Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Manuscripts and Naked Hands

  It's been a long time between drinks, But hopefully I can get back on the airwaves again. Well sometimes reality interferes with your cyberlife.
  I was intrigued by the latest newsletter from e-codices, the totally fantastic and amazing manuscript website from Switzerland which not only lets you look at a vast array of medieval manuscripts in great detail, but allows others to use them through a Creative Commons licence. Truly sharing our cultural heritage. But this item was a little intriguing.
  The ultimate iconic image of a manuscript researcher has long involved a pair of white gloves. This is supposed to show how much we care for the conservation of the precious artifacts that we are handling. Valuable manuscripts and white gloves; like bread and butter, horse and cart, love and marriage (well, perhaps that last is a dated reference). Now the conservators of Switzerland are telling us that it is actually a bad thing to wear gloves while handling manuscripts, as it reduces the sensitivity of the fingers, thereby making it more likely that the manuscript might be damaged. As well, dirt and muck from manuscripts is actually transferred to the white gloves and can be spread to other items. Just regularly wash your hands, they say - just like doctors and nurses.
  This opinion is corroborated by no less an institution than the British Library, as described in a blog posting. It seems the white gloves thing is just a bit of spin. Mind you, I have experienced the difficulties of this many years ago, when attempting to photograph a medieval manuscript in a library where they insisted on white gloves, but I was unable to work the camera with them on. A compromise deal had to be worked out in which one person wore the white gloves and turned the pages and I took the pictures, promising not to touch the manuscript. Funny thing is, it was a book of hours, which had probably been handled every day with naked fingers in the course of somebody's daily devotions.
  Those people who work with the less luxurious class of manuscripts, such as legal documents, often prefer to wear white gloves because the things are so filthy that otherwise they get muck all over their hands. There is something a little bit worrying about medieval grime.
  Anyway, having broken the ice, I will see if I can get back to some work on Medieval Writing. A diligent user has found a couple of minor typos in my transcripts, so I had better start with those and then progress to something new.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Books about Books

  There has been recent interest in the concept as books as objects of material culture. For years academics have concentrated on the texts, but they are now seeing them as objects with coded meanings beyond the texts. They have whole conferences about the subject. To buy a book on the subject of such meanings in early printed works, from a recent academic conference, click here. All proceeds go to Lifeline, a charity providing telephone counselling, particularly in relation to suicide.
  And yes, such matters have been distracting me lately from updating Medieval Writing, but the job is still in hand. Hopefully there will be some more updates soon.

Sunday, May 06, 2012

The Elephant is Dead

  One of the adjuncts to Medieval Writing was The Elephant Book, a guide to medieval resources on the web, originally designed for students at the Australian National University. It first appeared in paper form around 1995, when there were about twelve good medieval resource sites on the web, and had pictures of a medieval elephant on the cover. You can meet this elephant here, as part of a paleography exercise. The students, naturally referred to the guide as The Elephant Book. 
  As medieval resources on the web increased and students became a bit more savvy about using it, The Elephant Book migrated to the web itself, with a terrible tacky elephant skin background, big gold star ratings for websites and a different elephant on the cover due to the university's anxiety about copyright issues. As resources and search facilities grew again, the site changed focus from being a listing of useful and reliable medieval sites, to how to find and evaluate them for yourselves, with a listing of some of our favourites. But still time marches on. It is hard enough to keep up a reasonable list of sites on even a specialised corner of the medieval cyberverse, such as manuscripts and paleography, and the issue with using the web for research is not so much how to find things, as how to evaluate them. So the elephant got very elderly and tired, and has had to be put down.
  They knew about elephants in medieval Europe, but not many people had seen one. That's why so many depictions of elephants in medieval art don't look terribly much like elephants. Matthew Paris, the famous monk-chronicler of St Albans in the 13th century, had seen one that was given to King Henry III of England by Louis IX of France and was occasionally paraded through the streets of London. These two were great competitors in present giving and also in the acquisition of dodgy holy relics. The chapel and shrine for the Crown of Thorns still stands in Paris. The original elephant from the cover of our book, and which appears in the paleography exercise for a 13th century bestiary, looks like an elephant and the artist may have seen the same elephant. On the other hand, Matthew Paris drew another elephant, bearing on its back the town band of Cremona, rather as our bestiary elephant has a band of musicians on its back rather than the traditional castle. As Matthew Paris had never been to Cremona, he was probably basing that elephant on the one he had seen in London. Maybe our bestiary illustrator copied the Cremona elephant drawing. Medieval scribes, illuminators and sculptors had no qualms about nicking designs from each other.
  Our Elephant Book website actually lasted longer than the hapless elephant that was given to Henry III and kept in the Tower of London. Unfortunately they didn't know too much about elephant husbandry in 13th century London. I'm not too sure what happened to the drops of blood of Jesus that the Templars brought back for Henry. You could flog anything to a Templar.
  So farewell to all departed elephants. Vale. 

