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Stanford team receives grant to support digital analysis of medieval manuscripts

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A leaf from an old English homily, Cambridge, Corpus Christi College 367, folio 80v.

An international research team, led by Elaine Treharne, a professor of English at Stanford University, has received a “Digging into Data Challenge” grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH).

Treharne’s project, “Global Currents: Cultures of Literary Networks, 1050-1900,” received close to $125,000 to employ visual language processing tools and social network modeling to examine manuscript images from English books produced in the Early Middle Ages.

“Global Currents” is one of 14 projects to receive funding from the third annual “Digging into Data Challenge” grant. In all, the NEH awarded close to $5.1 million to international research teams representing Canada, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Designed to motivate the research community to help create new methodologies for the 21st century, the “Digging into Data Challenge” encourages the development and application of new techniques for searching, analyzing, and understanding “big data” or large bodies of material. Building on Treharne’s ongoing interest in using digital technologies, the “Global Currents” team will employ visual language processing tools and social network modeling to examine manuscript images from English books produced in monastic environments.

According to Treharne, her project will help determine “what kinds of visual features of the book are the most important, the most consistent, the most datable, and the most comparable or distinct.” Treharne said she’s willing to roll up her sleeves and take on this challenge because of the invaluable potential it offers.“Our work with these tools should certainly be a valuable research endeavor in its own right, assisting subsequent sets of scholars in what the best ways might be to link technologies with textual materials,” she said.

In addition to collaborating with Canadian and Dutch scholars, scientists, and information professionals, Treharne will also work closely with the following Stanford faculty: Dr. Mark Algee-Hewitt, assistant director of the Stanford Literary Lab, Ben Albritton, a medievalist in Digital Library Systems and Services (DLSS), and Professor Zephyr Frank, director of the Center for Spatial and Textual Analysis (CESTA).

According to Treharne, the data yielded from this type of digital research should help her team demonstrate key elements of textual production and to determine when particular changes were made to how text was rendered on the page.

Treharne, who joined Stanford University in 2012, has been studying the material nature of medieval manuscripts for three decades. Her research focuses on religious poetry, prose and manuscripts dating from about 1020 to 1220.

Treharne is not new to using technology. In her classroom she develops online teaching materials to examine how medieval manuscripts were created and displayed over centuries, and she explores issues of digital display when it comes to these manuscripts. In her recent course, “Beowulf from Then ‘til Now” she used the social media forum Twitter to retell the epic poem in 100 tweets.

“Digital scholarship is more than just running data through various computerized processes,“ said Treharne. “It is making new primary material available to thousands of interested parties in a way that has never been possible before. This can only be to the good of moving scholarship forward.”

The digital tools Treharne’s team will develop will examine how textual materials were put together for readers and will also help the researchers extrapolate connections and patterns in the process of medieval book making. With support from the scholars on her team, Treharne will also investigate how they can exploit the data derived from these tools in reading across textual cultures. Hence, other Global Current team members will provide and analyze data sets of Chinese, Islamic, and European Eighteenth-Century literary materials.

This grant follows on the heels of another digital humanities research grant for Stanford. In August 2013, the NEH awarded close to $300,000 to the project “Networks in History” which allows its principal investigators to enhance visualization tools used to examine the circulation of people, letters, and objects in the 17th and 18th centuries. 

Another version of this story appears in the Stanford Dish