SFB on Tour | Suzette van Haaren

Fellowship at the Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia (April/May 2024)

Suzette van Haaren is a postdoctoral researcher in project B02 "Virtual Middle Ages". Her research focuses on medieval studies and digital media studies and asks what it means to digitise medieval objects. Suzette was visiting research fellow for the month of April at the Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. She is researching the digital data model VisColl and its user implementation software VCEditor. This is a tool that helps manuscript scholars describe and visualise medieval manuscript collations – that is the way that the books are bound together.

17. Juni 2024
View from the 6th floor of the Van Pelt library

Week 1

I arrived in Philadelphia at the beginning of April. It is a beautiful city full of 19th century townhouses, a green campus, many restaurants with food from all over the world and lots of interesting history. After few days getting used to the new place and the new time zone, I started my work at the Schoenberg Institute of Manuscript Studies (SIMS). I was welcomed by Lynn Ransom, the Curator of SIMS Programs & Schoenberg Database Manager, on the 6th floor of the Van Pelt Library: the central university library of the University of Pennsylvania. The 6th floor is entirely dedicated to the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts, under which SIMS operates. I also met Hélène Jawhara Piñer, the other research fellow visiting SIMS. She is looking at Jewish food culture through Inquisition documents from the 15th and 16th centuries. Although our research interests are very different, we got along great. Together we spend a large part of the day navigating American bureaucracy in getting our university cards ready, and both started our research in the reading room of the Kislak Center. This will be my base of operations for the coming four weeks.

LJS 463, Medical and astrological miscellany | Me and LJS 216

The next day I met Dot Porter, the SIMS Curator of Digital Humanities, to talk about my research into VisColl. Dot developed the digital collation tool together with Alberto Campagnolo (KU Leuven), and Douglas Emery, Special Collections Digital Content Programmer. We discussed my plans for the coming weeks, and she tasked me with some manuscripts from the Kislak Collections that I could model in VCEditor myself.

The rest of the week I spend in the reading room, looking at a variety of medieval manuscripts ranging from Neoplatonic and Neopythagorean translations from 15th century Florence to a book of medical and astrological treatises from Buchau. However interesting the texts and images in the books were, I was looking at one thing in particular: how the books are bound together in structures of quires, sets of leaves that are folded and stitched together through the middle.

LJS 484, L'arte de la medicina de le bestie, interesting binding

This is called the collation. The books’ collations are described in the library catalogue and completely photographed. From the information in the digital sources, as well as looking at the physical medieval manuscript, I could enter the data into VCEditor. The software immediately spits out an abstract visualisation of the manuscript collation structure, that can be used as is or can be exported into an abstract encoded model. It was inspiring to think about digitisation and its effects, and about how metadata create a virtual world in which medieval objects like a fragile 15th-century book are situated and re-imagined.  


Week 2

Independence Hall

After spending the weekend exploring sunny Philadelphia, with Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell at its centre, I found myself back in the reading room on Monday. I started the week by meeting with the developers of the VisColl project: Dot, Alberto and Doug, as mentioned earlier. I interviewed them about the process of developing the tool, and the ideas behind its creation, their goals and dreams for the project, and how it was to work together in an international setting. When Dot started working at SIMS in 2013, the idea for VisColl was already brewing in her head. She had noticed a distinct lack of clear visualisation for collation in manuscript research, even though collation formula are notoriouslydifficult to read. She saw potential in using digital technologies to solvethis problem: digital modelling seemed ideal for the visualisation of bookstructure. Dot found her companions in Alberto, then working on similar problems in his manuscript research, and Doug, experienced humanities programmer. It was very interesting to have this group of people together to speak about their work. They have specific goals and ideas about the project, but also aim for the data model to accommodate as much variety in possibilities as the technology allows. VisColl is committed to an open access research environment, and it shows – both in how the software feels, as well as the different kinds of users it attracts.

