March 30, 2017

Professor, Library Map the Medieval World

Screenshot of GlobalMiddlesAges.com homepage, featuring a map geolocating the eight projectsMappamundi is the online web portal for the Global Middle Ages Project (GMAP) based out of the University of Texas (UT) at Austin. It links to a series of Digital Humanities projects by scholars from around the world about people, places, and objects from the period of roughly 500–1500 CE. Although many people think of this period solely as the European “Dark Ages,” the project directors are interested in portraying a much more global picture. Many of the projects focus on areas outside of Europe and are interested in cultural exchange between peoples.

The portal was made possible by a Mellon/CLIR grant awarded to project codirector Dr. Geraldine Heng, a professor at UT Austin, and then-director of UT Libraries Fred Heath. The library’s Technical Innovation & Strategy (TIS) team built the new website and platform Global Middle Ages in only nine months and launched it on October 1. Said Heng of her relationship with the library, “They’ve become real partners and collaborators on the project.”

The library as digital humanities hub

The new library director Lorraine Haricombe agreed, commenting that digital humanities projects like this one give libraries the opportunity to meet patrons where they are: online. She said that thanks to this project she and her staff have a much better idea about what they can offer faculty in terms of facilitating and enabling similar projects in the future. To that end, the library has hired a dedicated staff member to seek grant opportunities to fund future projects. They will also host a faculty fellow this summer to help them develop projects and possibly a certificate program in digital humanities. Some existing positions in the library are being reimagined to include digital humanities as well.

While other universities have created centers for digital humanities, UT Austin is not. Instead, the Library will serve as the hub for future digital humanities projects. The TIS team, led by assistant director Aaron Choate, who also manage the UT Libraries website, built GlobalMiddleAges.org using Drupal. Choate expects that future projects will require skills and technology beyond web development, but that by doing projects like this one, the library can position itself as the go-to resource for faculty doing digital humanities. Global Middle Ages “got the conversation happening on campus about library support for DH in general” said Choate. He recognized the need to offer additional training to existing staff in the technical skills needed. A recent survey of UT Library staff showed that there is interest in learning more about digital humanities. Choate also foresees outreach becoming more important since the Library’s role is one of connecting faculty with resources all over campus. Although this project appears atypical for a library, it is an extension of the core mission to gather and disseminate information. “[We] describe digital objects so they’re accessible, discoverable, and to preserve them,” said Haricombe.

Broadening digital reach

Digital humanities projects have some far reaching applications, for libraries as well as scholars. Heng works closely with Kevin Franklin at the Illinois National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA). Franklin is very interested in data mining the Mappamundi digital projects because of their multimodal nature. Traditional digital humanities projects tend to focus on a single object or only deal with a single medium, like text or language. The Mappamundi projects span the range from text-based transcriptions of manuscripts to 3-D models of cities to geographic data. Once enough projects are added and critical mass is achieved, NCSA can do some serious data mining and test how supercomputing can be applied to the humanities.

Heng also hopes that as more and more scholars contribute to Global Middle Ages it will be a viable alternative to expensive textbooks. Global History has become increasingly popular in recent years but, according to Heng, the textbooks used to teach it tend to be shallow, only touching briefly on different areas. “We are not interested in these grand narratives of history, we have a kaleidoscopic view of the world… [Mappamundi projects] are not superficial histories.” She also pointed out that the project leaders are independent and often invested in promoting their own agendas regarding global history. As the director of the overarching project, she finds collaborators and connects them to resources but does not discourage them from expressing their views.

For the moment, Global Middle Ages has only eight digital projects, but Heng is actively recruiting more scholars. She is seeking partnerships in Shanghai, France, and the United States, including a project with the Getty Institute. The project also collects syllabi and links to other digital portals like the Tombouctou Manuscripts Project, so that visitors can explore a variety of topics depending on their interests.

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