Thursday, December 18, 2008

Kids, Fonts, Multimedia and Reading

Those who have been following my ramblings, both on the Medieval Writing website and here, know that I have a thing about trying to understand the process of literacy, and also about how modern literate communications are becoming more medieval in style than the plain linear texts that my generation learned from. These two themes came together for me recently when I attended my primary school age granddaughters' school presentation and got a copy of their school magazine.
The first notable thing was how savvy the kids were at incorporating multimedia into their live presentations. Text was incorporated into video, slide shows and live performance with lots of fancy special effects, with interesting references to much grander productions. I'm not sure what George Lucas would have made of their pinching not only the Star Wars theme music, but the receding scrolling graphics for the introduction to a blooper sequence of all the things that went wrong when they entered an interschool push car challenge. The whole production was a bit of community theatre worthy of a medieval mystery play, without the risk of the scenery catching fire.
The school magazine had lots of snippets of their original writing. Now when I was a pup, we wrote our stuff out with a pen, and the school secretary typed it out onto Gestetner sheets (Ask your grandmother about those!) and it was printed in glorious grainy black and white in a standard typewriter font. In this magazine, each kid had chosen their own font, colours, decorative headings and artwork. Each work was not just a text, but a visual exploration of design. They had made great efforts to make it appropriate, and some were quite witty. One kid had written a poem about Google, all in the Google sequence of colours for the letters. It's going back to something that is conceptually quite close to the techniques employed in a medieval manuscript. Literacy crisis - bah, humbug!
I recently obtained a copy of the second edition of Mary Carruthers The Book of Memory, a wonderful work that explores how various techniques, including page design, were used to help medieval scholars remember huge swags of text in a meaningful manner. It's a marvellous book, if a bit of a heavy read, and emphasises that reading and memory, text and image were not opposites, but part of a fuller, richer experience of literacy. I must sit down and read it thoroughly, if I can just remember where I put it down last.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Ancestors, Archives and Medieval Writing

I have become aware lately of the amazing growth in the services to the public provided by the National Archives in London through their various digital copying projects. Between my husband's historical research and my website, we have discovered that digital copies of all manner of archival material can be downloaded, meaning that work can be done from the other side of the world without the necessity for a visit to the archives themselves. Family historians are able to look up names and places to find ancient documents that may relate to their family affairs. The amount of sheer work that has been expended on providing these resources is mindboggling. More and more archives and libraries are providing digital resources, but this particular one is noteworthy in its range, search facilities and ability to be targetted to the needs of individual users.
One consequence of this is that people are ordering documents, only to discover that they may be very difficult to read and understand. Suddenly there is a new market for learning medieval paleography. There is also a market for teaching about the legal processes behind the documents, as even with accurate transcripts, it can be hard to make sense of these things without such knowledge. In fact, it might be fair to say that there is a new market for medieval history, just when the idiots who run our countries and education systems are winding courses down in favour of what they perceive to be relevant.
Of course, the process of providing the digital imagery and the online catalogues must generate a whole range of other work, as 700 years or so of archiving must inevitably generate a few anomalies in the cataloguing. As users, I fear that as soon as we get something that works brilliantly, we are making demands for it to be improved, expanded and corrected. I guess we see the potential but not the drudgery and dogwork that goes into producing these amazing resources.
There is also the potential for historical archival material to be opened up to new forms of inquiry. In the past, users of archives tended to have particular types of education and training, which led them into asking particular kinds of questions of the historical evidence. More general access could lead to folks with a diversity of interests asking questions that haven't been thought of yet. I recently received a download of a document which was not the one I thought I had ordered, because of cataloguing changes. The document was quite fascinating for two reasons, neither of which were things I had ever thought about. I have a wicked urge to order some documents by random catalogue number, just to see what turns up and whether they pose any more questions I had never considered. Who knows, it might result in the development of a whole new historical methodology.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Text, Image, Manuscript and Multimedia

Many years ago when the world was young, around 1995, I started attempting to produce multimedia presentations on various topics in medieval history. The received wisdom being spouted by the bright young things who had just graduated from multimedia school was that text was going to disappear from our learning process. All instructions, navigation and even content should be in the form of graphic imagery, because the upcoming generation was not going to ever need to read. It seemed we were going back to preliterate medieval style visual culture.
Strange as that seems, it never happened. The killer app of the internet is not digital video, animation or fancy graphics, but email. We are addicted to it. Advertisers bomb us with it. We can now check it and send it on our mobile phones. Web designers have gone back to advocating text links, as those little inscrutable icons are not actually intuitive after all.
The bizarre news item of the week is that a street in London is having its lamp posts and bollards wrapped in thick white padding so that people walking along the street text messaging don't injure themselves when they walk into them. The human race has become so obsessed with text that it no longer looks where it's going.
I wonder if there was panic among late medieval scribes that fancy manuscript picture books for the laity would put them out of work because book owners would all be illiterate. Then along came printing, more people learned to read, and text was king again. Nuthin' new in the world.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Medieval Ephemera on the Web

Just before going completely off the air for a Christmans holiday break, I had an interesting conversation with a fellow independent medieval website owner in Canada. We found we had some similar gripes about the state of educational material on the web.
It seems that many sites produced by web pioneers in universities are no longer being properly maintained and updated, or are even simply disappearing altogether, as their authors move on to new positions or retire. Some very excellent work is simply disappearing into the ether. While museums and archives are setting up massive projects to make their material accessible to a wide range of users, universities are becoming more anally retentive about making their material available only to their registered (fee paying) students. They seem to feel they have no charter to increase access to knowledge by the public at large, nor to keep material available if a specific course is not currently being taught within the institution. Given that the academic community invented and pioneered the internet, and the World Wide Web, in the first place, and they hold all the resources for providing web material easily, this seems to be a niggardly attitude.
Back in the 1990s, when I first started experimenting with digital presentation of material, universities here in Australia were only interested in this kind of material if they thought they could sell it to other areas of the educational community for profit, or at least save themselves some money by using a machine instead of a tutor. There seemed to be no wider vision for increasing access to quality material through new technology. More than a decade on, it seems nothing has changed.
Meanwhile, those of us battling to fly solo have no guarantee that if we were hit by a bus tomorrow that our work would survive beyond the next due payment to our website provider. Out of print books can be found in secondhand bookshops, but off the air websites can only be scrounged from
The Internet Archive if you are lucky and know exactly what to look for. Should we be lobbying our universities to expand their social conscience and use their experience and expertise to increase access without promise of immediate cash reward, or should we give up on such idealistic hogwash and try to find some other way to ensure that valuable educational material can remain available for as long as it is of use to someone?