Beyond the Facsimile: Rich Models of Late Medieval and Early Modern Texts

A Digital Humanities Day on Monday 13 December 2010 at Sheffield Hallam University

On 13 December 2010 Sheffield Hallam University, in association with the University of Victoria, will host a one-day symposium entitled “Beyond the Facsimile: Rich Models of Late Medieval and Early Modern Texts”.

It’s concerned with doing more, and doing things better, with our digital surrogates of books and pictures from the 15th to the 17th centuries. We’ve gotten very good at taking pictures of impressed papers, inscribed parchments, and painted canvases, but computer models do not have to be merely pictures.

The symposium will present eight talks from international scholars working in this area, each offering their own perspectives on the future of computerized representations of important documents. Speakers and their titles can be found at

The meeting is open to anyone who wants to hear the papers and coffee and a free lunch will be provided to all who email the organizer, Gabriel Egan (, by 13 November. (It is quite acceptable to simply turn up on the day without giving advance notice, but then you can’t have the free lunch.) Exact details of the venue, with maps and transportation advice, will appear on the symposium web-page at the above address.


(Speakers please note that paper slots are 30 minutes, including questions)

9.30-10am Coffee on arrival

10-10.15am Gabriel Egan (Loughborough University) “Welcome and Aims of the Meeting”

10.15-10.45am Takako Kato (Leicester University) “The Virtues and Challenges of XML: Making a Digital Edition of Malory’s Morte Darthur”

10.45-11.15am Paul Vetch (King’s College London) “A Map for All Seasons: Experimenting with the Gough Map”

11.15-11.30am Coffee

11.30am-12noon James Cummings (University of Oxford) “Interrogating and Accessing Digital Scholarly Editions”

12noon-12.30pm John Bradley and Stephen Pigney (King’s College London) “Images and Text: Towards an Understanding of the Early Modern Illustrated Book”

12.30-1.15pm Lunch

1.15-1.45pm Ari Friedlander (University of Michigan) “Are We Being Digital Yet?”

1.45-2.15pm Shawn Martin (University of Pennsylvania) “Images, Texts, and Records: Tools for Teaching in a Confusing Landscape”

2.15-2.30pm Coffee

2.30-3pm Eugene Giddens (Anglia Ruskin University) “The Death of Digital Editions”

3-3.20pm Ray Siemens (University of Victoria) “Beyond the Facsimile”

3.30-4pm Round Table involving all speakers


Description of Topic

For many late medieval and early modern texts researchers have access to rudimentary digital representations. Virtually all books printed in Britain before 1800 are available as digital facsimiles via the databases Early English Books Online (EEBO) and ECCO (Eighteenth Century Collections Online). The former also provides searchable electronic transcriptions for about a quarter of the corpus–via the Text Creation Partnership (TCP)–and the latter is completely searchable, albeit via unreliable ‘dirty’ electronic texts produced by Optical Character Recognition (OCR). For virtually all texts that may be considered literary we also have relatively reliable searchable electronic texts made by double-keyboarding for the Literature Online (LION) project. For a small number of texts of special interest there are digital editions of much higher quality. The Scholarly Digital Editions of Chaucer’s poetry combine high-resolution colour facsimiles of multiple manuscripts with accurate scholarly searchable transcriptions of them, and the Shakespeare Quartos Archive project aims to do the same for early printed editions of his plays and poems that reside in major research libraries. However, with even the best of these enhanced resources, there remain important scholarly questions that cannot be answered without going back to the original documents, which is not an option for most researchers.

Facsimiles are good for seeing the surface image of ink inscribed or impressed onto paper or parchment, but not for taking accurate measurements of the size of the writing nor for examing the deformation of the surface caused by the impressure of the ink. (The only reliable way to tell which side of a sheet was printed first is to look for the bumps made by the type pressing into it.) Electronic transcriptions can accurately reflect the writing’s letters and punctuation marks but not the competing hypotheses about the creation of a document that scholars may want to test using the transcription. For example, a print edition may have been typeset by two compositors, each expressing spelling preferences from which we may distinguish their work-stints. Where two scholars disagree about the division of these stints, an electronic transcription that encodes each hypothesis would allow questions of the kind “if Scholar X is right about the division of the stints, what is Compositor A’s preference in the spelling of the word Lady/Ladie? And what if Scholar Y is right about the stints?”. There remains a lot to be done in digitizing texts for the purposes of scholarly research on them.

This Digital Humanities Day at Sheffield Hallam University is an opportunity for those concerned with the use of advanced digital surrogates (whether as creators or as readers) to discuss the following:

  • The state of the art in the creation of electronic versions of texts used by scholars in the humanities
  • The advantages and disadvantages of particular technologies for going beyond the facsimile, for example 3D modelling of paper/parchment versus advanced textual encoding
  • The kinds of questions that cannot currently be answered by the digital surrogates we have, and how best to produce surrogates that suit our needs
  • Case studies of particular projects, their achievements and the lessons learnt

Those interested in attending or speaking should contact Gabriel Egan:

Posted by: Roberto Rosselli Del Turco (rosselli at ling dot unipi dot it)


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