Medieval studies in cathedrals and clouds

On the train back to London yesterday I read an article in an arts newspaper discussing “internets” and how open-source “cloud” approaches to art and design offer benefits over and above those derived from orthodox “cathedral”-based methods. It wasn’t just the talk of cathedrals which prompted me to think about how all of this can or could apply to medieval studies. The various disciplines which fall under the umbrella tend to be slow in picking up new trends. I mean, in some ways it’s no great surprise that this is the case, given the time period, the relatively small numbers of scholars involved and nature of their research. On the other hand, now being back within a leading academic institution after several years on the outside looking in, I can’t help but get the feeling that the current outputs are far from commensurate to the amount of interest and knowledge out there. What is more, everything feels so damn insular, uncollaborative and short-sighted.

To give one – admittedly slightly old – example, the Sense of Place in Anglo-Saxon England project was a ground-breaking enterprise in a number of ways; a series of seminars held in 2009 (which I caught the tail-end of, in Nottingham as it happens) and a couple of years later a book containing printed text versions of many of the presentations delivered at those seminars. Another element of the project was “public SPASE”, billed as an ‘exciting initiative designed to bring together local history and archaeology groups’ in emulation of the Galaxy Zoo astronomy website. Behind it were ‘a group of academics passionate about their subject…willing to share their expertise’. Yet public SPASE doesn’t exist any more. The only way you can view anything to do with it is via the versions preserved in the UK Web Archive (and try http://www.spase.org.uk/ if you don’t believe me).

SPASE was here, but no longer

For such a thing to flourish requires input from professionals and amateurs alike, and if too few of the latter engaged with the project then those ‘passionate’ (urgh) academics can hardly be blamed for not holding up their end of the bargain. However, this must be set against the fact that the seminars seem to have been designed for an academic audience effectively playing to itself – certainly at the Nottingham one I was the only “civilian” present – and the mechanics of publicising public SPASE evidently did not do the trick in terms of establishing it as the one-stop shop it was envisaged as being. Getting AHRC money on the promise of a public web interface and a book (which barely a year after publication is not available on Amazon for less than 60 quid, P&P included) seems like an exercise in making the right noises but not truly seeing the bigger picture.

The proliferation of new, university-based online journals is a big change for the positive, although I would say some are better than others in making content available to those beyond the confines of academia (titles I have encountered in recent weeks include Networks and Neighbours, The Post Hole and The Medieval Journal). I had intended to write a bit about the place of open access publishing as a means of closing the gap (or gaps) which exist in medieval studies between ideal and reality, institutions and individuals, only James Palmer has recently gone and done a far better job of it than I would ever have been able to do on his Merovingian World blog. Instead, in acknowledgement of the innovative working practices and philosophies of the creative industries being the inspiration for this post, I want to look at other platforms for research collaboration and dissemination.

Medieval studies does not want for real life and online environments for the professional and amateur to interact and exchange information. There’s a spectrum of outlets, from the IHR’s postgraduate History Lab (which I had some limited involvement with when I lived in Liverpool) to the various mailing lists run by the CBA (though I gave up on these after what seemed like the millionth iteration of a war of words between archaeologists and metal detectorists arived in my inbox). Each was set up and operates to perform a specific function, and in this they seem to succeed, although it would be interesting to learn what “value-add” outcomes have stemmed from such fora – not I hasten to add because I don’t believe there are any, but because it’s never a bad thing to celebrate good news.

(Confession: the one time I responded to something on one of the mailing lists was to join in with some field-walking on a medieval pottery production site in the Surrey Weald, only I got my dates confused and turned up on the wrong day, so cannot claim to have contributed towards a partly web-initiated fieldwork project. It did, however, mean I got to take a wonderful walk through the woods, then pay the most expensive bus fare of my life to travel a matter of miles back home.)

Screen shot 2014-02-01 at 11.55.38

One very interesting project which stands a good chance of transcending its academic birth and flourishing where others have not is MicroPasts, an inchoate offshoot of the Portable Antiquities Scheme website. From reading the page explaining the project’s aims, MicroPasts shares much in common with the likes of public SPASE, but is related to a well-established and well-regarded project manifested in real people (the network of FLOs) as well as a peerless web resource (the PAS database). Methinks the AHRC cash which has gone into getting the thing off the ground has been well spent this time. I’m going to be keeping close tabs on it for sure.

Of course, only time will tell if MicroPasts, the new crop of online journals and other projects yet to be launched (or of which I am unaware) sink, swim or do neither and simply tread water. Whatever the future, it does feel like there are some major shifts in practice occurring and that archaeology, history and linguistics need not bring up the rear in the adoption of new methods of researching, publishing and publicising. Let’s get out of the cathedral and into the light.

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About Robert J S Briggs

Back to being a part-time early medievalist; Surrey born, London based, been known to travel
This entry was posted in Archaeology, History, internet, News, Politics, Portable Antiquities Scheme, Publishing, WPLongform and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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