Review: Among Digitized Manuscripts by L.W.C. van Lit (Leiden: Brill, 2020)

For this post, I will be reviewing the new book Among Digitized Manuscripts by C. van Lit (Leiden: Brill, 2020), authored by the founder of this website and the summation of the work he has done on it and since handing over the reins to others (for general comments on it from the author, see the post from October 2019 entitled “Why I still choose to publish in print“). This work is an introductory survey of how to employ digital technology to further research with manuscripts; specifically, Islamic manuscripts, although it will be of great use for those working in manuscripts in any other language as well.

The book is divided into two main parts, together with an introduction and conclusion. Chapter one provides much of the theory related to using digital technology in relation to manuscripts, and in particular goes into good detail regarding the concepts of ‘manuscript’, ‘print’, and ‘digital’ worlds; this forms the theoretical framework for much of the rest of the book. Chapter two is also theoretical in nature, and seeks to develop for the first time a conceptual framework for employing and, in particular, evaluating digitised manuscripts that are available online, based on ten aspects: size of the collection; online availability; whether items are downloadable; the nature of the online portal; the viewer; whether page/folio numbers are provided; image resolution; colour balance; lighting; the image’s cut.

Chapter three contains what the author terms ‘an ethnography’ (really meaning a description and assessment) of 20 libraries from around the world that have digitised at least some of their manuscript collection(s), including the Vatican library, British Library, Princeton University Library, and Süleymaniye Library and Mymanuskrip Malay University library. After a brief overview of the contents of each, van Lit provides an exploration of the quality of the online collection provided by each library on the basis of the ten features suggested in chapter two. Each library’s collection is then given a final grade, the BNF in Paris and the Staatsbibliothek in Berlin coming out on top. The chapter then concludes with some remarks about the state of manuscript collections in general and future important avenues. This is an extremely useful introduction to some of the main digitised manuscript collections for Islamic Studies around the world, although two caveats are in order. First, the fact that these are just some of the available online repositories does not feel as underlined as it could have been. As such, this book risks doing the very thing that, in other places, it occasionally bemoans: funneling people towards certain sources while leaving others comparatively ignored. Second, and rather strangely for a book that is very clearly focused on accessibility and connectivity, no URLs are given for the collections explored, meaning that the reader themselves is forced to search the internet for the collections.

Chapter four explores various aspects related to palaeography, including descriptions of and comments on online resources related to palaeography from the beginning of the online age through the first decade of the 2000s. There then follows an analysis and review of various research environments in which researchers can study various palaeographical aspects of manuscripts and the possibilities for researchers that these provide, along with their problems (foremost amongst which is the fact that many of them are dead). Finally, there is a section of what I personally consider would be the most significant development in digital humanities as it relates to manuscripts: automatic handwriting recognition. In this, van Lit describes the various efforts that have been made towards using computers to be able to carry out tasks such as reading palimpsests, performing automatic investigations into scribal abbreviations, or discovering which manuscripts were written by the same scribe. There is then a longer discussion about the possibility of using digital technology to produce, automatically, a critical edition of the text; this includes how to process marginal notes by the author or later readers, difficulties with OCR as it relates to handwriting, and the difficulties of training a computer to differentiate between significant and insignificant marks on the manuscript. It then provides a description of some experiments conducted by the author that demonstrate the problems involved.

Chapters five to seven move away from the theoretical and are the most ‘hands on’ for the reader. Chapter five contains an overview of the workflow required for digital editing, exploring aspects such as the various file formats available, text encoding, text markup, possible editing tools, using images, and archiving and publishing, some of which contain explanations of how to employ the relevant software. In chapter six, the whole process for producing a catalogue of a collection of items originally belonging to the Austrian scholar Rudolf Geyer and stored in the library of the monastery of Sankt Florian, near Linz, is recounted in a case study. This includes a visit to the library, photo- and note-taking processes, how to create a relational database, how to employ referencing software in the process (Zotero, in this case), and using web development technology to create the final catalogue. Crucially for the beginner, though, it also provides a guide to how to use and edit various file types, such as XML, CSL JSON, HTML and CSS, that can at first seem rather daunting prospects. These are, in general, very clearly explained, although some, such as those on HTML and CSS files, need a number of read-throughs before they can be fully comprehended as it does get rather technical.

In chapter seven, there is a case-study of how to employ digital technology to explore codicological aspects of various Arabic manuscripts, in this case the angle formed by the tongue (lisan) of a manuscript’s cover. This chapter includes a welcome introduction to the programming language Python—essential for digital humanities work—and OpenCV. It guides the reader through how to employ PDF photographs to establish the angles of the various tongues, using some rather technical digital processing steps. Chapter eight is a short conclusion, one which simply, though usefully, sums up the book and demonstrates why engaging with the digital humanities is essential for any scholar—primarily as a result of computers being able to carry out tasks that are beyond the scope of scholars—and future avenues for research, and this is followed by a postscript.

I have just a few minor quibbles with this book. First, personally I would have liked to see more ‘hands on’ case studies of the kind seen in the later chapters; more of these ‘how to’ chapters would have been useful as it is likely that most readers will be interested in how to use digital techniques with manuscripts and so the more of such descriptions the better (although that is somewhat mitigated by the vast amount of online information available to which the reader can turn, including on The Digital Orientalist). Secondly, the theoretical chapters that constitute the first half of the book are useful studies and contain important assessments of the current state of the field, but for beginners such as students this could feel a little too intellectual and daunting as a first step in. Thirdly, the hardware examples tend to be based on Apple hardware (and therefore that company’s OS and compatible software), with little consideration given to those who might use other resources. 

Overall, however, this is a hugely interesting and helpful tome. For the beginner, the case studies provided in chapters five to seven in particular will prove extremely useful, while more advanced readers will find the more theoretical early chapters particularly valuable discussions. It is generally well written and clearly explained, and the introductions to the various topics are among the best I have seen. Consequently, this book should be a central text for university-level digital humanities courses. Best of all, though, through open access it is free! It can be downloaded from:

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