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Manuscript Immersion

I’m a freelance medieval manuscript expert and am currently involved in a large project to create a suite of tools to help people explore digitized manuscripts. My role in the project is to create content for Western manuscripts—manuscripts in Latin from antiquity to the 15th century. The project is based in Minnesota, at the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library (, with teams and participants contributing from Missouri, Kentucky, Wisconsin, and Washington, D.C., (me).

I’ve been to Swarthmore a couple of times in the last two years to give workshops on medieval manuscripts for students in the classics department. Several of the students are very interested in pursuing further work in manuscript studies, digital humanities, and related fields. Canaan Breiss ’16, an advanced student of Greek, who actually has not started Latin yet but who has studied several other dead languages, approached me about creating an externship-like experience over the long winter break.

Since I’m working virtually from home and there’s not much to look at in propria persona except me staring at my laptop, I suggested we do a virtual externship. I sent him digitized manuscript images and the texts of my descriptions and transcriptions of the manuscripts for him to vet.

The two main things I asked him to do were: 1. Compare my transcriptions to the manuscript images to see if there were places where he doubted my readings and 2. Let me know if there were any places where my descriptions of the manuscripts wouldn’t make sense to a nonexpert. It was particularly helpful to have a smart person like Canaan who picks up visual details easily, but who isn’t an expert Latinist and thus would not unconsciously correct the scribe’s Latin, as I might be prone to do.

At the end of two weeks of work, we had a Skype conversation to debrief and look, via screen sharing, at the manuscript images and at a beta version of the online manuscript site we are developing. Canaan said it was really helpful to him to immerse himself in what an expert sees when she looks at a manuscript, which is what I’d hoped would happen. His feedback about my content was very useful. The project team at the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library will give him credit for his contribution to the content-development side of the project, and he’ll get some digital humanities experience on his resume.

Success all around! I came away very cheered to find that Swarthmore students are just as awesome as always, and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend a virtual externship to other students and alumni.