Manfred Thaller

title.none: Kiernan, Electronic Beowulf (Thaller)

identifier.other: baj9928.0102.009 01.02.09

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Manfred Thaller, Universitdt zu Koeln,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2001

identifier.citation: Kiernan, Kevin. Electronic Beowulf. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000. Pp.. $150.00. ISBN: 0-472-00260-0.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 01.02.09

Kiernan, Kevin. Electronic Beowulf. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000. Pp.. $150.00. ISBN: 0-472-00260-0.

Reviewed by:

Manfred Thaller
Universitdt zu Koeln

In 1991 Kevin S. Kiernan published a paper in Literary and Linguistic Computing entitled "Digital Image Processing and the Beowulf Manuscript". This paper became one of the most frequently quoted contributions of that journal in medievalist circles, as it combined exemplarily a description of problems of readability in a very important manuscript with a basic introduction to the then-new technology of image enhancement for manuscript specialists. While this paper became a reference text for many people in Humanities Computing circles and/or medieval studies, who wanted to refer to an introduction into the usefulness of the emerging multi-media tools for serious medievalist scholarship, it was not the starting point for the author's work in the field: indeed, for Kiernan it came ten yearsafter he had published his first arguments, that digital enhancement of images would be needed to establish a definitive text of Beowulf. And, while the 1991 publication became widely quoted as base for arguments in favor of using digital technologies in the study of manuscripts, it finishes in itself on a rather somber note, concluding that even though digital image enhancement makes the material more readable for the non-specialist, for the truly competent palaeographer it might make the recognition of reading problems easier; but does not allthat significantly contribute to their solution.

On the state reached in 1991 the British Library, in cooperation with researchers on both sides of the Atlantic, built the "Beowulf project", which intended to build an exemplary multimedia edition of that important text, including digital facsimiles of the manuscript in "Cotton MS. Vitellius A. xv", digitized versions and/or transcriptions of the various transcriptions during the intervening centuries, which promise to preserve some portions which have become illegible in the original. From 1993 onwards, again, this has been one of the most widely visible projects on the use of digital tools in manuscript studies, demonstrated in the various stages of development at innumerable international workshops and conferences on both manuscripts studies as well as information technologies in the Humanities.

Now, at least 20 years after the interest of the main editor in the application of electronic technology on manuscripts studies started, the "Electronic Beowulf" has been published as a set of two CD-ROMs by an editorial group headed by Kevin Kiernan and strongly supported by the British Library.

I apologize to the reader, if his or her patience has been overly strained by my retelling of the background: but before starting to evaluate the publication, I wanted to make clear its importance in the area where information technology and medieval studies overlap. It is nota digital facsimile. It isthe electronic Bewoulf about which stories have been told and rumors circulated for many years now. The reviewer himself has been active in the application of IT to historical research, specifically also in the digital handling of manuscript resources. He will, therefore, restrict his comments to this area, where he thinks to be able to judged adequately. As will be mentioned below, the CD contains a new critical edition of Beowulf, in the full sense of editorial science. To judge this edition from the point of view of a Beowulf expert, the reviewer lacks competence, so he avoids the issue.

The basic facts, before we try to comment on what has been achieved.

The Electronic Beowulf, as already has been said, comes on two CD-ROMs, one of which contains moderately sized digital facsimiles embedded into a rich environment of transcriptions as well as additional tools. The second contains the manuscript material in reasonably high resolution JPEG images (ca. 1.5 MB per page image). The two CDs are functionally independent. The User interface relies exclusively on the presence of a browser on the machine of the user which has Java enabled. For many potential readers what they have installed will suffice: the recommended browser--Netscape 4.61--and the recommended Java environment are contained on the first CD. Installing the CD for access on a PC should not take more than 5 to 10 minutes for all but the really computer-illiterate. When trying to open different stages of the browsing process into different copies of the browser, the Java plugins occasionally get stuck, but for all practical purposes of day-to-day usage the system is very stable. The accompanying documentation quotes a Pentium 133 with 32 MB as sufficient.

Quoting from the "Guide" through the CD: In addition to digital images of the Beowulf Manuscript, Electronic Beowulf includes images of Cotton Vitellius A. xv, indispensable eighteenth- century transcriptions, copies of the 1815 first edition with early nineteenth-century collations of the manuscript, a comprehensive glossarial index, and a new edition and transcript, both with search facilities. --And, by, the way, the central earlier papers describing the project.

The digital images of the Beowulf manuscript are connected with a kind of visual apparatus: a facility is provided, which indicates such areas in the manuscript for which supplementary information is provided. This supplementary information may include traditional editorial comments as well as other digital images, which show a doubtful portion of the manuscript under ultraviolet or with some other special treatment improving the legibility of that manuscript portion. As soon as the manuscripts appear, an alphabet becomes visible at the right vertical side. This connects to a very detailed glossary of the terms used in the manuscript.

Both tools are accessible in three different layouts. (a) The screen can display only the manuscript: in that case the horizontal dimension of the pages is completely visible on the screen (tested at 1024 x 768. The browser could be configured to produce the same effects at 800 x 600, but, as this screen resolution is clearly below what one needs for serious manuscript work, we do not follow that line further). (b) A layout, where the screen is divided into two independent display windows side by side and (c) a layout where the screen is divided into two such windows above each other. In both split screen modes the user has wide and flexible control, what he or she wants to load into these two windows: most of the time, presumably, the manuscript in one window, any of the other digitized transcriptions or editions in one of the others.

