The Shiver: communion with the past in a digital age

Bodleian Library School of Divinity (Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0)

This post is adapted from a text originally published in the CILIP November 2015 update.

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Bodleian Wikimedian Martin Poulter says that although the digital world finds it hard to capture the intimacy of being in the presence of historical objects and texts, it can play an important role in adding value to the collections of museums, libraries and galleries which do provide that experience.

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While working at the Bodleian, I’ve experienced what I call ‘the shiver’ many times. I had it when I realised I was reading Charles Darwin’s handwriting, or when shown a book that had been studied by Henry VIII. I saw it happening at the Marks of Genius exhibition when people encounter a Gutenberg Bible or a First Folio of Shakespeare.

The shiver is a realisation of a tangible connection to the past. It comes from authenticity, physicality and uniqueness. As such, it may seem irrelevant to digital information, which is endlessly reproducible and independent of physical location. However, when we think of how libraries can involve more people in that authentic experience, that digital world turns out to be crucial.

Sharing knowledge

Mary Wollstonecraft was one of the earliest feminist philosophers, holding views that were very radical for the 18th century. She came from a fascinating family whose manuscripts and correspondence are held by the Bodleian. To read Wollstonecraft’s final note to her husband, written days before she died, is one of those shiver-inducing contacts with the past. How can more people share that experience?

Wikimedia projects can connect the world of personal curiosity and informal discussion to the world of professionally published or curated resources. By creating or improving Wikipedia articles and sharing images, we can give readers a clearer image of historical figures and their achievements.

Data such as birth and death dates can be put into Wikipedia and Wikidata for harvesting by other sites and apps, such as the interactive timeline generator Histropedia. Releasing images and metadata under a free licence allows wiki contributors to make use of them. Improving an area of Wikipedia can be made into a fun event which draws in the public.

Sharing texts

Ideally, all public domain text would be freely available to everyone in the world, with no barriers. That is what Wikisource, the free library, works towards. My interest in Wollstonecraft and other 18th-century feminists has led me to put relevant texts in Wikisource, improving the previously meagre Feminism portal.

I have used existing free-text sources drawn from the University of Oxford Text Archive, Project Gutenberg, Library of Congress collections and the Internet Archive, as well as Jisc Historical Texts, which unlike the others is restricted to education institutions in the UK.

This is not just copying text from one place to another: Wikisource can use page scans to correct transcription errors, creating definitive electronic versions. Reciprocal links with Wikipedia mean that a text on Wikisource gets far more visits than on similar sites, making Wikisource a connected whole.

Building a web

John Duncombe’s 1751 poem, The Feminead, or Female Genius pays tribute to various creative and accomplished women, including poets and philosophers. Wikisource pages can have links – an advantage over similar archives such as Project Gutenberg – so I created profiles for several authors mentioned by Duncombe which contain authority file identifiers such as VIAF and ISNI.

By embedding sources in a web, we turn them into something more like an educational object; something that draws the reader into a journey and which they can benefit from without understanding all the references in advance.

Adding value

In reading 18th-century feminist texts, I found names and references that needed explaining. So I needed to consult modern scholarship, including books and papers that I would not have read if I weren’t improving Wikisource.

Reprinting out-of-copyright books unchanged is not viable in this world of ubiquitous, free, digital culture. Publishers have to find ways to add value, for example by getting scholars to supply context, via introductory essays or annotated editions. Wikipedia can be a dry and impersonal medium but this allows educational institutions to concentrate on what they do well, for example by using experts to bring the topic alive with enthusiasm and wit.

The more this text is freely available, the more it can influence the public sphere. The US feminist columnist and poet, Alice Duer Miller, recently had a satirical column that went viral on social media. This is more impressive when you realise that Miller died in 1942.

Wikimedia projects make it easy for people to enjoy and share out-of-copyright text, creating and satisfying a modern curiosity about past authors. What we can’t share digitally is that shiver-inducing connection to the past that comes from an encounter with the real physical object, but that’s okay: libraries are already great at doing that.

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