THE DARKNESS OF THE MEDIEVAL ARCHIVES, the shadows of the library stacks: too vast for countless lifetimes of scholarship to exhaust? And yet, in our internet era, the accelerating machine-processing of centuries of collected medieval materials and data is yielding ever more detailed, extensive maps of the archive’s extent and  features. The goal of completely surveying the archive, down to every folio and character, is not only increasingly viable but irresistible – and at a time when competence in its languages, diplomatics and palaeography is contracting; for this same process promises new revelations, of unprecedented richness and detail, about the medieval world itself.
      Yet the great irony is that on our new map, the Dark Archives, the medieval unread and unreadable, dwarf all that we currently know, and indeed threaten to paralyse fresh research. In quantity, they encompass the great majority of the millions of known folios and associated records, that remain unread, unscanned and scattered across the world. Who will fund their expensive digitization? What should be prioritized? And to what end, when the mass-transcription and record-creation technologies needed to explore them remain unequal to the task?  Most challenging of all may be owning the shift in perspective that the Dark Archives are forcing upon us: the unsustainably small extent of what we term ‘the medieval’, and the uncertainty over what might succeed it.

 

This conference aims to crystallize and advance the field, both conceptually and practically, by bringing together its likely academic and commercial key-holders, from archivists and intellectual historians to machine-learning researchers. It invites speakers to give answers to one or both of its most pressing challenges:

Quantifying the Dark Archives  (or ‘the medieval unread and unreadable’) 
Bringing the Dark Archives to the Light


via any relevant discipline and topic, including the following:

Preliminary Definitions: What are the total quantities and ratios of read and unread material, by institution and genre, down to the folio level? What is gone forever from our medieval knowledge? What else is missing (including what has survived but still been effectively obliterated from our awareness)?
The Future of Archives: Given limited budgets, what should be scanned first and how - by institution or genre, systematically or piecemeal? What might specific 
collections of unscanned material have to offer to our knowledge?
Ex Machina: How might existing transcription and classification technology bring the Dark Archives to the light, were they fully scanned? How much  of the lost might we reconstitute from stitching together scanned manuscript fragments? How much might we infer, or simulate, from machine-assembled knowledge? What institutional, financial and disciplinary co-operations are needed for these goals? What can Computer Science offer Medieval Studies in the future?
The Future of Metadata: How will our current fragmented bodies of records  (‘metadata’) need to evolve to cope with complete transcription of the archives? 
Returning from Dust:  Broadly, what might we recover (e.g. reception-histories of Greek, Hebrew and Arabic; the voices of the unlettered)? What role imagination of the medieval unread and unreadable (then and now)?
Scepticism:  Cultural treasure or ‘Junk DNA’?; Babel; could the use of  technology degrade medievalist skills and inquiry? Building ‘known unknowns 
(and unknowables)’ into our medieval knowledge; learning from the past.

For day three, we also invite demonstrations of technology that medievalists can already use to explore the Dark Archives.
Proposals of around 500 words, along with a brief CV (or link to an institutional page), should be sent by 31 December 2018 to ssmll@history.ox.ac.uk

 

Image: Edoardo Tresoldi, 'Etherea'; Photography: Roberto Conte; Design: Richard Rowley. By kind permission.