Multimedia Medievalia: The Fate of Traditional Scholarship in a Post-Modem World

Multimedia Medievalia: The Fate of Traditional Scholarship in a Post-Modem World

Multimedia Medievalia: The Fate of Traditional Scholarship in a Post-Modem World

By Dianne Tillotson

Our Medieval Heritage: Essays in honour of John Tillotson for his 60th birthday

Merton Priory Press, 2002

For more information on this book, .

Abstract: Computers and the internet have the potential to change radically modes of access to and dissemination of knowledge. In an area such as medieval studies, where understanding has been gained not only from written texts but from art, architecture, music and archaeology, these new media have the capability to produce an enriched educational experience. There is, however, some possibility of it becoming a fragmented experience, as the structure of cybermedia allows users with many diverse interests to take little bites from what is presented rather than work through an extended line of reasoning. On the other hand, the tendency towards scholarship in smaller segments has been going on for some time, with seminal articles rather than multi-volume tomes providing the basis for academic reputations. It is possible that new technology can reintroduce students to material which has been lying unread on library shelves for decades by recontextualising it and improving methods of access.

View from the beach

This is a narrative case history based around one person’s efforts over a number of years to find and utilise, and to produce, teaching resources for medieval history using the computer technologies of multimedia and the World Wide Web. It is a story of many frustrations and some successes, and, because I am an eternal optimist, some hopes for future possibilities. The changing cultural and technological seascape has implications for anyone engaged in new educational enterprises, and the author’s experiences in the rough surf of new communications systems are mirrored by those of many other adventurers in this area.

In the period since I first became engaged in these endeavours in 1995, there has been rapid technological change in the tools to produce electronic resources and facilitate their access to users. This is both an advantage and a problem. The pace of change is currently not allowing complex projects to be designed, assembled and evaluated, let alone assessed in a cultural and educational as opposed to purely functional sense, before they are technically obsolete.

There is a rapidly expanding theoretical literature on the subject of computer-facilitated learning, which I do not intend to discuss here. The technological skills of the user base are as labile as the development platforms on which educational products are constructed, and even simple user surveys are hardly transferable from year to year. Truly valuable user data on which to base educational strategies can only emerge over time, as complex projects are tested and there is a known and accepted level of user sophistication.

Surfing the crest

It is a recognised pattern that new developments in information technology are greeted with hyperbolic predictions about the radical way each innovation will alter the way we do things, followed by a period of disappointment or frustration when the change is not as rapid or as radical as predicted. The changes to practice then creep in more slowly than the technology that produced them. The word processor and desktop publishing have changed the way we work and the quality of our written output, but the impact on academic publishing is yet to be fully felt. Academic books are still expensive. They can be difficult to acquire. They go out of print long before the ideas in them have been superseded. A publishing industry which is economically and structurally geared to a mode of book production that belongs in the nineteenth century ensures that the production of black lines of linear code for the transmission of ideas requires the transport, distribution and storage of vast quantities of material. Wood pulp, paper and completed books are carted around the globe, processed, stored and redistributed in a process of gargantuan inefficiency.

The World Wide Web is still a breaking wave. Every week new techno­logical developments expand the number of things we could do, if only we had the time to develop them before they look ugly and superseded. The web began as a medium for exchanging text, and pioneering teachers and researchers put valuable text up there in plain formats. The current trend towards gimmickry is making some teachers, researchers and heritage workers suspicious, while the capacity of users to download text, images and other media freely for their own use is making them nervous.

The multimedia wave began breaking at about the same time as the World Wide Web wave, in the early to mid 1990s, but on a different beach. The capacity to integrate graphic imagery, text, animation, music and the spoken voice has many enticing features as a learning environment. Multimedia program design tends to emphasise an exploration of the screen as a mapped space through a graphical interface, rather than the reading of long segments of linear text. Buttons, hyperlinks (1) and image maps(2) mean that information is sought by exploring areas, rather than linear reading. This technology was not initially suited to the web, as file sizes for sound and graphic files were large and made transmission too slow, while the protocols established for web data were initially designed for the transmission of linear strings of text, not spatially mapped pages of imagery. The CD-ROM seemed to be a more suitable medium for the distribution of such material.

