Medieval Spanish Manuscripts, Modern Digital Repositories: the future of scholarly-curated thematic collections supported via public engagement

Speaker: Roger L. Martínez-Dávila (University of Colorado) @rogerlmartinez

The medieval cathedral archives of Spain, especially those in the royal Castilian city of Burgos, remain Dark Archives to all but a few academicians who know the hidden doors that guard access to almost a millennium of interreligious history. Deciphering and distributing this history of the collaborative nature of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim communities is a significant problem. Why? Physical access to manuscripts is limited, manuscripts are not digital, indexing is not attuned to interreligious themes, and paleographic challenges limit access to the content of documents. The Deciphering Secrets project, a collaboration of scholars and the public that crowdsources the collection and transcription of medieval manuscripts, has breached these defiant walls. Coupling citizen-science, specifically teaching everyday persons the craft of paleography and engaging them in the transcription of Spanish manuscripts from the thirteenth through fifteenth centuries, we are now opening new lines of digital humanities research and investigation. With as little as two-weeks of web-based instruction (digital videos, exercises and examinations, and online discussion forums), our peer-reviewed research demonstrates our “citizen scholars”, when working independently and collaboratively, can master transcribing medieval handwriting. We envision one possible future for archives which are scholarly-curated thematic collections that bring many different institutions’ manuscript collections into communion with one another. These novel archives can ensure universal access, preservation, and dissemination of digital manuscripts alongside of robust indexing and crowdsourced transcriptions. This goal is embodied in the Deciphering Secrets manuscript collection, which is catalogued at the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs Archive at In this paper, we present how we approach digital preservation, distribution, indexing, and searchability of our manuscript transcription collections. We argue that building collaborative partnerships with cathedrals in Spain, employing free Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) to attract and engage interested learners, and maximizing the connectivity of minor research university libraries and digital repositories might serve as a replicable and organic model used by modest research initiatives.

Dark Archives