Sustainability in the Making and Knowing Project From Scholarly Edition to Community Crossroads

1. Abstract


Discoverability and sustainability bedevil DH projects. They suffer from problems of sustainability not just through obsolescence of technology, but by lack of discoverability and use—sustainability is not just a technological problem but also a social one. The Making and Knowing Project’s development of a Community Crossroads confronts these issues by fostering a collaborative culture in humanities research through digital tools to share not only data and finished products, but also insights into the work behind the scenes, and the integration of research and pedagogy. We question what it means for a scholarly digital product to be “final,” and we broaden the concept of digital sustainability to include not just the technical sense of static data storage, but also a social environment of continued user involvement and dynamic project development. By addressing discoverability, sustainability, and use, the panel responds to the DH2020 themes of the public digital humanities and open data.

The Making and Knowing Project (M&K)

Since 2014, M&K has studied the intersections of craft making and scientific knowing in the early modern period through the lens of BnF Ms. Fr. 640—a little-known compilation in Middle French by an anonymous “author-practitioner” of roughly 1,000 “recipes” detailing instructions for artistic and technological objects. The manuscript grants insights into the process by which artistic creation yielded insights into the workings of nature. It is a rich and unique example of a “how-to” text—a body of literature whose significance is widely acknowledged, but under-investigated. Over the last 6 years, through crowd- and grad-sourcing in workshops, conferences, and courses, M&K has transcribed, translated, encoded, researched, and annotated the 340-page manuscript. In February 2020, it released a digital critical edition of the entire manuscript: Making and Knowing Project, Pamela H. Smith, Naomi Rosenkranz, Tianna Helena Uchacz, Tillmann Taape, Clément Godbarge, Sophie Pitman, Jenny Boulboullé, Joel Klein, Donna Bilak, Marc Smith, and Terry Catapano, eds., Secrets of Craft and Nature in Renaissance France. A Digital Critical Edition and English Translation of BnF Ms. Fr. 640 (New York: Making and Knowing Project, 2020), M&K will now transform its static Edition into the core of a dynamic Community Crossroads.

Product vs. Process

Despite being defined as modes of scholarship, the digital humanities are often solely represented by products rather than the methodologies employed in their creation; once the collaborative work ceases, the experiential insights are effaced in the finished project and lost to makers of future projects. While the digital humanities offer new modes of dissemination and sustainability of scholarly products, they also provide opportunities for evaluating, refining, and sharing the research process. “Product” also characterizes the scholarly format of a critical edition, which is intended as a definitive version of a manuscript or manuscript corpus. This focus on definitive product works at cross-purposes to one of the greatest potentials of the digital humanities: user-directed, open-ended interactivity that allows scholarship to be built upon and broken down, with the data, platform, and methods reused and reassembled by reader-users in new and inventive ways.

A recognition of the tension between the Project’s aim of the definitive critical edition product of Ms. Fr. 640 and the digital humanities process we employed came to a head as students sought to reconstruct the technical “recipes” of the manuscript in a laboratory course, and we came to see that a recipe text is, by its nature, not a definitive text—its processes can never be fully realized in writing, and they are often much harder to comprehend in words than by doing (or by watching, as YouTube has demonstrated), thus extension into the physical and digital realm was necessary. Moreover, Ms. Fr. 640 is a compiled text, and it can be broken down and rearranged in any number of ways, thus forming an ideal text for the reassemblage and reuse that digital format makes possible. The Project aims to foster new uses and new interpretations of this assemblage of recipes through making its components available in a Community Crossroads.

The Community Crossroads

A series of workshops and courses focusing on pedagogy, research, and outreach will create a community of reader-users of the Edition who take away the Project’s teaching resources, the digital infrastructure for its Edition, and its methods and process, to reuse and reassemble in their own diverse settings—whether digital humanities labs, classrooms, museums, or public programs. Fostering the community, and the new and anticipated uses and discoveries it will engender, will extend and sustain—in the fullest sense of the word—the Edition. The Edition’s methods and process, hidden by its format as a critical edition, will be made visible and disseminated. The Community Crossroads comprises three main components:

The Community Crossroads thus aims to overcome and rethink the most serious challenges in digital humanities projects— discoverability, sustainability, and the effacing of the creation process.

Panel Speakers

NAME: Pamela H. Smith

AFFILIATION: Columbia University


TITLE: Insights from the Making of a Digital Edition
ABSTRACT: The Making and Knowing Project’s five-year initiative to transcribe, translate, and encode the text of BnF Ms. Fr. 640, a sixteenth-century how-to text with almost 1000 entries for a diverse range of art and technical processes, has yielded evidence about the relationship between craft and science in early modern Europe. It has also provided insights about methodology in collaborative work across humanistic studies, the value of integrating hands-on materials-based and digital learning into curricula, and the viability of a model of pedagogy-driven lab-based research outside of the hard sciences.