The new transcription and the new critical edition contained on the CD-ROM have both been presented in SGML markup. While this fact is interesting probably only for the afficionado of SGML, the search facilities built upon that markup are substantial, useful and interesting for all. Searches can be directed not only at words or portions of words, but also at alliterations, strings occurring within emendations, restricted to areas designated by page numbers, but also by scribes and other less obvious partitions of the overall manuscript. The user can search for character strings, using wildcards which are augmented by a general symbol for "any vowel in this position".

The second CD, called "supplement", to quote from it: The Electronic Beowulf Supplement provides access to digital facsimiles of Vitellius A. xv, including images of the Beowulf manuscript, in two different settings: as Facing Pages, as they naturally appear in the codex; and as a Sheet Collation, reconstructing the sheets of the original gatherings or quires. That CD, that is, falls into a completely different domain: while the main CD-ROM is a digital edition, trying to use modern media to represent onetext in the tradition of editorial scholarship, the supplement should be compared with moderndigital repositories which try to represent traditional objects of cultural guardianship-- codices, books, archival holdings--as primary material for further research.

The Presentation of that material is rather Spartan: while the idea to show the material in alternative sets is convincing, the pages are than presented as bundles of thumbnails. If the reader wants to go from one page to the next he or she has to go back to those thumb nails: no direct browsing to a "next page" is supported.

So, "the Beowulf" has arrived. The reviewer would like to emphasize again, that he isnot competent to evaluate the presumably great importance this publication has for Beowulf scholarship. For the state of the art of digital editions this means: a work well done. And, as it comes after the ubiquitious presentations of the Beowulf project in the last years, probably a reference point against which all future digital editions will be measured. This defines the state of the art of 1999, when it comes to the digital edition of texts of a limited size which survive on a limited number of manuscripts.

The biggest shortcoming of the edition is probably, that information technologies have developed so rapidly in recent years, that it is almost impossible not to be slightly outdated quite rapidly. The CD tells us about some of the pages of digital facsimile it contains: "The Madden collation was digitized at Harvard over several years, under various exceptional circumstances, and as a result the Madden images are not as uniform as the Conybeare images." That, today, is already an echo of years past. The electronic cameras which have been involved here, are in the meantime used in digitization campaigns which aim at tens and hundred thousands of manuscript pages. Finding such an excuse for changes in quality within a rather small set of digital pages, rather than re-digitizing them, is irritating. The reviewer has always been an advocate of the idea that digital repositories should leave the material as closely as possible to the state in which it comes from the digitization process, to keep as much information as possible there and leave it to the end user, to emphasize such features, as he or she is most interested in. Still, as the high resolution images are presented as JPEGs, and therefore not very useful for image enhancement, would it not have been possible, to enhance their contrast slightly and possibly sharpen them a bit?

And solid as the work undoubtedly is, it has taken sufficiently long to complete, that it is far from being without competition in the meantime. Ingo Kropac's Fontes Civitatis Ratisponensis comes to mind--a CD- ROM-based digital edition of documents in a city archive, which includes almost all of the features of Beowulf, with the exception of the glossary, and which, also, undoubtedly contains a critical edition in the full sense of the term within the specific section of editorial science. And quite a few models for the presentation of manuscript material have been appearing on the Internet in recent years, which implement similar principles to this edition or even surpass it in details.

There is one side to the edition which may be more obvious for a reader from the European continent: in the end this is an academic publication, targeted at people with academic interests. The number of readers who will enjoy the finesse with which the additional visual features of the manuscript are integrated into the functional replacement of the traditional apparatus criticus who arenot trained medievalists is probably very low indeed. The integration of the very detailed glossary extends the audience well beyond that of a traditional critical edition: at the first stage of university training, which brings the Beowulf in its original to the students, this will be a extremely valuable tool, providing students with the experience of an old text, where the struggle with the meaning comes on top of that with the letters, which never can be gained when only confronted with a clean transcription only. But still, these are not 'the masses'. This being so, onedoes wonder occasionally, whether the effort put into the overall visual appearance of the 'product' might not have been invested more wisely into, say, closer links between the edition and the high resolution images or into other details, which might be of interest for the scientific reader. Or, if a greater audience is the target, one might indeed wonder whether obviously popular elements like a translation could not have been included.

"The Beowulf" defines a standard which, due to the very high visibility of the project in earlier years, will be used as reference for quite some time. (Which isnot to say that it would not be very well received, even if not expected for a very long time.) At the time of writing of this review, however, it is part of the state of the art; it does by no means define it in itself. There are technical decisions which are excellent and merit strong recommendation: to rely upon HTML browsers as user interface is wise. There are other decisions which are somewhat annoying: what point is there in the presentation of a set of manuscript pages by thumbnails, all of which give just a brief visual impression of illegible scribbling? There are many features which it will be easy to generalize for other projects: the basic presentational machine with changeable screen layouts within an overall framework of linked resources, though independently arrived at also by other projects, will probably stay with us for a long time. The topic, on the other hand, is so specialized, that many important questions to be solved by multimedia sources editions are not even addressed--there are few direct ways visible from "Beowulf" to the multi media edition of a text which has survived in forty or sixty witnesses.

What, than, could--and from the point of this reviewershould--be the impact most wished for from the publication? With the appearance of this edition and quite a few others, it should be absolutely clear that editions of medieval sources are possible, which are based solidly upon modern information technologies and provide features which go beyond what is possible in print and which convince immediately, by their obvious usefulness. One would wish that this set of CDs be widely disseminated throughout the community interested in medieval manuscripts. Not because it defines a standard of digital editions which will stand for long, but because it is an excellent reference line, from which to start the development of digital editions in earnest.

A reference line, incidentally, of which the editor and the others involved in its creation, have all reason to be proud.