While multimedia of this kind still shimmers in the sun, it is proving to be something of a mirage. The problem for developers of academic content has been that the time-frame required to conceptualise, research, develop and package a good project is much longer than the technology will support. The wave is simply breaking too fast for us. A CD-ROM costs as much as a book, but can be unusable after a few years.(3)

Multimedia production is locked into a model driven by the clever programmers of the games industry. They are pushing the boundaries of technical innovation, with no interest in the archival stability of their product. They are not surfing the wave, they are parasailing it. The situation is not helped by the funding model, where large grants to develop single projects, with no provision for periodic technical updates, can only produce expensive dinosaurs.

A second wave of World Wide Web hyperbole is now upon us, building on an assortment of technical developments. New protocols allow us to develop more interesting pages, including graphic imagery, spatial mapping, interactivity and aspects of multimedia. The tools to produce them are more advanced and easier for the creators of academic content to use for themselves, without passing their concepts and creativity through the filter of information technology experts. Programs like Dreamweaver may do to web designers what word processors did to typists. Other useful computer technologies, such as databases, can be integrated with web interfaces. There are ways of making graphic and sound files smaller, and the prospect of broadband transmission may reduce the need to compress everything into little packages.

There is no doubt that all this developing technology will be and is being utilised for the most astonishing array of purposes. However, in the realm of scholarship in what many regard as a very traditional area like medieval history, what use can we make of it? Furthermore, what will it do to the discipline as we know and love it.

In the pipeline

To the astonishment of many people in technical subject areas, medieval history has a steadily increasing presence on the web. Medievalists in various branches of the arts and humanities have traditionally interacted. Historians draw on art, architecture, music, philosophy, literature and archaeology as well as their traditional documentary resources to develop their conceptions of the past. The capacity to make a whole range of visual and written evidence available to students makes the web an appealing prospect.

Prospect and actuality are currently far apart. As with CD-ROM-based projects, academic development needs more than just new tools. It needs time. The difference between a World Wide Web project and a multimedia package for a CD-ROM, or a substantial monograph printed on paper for that matter, is that with a bit of ingenuity and cunning design, it is possible to make a project available to users while it is being developed and produced. This can be done well or badly, but it can be done.

The provision of textual material, such as medieval literature in its original language or in translation, and some secondary source material, is already well established on the web. Certain web sites have specialised in this genre and it is possible to provide it freely because the long tradition of medieval scholarship means that there are many works out of copyright which can be presented this way. There are currently some problems with using this material. The first is the fundamental problem with all web material: finding it. There are some major providers which are always worth a visit, but individual projects are dotted all over the web.(4) Many teachers have put up segments for specific courses, so that material may be fragmented rather than comprehensive. Some of these offerings are in plain text files without clever search facilities or other tools which computer software can provide. The people who put much of this material up caught the first wave and did a great job, but risk seeing some of their efforts swamped by a bigger wave coming in.

The present visual area is slightly disappointing. There are plenty of images out there of medieval buildings, sculptures, paintings or manuscripts, but there is currently very little coherence in their presentation. They offer a scattered resource, and of highly variable quality. Many sites which feature architecture or works of art have been created for the tourist industry and their objective is to entice the viewer with a hint of what they might see if they visit in person, rather than inform the chairbound student or researcher. The same applies to sites produced by reputable curating institutions.(5)

If the art and architecture area has only a few jigsaw pieces in place, the area which is truly deficient is that of archaeology.(6) While electronic media might seem to provide an ideal solution for the dissemination of archaeological data, it has not happened yet. The few sites which attempt to deal with archaeology at a more generalised level have contented themselves with the popular magazine approach. There would seem to be so much potential here, archaeology being both a visual and spatial discipline, for innovative approaches. The problem of the publication of archaeological data predates the World Wide Web by a long time, but the solution is not yet apparent.

Large institutions which curate medieval material of various kinds have all set up web sites, but are currently having to make major decisions on priorities when it comes to selecting material to display there. It is notable that a number of institutions which set up visual displays of articles in their collections in the mid to late 1990s have not enlarged or altered them since. Their first wave seems to have reached the beach. Their second wave is one which is proving to be invaluable to researchers. The harnessing of database technology to web sites has meant that some very significant catalogues can now be consulted online.(7) This truly enhances the capacity for international research. These are major projects in their own right, and are not necessarily made easier when the institutions already have computer-based catalogues. Getting older technology to talk to new technology is a current preoccupation of many information technology professionals.

