Project Bilan: After 2 Years

At the end of April 2020, the Innovating Knowledge project has silently reached the end of its second year. In normal circumstances, there would be one more year to go. However, in the altered circumstances of the corona crisis, it is evident that the project will be expanded by at least a few months. How much extra time is the project going to need will depend on when fieldwork abroad can be resumed. It is still unclear what it will mean for the health of the project and the timeline of planned outputs. It is fitting that this is the first piece of news that appears in this blog post. But now, let’s have a look at how the project has been faring in the last year.

The project’s most significant move forward was the progress in the development of the project database, which is to serve as an interactive manuscript catalogue of the pre-1000 manuscripts transmitting the Etymologiae as well as a research tool allowing for visualization of some of the most important innovations of these manuscripts. About a year ago, I reached the end of what I called ‘stage 1’ in the database development, meaning that I cleaned and enriched my original data source (Anspach’s 1940s handlist of the manuscripts of the Etymologiae) using the two key catalogues of pre-900 manuscripts (Bischoff’s Katalog and Lowe’s CLA). At the end of April 2019, the database contained, as a result, ~ 380 items (up from Anspach’s ~ 300 items). I commenced what I called ‘stage 2’ of the development, improving the data formalization model, further cleaning and enriching the data, and gathering new data from lesser sources and in-person examinations. At the end of ‘stage 2’, I hoped to have the basic component of the database ready for publication and testing. I am glad to say that ‘stage 2’ was completed at the end of March 2020. The ‘mastersheet’ now contains ~ 440 items and reached a satisfactory form. Naturally, they may be some latecomers added to the manuscript corpus. Also, there is undoubtedly a lot to check, correct and clean, not to speak of the fact that I have not been able to examine 30-40 manuscripts, which now have been itemized in the database, but for which little to no data is available. For now, however, the ‘mastersheet’ is good to go. My main goals now are to have a testable beta-version of the core database component online and to commence ‘stage 3’, which will add a new data layer to the core database component.

This being said, I have hoped for several months to see the ‘mastersheet’ online in a form that allows for basic operations (visualization, searching, filtering, download, linking to external resources). I have been assured by my manager of our institute’s digital infrastructure that a beta-version with basic functionality can be online in January. Still, there has so far been no sight of it, and even now, in May 2020, it seems to be in development. My plan has been to delegate the development of the database interface to a specialist service-provider (so that I can devote myself to research and to other project tasks and since my coding skills are minimal and I could not hope to produce anything acceptable unless it would take 100% of my time). Now, this decision is a source of immense but unavoidable frustration. To tell you the truth, I will be happy if I see the core component (aka the interactive manuscript catalogue) online eventually. I am slowly resigning on the idea of seeing any of the other components (aka the visualization tools). You will surely hear more from me about the database development soon.

Many pitfalls and frustrations notwithstanding, the database development already proved to fuel the project. It led me to make important realizations about the nature of the object studied – the manuscripts of the Etymologiae. I can now see that I need to draw lines between manuscripts transmitting the canonical Etymologiae, the various non-canonical formats of this text, which are so abundant in the early Middle Ages but badly understudied, and the fragments, which must be treated as objects sui generis. I can see that ‘innovation’ has a different meaning in the case of each of the three categories of material, requiring them to be separated for further analysis.

Another big step forward since last year concerns the digital edition of glosses to the first book of the Etymologiae. I have now transcribed glosses from all 25 core manuscript witnesses as well as from additional 37 manuscripts. This means that the raw material is more or less ready. Now is the high time to start encoding these glosses in XML (with the help of my great colleague Peter Boot who prepared a TEI schema for me!). I would wish to be busying away encoding right now but have fallen behind terribly since the beginning of 2020. I am now at least several months delayed and thus worried about producing presentable outputs (the edition). I sincerely hope I will be able to catch up on editing very soon thanks to the corona lockdown.

