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Scholars explore knowledge production in digital age


Scholars of the pre-modern Mediterranean spent two weeks at UTSC last month, learning to use digital tools to explore history.

Roots & Routes is a series of three annual summer institutes at UTSC organized by Natalie Rothman, UTSC assistant professor of history. Subtitled “Scholarly Networks and Knowledge Production in the Pre-Modern Mediterranean and in the Digital Age,” the seminars aim to harness the power of digital scholarship to study the period.

“The idea was to bring together graduate students, faculty and a few undergraduate students to spend two weeks with information technology specialists to think about how digital technologies are allowing us to do new kinds of research,” Rothman says.

“We also wanted to rethink our own age of the digital superhighway. What kind of insights can we bring from the past to bear on the present? What kinds of questions can historians bring to the table about how knowledge is produced and circulated?”

Over two weeks, a dozen participants met with information technology specialists to learn how to use various digital tools. For instance, during one session the participants learned to use a piece of software called TimeMap, which makes it easier to visualize events spread across time and space.

At one session Allyssa Metzger, a history of science student from Harvard, was using TimeMap to study the influence of Ibn Ezra, a Jewish scholar born in Muslim Spain whose written works helped introduce a number of important mathematical concepts to the West.

Metzger was using the program to trace mentions of Ibn Ezra in Europe, as a way of visualizing where and when his influence had spread. As she scrolled through the years, dots appeared over different parts of a map of Europe, indicating the scholar had been cited or mentioned in a text there.

Other technical sessions dealt with bibliography software called Zotero which is used to collaborate in the curation of research collections, crowd-sourced transcription interfaces through which many people can work together to transcribe and annotate manuscripts, textual analysis tools like Voyant to visualize patterns over large corpora of texts, and mark-up languages such as XML-TEI to help manipulate texts and analyze them in new ways.

But Rothman says that the institute was not just about using technology, but about thinking about how changes in technology affect scholarship.

“There are very interesting parallels with the pre-modern Mediterranean. Manuscripts were circulating, and the availability of languages like Latin and Arabic as the languages of the literate allowed people to talk to one another. If you knew Arabic you could be sitting in Baghdad and reading manuscripts from Toledo in what is now Spain. This ability to interact and this interest in ideas that came from elsewhere is nothing new.

“Of course the rapidity and the technology that allows text and the readers to move from one place to another now is unparalleled. But there are a lot of interesting questions to ask about our current age that have to do with earlier historical moments of knowledge moving across the globe.”

The series of summer institute is funded by the Connaught Fund at the University of Toronto, and is supported locally by IITS, the library, and the Department of Humanities.


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