertheless.

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