Among Digitized Manuscripts: A Book

For years, I have explored digitized manuscripts on this website. It left me prepared, three years ago, to embark on a more ambitious investigation into what digitized manuscripts are and what we can do with them. This has now resulted in a book that introduces a conceptual and practical toolbox for working with digitized manuscripts, starting with the very basics assuming no prior computer skills and ending with explaining automated image analysis using Python and OpenCV. As such it is aimed at the beginner and more experienced user of DH alike. Read more about it here.

From blog to book

This book is the result of years of slowly piecing together experience. In 2013, I started this website The Digital Orientalist as a weblog, with the intent to share my workflows and homemade hacks and tools that make life a little easier for someone in Islamic studies using a computer. Originally, my idea was to write posts that could ultimately function as paragraphs in a book-length introduction to the role of computers and digital resources for students in the humanities. As I saw it, and still is the case, students may learn research-related methodologies, and may learn how to read a text or write an essay, but rarely is there formal training in how the computer is integrated into all of this.

Especially my posts called comparing digital materials did well (see here). It was a time in which digitization projects were enthusiastically talked about at the initial announcement, but afterwards interest quickly waned. In my posts, I asked and tried to answer the question: okay this or that digitization project has finished, so what do we actually gain by it? The question that loomed behind it became clearer as I progressed: what are digitized manuscripts anyway?

In the spring of 2017 I had prepared a more formal investigation of what it means to work with digitized manuscripts versus actual manuscripts which I presented at Freie Universität Berlin. My research stay was sponsored by the Dahlem Humanities Center, on invitation of Olly Akkerman. In the summer of that year, I had expanded my work into two separate articles on which I presented at Jyväskylä University, in Finland. I worked there as a postdoc in the ERC-funded project ‘Epistemic Transitions in Islamic Philosophy’, whose principal investigator is Jari Kaukua. It was there that the two articles grew even bigger, sowing seeds for several more articles, or, rather, a book.

I could see that a book on digitized manuscripts was clearly needed; one that is introductory in nature and yet could also lay some of the foundations of a future conversation. There were (and are) a few introductory books to digital humanities in which, invariably, manuscripts would at most get a passing mention. Publications specifically on digital manuscript studies were only of the edited volume kind – experienced scholars sharing a hyper-specific application of advanced technology on manuscripts. Those are not useful for beginners. For a while I debated whether I was the right person for this job. Eventually I gave it a shot.

Purpose of the book

Our fields often involve the painstaking collection of large amounts of snippets of evidence from disparate and scattered sources as well as close reading of texts to tease out its many layers of meanings, allusions, cross-references, and intertextuality. Much of our activities can be done cheaper, faster, and better by using digitized materials in a digital workflow. We can give a computer the boring stuff that test our patience and abilities, such as remembering where we kept every note we made or noticing a similarity between a new note and one we made a long while ago. As for us, we only need to focus on the interesting stuff, such as deciding whether such a similarity is significant or not. In addition, computers add entirely new tools to our toolbox, such as image manipulation and distant reading. ‘Classical’ humanities will thrive because of ‘digital’ humanities just like how The Digital Orientalist has grown from a one-man blog to an eight-person strong team affiliated with The American Oriental Society.

This comes with an important challenge, namely, that we will have to invest ourselves in making these digital tools our own. This is only logical since our fieldwork, or rather the soil of our fields, has changed dramatically. To get to our manuscripts, we no longer go to dusty libraries but turn to buzzing computers, and if we do go to a library, we often come back with digital photos. Not so long ago, it was not expected of classically trained students and scholars to have computer skills. As it becomes more and more obvious that a ‘Digital Orientalist’ is not an oxymoron, it will become increasingly necessary and expected that all researchers possess some understanding of and skills in computer technology.

And so, I have tried to write a book that introduces these skills in a way that is familiar to us. Give it a try. See if you like it. It is in open access so you can start reading it on your computer before you decide to buy it. I will warn you though, it is really written as a book so using it in its paper, hardback version will be superior over its digital instantiation.

The majority of the book I wrote in the academic year ’17–’18, residing at Blackfriars Priory in Cambridge, UK. The home stretch was done as part of my postdoc research grant, sponsored by the NWO (Netherlands Council for Research). I am tremendously thankful for the patronage of the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies and the Open Access Fund, both at Utrecht University. They made it possible to publish this book in electronic open access.

Lastly, I owe a lot to you, faithful readers who have stuck with me on this website for six years now. Your messages, positive and negative, have continued to inspire me to keep doing what I do. Thank you!

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