There are a number of highly specific projects which demonstrate the potential of the new medium as a teaching resource. You can examine the structural complexity of Amiens Cathedral,(8) study a thirteenth-century bestiary in minute detail,(9) work through an annotated hypertext edition of a psalter (10) or book of hours,(11) find out the date of Easter in any year(12) or study the works of Chaucer,(13) Dante(14) or Margery Kempe(15) within the context of their social, cultural and physical environment. Such resource sites stand out in their ability to demonstrate that the web can be a major component in the study of medieval history, either by formally enrolled students or by self-motivated individuals who just want to get out there and learn.

It is all very well to sit on the beach evaluating the style and technique of those who have ventured onto the waves, but the only way really to appreciate the complexities of the art is to get on your board and paddle. My own efforts to produce educational material delivered on a computer, and accessed through interactivity and spatial mapping rather than the reading of long screeds of linear text, started around 1995. Several projects have been tested and evaluated by medieval history students at the Australian National University and the first truly public efforts are now being beamed into that chaotic territory called the World Wide Web.

As an archaeology and anthropology graduate rather than a medievalist, I am probably putting myself at risk of shark attack as well as being dumped in the waves. However, the project is shedding an interesting light on how things work out in cyberspace, and what the hazards and potentialities might be for the future.

Wipeout with dump

The first projects that I attempted utilised Toolbook, a designing program which allowed spatial design of a screen layout and incorporation of multimedia files at a time when web design meant learning a series of keystroke tags in order to perform elementary word processing functions and insert the odd graphic image. The projects revolved around very visual and mapped topics: the use of art and architecture as historical evidence, the histories of towns and their effects on surviving plans and buildings, an introduction to the medieval church with all its visual culture, an animated atlas, some interactive exercises in medieval palaeography and some preliminary plans for a blockbuster epic project on the end of the Middle Ages as seen by John Leland.

Some of these looked quite good at the time, but funny things tended to happen. For example, as processor speeds increased, the Viking longships voyaged faster and faster around the map until they looked like some sort of primitive arcade game. Updated versions of the design software used a different method for coding multimedia functions, which all had to be redone. Modules designed when computer screens displayed fewer colours looked really hideous on new machines.

Not only was the enterprise caught in the time and technology trap, it was caught in a trap of bureaucracy with respect to funding and support. To develop a project in a university, or supported by a funding grant, the expectation was that you produced a finished product within a defined time frame, published it, then relinquished it. Also, if you had a funding grant, you were expected to share it around by paying fees for such things as archival assistance or publication of photographs, inevitably pushing up the price of the finished product. Funding grants did not include a future option to allow for technical upgrades when current operating systems or develop­ment software became extinct. Long-term projects could only be attempted by those with the luxury of a permanent academic job and its associated resources, but who in this position has the spare time to learn the necessary skills and utilise them?

Paddling out again

Several factors led to a change in direction for these enterprises. One factor was that web designing tools became more sophisticated, allowing some of the graphic and spatial properties formerly confined to multimedia software to be used in web site design. It became cheaper and simpler to set up a reasonably large and sophisticated personal web site, obviating the necessity for institutional or funding support. A web site could be built and used at the same time, increasing in complexity and usefulness as it grew, thus breaking the back of the problem of ever-receding completion deadlines. One project was selected for initial testing of this new development model.

Of the various multimedia experiments tried over the preceding five years, one module stood out as the best candidate for transfer to a World Wide Web project. The history of medieval handwriting embodies social, political and religious history as well as incorporating the practical skills of medieval palaeography. These skills are needed by a very small number of people, scattered all over the Western world. The skills are excellent candidates for being taught through an interactive graphical interface. There is a mass of information on the subject, buried in ponderous tomes which are inaccessible both by their rarity and their use of esoteric jargon created by a tiny, but very learned, academic club.

There is also a more general popular interest in medieval manuscripts which is not very well served by the book trade. Fancy art books may have beautiful illustrations of miniatures, but not a huge amount of practical or historical information.(16) They are also very expensive. The whole subject, while fascinating for many general readers, is fractured into expertises.

