A closer look at a big, classic humanities project

This is a post by DO founder L. W. Cornelis Van Lit

Does a research project which produced a large website as part of its primary output necessarily qualify as a DH project? By examining this type of project, we can better understand what we talk about when we talk about DH. This will also help us understand how to design our own projects and how to get an existing project to the next DH level.

The project we will look at is PhiBor, which is a nice acronym for the rather long title Philosophy on the Border of Civilizations and Intellectual Endeavours: towards a Critical Edition of the Metaphysics (Ilāhiyyāt of Kitāb al-Šifāʾ) of Avicenna (Ibn Sīnā). This project ran on funds from the European Research Council (ERC) from 2014 until 2019, and it continues as a research group. Avicenna was a major philosopher from the Middle Ages who decisively influenced the course of philosophy both in the Islamic world as well as in Scholastic Europe. His book al-Shifa (‘The Healing’) is considered his magnum opus, and ‘magnum’ it is, as it covers more than 5000 printed pages. The content is divided into several volumes (on Math, Physics, Metaphysics, and so forth). The volume on Metaphysics can be considered the crown jewel, but, as with many works from Islamic philosophy, a really good critical edition is still lacking. Because the volume on metaphysics is a large text and there are dozens if not hundreds of manuscripts, creating a critical edition  is a gargantuan task. To have a research team like PhiBor spend five years on it, is therefore not a bad idea. 

Much of the project’s output has gone into a website. The project does not call itself a work of Digital Humanities, but its proposal did aim for the creation of  a ‘web platform’. This seemed a good idea because “technology [would] provide instruments” to do all the necessary work of the project, which included collection, analysis and collation of dozens if not hundreds of manuscripts (and, therefore, the digital photos of all folios of each manuscript). At this stage, the proposal is talking about a website for internal use. But as a medium for publication it has benefits too for the “flexibility it allows in the presentation of the results.” In other words, the sheer complexity and scale of the project moved the execution and presentation in a digital direction, as the amount of information that needed to be presented would be too much to be handled by a printed scholarly work. So, these are reflections in the project proposal on how to reach its goal, arguing that a digital approach is the only way to do it. Later the proposal also adds the ability to “exchange […] information among scholars” as a supporting argument for a website. Funnily, it wishes to become “a prototype for […] similar websites” but then refers to a website as a prototype for their own.

Interestingly, their methodology section is entirely devoid of any mention of digital methods. Everything is set up as a classical study of manuscripts, with codicological, stemmatological, and  philological components. The researchers are primarily interested in classical outcomes of this kind of  projects: what is the manuscript evidence of this all-important text? How does it break down into recensions? And can we reconstruct  a critically edited version of the text that could be argued to be “original”? 

A traditional interest in a classical study of manuscripts results in somewhat of a disinterest in the project’s digital output. A catchy name for the website was easily found (Avicenn@, although I would arguably think @vicenna is better), but the team never got around to writing a proper introduction to the website itself. Importantly, and here I do mean to offer a (negative) value judgment, they never filled their terms of use page. With so much of their information readily available on their website, we are left guessing what the status of all of this is. Public domain? CC BY-SA?  Private use only? We simply don’t know. Even though one may argue that digital assets are not your top priority when you want to immerse yourself in the quiet and still air of delightful studies, but I think the cold, hard reality is that it is important to say something so that you don’t lead others out onto thin legal or ethical ice.

There is then a bibliography, manuscript catalog, a stemma, and an edition, all available on the website. 

The bibliography is only so-so, with circa 300 entries. There have been dedicated bibliographies on Avicenna before, as well all-encompassing ones on Islamic philosophy, digital and paper. To be honest, I myself prefer paper versions. In the long run they navigate better than digital ones because it is easier to have multiple pages marked at the same time and flip back and forth. And so it is with this digital bibliography; without thorough annotation, its use is unclear (and goes unexplained). 

The manuscript catalog is, in contrast, terrific. An incredible amount of work must have gone into it, resulting in users being able to navigate evidence, including  photos of the first and last page of most manuscripts. It is all neatly annotated and interlinked. Indeed, the feeling is that we are actually looking at a polished backend, rather than a true frontend. The need for a detailed registration of all pieces of evidence, and the need to divide the labor but also collaborate, must have naturally given rise to the adoption of some form of digital registration system. Removing the input devices leaves you quickly with a ‘read-only’ version of that same system. 

In comparison to the manuscript catalog, the stemma is oddly simple. The page  contains only two diagrams that could just as well have come out of a printed book. There are no interactive components, nor articulated visualizations. It is impressive to see this many witnesses brought together in a stemma, but we only see the end result and not the data set on which it is based. These elements are given later, in the edition, but only in a human readable form, not as a data set ready for machine reading. 

The edition (for the parts which are finished) is great. The Arabic text is cleverly mixed with English and Latin versions, different readings, and comments. It is a sophisticated interface that makes reading the text in a scholarly manner a simple task. Indeed, there is something joyful about it. It is polished and seamless, which gives it an immersive quality. The search function performed better on Firefox and Chrome than it did on Safari, but this is easily forgiven since it is designed so well. Search hits are shown as little snippets to show the context of the search query, along with a precise indication where they appear in the text. It’s so useful, one could even overlook how well designed it is. The edition is also available in XML, marked up in standard TEI with light additions. It is extensively documented and this shows someone was put in charge to make all these digital assets possible. It turns out Simone Zenzaro, who has actually been making a string of collaborative, web-based editors for scholarly editions of historical sources, was a driving force behind it. Reading about his work makes clear how this website came about: because the project demanded a collaborative environment for editing, with extensive hyperlinking, a digital platform was mandatory. But the backend of this, the editing suite used by the team, almost instantly provided a frontread ‘read-only’ version.  

Seeing the edition, one immediately thinks of this project as a ‘DH’ project. But as we noticed, the project does not conceive of itself as such. In another article, I tried to distinguish different types of digital projects according to three levels: 1) doing humanities research, but digitally. 2) creating digital resources. 3) using digital resources. In this schema, the Avicenn@ project is somewhere between 1 and 2, but if we had to choose, it would be 1. I wish to stress that this is not a value judgment; it is perfectly fine to be within 1. In fact, it is a first necessary step towards ‘digitizing’ and ‘computer-enhancing’ research. In this sense, the project should be commended for having only modest expectations of its digital methodology and digital output. It is a humanities project, albeit executed in a digital environment.

In accordance with my schema, we can also easily deduce how this project could be elevated to the next level and become a Digital Humanities project. The next step is to enrich the text and catalog even further. This could be done by tagging each word for its root letters, or its grammatical function, or tagging it for intertextual (or intra-textual) qualities. Another step is to provide the text (and manuscript catalog) in a machine-readable format that is better equipped for computation than the current XML (which is way too heavy and only serves as a useful way to present the text, not for parsing it). Only upon completing such tasks could the project be ready to move to the highest level (akin to data analysis).

By specifically not framing itself as a DH project, the PhiBor program could create Avicenn@ in the shape it is now. It allowed the team to do classical codicology, stemmatology, and philology and adopt only the lightest of technical instruments. A specialist tailored the site to their specific needs and, once the scholarly labor was complete, the same specialist was able to turn the internal resources (meant for collaborative input) into public facing, read-only pieces that have a fairly elegant UX. To repeat the main take away from this analysis of PhiBor: because the UX of the input/editing tools was tailored for the team’s needs, the UX for the output/reading resources. 

I hope that many projects like this will follow. It will make the step up to the level of actual digital humanities even easier.

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