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The Digital Medievalist Project


Daniel Paul O'Donnell

The Digital Medievalist Project (http://www.digitalmedievalist.org/) is a new web-based resource for medievalists who use computers in their research and teaching. It is aimed especially at those who are interested in producing electronic editions, facsimiles, or archives of medieval texts, manuscripts, and artifacts, but is open to participants with other interests. Members range from pioneers in the field to absolute beginners. The project hopes to become a resource through which experts and novices alike can keep abreast of new technological developments and tools, share information on current projects, and help solve common problems.

In its current form, the project has three main components:

• A discussion list (dm-l@uleth.ca) for the exchange of information and experience by medievalists using digital media in their research and teaching.

• An on-line resource centre for the publication of bibliography, links to other organizations, guidelines, and teaching materials.

• A refereed on-line journal, The Digital Medievalist, for the publication of original research, project reports, reviews, and notes.

These different elements are accessed through a single, easy to use web-site (http://www.digitalmedievalist.org/). The project is overseen by a board of medievalists with extensive experience in humanities computing: Peter Baker (University of Virginia), Martin Foys (Hood College), Murray McGillivray (University of Calgary), Kenna Olsen (University of Calgary), Daniel Paul O'Donnell (University of Lethbridge), Roberto Rosselli del Turco (Università di Torino), and Elizabeth Solopova (Bodleian Library). It is funded by the Faculty of Arts and Science at the University of Lethbridge, and maintained by the University of Lethbridge Curriculum Redevelopment Centre.


The Problem

The Digital Medievalist Project was established in 2003 to address problems created by the increasingly sophisticated technological expectations faced by medievalists working with digital media. For most of the last thirty years, digital projects have concentrated on the production of custom solutions to problems posed by the use of computers in their research and teaching. Large projects hired their own software designers and developed their own tools and programs; smaller projects and individual scholars experimented with different techniques and software until they discovered something that worked well on their preferred computer system. Scholars and projects were free to design their own software or use propriety systems produced by major corporations as they wished. Little attention was devoted to standardization or sharing information on successful approaches or techniques, beyond, perhaps, attempting to ensure that projects could be viewed on both Windows-based and Macintosh computers.

This early stage in the development of humanities computing has come to an end. With the development and widespread adoption of standard markup languages and tools such as XML (eXtensible Markup Language), XSL (eXtensible Stylesheet Language), and Unicode (a standard for identifying characters used in languages from around the world), scholars now face an obligation to ensure not only that their projects work, but that they work according to the appropriate international standards and notions of best practice. Colleagues, reviewers, and especially funding agencies all now look as much at how a digital project is built as at what it contains. While a few potentially significant digital projects still use non-standard markup, character encoding, and image formats, such projects are becoming increasingly rare - and almost impossible to fund. As the well-known recent history of the BBC's "unreadable" electronic Domesday Book project demonstrates, a heavy reliance on non-standard, propriety technology can doom even well-funded projects to early obsolescence (McKie and Thorpe 2003; O'Donnell 2004). Where once it was possible to complete a humanities computing project without necessarily being aware of current developments in computing languages and software, contemporary work in humanities computing requires medievalists to have a current knowledge of developments in both their original discipline and the increasingly sophisticated world of information technology.


The Solution

The Digital Medievalist Project addresses this problem by encouraging medievalists to pool their technological knowledge and expertise. Based on the "Community of Practice" learning model (Brown and Duguid 1991; Wenger 1998), the Project provides an infrastructure that allows members to compare notes, acquire collaborators, keep track of current research, and teach each other about new technological approaches and tools to humanities computing.


Mailing List

The Project mailing list (dm-l@uleth.ca) is used by members to ask for advice, discuss problems, and share information about new developments. The list's collegial atmosphere encourages a variety of conversations: from advanced discussions of specific problems in the implementation of particular languages or software to more basic questions about how to begin a computing project or find basic help on software, languages, and formats. Members also commonly use the list to compare notes: to ask if other members have experience tackling a given problem, or to solicit opinions about the success of techniques and approaches they are employing in their on-going research.


Online Resources

The Project also has a number of more formal online resources. A newsgroup is used to announce new projects, find help for specific technical problems, or seek collaborators for new projects or grant applications. A "Wiki" (online collaborative encyclopedia and dictionary) associated with the mailing list can be used to look up, edit, or contribute entries on important terms, concepts, and resources. An ongoing bibliography collects information on works-in-progress, completed projects, and relevant bibliography and resources.


Refereed Journal

A third initiative of the project is the establishment of a new refereed on-line journal, The Digital Medievalist (DM). The inaugural issue of this journal is scheduled to appear in late Fall 2004. DM accepts work of original research and scholarship, notes on technological topics, commentary pieces discussing developments in the field, bibliographic and review articles, and project reports describing beginning, on-going, or completed projects. Contributors may also describe tools and utilities they have developed, stylesheets, markup-methods, imaging techniques, or project management methods. Future editions will also contain reviews of publications, websites and digital projects, with special issues devoted to papers presented at the annual medieval conferences in Kalamazoo and Leeds.


Conference Sessions

Finally, the Digital Medievalist Project organizes conference sessions for medievalists working on digital projects at the International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo and, starting in 2006, the International Medieval Congress at Leeds. At the 39th Kalamazoo conference in 2004, the Digital Medievalist Project sponsored two sessions on digital topics: "Best Practice in the Production of Digital Resources for Medievalists I: Standards in Theory and Practice" and "Best Practice in the Production of Digital Resources for Medievalists II: Project Definition and Management." At the 40th Conference in 2005, the Project is sponsoring two sessions on text and image in digital scholarship.



All elements of the Digital Medievalist Project can be accessed via its website, http://www.digitalmedievalist.org/. You can contact the Project Executive by e-mail at digitalmedievalist@uleth.ca or by post c/o Daniel Paul O'Donnell, Department of English, University of Lethbridge, Lethbridge Alberta T1K 3M4, Canada.


Works Cited

Brown, John Seely, and Paul Duguid. 1991. Organizational Learning and Communities-of-Practice: Toward a Unified View of Working, Learning, and Innovation. Organization Science 2, no. 1: 40-57.

McKie, Robin, and Vanessa Thorpe. 3 March 2003. Digital Domesday Book lasts 15 years not 1000. The Observer [on-Line Edition]. Available at http://www.atsf.co.uk/dottext/domesday.html.

O'Donnell, Daniel Paul. 2004. The Doomsday Machine, or, 'If you build it, will they still come ten years from now?': What Medievalists working in digital media can do to ensure the longevity of their research. Heroic Age 7. http://www.mun.ca/mst/heroicage/issues/7/ecolumn.html.

Wenger, Etienne. 1998. CoP: Best Practices [Communities of Practice: Learning as a Social System]. Web page [accessed 2 September 2003]. Available at http://www.co-i-l.com/coil/knowledge-garden/cop/lss.shtml.