I can see that since last year, I have been on ten field trips, bringing the total of visited libraries to about 20. Some of the most satisfying of these trips was a visit to the Staatsbibliothek in Berlin (May 2019) and a visit to the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana (November 2019). There are still almost 40 libraries left that own manuscripts which are not described satisfactorily and thus require personal inspection. It is obvious that I can visit only a handful of them. The top priority are libraries in northern Italy, Spain, Bavaria and Switzerland, as well as returning to Paris and the Vatican for another dip. In fact, I was planning to be in Italy in April and in Germany and Switzerland in May but had to scrap my plans due to the pandemic. I hope that the few months of extension I can ask for will be enough to make up for the unwanted hiatus in 2020 and perhaps some libraries will take it as a cue to speed up the digitization of their manuscript collections.

Given that about a year ago, I had only one project-related article submitted (and it is still not out), it is really satisfying to see that I was able to move on the project publications. I have successfully submitted my first case study as a license for medieval studies thesis in June 2019. I am now about to send it off to a journal (still requires some editing). A book review for Fragmentology is out since the end of 2019. I have also submitted a survey article, the first fruit of the database-powered research, in February this year. I am currently finishing an article about the materiality of the early manuscripts of the Etymologiae as a crucial pathway for innovations, which should be ready to go by the end of May. There are still several draft articles on my desk and a few more good article ideas in my mental drawer. I don’t know how many of them will I be able to submit while the project is running, or how many I will be able to finish at all. Still, my hopes are high, mostly because of how great the project data are. At times, one feels the articles are begging to be written.

I have published a call for papers for my end-project conference in February. Because of the current crisis, it is a big mystery whether it can take place physically in October as planned. Since I received more abstracts than I could accommodate speakers at the conference, making the conference digital may be an excellent opportunity to keep as many of them as possible. I see it as a call to experiment with the traditional conference format, which is not always satisfactory anyways. Any tips for how to manage a conference in the corona times are welcomed!

In the Autumn of 2019, I have also had my first project intern, a master student from Utrecht University who wrote her seminar paper about my manuscripts under my supervision. I hope it was just as useful experience for her as it was for me. Since she is probably the only intern I will have, the three months we spent meeting weekly to learn about the early medieval fragments of the Etymologiae are particularly dear to me. Thanks to her, I was inspired to revisit the question of fragments, their transmission and their importance as a test group for non-fragmentary preserved material. I have acquired images of 63 of the 78 items in my corpus that are fragments (and a few more are hopefully underway) in the hope that at least some of them can end on the Fragmentarium website. It is now more than a year since I talked with members of the Fragmentarium team about this option and I am a bit ashamed I have not moved much in this respect. I still have hope that the fragments can appear on Fragmentarium someday, although maybe not many of them and not until the very end of the project.

Last but not least, I have engaged in a lot of scientific communication about the project. In June 2019, I spoke about my project at a NerdNite in Bratislava. In November 2019, I participated in a triple-talk tour as a part of Slovak Week of Science. I was also interviewed for a podcast and for a radio show. In October last year, I organized a talk about the copyright issues connected with the ongoing digitization of historical collections. And the most fabulous update of all is that this website is up!

Looking back at what I was able to achieve in the course of the last twelve months makes me feel both happy and frustrated. I can see that the project is finally starting to take a definitive shape (and looks quite different from how I envisaged it when I submitted my grant application). It is generating first presentable results that are on their way to the press. However, I can also see that I am trying to do too many things in too short a time. I knew I was doing too much when I was starting this project in 2018. I thought that many ideas would wither away on their own, allowing me to stay focused on the few best ones. Yet, two years later, I can see I have not discarded enough ideas. I am clinging to too many exciting directions, juggling the database, the edition, the project publications, the research trips, the project conference, and a (still only potential) collaboration with the Fragmentarium. I have always had a hard time to drop down projects. I feel that in this way, I am doing a disservice to my project. If there were fewer sub-projects tied in, they would be closer to completion.

If you have any tips or comments stemming from this report, let me know!

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