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October 28, 2015

Summer School Experience: Digital Photography as a Research Tool

Summer School Experience: Digital Photography as a Research Tool

There is considerable debate surrounding the copy versus the original as a research tool. My position, and that of the speaker on the subject at DHOxSS (Daniel Wakelin, English, Univ. Ox.), is that digital reproductions are useful, but no replacement for the real thing. One is reminded of the arguments around Kindles.

So, when you write a (good) essay or article, what you are doing is telling a story. At least, that’s what I try and do. So shouldn’t photographs be used to tell a story as well? There are now a wide variety of digital images available online of medieval and early modern documents, provided by libraries and ranging from the poorest black and white of EEBO (Early English Books Online) to the high quality images of British Library flagship items (Magna Carta etc) sporting deep zoom and dazzling HD. But these facilities organise the material by some arrangement that is logical to the digital librarian and usually a traditional page by page (nb. not opening by opening) rendering, maintaining the books as discrete objects.

Yet, by taking your own digital photographs in reading rooms you can arrange the books or even individual pages into the story you are trying to follow or trying to tell. Clearly you MUST still ensure that each image has sufficient metadata recording its location within a particular codex etc., but this does not preclude interlacing items from various codices in order to find connections or comparisons which may have been obvious to their original creators but have been obscured by the practices of later binding. It is no different to creating a playlist on your iPod as opposed to listening to the radio. Both are valuable but they are different, and serve different needs. Furthermore, taking photographs when on research trips can save valuable time and money, and facilitate sharing your photos quickly and easily with a colleague or student. There is even a Bodleian Special Collections flickr page where visitors can upload the photographs that they have taken. The library were experiencing a large quantity of their material being shared illicitly, and so took the attitude that if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.

I must stress however that whilst photographs allow you to see differently, as the choice of shot directs the viewer’s gaze and as zooming can increase the visibility of features largely invisible to the naked eye, it cannot compensate for an appreciation of the text as physical object. There can be a tendency for reading rooms to become photography rooms. I was recently sat in the manuscript room of the British Library when someone came in, collected his book, and placed it on the desk beside me. Having retrieved his camera and run through the pages, he was off again without ever having sat down. I have my doubts that he read a word of the book he was given. Digital photography should be a supplement rather replacement for the experience of reading, since it would have been difficult for the researcher to tell from those pictures how the manuscript was put together or altered physically, or indeed to appreciate the original meaning of the text as encountered in the codex form. Perhaps I’m just an old stick in the mud, but I do believe in some respect for the object and its aura, particularly when such care and time was invested in them as with an illuminated manuscript. We can practice ruminatio at leisure over the photograph, but to understand the value original authors invested in the texts we are studying, we must likewise experience them as material objects.

But to return to photography at the DHOXSS, we also had talks on the more professional end of the digital spectrum. Matthew McGratton (Bod., Univ. Ox.) talked about IIIF (The International Image Interoperability Framework), which is a multi-institutional facility for interlinked image search and retrieval, and Judith Siefring (Bod., Univ. Ox.) discussed the Digital Manuscripts Toolkit supported by the Bodeian. This is an image viewer which is designed specifically with the researcher in mind, and facilitates some of the interactive arrangement and parallel viewing of documents which I have already mentioned in conjunction with one’s own digital photography projects. You can even upload your own photographs and view them side by side (with a little technical jiggery pokery) with institutionally digitised documents. Examples of projects which have made use of this facility are listed on their website.

So in conclusion:

  • Digital photography is a powerful tool, but no substitute for time in the library.
  • It ranges from that done on a phone to that using the most high tech multi-spectral imaging, and both have their merits. Your photos might be of a lower resolution, but you can use them to find a story that has been obscured by time, or to tell your own.
  • And finally, don’t devalue your images or 'Medieval Reactions' by decontextualising them. Record references accurately – if you don’t you WILL forget!

Finally I must repeat my thanks to Warwick Digital Humanities for making my time at the DHOxSS possible.

Emil Rybczak (English) Univ. Warwick.


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  • Thanks for this short blog by Dave on this entry

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