One difficulty with this project was the necessity to use photographic images of manuscripts in which copyright was held by various institutions, some of which generally charge quite solid fees for reproduction in commercial publications. However, the pleadings of an obviously insane individual who was working without salary or funding to produce an educational product that would be distributed freely on the web astonished several of them into permitting reproduction without fee. One prominent educational institution could not be swayed into matching this philanthropy, but there was enough material to get the project going. ‘Medieval Writing ‘ was launched in October 2000 and the Gordian knot was hacked.

Another source of photographic imagery of medieval handwriting was to be found in a substantial body of elderly published works, now out of copyright. Huge and splendid volumes of manuscript facsimiles, complete with transcripts and historical commentary, are to be found lurking in neglected corners of very specialised libraries.(17) These magnificent but largely forgotten works prompted some of the further thoughts in this article.

Wipeout again, but still swimming

One of the major differences between designing for CD-ROM-based multimedia and designing for the web revolves around the issue of control. Using a design program like Toolbook, the author can control just how users enter the program, how they navigate through it and how they are permitted to progress. It is possible to develop a structured course, with choices dictated by the designer rather than the user. Graphics, text and animations are embedded into large composite files and cannot be extracted except by users with more than average ingenuity.

Information on a web site can be accessed via any page on the site. The whole thing is made of little components which can be separated by the user, reducing artful design and construction to a shambles. Graphic files can be abstracted and downloaded with the right-click of a mouse. If a site is built around frames,(18) the individual pages within those frames may ay be found by a search engine and displayed to a user, divorced from their cunningly devised frame context. Furthermore, nefarious web site designers can display your pages within their own frames, completely recontextualising them, or plagiarising if they fail to acknowledge the source.

Once upon a time, around 1998, web authors were told to include metatags or keywords (19) on their home page, so that web search engines would find them and deliver the potential users neatly to the front door of the site. Now clever search engines such as Google archive the actual words on the page, rather than just keywords or metatags. Search results produce the page that the search words were on, regardless of where it comes in the structure of the elegant discourse, and separated from its frame context. The users are not working through the author’s carefully constructed scheme, but flying in and taking little bites of information. If the web site contains esoteric words like ‘uncial’ or ‘littera bastarda’, those rare individuals who have a passion for such things will find the web site with the greatest of ease, but they will not necessarily come in at the beginning and the site may not be properly displayed.

A range of solutions can be employed to address this problem, from using only the simplest forms of web site design to writing mechanistic technical fixes in Javascript that force the user into using the site the way it was designed to be used. This can become a continuing game of authors trying to outwit users and vice versa. A more pragmatic solution is to recognise that this is simply how the web is, and accommodate this in the design of the site. When you are learning on the job, of course, this involves a few overhauls of the whole site.

`Medieval Writing‘ now has a standard header and footer on every page which tells people what and whose it is. Each page also includes a one-click fix to restore the frame structure of the site and a one-click link to the site map, so that the users can see what else is in there. However, it leaves the choice of how to use the site up to them. This attitude shift from author as controller to author as facilitator in relation to a purely technical matter is significant, as it reflects on much larger issues of educational approach, information management and relationships between teachers and learners on the web.

An author of a book never really gets to know how many people read the work from cover to cover, how many flick through a chapter or two, and how many use the index to look up some minor point and never return. With a web site it is possible to monitor these things. Web site providers monitor the usage of sites, and can provide statistics on how many people visited t site, how many pages they looked at, and can even trace their route through the site. The owner of the web site can spend many hours tracing these analyses. It can become a fruitless obsession, but if an author can suppress the desire to dictate to the users and instead observe what they seem to want to do, the exercise can contribute positively to the progressive restructuring of a web site as a multi-faceted educational resource.

The following is a simple example from ‘Medieval Writing‘. A number of users were only looking at one page, the glossary page, which was never designed to be looked at on its own. It is supposed to appear in a narrow frame at the bottom of the page, and scrolls to the appropriate entry when the user clicks on a linked word in the main text. I thought this was terribly clever, but Google searches were taking people to this orphaned page and giving a whole new significance to the word deconstruction. Because it was never meant to be seen alone, the glossary page had no identification or means of getting to the rest of the site, apart from the obvious one of going back to the root of the URL, but it is amazing how many people do not think of that.

