Thursday, 1 December 2011

Imaging the Great Parchment

Image © City of London, London Metropolitan Archives. Used with Permission.

One of the things that I am enjoying most in my current incarnation is the interdisciplinary work I am doing with various doctoral students, scattered across many of UCL’s computational and engineering science faculties. I’m delighted to be working as secondary supervisor alongside, as primary supervisor, Tim Weyrich, from UCL’s Department of Computer Science, on an EngD project that is sponsored by London Metropolitan Archives, to aid in reading one of their unique holdings: The Great Parchment Book.

The Great Parchment Book contains a survey of forfeited Irish estates claimed by Charles I in 1639, consolidating all contracts and particulars of all rental lands in the county into one volume. The resulting book holds invaluable information about the County of Londonderry in the early 17th century. The book was apparently passed to the Irish Society in London when it was reconstituted by Charles II in 1662, but a fire in 1786 at Guildhall caused extensive damage to their historical collections, destroying a large proportion of the 17th century material entirely, and causing dramatic ‘shrivelling’ and fire damage to the vellum pages of the Great Parchment Book. 165 folios of the volume survive, in 6 boxes such as the one featured above. This hugely important document has therefore been unavailable to historians since the date of the fire, as the pages cannot be handled because of their state of conservation.

Our task is deceptively simple – can we use image capture and processing techniques to make the rippled, twisted, and buckled text readable? Can we produce digital image surrogates which scholars can use to access the content of the document? A ever, the devil is in the detail. Our EngD student, Kazim Pal , has started (after a one year taught component of the course) to investigate approaches that can be used to digitally reconstruct the manuscript. We hope to work with the online edition team at King’s College London’s Department of Digital Humanities to produce an online, transcribed edition of the text in time for the 400 year anniversary of the incorporation of the Irish Society by the Corporation of London in 1613.

It’s really useful for me to work on the development and application of technologies in this area: it keeps pushing the limits of my understanding of the way we can use imaging with documentary material. I’m learning a huge amount from working with Tim and Kazim, and it is really great fun to step from beyond the textbooks/computer screen back into a real archive, to work on a real document, with real archivists and conservators, on approaches that will potentially benefit many scholars in the future. For me, personally, this is the joy – and excitement! of Digital Humanities.

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