As my time with the Digital Studio capstone project draws to a close, I can’t help but reflect on two major elements of my project this semester: how much I have managed to complete, and the challenges I’ve had working through the term. My goal for this semester was to improve upon and expand my map of Syriac manuscripts, visualizing their production and transfer across Western Asia and North Africa.
At its core, I met my goal for the term. My visualizations have been refined, more data has been entered, and we have even managed to add in some functionality. This was done in no small party by splitting one map into two. The first of these is a static map of places where manuscripts were written or housed. This version includes information keyed to date of composition and the shelfmark of the manuscript being mapped. To avoid overwhelming the reader, a century slider that filters out manuscripts newer than the selected century keeps areas from being too cluttered without context.
The second map is more ambitious in its construction, but also more limited in scope. This is instead only a map of recorded transmissions of these ancient books. An implemented animation draws an arc from a point of origin to the book’s new home, with information about the transmission available with a hovered mouse. This includes the two places being joined, the date of transmission, and the identifying name of the text. Thus far, these maps have incorporated Biblical texts in Syriac from the British Library, with additional entries prepared on the back end but not yet added.
The reason they have not yet been added has been a lingering question on the design side of the project. Because these data points are being produced from detailed paleographic notes, they are rich in detail. How much of that detail to capture and how to make it available and accessible to the reader has been a difficult decision to make. Adding a data field for genre, and visualizing different genres with different colors or icons makes a great deal of sense, but then requires a decision point on the difference between philosophy and theology, for example. My instinct is to follow William Wright (the author of the catalogue of these manuscripts) in his categories, but then we reach another issue. Using the same example, Wright’s solution to a book containing two different genres of material is to split the book into two entries with one shelfmark. Pages 3-50 may categorized as theology, but pages 1-2 and 51-70 live in philosophy. Since the book traveled as a unit, sorting the details of how to represent that one book is a challenge. Losing information or introducing misinformation is a threat that has me rethinking best approaches to this project’s long-term goals.
Luckily, just because my work on these projects as a formal capstone is drawing to a close doesn’t mean that they won’t have continued life and development. I look forward to continuing to work with the Studio to develop these maps, consider possible solutions to these challenges, and to see what is possible. In the future, I want to spend time building up a more robust set of links to other existing projects mapping and cataloging the Syriac world. Ideally, these maps will become pedagogical tools for exploring the rich book culture of Middle Eastern Christians, and providing tools that point to biographies of authors, summaries of texts, or images of the actual parchment and ink where possible.