Earlier this year, I attended the second instance of the Digital Humanities Institute Beirut (#DHIB2017). It was the second of its kind in the Arab World and, thanks to the generous support by AMICAL it offered participation free of charge (also it included nice gimmicks such as a reusable water bottle which I have since lost, a high-quality tote bag, and a notebook with its own sticky tags and notes).
The DHIB featured, among other workshops, two sessions on markup languages: multimarkdown and TEI XML. Since I am still struggling to understand how to integrate either of those into my own research and publication process, I will not dwell on those – mostly failed – efforts here.
Now, I kind of forgot about this entry for some time and some of it might seem dated by now. Yet, as the first ever digital humanities internship at the Orient-Institut Beirut draws to a close, bringing us that much closer to a publication of our Arabic text editions in a workable html format (besides the classic print and open access PDFs derived from it), it might regain some of its earlier timeliness.
Instead of summarizing the DHIB, it might be a better idea to point out those blogs on hypotheses which are much further in their mastery of digital possibilities and thus offer advise to others who want to stride down this road.
The first one is foxglove which gives you an overview of French DH initiatives. It also introduces workflows for TEI related edition projects for Latin script texts.
In contrast, Freakonometrics is rather concerned with optical character recognition and machine-readability of texts (e.g. PDFs). In general, it is rather about text analysis than text enrichment but it also provides perspectives on the usefulness of markup languages.
Personally, I find the third one, Himanis, the most interesting. Himanis is short for “HIstorical MANuscript Indexing for user-controlled Search“. It speaks to me mostly because it brings together Digital Humanities perspectives and an understanding of books as objects. The notion of books as objects becomes especially important when thinking about their organization in book cases or shelves. How they deal with that in their TEI based edition of royal charters, they explain here.
Obviously, hypotheses has much more to offer which I will not address here at length. And for those who, like me, read French at a snail’s pace, there are also all-English sites. For instance, digilex covers the creation of a digital dictionary of spoken German with TEI and XSLT.
But one of my favorites is certainly The Recipes Project. They again start out from a distinct interest in manuscripts and old texts. In addition to sharing their insights about encoding these texts in a digital format, the blog also provides useful descriptions of manuscript collections, digitization, historical trajectories of books, teaching with manuscripts, and flabbergasting bits and pieces from the history of strawberries. Even though it deals exclusively with European texts, everyone should check it out.
I started this blog in mid 2016 but honestly, I started to take it more seriously as a writing practice and aide de memoire only in the last year. And I usually enjoyed it. The format is perfect to get you out of a writing slump since all the great hurdles that come with conceptualizing an article, let alone that book proposal at the back of my head, just fall away. That has hugely helped me with formulating and testing ideas for those endeavors.
Now the first year has come to an end and, apart from the last two or three months, I was able to publish at least one entry per month. And several for the new year have been written and scheduled to fill up the always busy January.
One thing that makes writing in this format fulfilling is obviously the quick affirmation. I am thankful that hypotheses includes simple analytics, and I get motivated by every spike or peak in the visitor numbers. Of course, writing alone does not bring people to this one blog.
As this snapshot shows, there has been a noticeable increase in visits in December (it just looks less because the image was created on the 18th. For this, I have to thank Fozia Bora, whose tweet about it was retweeted 33 times.
Islamic medievalists: *Damascus anecdotes* is Torsten Wollina's fascinating research blog on Mamluk & Ottoman historical sources – chronicles, biographies, topographies, as texts & as manuscripts. A fine resource! https://t.co/a6DdzWqaQ0
— Islamicate History (@FoziaBora) December 4, 2017
And I have stayed true to my word and started to publish new posts. In the enxt two weeks, another one on my recent experiences at the Egyptian National Library with some hints about getting access will follow.
Making sense of a manuscript corpus as large as that of Ibn Ṭūlūn can be tiresome. In particular, since his autographs are today dispersed in libraries in Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Turkey, Germany, England, Ireland, the Netherlands and the United States, and the relevant institutions offer very diverse degrees of information about the manuscripts in their catalogues. Yet, these catalogues are obviously a central source in establishing any manuscript corpus.
