Recently, a new initiative to develop digital tools and create a common Linked Open Data for the study of Middle Eastern manuscripts has been launched by Professors Dawn Childress (University of California), Jeanne-Nicole Mellon Saint-Laurent (Marquette University), and David A. Michelson (Vanderbilt University), who organized an online workshop between December 15-16, 2021.
In these posts, we will present to the readers of the Digital Orientalist some of the thoughts and ideas discussed during that first meeting. For this purpose, we have interviewed Prof. Jeanne-Nicole Mellon Saint-Laurent and Prof. David A. Michelson, who were very kind to answer our questions.
1. First of all, I would like to ask you what the motives for suggesting this initiative, which started with the workshop “Working Group for Linked Manuscript Descriptions” in December 2021 were?
Syriac scholar Kristian Heal has noted that “The history of Syriac studies could well be told in terms of the scholars’ search for, or frustrated separation from, the books they wish to study.” This observation holds for the vast majority of the history of Syriac scholarship. However, in the last generation, the nature of this “search” has changed. Access to manuscripts used to be too scarce. Now the problem is over-abundance. Scholars who have worked with Syriac manuscripts know well the challenges of scouring through catalogs. In 1991 Alain Desreumaux and Françoise Briquel-Chatonnet published a Répertoire des bibliothèques et des catalogues de manuscrits syriaques (Paris, 1991). At that time, they listed over 800 different finding aids related to Syriac manuscripts. Since then, the number of publications in Syriac studies has grown dramatically. Many new digital catalogs have come online, such as HMML and e-ktobe. Before, we had limited access to manuscripts. Now, scholars have too much data to sort through by hand.
Fortunately, the development of the World Wide Web offers technologies helpful for connecting information related to Syriac manuscripts. These technologies are often described as standards for “Linked Open Data”. The goal of our working group is to explore how adopting Linked Data might be used in the creation of a portal for searching across multiple manuscript databases. Such search engines and union catalogs already exist for the study of Latin and some kinds of Arabic manuscripts. Indeed, a number of scholars have been meeting together through the “Linked Pasts” symposia to explore the use of Linked Data technologies in the study of the ancient and medieval world. The 7th annual Linked Pasts Symposium hosted by the Ghent University Centre for Digital Humanities offered an opportunity for scholars in Syriac and Middle Eastern codicology to begin to consider these tools as well. Accordingly, our goal was to gather librarians and researchers interested in creating similar tools for linking together Middle Eastern manuscript databases. Since several of us study Syriac manuscripts as our primary focus, we decided to begin with Syriac materials as a test case.
Program for the Linked Pasts VII Symposium at Ghent University Centre for Digital Humanities, December 2022. (https://www.ghentcdh.ugent.be/linked-pasts-vii-symposium)
Call for Participants: Working Group for Linked Manuscript Descriptions (Linked Pasts VII Symposium), December 15-16, 2021. (https://docs.google.com/document/d/1fo5rY3Z_Pmd24otdhi3bUKmzwW8h-f-szHHHlOQdomw/edit#heading=h.b4b98upt6371)
Kristian Heal, “Corpora, eLibraries, and Databases: Locating Syriac Studies in the 21st Century,” Hugoye 15.1 (2012), 65-78.(http://www.bethmardutho.org/index.php/hugoye/volume-index/505.html).
David A. Michelson, “Using Linked Open Data to Model Cultural Heritage Information: The Research Questions and Data Structures of the Syriaca.Org Knowledge Graph,” in Linked Open Data for the Ancient Mediterranean: Structures, Practices, Prospects, edited by Sarah E. Bond, Paul Dilley, and Ryan Horne, ISAW Papers 20 (2021). (http://hdl.handle.net/2333.1/69p8d8cc).