‘Digging into the Archaeology of the Book’: The Digital Humanities at the Bodleian Library

Nora Wilkinson, Harvard University

On Monday 14 June, Dr. Alexandra Franklin calmly peeled back layers of a ‘human head’ in the Pitt Rivers lecture room. The ‘head’ in question was an instructive illustration from Bartisch’s rare Opthalmodouleia, a sixteenth century treatise on diseases of the eye from the Bodleian Libraries’ special collections. As she pulled back layers of paper under the document camera, Franklin challenged her audience to imagine the challenge of describing and digitizing the page. These were the questions at the centre of Franklin’s presentation, which was part of a weeklong Digital Humanities training program.

Running from 14 – 18 July, the Digital Humanities at Oxford Summer School is an annual weeklong program exploring the history and future of the digital humanities. In addition to interaction with the University’s experts through lectures, demonstrations, and workshops, participants interact with the Bodleian Libraries’ extensive collection. Not despite but because of the program’s focus on the digital humanities, the chance to interface with the material collection was an important one.

As we increasingly move towards the digitization of physical collections, the material objects themselves shape the way we think about the process of description and digitization. Franklin demonstrated this on Monday afternoon in her discussion of eight unusual objects from the Bodleian’s collection.

Each of the objects posed a unique challenge. How, Franklin asked, do we catalogue a religious manuscript illumination that has been nearly effaced by devotional rubbing? What is the effect of describing it simply as ‘damaged’? Or: How do we photograph a page onto which a miniature has been sewn? Franklin posed these questions and more as she invited participants to examine the objects below.

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