A simple note was added to the top of the page, identifying the site and giving a place to click to bring up the properly framed home page. However, anyone who wants to merely find out what ‘uncial’ or ‘littera bastarda’ means is quite free to look it up and go away. Continuing monitoring of usage will indicate how many users actually find their way into the main site via this route.

There is a real concern that the use of educational web sites in this way provides only a fragmented experience. There is no lengthy engagement, no logical thread, no development of argument. However, this is probably not as novel as we might like to pretend. The photocopier and the orange highlighter pen have been abstracting little bites from lengthy tomes for some time now. It is just that now the authors can see them doing it. Are we on the road to ruin, or can something new and beneficial come of this post-modernist educational experience?

The theme from the endless summer

Once upon a time there were giants in the academic world. Men, mostly men, of extraordinary erudition and patience acquired encyclopedic knowledge and transferred it meticulously, via diligent secretaries, to works of great quality which became standard references in academic libraries. Ancient documents were transcribed, researched in detail and presented as annotated translations or thematic compilations with learned commentary which could be confidently cited by scholars for generations to come.

It was not electronic communication that broke this pattern of academic research in the humanities. The changing structure of the profession has meant that for some number of years now it has been considered more profitable for a young and ambitious academic to deliver a few incisive conference papers, publish a seminal article or two questioning established norms with witty new interpretations, and hack all the extraneous footnote material out of his or her Ph.D. thesis in order to publish it as an inexpen­sive, but possibly ephemeral, opinion piece. The term ‘antiquarian’ is used pejoratively for works in which the meticulous and detailed presentation of data takes precedence over novel interpretation.

Weighty reference tomes are still produced, but they tend to be rare and expensive productions. They each add another brick to what is already a substantial wall built by authors from the past. They also tend to sit, largely unregarded by most of the reading public, in specialist corners of academic libraries, consulted only by those tricky modem specialists who have the art of extraction and contextualisation.

In the course of researching and scrounging for exemplar material for `Medieval Writing‘, I discovered a number of these marvellous works. Expensive productions with high quality black and white photographic reproductions of pages from manuscript books or complete documents, they were designed to teach palaeographical skills and provide reference collections of scripts and formats. They are also packed with detailed historical information about each example. There are transcripts, and histories of the original manuscript book. There is historical background on all the people mentioned in and associated with documents. There are complex explanations as to how a document has been dated. The only thing these books lacked were date stamps indicating that anybody had ever borrowed them.

As well as these, there are the multitudes of printed editions, in the original language or in translation, of almost everything that was written during the course of the Middle Ages. Everything in book form, that is, while archivists are doing their best to make available at least catalogues of the mountains of medieval documents in their collections. Some of the better known works find their way into friendly little Penguin editions, while others must be hunted out in esoteric publications.

The search for the perfect wave

The cultural and pedagogical differences between the bite-sized servings of the World Wide Web, accessible to anyone who types a few words into a search engine, and the weighty and extensive writings of scholars of the past, hidden in secret caves in academia, would seem to create an unbridgeable gap between academic presentations of the past and the future in the humanities. However, there are structural considerations in relation to the presentation of material via the web which can be used not only to bridge that gap, but to provide an intensely enhanced experience. However, it is going to involve a great deal of work and a great deal of cooperation.

A book is essentially a linear string of text. Certainly, a reader may choose to read one chapter or look up the index, but the author designs it for a particular audience, which is intended to follow through a linear thread of argument. There is a certain amount of suspicion between the protagonists of different kinds of books. Books for the general reader are constructed differently to those for specialists.

The art of teaching students often involves the skill of extraction from a text at a more complex level than the one at which the student is currently operating. Artfully chosen passages, presented in an appropriate context, may indicate that Chaucer, Froissart, Thomas Aquinas or the chancellor of Henry II were a bit more interesting than you might think. With a bit of luck, the student’s appetite is whetted and they explore the texts further. The teacher is juggling with linear text blocks to entice the student.

With a hypertext presentation, as used on a web site, it is possible, with ingenuity and a great deal of forethought, to construct a multilayered text which can be approached at different levels. The structure does not have to be linear. There can be introductory material for the interested general web surfer, more detailed material for the student, and lodes which can be mined by those with a specialised interest in a particular area. Text loops (20) can be designed which provide the choice between short and summarised or more detailed progressions through topics. The design of such a project is more complex than the scripting of a linear text.

