Mapping the Middle Ages
Professors Bradshaw and Foys receive $50,000 Mellon grant to support the creation of an online resource linking medieval maps and related texts.
Merge the skills and knowledge of a computer scientist and a medieval scholar. The result: An interactive Internet site displaying images of fragile, centuries-old manuscripts that students of the Middle Ages can easily search, study and edit.
Two professors who have created an online resource of medieval maps and related texts at Drew are nearly there. Thanks to a $50,000 grant just awarded them by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, they will soon unveil the site—and share the technology with other institutions.
Martin Foys, associate professor of English and medievalist, and Shannon Bradshaw, associate professor of computer science, have been collaborating on the project, “Digital Mappaemundi,” since 2009 (mappaemundi is Latin for “maps of the world”). Foys, 41, brought a background in programming to the undertaking, though he calls it “practically Stone Age”; Bradshaw, 38, was deeply interested in technologies that enable new forms of scholarship. The partnership has been “absolutely fantastic,” says Foys: “Shannon and I both have an investment in each other’s field.”
Over the past decade libraries broadened access to medieval manuscripts by taking high resolution photographs of each page and putting the images online. Now the push is on to devise computer technology that will convert these static images into what Foys calls “living editions.”
“You can examine digital facsimiles from the comfort of your home, but you still have to physically assemble journals and monographs to examine the scholarship surrounding them,” he says. “We want to unite the scholarship about the manuscript with the manuscript.”
Digital Mappaemundi contains images of maps and texts, together with translations of inscriptions and other notes. The site is due to become operational this summer. Its tools will allow visitors to make annotations on the site, searchable in a web service hosted by Drew. Access will be free. “Over time, in the annotations scholars leave behind, we envision a dialogue emerging,” Bradshaw says. The “annotation toolbox” was built by Bradshaw, aided by Drew undergraduates; the Mellon grant will pay for a professional software developer to complete the task.
Foys and Bradshaw will roll out their product over the course of the summer to scholars assembled in various places, including the University of Oxford, the University of Leeds, Western Michigan University, and Dartmouth College. Down the road, they expect to see the technology adapted to other uses. “That’s the way it’s designed,” Foys says. “You could apply it to a collection of X-rays, newspaper archives, or museum exhibits—anything with online images and texts.”—Mary Jo Patterson
For more, read: “Digital Keys for Unlocking the Humanities’ Riches” – The New York Times, November 16, 2010