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Manuscripts, Books, Pixels

   Our giant bookfair has come and gone, quashing the idea that the printed book has had its day. $430,000 dollars made for Lifeline in one three day weekend flogging secondhand books, CDs, records and games and puzzles. Some kinds of books are less alive than others. It seems that fewer people want to buy paper dictionaries these days. Well, why would they I guess? They seem to be following in the wake of encyclopaedias, which plenty of people want to give away, but nobody wants to buy. It's all on the internet.
   They do want to buy lots of other kinds of books to hold in their hands and turn the pages. Kindle editions and other e-books might be making some inroads, but people still want something to put on the shelf. Classic English literature sold well, even though all the titles are available in e-books for free. Apart from the touchy feely thing, I wonder if the deficiencies in the capability to properly reference cheap e-book editions is keeping student of Eng. Lit. still hunting for cheap paper versions.
  Meanwhile, back in the land of pixelated manuscripts, I have recommenced updating graphics and reformatting pages. Yawn!!! When I get totally bored with this, I will reveal to you a tantalising scrap of bookbinder's waste which shows just how bad legal Latin was becoming by the 16th century.

Saturday, March 03, 2012

To Hell with Technology

  Well there I was, chugging through updating the graphics and formatting in the script samples, when I came upon a section where I had no master graphic files in any format known to modern computing. They must have been some of the earliest examples that I had done, probably from before Medieval Writing was even a website. So there has been a slight delay while I rescanned a whole bunch of images of protogothic and Gothic documents and catalogued them. All done now, so the Gothic documents are now being updated again. The fact that it is raining like Noah's fludde this weekend might mean some more progress gets made. Can't do any gardening without a boat. To think that with fancy modern technology, images become unreadable in a few years, but those original 500 year old scratches on parchment are still there and legible.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Books Online or Online Books?

  I have mentioned in the past that I do some voluntary work in a large warehouse that processes secondhand books for several bookfairs a year to raise funds for the charity Lifeline, a telephone counselling service. All the books are donated by members of the public in Canberra (which is, of course, the capital city of Australia). Naturally, current changes to the way books are published and read is a perennial topic of discussion among the volunteers, as this affects our bottom line. It has occurred to me that there is a distinct time lag between technological changes to books and the concept of a book.
   Because we receive unselected donations, we cannot sell all the books. Some are too decrepit or damaged, too out of date or simply appear in too many duplicates, so some books have to go to paper recycling. This upsets some people, as it seems that they still have a mindset that a modern printed book is like a medieval manuscript; a unique artifact and repository of knowledge. Most, in fact, are mass produced items of the industrial age. Everybody does keep a look out for books that are rare or especially interesting, so that they get special treatment.
  Now that e-books are infiltrating the world of reading, we wonder what effect this will have on the buying public. There are those among us who use our e-book readers for certain purposes, in my personal case for recreational reading, but who are definitely not abandoning our reference libraries of real books any time soon. The likes of and ABE books have increased our personal reference libraries of real books through online sales. On the other hand, Google books and The Internet Archive have expanded our reference collections to include old and rare titles that we would otherwise find very difficult to acquire. Some folks feel that a book should have a cover and pages, just like a medieval manuscript. Others are coming to the idea of a book as a concept; a bounded body of information or themes or ideas, even if it does not exist as a thing.
  Our bookfair is moving with the times by introducing online sales of real books (Lifeline Canberra Online Bookstore). It is just at the beginning of operations so far and the number of books is currently limited, but we hope it will grow to cater for the internet savvy crowd who still like real pages. That might keep us going until somebody works out how to sell used conceptual books in the form of secondhand e-books.
  We also sell music in the form of records and CDs. One lady dropped us off a whole box full of CDs, saying her husband didn't need them any more as he had ripped them all to his iPod. My first thought was, hang on, don't you keep the CDs as backups? I guess I think of musical performances as objects rather than concepts, and musical performance objects have only been around for about one hundred years, unlike reading objects. Now there is a thought for further philosophical rumination.

Sunday, February 05, 2012

More Medieval Documents

  I have just made some additions to the section on Dealing with Medieval Documents, having discovered that I had left out some stuff I had meant to put in originally. Does that mean that web publishing is more forgiving, and therefore a good thing, or that it just makes web authors absent minded and disorganised, which is a bad thing?

Friday, February 03, 2012

What Not To Do with Your Manuscripts

  Latest additions to the site include a small expansion to the section on Handling Manuscripts, having come across some more little bits that have been mishandled.