Most web sites in the medieval history field are not yet designed this way, for reasons mentioned previously. The technology is capable, but the designers of academic content have not yet had the time to develop complex projects. It will come, if the old linear text mindset can be changed. Competitive concepts of ownership of cultural and intellectual property may also need to be moderated, as cooperative endeavour will be needed fully to develop these ideas. It is also important to abandon the creeping notion that new technologies can be used to make money through educational endeavours. Magnificent things may be created with quite modest amounts of monetary input, but there is no pot of gold.

`Medieval Writing‘ represents a modest and experimental attempt to design a site which can be accessed by those with a range of interests and followed through either in a general introductory mode, or by following trails of more specific interest. There are introductory essays on a range of topics, slightly more detailed presentations on areas such as literacy, authorship, types of books, classes of documents, scribes and libraries, decoration of manuscripts and the history of scripts. Each section is set up with the aim of further elaboration particular themes. Then there are specific exercises in examining scripts in some detail and reading blocks of text.

It is intriguing to look at the data supplied by the web site provider on how people actually navigate through the site. Some hop casually through the introductory essays. Some are very meticulous about reading particular sections, the essays on manuscript decoration and on literacy being quite popular among this group. Some have clearly dropped in to look up some specific piece of information and leave once they find out what a papal bull is, or similar. There is a group, I assume of calligraphers, who assiduously work through the script pages which have alphabet exemplars, but never seem to go on to try the palaeography exercises. There is a surprising proportion attempting what I would consider to be the most specialised part of the whole thing and working through the palaeography exercises. In other words, even at this early developmental stage, it is operating in different ways for different groups of users.

But what of those meticulously researched and beautifully presented books that never get read in the library? They have been mined for extracts and exercises for the web site, but these are a poor thing compared to the original efforts put in by past scholars, now sitting neglected. It is possible to imagine a greater project, not just run by a solitary lunatic with a vision but with a scholarly team backed by generous minded publishers and curators, which could put these works back where they were accessible.

This does not mean just scanning massive amounts of text and pictures and putting them on a web site which is merely an electronic reproduction of a linear printed text.(21) It would mean connecting appropriate examples and texts with the hyperlink threads that could lead interested students or amateur scholars in from layers of more general interest. These old books are not inaccessible only because of where they are, but because few people know they are there or what is in them.

On the World Wide Web everything is connected to everything else. The trouble is, the web has been constructed by a spider on mind-altering substances. The threads are illogical and chaotic. In the pioneering phase of web development, which we are still in conceptually, even if the technology is becoming more mature, hundreds of disparate little experiments are connected in random patterns with no larger scheme of logical development, no archival stability, no guarantee that anything will work at a particular time and no capacity for a user systematically to follow a developing and expanding interest in a topic.

At this time, a big web project tends to be conceptualised in terms of an expensive project, monolithic and technically advanced, but still just one node in this chaotic web environment. The funding model tends to favour this approach, with British National Lottery grants or Australian Federation grants or other special event organisations handing out gobbets of money for isolated and bounded projects. The structure of the web allows for the interconnection of many small ongoing projects, with contributions from centres of expertise all over the world, to form designed and functional meta-projects.(22) These could allow not only the current instant gratification with small bites of knowledge, but the capacity for the minority of enthusiastic users to extend their interests to a more complex level. Traditional scholarship could be rendered more accessible, not only by being placed in a more public arena, but also by providing pathways to it.

While we may have some anxieties about the archival stability of this medium, we should contemplate the inefficiencies of the nineteenth-century model of academic book production which we still espouse. Huge catalogues appear containing so many expensive titles that no individual could buy even a fraction of them. A considerable proportion will be remaindered within a few years. How many academic authors end up buying up remainder copies of their own work to give to people who are no longer able to buy them? Traditional academic publication is choking on its own anachronisms.

The coastal forecast for tomorrow is …

I am not going to make any predictions of the sort that will make this article look in ten years as hilarious as so many in ten- or twenty-year-old computer magazines. I would not like to be placed in the same category as the wizards who predicted that the World Wide Web would remain the elite preserve of academics because the infrastructure cost would be too high to take it to the general public. However, I do think we are presently facing a range of possibilities in which the outcome for traditional scholarship as we know it may be very different.

