“Digging deeper: making manuscripts” review of a free online course by Laura Dellapiana

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Laura Dellapiana

In January 2015, a post on the Facebook page of the Cambridge University Library caught my attention. The post read: “Our Library's Medieval Manuscripts Specialist, Dr Suzanne Paul, is one of the experts featured in 'Digging Deeper: Making Manuscripts' - a 6-week free online course which commences today through Stanford OpenEdX”. As the course was free and it involved my favourite subjects – manuscripts and conservation – I decided to enrol and this article is a review of my experience.
Between January and June 2015, the University of Stanford (US) and the University of Cambridge (UK) organised two online courses, called Digging Deeper1: Making Manuscripts and Digging Deeper2: The Form and Function of Manuscripts. Both the two courses were about different aspects of the fascinating world of Medieval manuscripts, and the expert tutors leading the course were Prof. Elaine Treharne (Professor of Humanities at Stanford University), Dr Benjamin Albritton (Digital Manuscripts Programme Manager at Stanford University Libraries), Dr Suzanne Paul (Medieval Manuscripts Specialist at Cambridge University Library), Dr Orietta Da Rold (Lecturer at Cambridge University), Jonathan Quick (PhD student in the English Department at Stanford University) with the addition of other guest lecturers.
The principal aim of the course Digging Deeper1: Making Manuscripts was to introduce participants to the study of early text technologies, focusing primarily on the European medieval book, but covering other textual objects, such as scrolls and diplomata.
The first module of the course provided basic information about materials, techniques, ancient binding styles, scribes, owners of Medieval manuscripts. Digitisation, access and use of online manuscripts collections, repository information, codicology and palaeography were also important topics raised by the tutors. Although manuscripts
degradation mechanisms and preservation techniques were not the major subjects of the course, important information were scattered throughout the lessons to prepare the participants for the second module.
In Digging Deeper2: The Form and Function of Manuscripts, the arguments of the first module were examined in depth, and new topics were debated. The description of the physical characteristics of the books was completed, and we also learned about scribing practices and Medieval music (particularly for liturgical rites).
As expected in this second part of the practical exercises became more challenging. Prof. Egan and Prof. Key gave very interesting lectures about Chinese and Arabic manuscripts traditions, adding also very important information about the Eastern world (this was one of my favourite lessons, due to my own work experiences). With regard to conservation, James Bloxam (Head of Conservation) and Shaun Thompson (Deputy Head of Conservation) of the conservation team of Cambridge University Library talked about current practices and the ethical ethics of manuscripts conservation. The final week of the second module explored in-depth the word of digitisation, with the excellent support of the Cambridge Digital Library website.
The lessons were provided by short on-line videos, followed by self-testing quizzes and exercises. After an easy online subscription procedure at the Stanford Online website, every week each student was given access to various videos and online resources about different aspects concerning ancient manuscripts.
Featured in both the videos and the practical exercises (e.g. palaeographical transcription of ancient texts) of the course were the marvellous manuscripts belonging to the collections of the Stanford University Library and the Cambridge University Library. The study of these manuscripts was a pleasure of its own!
One of the most important aspects of Digging Deeper was the possibility to communicate, discuss, and share ideas and information about manuscripts with a wide community of international scholars, conservators, bookbinders, and enthusiastic researchers. In fact, a section of the weekly modules was “Wrap Up and Discussion”: here a question for discussion (e.g. “What are the major benefits and limitations of paper vs parchment as writing support?”) was posed to the attention of the class, and we had the opportunity to answer the query and debate.
This was an experimental but successful way in which international scholars shared their knowledge and worked through medieval books together. Everyone added a particular point of view to the topic, more information and resources linked to personal experiences. Moreover, the Online Resources page was full of fantastic links to explore independently, especially to develop palaeographical skills and find digital collections of manuscripts.
As an extremely passionate book/paper conservator, I understood at the very first glance that this course would have captured my attention. The course offered me the opportunity to learn specialist vocabulary used by manuscript historians, and gave me the occasion to acquire some knowledge about Palaeography, a subject I overlooked in the past. Moreover, I discussed with experienced conservators and scholars about different topics, such as the use of gloves to handle manuscripts in public libraries, or the motivations that lead to the use of wood pulp in papermaking between XVII-XIX centuries.
The heritage world is increasingly connected through the web, and this course tested in a very positive way this potential. Thanks to this course I was able to brush up on the knowledge I gained while studying for my degree in Italy while learning a lot of new English terms. Finally, I was proudly rewarded with two Stanford Statements of Accomplishment!
In conclusion, my experience with this programme has been very positive in every aspect, and I really encourage passionate conservators to keep an eye on online learning initiatives such as this one.