  Take a look at these two images and try to work out what has been going on here, before going to the website to find out. Then when you have found out, do not do it to any little treasures of your own.
  I have also made a slow new beginning to the process of updating the graphics and formatting in the Script Samples section, having made a start on protogothic documents.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Medieval Documents

  I have just put up a brief section on the website on Dealing with Medieval Documents. This is in response to a steady trickle of emails that I get about the reading of such documents. It is aimed at the beginner in the field, so if you are already calendaring the medieval archives of Lord Poodlewumpus or researching a new theory on 14th century Lithuanian diplomatic, you don't need to read it. It is my first little step into the new year updates. I will get back to the dull but worthy job of updating the graphics and formatting soon. And I must fossick out something interesting from my collection of medieval detritus to add something new to the site. Oh yeah, and I have to get back the the mulberries. Rats!

Sunday, January 08, 2012

Back, or Forward, to Hieroglyphics

  Many years ago when multimedia was a novelty and the world was young and innocent, twelve year old multimedia designers told us that the written word, in terms of alphabetic spelling, was going to become extinct. We were told that the more intuitive mode of communication for hypertext links and task initiation was in the use of graphic symbols; pictograms or ideograms, although young multimedia designers were unfamiliar with these terminologies. They called them graphic hot links back then.
   As a middle aged fogey back then, as opposed to the geriatric fogey that I am now, I begged to differ. After all, what is so intuitive about a quasi-3D button on a 2D screen and what is so intuitive about doing everything by pressing buttons anyway? My granddaughters would not understand this now, and their opposable thumbs are developing whole new skills and functions. I compromised and wrote captions on my buttons in my alphabetic dogmatism.
   Nonetheless, I fail to see what is so intuitive about a picture of a rabbit running across the bottom of the screen as a navigation symbol for the next page, or about a cartoon dog fetching items from a letterbox as an email link. Furthermore, the use of graphics shaped like electrical switches is not intuitive, it is merely utilising learned symbolic communication from older technology. Besides, I can never work out which is on or off anyway since they changed real switches from little levers that pointed up or down to rocker switches with a vertical line and a circle on them. These are ideograms in their own right, but not particularly intuitive.
   I think it was because the web started off as a text based medium that restored text links to respectability, even though it is now filled with everything that whistles and sings. Drop down menus had words on them, even if menu shortcut bars had symbols on them. We went back to believing in alphabetic writing for a while.
   I have noticed a recent return to graphic symbolism, but the symbols have become even more simplified and abstract. Gmail now has strange little monochrome graphics instead of headings that say "trash", "archive" or "label". I have to hover the mouse over them to make the words come up in order to know which is which. My antique Kindle (nearly a year old!) has real buttons which say "menu" and "home" and the like, while my husband's new one has buttons with strange little symbols which all look like little geometric grids, indistinguishable one from the other without a good light and reading glasses. We are going back to pictograms, but they do not have the essential characteristic of being readily distinguishable.
   Intriguingly, as technologies change, the pictograms themselves are becoming increasingly abstracted. The standard graphic symbol for "save", for example, is a picture of a floppy disk, which many younger users of computers may never have even seen. The pictogram of a floppy disk has transformed into an ideogram for saving a file to whatever medium is being used. The garbage can symbol for trash is well recognised, but I always used to panic when using a Macintosh because to eject a removable medium, you had to drag it to the trash. The learning part of my brain recognised this as merely a process, while the intuitive part always panicked that I was trashing the contents of the medium and my files would all disappear. Mind you, with Windows I had a mental problem with clicking the "start" button to turn it off, but they have fixed this now as the button has no misleading captions, just that annoying little quadripartite flag, which is neither informative nor intuitive but merely an arrogant brand recognition symbol. Is this simplifying onscreen communication, or making the language of the process more complex and subtle?
  On other technological gizmos, real live buttons are no longer the simple analogue for binary function that they used to be. Gadgets get smaller, so rather than fill up space with loads of buttons, a few buttons perform different functions when used in different combinations. To remember how to work these permutations and combinations we have to read the manual. Back to ye olde alphabetic writing again, and yet I remember when it was considered that operating manuals, whether for gadgets or computer software, should be quite unnecessary. The more graphic and intuitive it gets, the more we need the words. 
   Old books about writing put these various schemes on a timeline of increasing conceptual complexity; pictograms, ideograms then alphabetic writing. We are actually using a combination of all three today, which some would say is the death of proper writing, but I think may represent a whole new complex of mental decoding of symbolic language.
   So why am I rabbiting on about this stuff right now? Well, just to keep you amused and to deflect attention from the fact that updates to Medieval Writing may be a few weeks off yet, as we are in school holidays down here and that means extensive visits from granddaughters, and besides, I am just in the process of buying a new fishing kayak.