The worst case scenario is that things will stay much as they are, only increasing scale will enhance the level of chaos. The World Wide Web will be a giant smorgasbord of individual or isolated institutional projects, with an increasing tendency for users to snatch little bites of information for immediate gratification. Conventional mistrust of a medium where anyone can become an author by renting a little piece of cyberspace will ensure that the ponderous process of putting words into print is the only kind of publication that counts. Publications will go in and out of print at a breathtaking rate, and the process of accessing them afterward will become progressively more difficult. Large projects of compilation will become more and more expensive, and traditional scholarship will be something that old academics chat about in front of an open fire with a glass of sherry.

As an optimist, I would prefer to think that the whole process of electronic academia is still evolving. We are currently in a rebound phase, where the first wave of experimental projects on the World Wide Web is being assessed and we are clinging to conventions only until such time as a pattern emerges for the way forward. We have to beat off the clever technology people who always want to try the latest tricks and develop strategies for the organisation of information.

The first simplistic attempts at this process, the construction of specialised pages of links in particular subject areas, are foundering under the quantity of new material appearing, the regular changes of web addresses or the disappearance of sites.(23) This is exacerbated by the fact that most of these link sites seem to have been constructed and maintained by individual academics in their spare time. This work has not so far been considered core business. Consequently, users with an interest in esoteric subject areas are resorting to keyword searches on search engines, with the consequent fracturing of the pattern of information presentation.

In order to develop the kind of structured resources that could not only bring traditional forms of scholarship to the web, but restore to the intellectual commons some of that work from the past, a new type of specialist is required. These would not be new graduates in information technology, or at least not in information technology alone, but people with advanced academic skills and computer literacy who can conceptualise a whole project in which the focus is on structured investigation rather than technological gimmickry.

The model for development of resources must change from isolated grant funds for bounded projects to strategies for maintaining, developing and upgrading cooperative projects on a long-term basis. The web must not be seen as a poor replacement for live teachers, but as a growing resource which, if properly managed and maintained, can continue to provide resources for those live teachers and researchers to use many times over.

`Medieval Writing’ has been the most successful computer-based teaching exercise I have attempted to date. The integration of interactive features derived from multimedia design with web delivery means that it has features which are not to be found on the printed page, and it can grow and serve a dispersed minority interest group, hopefully for a long time. However, it is apparent that one freewheeling researcher without funds or staff can only do a certain amount. The optimist hopes that this might include stimulation of interest in larger cooperative projects.

The innovative educationalist cannot afford to simply swim between the flags. Perhaps it is time to found a surf lifesaving association to rescue those who paddle too far out on their own.


I wish to thank Dr Chris Trevitt of CEDAM (Centre for Educational Development and Academic Methods) at the Australian National University for reading and commenting on this paper. Dr Trevitt is a fellow surfer in the rips and shoals of educational technology, albeit from a very different disciplinary background, and his observations are always unique.

1. Hyperlinks are now familiar to all users of the World Wide Web, although their significance in terms of text reading may not always be entirely clear, even to those who use them. Text is no longer necessarily designed in a single linear strand, but represents branching strands which offer choices that can make the text actually read differently for each user.

2. Image maps are pictures which contain active areas or hot spots which act as hyperlinks. They can be used for such things as interactive maps or plans.

3. This can happen with important projects from reputable sources. An attractive CD-ROM from the British Museum, ‘The Anglo-Saxons’, aimed at secondary school rather than tertiary level, will not play on my Windows 98 machine, but only on my historic computer, as it refuses to install on other than Windows 3.x. A very large project involving the York Archaeological Trust, the National Museum of Denmark and numerous other museums, `The World of the Vikings’, can only be induced to run by rebooting the computer with an autoexec.bat file and running a version of Quicktime that is so out of date that it does not even conflict with the current version. The web site ‘The World of the Vikings CD-ROM‘ was last updated in 1998. It provides update fixes only fora long-extinct version of Quicktime and claims only that the CD-ROM will run on Windows 95. I can find no reference to ‘The Anglo-Saxons’ CD-ROM on The British Museum web site. Windows XP will probably finish off any DOS-based software.

4. Examples of major providers of this type of written evidence include Fordham University’s ‘Medieval Sourcebook‘, or Berkeley’s ‘The Online Medieval and Classical Library‘ or ‘Eurodocs‘, which specialises in links to documentary source material.

