Sunday, December 22, 2013

Review of Digitized Medieval Manuscripts Maps

Over the past few days, medievalists have been abuzz about a new resource for manuscript study in the digital age: the folks at Sexy Codicology (a team made up of Giulio Menna and Marjolein de Vos) launched the Digitized Medieval Manuscripts Maps website. I have been personally eager for this launch for several weeks now, since versions of some maps already appeared on Twitter (Giulio Menna first conceived of the maps in July 2013), as teasers for the main launch this week. If the emergence of digitized manuscripts has caused a major sea-change the field of medieval studies, Digitized Medieval Manuscripts Maps is a rising star to help with navigation.

What are the Digitized Medieval Manuscripts Maps? Most simply, they present interactive visualizations of thousands of digitized medieval manuscripts in hundreds of libraries geographically plotted on world maps. The maps and data are presented in four basic forms. On the "Standard" map (built on GoogleMaps), each point represents a library, which can be clicked on for more information about the institution, its digitized holdings, and a link. The Heatmap (also based on GoogleMaps) presents a visualization of the concentration of digitized manuscripts across geography--the more manuscripts in a location, the more concentrated the visualization; the heatmap is currently presented as a series of static images, with promises of future developments. The "Fancy" map (built on MapBox) is the most fully developed, an improvement on the "standard" map and heatmap. While it is still in development, the "fancy" map is fully usable and fully interactive, and the creators promise future capabilities that will encompass those of the other maps on a single platform. Finally, the creators give full, open access to the original data used to construct the maps--a complete list of libraries that have put digitized manuscripts online.

Little needs to be said about the quality of these maps, since users can see for themselves that the maps are a useful addition to the field. Instead, I want to focus on three foundational characteristics of the project that make this project excellent. First, although this launch presents some already great resources, the project is not complete but in a state of development. While this may seem to be a drawback for those focused on long-term sustainability and other related issues, for this project it suggests much potential for future improvements. In relation to sustainability and quality, my second assessment relates to the use of already well-established tools. The site itself is built on the all-purpose WordPress platform, while the maps are built on GoogleMaps and Mapbox--all apt choices that have been tested and well met in digital humanities work. Third, the entire project is fully open, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. The project creators' laudable openness and willingness to share is already evidenced by the posting of complete data sets, as well as the use of other software devoted to open access (notably, WordPress and Mapbox). It is hoped that other projects associated with digitized manuscripts will follow this same path.

If there is any drawback to the project--a review must have its quibbles, and mine are both minor and hopefully remedied in the future--it is the lack of stable funding. Unfortunately, this does affect the "fancy" map, since the creators are only able to use the free version of Mapbox to create it, and are limited in the amount of space for the maps. Thus, the "fancy" map is limited in numbers of monthly views (currently at 3,000) as well as functionality for zooming in and out on the map. Moreover, the lack of stable funding hinders the overall progress; although the creators seek to improve the "fancy" map, they admit that their efforts at this point must go toward the "standard" map and heatmap. (If you do want to help defray costs, the creators suggest checking out the Sexy Codicology store.) With these concessions, however, it should be acknowledged that the project team has already achieved extraordinary feats without formal financial support. This fact in itself should speak to the potential for still greater accomplishments.

There is no doubt that the launch of Digitized Medieval Manuscripts Maps is already a success. Yesterday the project blog reported that "In just 48 hours, the website was visited around 3,000 times." With such positive response, and still more to come from the Sexy Codicology team, the future of medieval manuscripts online seems a bright one indeed.

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