NAME: Nick Laiacona

AFFILIATION: Performant Software


TITLE: A Case Study in Developing Responsive, Functional Design within Minimal Computing Constraints

ABSTRACT: To ensure its archival preservation by Columbia University Libraries, the Making and Knowing Project required that its Digital Critical Edition be developed as a static site while meeting certain core expectations for functionality. This presented several design challenges for Performant Software, including the need for a responsive layout to reconstruct the text and marginalia of the original folio, the adaptation of Lunr’s basic functionality to generate satisfying searches of middle French transcriptions and contemporary English translation, and the leveraging of the Project’s custom semantic markup toward a meaningful navigation tool.

NAME: Terry Catapano & Naomi Rosenkranz

AFFILIATION: UC Berkeley; Columbia University


TITLE: Social and Technical Strategies for Sustainability

ABSTRACT: The Making and Knowing Project’s Edition, conceived within Columbia’s ethic of minimal computing, has approached sustainability from two directions: technical and social. While the former led to the development of a reduced-functionality, “small-stack” website to minimize dependencies and avoid rapid obsolescence, the latter has mitigated some of the technical limitations by fostering a “Community Crossroads” where public users can interact with the Project’s core data along designated pathways through alternative interfaces (e.g., Jupyter notebooks) or independently through full data downloads to which users can bring their own tools, as well as submission of change suggestions, analyses, and limited-support projects. Among the latter are a suite of augmented reality tools to visualize the Project data, co-developed by Columbia’s Computer Graphic and User Interfaces Lab. At the heart of this Community Crossroads lies Performant Software’s release of a community version of the edition software for adaptation to new texts and projects.

NAME: Tianna Helena Uchacz

AFFILIATION: Texas A&M University


TITLE: Collaborative Digital Humanities Teaching as a Research Method: A Case Study toward a Research and Teaching Companion

ABSTRACT: The Making and Knowing Project practices pedagogy-driven research—a method in which students with no necessary prior training undertake intensive skill-building and then consolidate their newly won competencies through credited work on research tasks and problem-based projects that advance the Project’s overall research goals. Two new DH graduate seminars at Columbia, co-designed and collaboratively taught in 2017 and 2019, yielded edition prototypes and exploratory textual analyses that proved instrumental in the development of the Project’s Digital Critical Edition. This talk presents insights from the design and outcomes of these seminars—insights which stand as one component part of the Project’s Research and Teaching Companion (full release expected July 2021), which will offer a formal articulation of the Project’s principles and methods of pedagogy-driven research as well as a resource set for other scholars, instructors, and practitioners to scale and adapt to their own particular needs.

NAME: Tillmann Taape

AFFILIATION: Columbia University


TITLE: How to Transcribe and Translate an Early Modern How-to Text (and how not to)

ABSTRACT: This paper reviews the textual scholarship principles, pedagogical strategies, and platform decisions behind the Making and Knowing Project’s five-year, workshop-based effort to transcribe, translate, and encode BnF Ms. Fr. 640, an eclectic collection of practical knowledge in sixteenth-century French whose prose is idiosyncratic, highly technical, and heterogeneous, ranging from terse to rambling. The collaborative and iterative nature of the undertaking, as well as the deliberate entwining of the text-based work with hands-on historical reconstruction of materials and techniques in the laboratory, led to an evolution of the aims and strategies of our transcriptions and translation over time, with implications for workflow from workshop to workshop and for the eventual presentation of the text in the Edition.

NAME: Clément Godbarge

AFFILIATION: Columbia University


TITLE: Le mille-feuille éditorial et ses ramifications théoriques

ABSTRACT: L’édition critique numérique du BnF Ms. Fr. 640 offre aux lecteurs pas moins de cinq versions différentes du texte: le fac-similé (en mode image), la transcription diplomatique (xml), la transcription normalisée (xml), une traduction anglaise (xml) ainsi que le rendu final de ces textes sur écran (html/css). Cette prolifération de couches offre de nombreux avantages. Elle permet aux éditions critiques de s’ouvrir à de nouveaux publics tout en invitant le lecteur à explorer les différentes étapes du processus éditorial et de se familiariser avec la source première. Elle rend aussi l’édition plus ouverte et extensible, facilitant à l’avenir la superposition de couches supplémentaires, comme de nouvelles variantes ou traductions du texte. Cette prolifération de couches, cependant, soulève un certain nombre de questions, liées notamment aux conséquences de cette complexification. En effet, comment additionner les couches sans nuire à la cohérence de notre édition? Quelle place donner au choix éditorial dans un modèle qui en favorise la dilution?

Pamela H. Smith (, Columbia University, United States of America, Nick Laiacona (, Performant Software, United States of America, Terry Catapano (, University of California, Berkeley, United States of America, Naomi Rosenkranz (, Columbia University, United States of America, Tianna Helena Uchacz (, Columbia University, United States of America, Clement Godbarge (, Columbia University, United States of America and Tillmann Taape (, Columbia University, United States of America

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