5. For example, the English Heritage site provides a gazetteer with basic information on all the sites in their care, but their attempts to link up to more extensive research database material on older computer systems currently has problems. The British Museum site provides a very pretty armchair tour of collection highlights, but no real research capabilities as yet.

6. The ‘Archaeological Research Guide to Europe‘ and the Council for British Archaeology’s ‘CBA Guide to UK Archaeology Online‘ both provide links to archaeological material.

7. Medievalists are delighted that both the Bibliothèque Nationale de France and the British Library have catalogues of their enormous medieval manuscript collections online. The latter is especially significant as this is the first time that catalogues to the various manuscript collections of the British Library have been collected together.

8. Columbia University’s ‘Amiens Cathedral‘ site was one of the first huge multimedia projects in the medieval area on the web.

9. The ‘The Aberdeen Bestiary‘ has a digitised photographic image of every page, full text, translation and commentary of an exquisite and fascinating medieval manuscript book.

10. The ‘Cyber-psalter‘ site had its origins in a Ph.D. thesis on a psalter in the Pierpont Morgan Library. The author has developed it into a mature and sophisticated resource.

11.There are several sites which illustrate or discuss books of hours. ‘Glenn Gunhouse’s Resource Page‘ is notable because it is the private web page of a teaching academic who has provided the complete structure of a book of hours, among other medieval resources.

12. ‘English Calendar‘ and ‘Medieval Calendar Calculator‘ both perform calculations that allow various types of investigation involving medieval dating.

13. ‘The Geoffrey Chaucer Website‘ from Harvard provides a comprehensive range of resources.

14. Columbia University’s ‘Digital Dante‘ is itself rich in content, and links to many other useful sites.

15. Holy Cross University’s ‘Mapping Margery Kempe‘ is a continually developing project that is steadily becoming more complex.

16. An exception to this is C. de Hamel, A History of Illuminated Manuscripts (London, 1986), which addresses a series of historical topics in accessible language, with very fancy illustrations.

17. Such publications, which have been used to date manuscripts, include C. Johnson and H. Jenkinson, English Court Hand A.D. 1066 to 1500: Illustrated Chiefly from the Public Records (Oxford, 1915); F. Steffens, Lateinische Paldographie (Berlin and Leipzig, 1929); E.M. Thompson, An Introduction to Greek and Latin Palaeography (Oxford, 1912); G.F. Warner and H.J. Ellis (ed.), Facsimiles of Royal and Other Charters in the British Museum. Vol. 1: William I–Richard I (Oxford, 1903); A. Wright, Court-Hand Restored (London, 1879); and E.M. Thomson et al. (ed.), The New Palaeographical Society (London, 1903–).

18. A web page which displays on a browser as frames, for example a site with a left hand navigation frame which does not change when the content of the main screen changes, is actually made up of one html page for each frame plus one to tell the browser how to display it. However, each individual html page within the frameset can be displayed by the browser on its own if its unique URL address is entered.

19. Keywords and metatags are simply words entered into a particular part of the html code of a page. They are not visible to the viewer of the page, but can be read by search engines. They lost usefulness as a finding aid when numbers of minority interest web site authors put ‘Bill Clinton Monica Lewinsky’ into their keywords just to attract the attention of search engines.

20. A text loop is a series of hypertext links which takes the reader from one point in the text to a more detailed, or related, discussion, and then delivers them back to the place where they set off. It can be used to add points of detail which not every user may want to read.

21. Nevertheless, some worthy examples of this are appearing. A collaborative project between the British Academy and the Royal Historical Society has resulted in a web site `Anglo-Saxon Charters‘, which has a transcript of every known charter, with indexes. The site is a magnificent academic resource, but not enticing to the non-expert web surfer with medieval interests.

22. Probably the first effort at a meta-project in the medieval area is Rhodes University’s `ORB‘, a resource for medieval literature, primary source material and commentary, developed with contributions from various sources which themselves exist as web sites in their own right.

23. At one time you could find anything of value in the medieval area on the web by accessing Georgetown University’s ‘The Labyrinth‘ or the best named medieval site on the web, ‘NetSERF. This is no longer true.

We thank Professor Dianne Tillotson for her permission to republish this article.

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