Monday, 6 November 2017

Accessible Academia

Researchers and students truly ought to take a moment to realise just how fortunate we are. We are researching during the rise of digitisation projects all over the world. Today I was once again struck by just how fortunate I am to be researching at this very moment.
Using nothing but my iPad, today I managed to download both volumes of Daniel and Maltomini's 1991 addition to the Greek Magical Papyri, the Supplementum Magicum from my university's eSpace collection. The University of Queensland had digitised these in June 2016 and made them available to staff and students. I looked at the magical text which outlined how to cure insomnia. The text advised writing a name on a laurel leaf and placing it under the head, but it did not specify the name. My curiosity was piqued. Was the papyrus incomplete and the name lost? Was there some magical symbol which acted as a name drawn on the papyrus and not included in the transcription of the text? The book said that this second century CE text was housed by the Public and University Library of Geneva. A quick google search later, I was looking at a high quality digital image of that papyrus. There was nothing missing.
I was afterwards struck by how in less than hour I had managed to complete two research tasks at home which, if I had attempted to do them a decade earlier, would have taken me weeks if not months to do. The trip from home to uni to look at a physical copy of Supplementum Magicum would have taken as long as both tasks did, and arranging a trip to Switzerland to view one papyrus would not have happened, but a study trip which included it would have taken months to organise, (and as an honorary research fellow the trip would also be self-funded). A decade ago there was no way I could have looked at this papyrus before I referred to it at an upcoming conference. For me, this accessibility goes beyond saving time and money, as it also saves me pain.
While a lot of blogs and research projects are being devoted to "digital humanities" (and I continue to fail to understand exactly to what this term refers), I would like to draw some attention to how digitisation projects are especially helpful to historians with physical disabilities. 
I feared how the progression of my arthritis would affect my ability to research and read in general (holding books and papers can be painful), but the combination of electronic devices like iPads and digitisation projects have been extraordinarily beneficial to me.
Databases like JSTOR and Project Muse are an obvious boon, and they rely on the digitisation of early volumes of a variety of journals. Yet these represent a tiny portion of the benefit I have derived from digitisation projects. My research on the ancient medical text Medicina Plinii led to my discovery of a multitude of digitised resources which allowed me to complete my research predominantly using my iPad. A specialised ancient medicine resource was Galen of Pergamum: The Transmission, Interpretation and Completion of Ancient Medicine (Corpus Medicorum Graecorum). It provides digitised copies of critical editions of various Latin and Greek medical texts. For more generic research, even more helpful were projects like Google Books and Internet Archive.  When following up on random references to obscure ancient texts which no one has bothered to publish new editions for almost a century, these digitisation projects are invaluable. As an ancient historian I also benefit from the Loeb Digital Library, but also found online collections of out of copyright Loebs pages very useful. Digitised patristic texts can also be found online. Various digitisation projects have even enabled me to download PDF copies of texts which my library never owned. I can now look at a 17th century book which in 2005 I photographed using film in 2005 while at the University of Otago online, and I don't have to use a magnifying glass to read the pages. 
In addition to the digitisation of printed books and journals, institutions all over the world are digitising ancient papyri and medieval manuscripts. Whereas before I had to trust the notes included in critical editions of Greek and Latin texts, today I can go online and look at the pages of manuscripts and papyri for myself, just like I did today. The digitisation of this sort of material is most beneficial for ancient historians, especially those of us in Australia who are so far removed from the large European collections: we are able to look at these works without expensive international travel. These projects are beneficial as they democratise access while helping to preserve the well-being of these artefacts. But for people with physical disabilities, the ability to look at an ancient manuscript without causing ourselves pain or mishandling material is an additional benefit as well.
Every time I go online to view a papyrus or manuscript, I thank my lucky stars for being able to research during this time period. Not only can I look at all this material from Australia, I can do so in a manner best suited to my physical disabilities: on my iPad with my feet up. Digitisation projects directly lead to accessible academia, and I am truly grateful for it.
I've included below some helpful links to various digitised collections which include materials helpful to the study of ancient history in no particular order which I have used.
Virtual manuscript library of Switzerland. They have also developed an app.
There are many other projects. Google manuscript digitisation projects and dive in. A wonderful world of ancient texts and medieval manuscripts are just a few clicks or taps away.

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