Things get especially irksome when one wants to make sense of the collections of the Dār al-Kutub (for guidance to its collections, see this review) and the manuscript center of the Arab League (GAD) in Cairo. Access to microfilms at Dār al-Kutub is comparatively easy if rather slow (due to the limit of three items one may order each day); access to the physical manuscripts themselves, however, requires good connections and a lengthy stay. One might circumvent the Dār al-Kutub altogether by turning to the GAD, which offers an online catalogue to browse the selection even beforehand and allows to collect digital copies within the same day.
The GAD offers access to the (partial) holdings of several important manuscript collections of the Arab World. Yet, therein lies a danger as well as new possibilities. The catalogue was apparently created on the basis of the individual library catalogues but their holdings were not compared to each other. What I mean by that: Several collections hold microfilms of manuscripts belonging to another institution. In the GAD catalogue, the same material artifact may thus appear several times. In some cases, doublets might be visible through an allusion to the original collection in the “subject” section but often enough it is not.
This is, however, not a new problem. With the spread of microfilm and microfiche in the early 20th century, collectors and scholars alike made ample use of these technologies, and, among others, the Taymūriyya Library (today in Cairo) and the Arab Academy in Damascus supplemented their manuscript collections by acquiring microfilms from other institutions around the world.
These microfilms received their own call numbers, being treated somewhat similarly to manuscripts physically present in the respective collections. Even though this process is clearly important to the constitution of the corpora which ground our understanding of Arabic literature and book culture, to my knowledge no study has yet been dedicated to this important chapter in the transition from a living manuscript to a print culture (and hence to digitization). Yet, in the face of the ubiquity of the medium, we need a new “codicology” for microfilms.
To conclude with just one basic example, the integrity of a text in a physical manuscript is partly assured by the use of catchwords on the verso page of each folio. The text is bound to the materiality of the two-sided leaf of paper. In contrast, microfilm images present a surface to the viewer, which usually covers the verso page together with the recto of the following leaf. In order to assure that the following image actually refers to the following double page in the physical manuscript, it would require a catchword on the recto page.
While this might seem a theoretical issue at first sight, the microfilm of the Ibn Ṭūlūn autograph manuscript Majāmīʿ Taymūr 759 is only one case where the addition of such catchwords would be really necessary. For about the first half of the files I bought from Dār al-Kutub, the slides only seem to be in the opposite order (fol. 100 comes before fol. 99 before fol. 98 etc.). Yet, around the middle, the confusion increases even more and it is painstaking to find out which image belongs to which work. Finally, about half of the texts ascribed to this manuscript by the latest print catalogue is completely missing from the microfilm.
In the last post, I announced the upload of transcripts of Ibn Ṭūlūn’s ijāzas here. In the meantime, I have uploaded all the files on github. The second ijāza presented here is one of two found in MS Princeton, Firestone Library, Garrett 4098Y which can be accessed online.
This ijāza is item five in the manuscript and covers fols. 52b to 54a. It was issued for the recitation by the Shafiʿite Qurʾān reciter (muqrī) Shihāb al-Dīn Abū al-ʿAbbās Aḥmad b. Jābir b. Ghānim al-Dimashqī al-Ḥarīrī, which took place in the Umayyad Mosque on 15 Ramaḍān 923/1 Oct. 1517. The subject of the session headed by Ibn Ṭūlūn was the 13th-century Arabic grammar work al-Muqaddima al-Ajurūmiyya.
As can be expected, the text then lists the chains of transmission of that work up to Ibn Ṭūlūn. This documentary character notwithstanding, the ijāza is illuminating as to Ibn Ṭūlūn’s education and the hierarchies he realized between his different teachers.
As has been indicated in the prior post, it also gives insight into the composition of the audience present at the event, which lay in the middle of the fasting period and only shortly before the holiest part of Ramaḍān, during which ḥadīth would be regularly recited.
For this document, I have added markup for personal and place names. Yet, the result is not optimal for people who do not work with an xml viewer or editor. It appears there are also some issues with the file’s presentation in some browsers. Perhaps markDown might prove a better way to host these files for audiences both familiar and unfamiliar with markup? Or an even simpler way would just be using standard formatting features to indicate certain entities: e.g. bold for personal names and underlining for place names?