The DigiPal Project in Three Minutes

I was recently asked to record a podcast for King's College London in which I answer four questions about the DigiPal project for a non-academic audience in no more than three minutes. The recording will be available online in due course, but in the meantime I thought it worthwhile to post my answers here. What follows is the text I prepared in advance in order to organise my thoughts and get everything into the time available. The recording itself was more 'off the cuff' and so is similar but not exactly the same.

Describe your research in less than one minute.

The DigiPal project is about using computers to study handwriting in new ways. We are looking particularly at books and documents written in England from a thousand years ago, the time of Æthelred the Unready and William the Conqueror, when there was no printing and everything was written by hand. We are analysing these materials to ask questions about the history of writing and how handwriting changes according to the person, time and place. For example, we can ask the computer to show us images of all the different ways people wrote one thousand years ago, and to see exactly how it varied. And I say ‘we’ can ask, but actually you can too, as all of this material is going freely on the web for everyone to use.

How is this innovative?

Normally, you have to spend a lifetime looking at as many manuscripts as you can and becoming the world expert in them: this is fine (and necessary), but experts tend to find it very hard to explain to others the evidence behind their opinions. More recently, people have tried to write software to do the job for them, but this isn’t very convincing either, as a computer is only as good as the person who programmed it and again it’s almost impossible to check its results. In this project we’re not asking the computer for automatic answers: instead, we’re putting the researcher in charge, using the computer to help us think about and see handwriting in new ways, and to use this evidence to help us make our own decisions. It sounds obvious, but it’s never been done quite like this before.

Why does it matter in terms of society, economy, public policy or culture?

Why should we care about writing from a thousand years ago? Palaeography – the study of ancient handwriting – is fundamental to our culture and our understanding of the past, because most of what we know, we know only because it was written down. If we want to understand this then we have to understand the writing that preserves it. But palaeography is much more than that. It is also the study of what may be the most important technologies in society today: writing and the alphabet. Everywhere we look now we see writing; almost everything we do these days, we do with writing. Even the way we think is deeply influenced by the way we write, and in this respect it’s a fundamental part of our everyday lives.

Where do you see the future of your research?

I hope for three things from this project. One is a better understanding of handwriting from medieval England. The second is a new way of studying handwriting from any time or place, and a clearer framework for analysing it. But I also want people everywhere to appreciate the rich cultural heritage we have around the world by seeing all these amazing documents themselves, whether online or in a museum or library, and to understand what they look like, how fascinating it is to see someone’s personal notes from a hundred or a thousand years ago. Next time you see some writing, think for a minute about where that writing comes from and the thousands of years of history which lie behind it.


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