During this week I also began with the interviews with users of VCEditor. I am interviewing them to get a sense of medievalists’ research practices in the digital tool. What are they using the software for? How do they structure their data? What kinds of questions does the virtual collation model raise? How does the modelled visualisation feature in their research output? Though I was very nervous about conducting the interviews, the two users I have spoken so far have put my mind at ease. It was very interesting to hear their points of view, and the way they use the models to structure not only their research objects, but also their thoughts. The virtual objects play an important role in their research, not as a replacement, but as an addition and a kind of reshaping of the medieval objects. Moreover, both users talked to me about how VCEditor allows them to reconstruct medieval objects that are no longer existent: parchment remnants and fragments are being re-sequenced into a virtual medieval manuscript.

This week ended with a tour of the digitisation studio at the Van Pelt library. I enjoyed talking to the digitisation professionals, who showed us around their facilities and the set-ups they use. They make absolutely amazing things, from ‘regular’ photographed facsimiles to experimental photogrammetry.


Week 3

The weather has been sunny, but not too warm, here in Philadelphia, so it was perfect for a weekend hike at Wissahickon Valley Park. Once back into the climate-controlled library (often a bit too cold for my liking), I started the week off with an early interview. This week was mostly focused on the interviews I had planned. It was very interesting speaking to people who work with VCEditor from various different backgrounds: a library cataloguer, a conservator, and a university lecturer. Everyone used the digital tool differently, and each of their projects also have a very different look to them. VCEditor allows for a lot of variability in entering the data, which allows the scholars to create their very own ‘personalised’ research object. It is a kind of reconstruction of the medieval book to their own liking: a virtual object, if you will.

In the meantime, I have been working with the tool as well. At the start of my time here at SIMS, Dot had given me a list of manuscripts that needed to be modelled in VCEditor. And I wanted to get to know the tool intimately and work with it myself. If you scratch my back, I scratch yours! Funnily enough, the simplest manuscript to model for me (a fragment of only one quire with 6 leaves, 3 bifolia), brought up the most questions.

LJS 174, Tabule illustrissimi principis regis alfonsii, stacks of quires | LSJ 174, Tabule illustrissimi principis regis alfonsii, loose note

Modelling the manuscript can involve some(or a lot of) speculation concerning the book’s ‘original’ state. When we model a quire, we note that a leave is cut out or otherwise missing. However, if the manuscript in question is missing all of its other quires (like in the fragment I described), why do we not speculate on those? Does the model reflect the current state of the book? And where does speculation end? This is, of course, down to the individual need of the scholar. But lots to think about!


Week 4

Soon it already was my very last day at the Kislak Center and at SIMS. I can’t believe how quickly all of it went! Though the weather for most of this week was a hot 30 degrees, I dared turn on the oven to bake traditional Dutch ‘speculaas’ for all the people at the library as a thank you. Everyone in the reading room and at SIMS has been so welcoming and nice – I really felt as part of the family. Other than baking cookies, this week was centred around finishing up my VisColl models, organising my research notes, the first tentative analysis of the interview data, and looking at some manuscripts for fun. I went through the first transcriptions of the interviews – all transcribed with the AI tool NoScribe, and though good, they are not particularly perfect. A few terms came to mind when describing VisColl, VCEditor and the research that people perform within these environments: flexibility, recreation, interaction, and sustainability. These terms are not only key to thinking about this specific tool, but about digital technologies within medievalist research, and even ‘Virtuelle Lebenswelten’, in general.

Most of my time this week was spend preparing for the International Congress for Medieval Studies at Western Michigan University (Kalamazoo, 9-11 May). Or, as medievalists simply just call it: Kalamazoo. One of my papers presents my early hypothesis and analysis oft his specific research project, with a focus on epistemology and historiography (though with very tentative conclusions). The interview data as well as my own observations need a little more time and space for me to reflect on them properly. The production of knowledge, I believe, is always affected by the tools that are used to analyse, read, write and reflect: tools change the way we think, and the way we think changes tools. Another thing that came to the fore during the interview process was the power of community and collaboration. People change the way we think and act, and the way we imagine the world. Although (digital) medieval studies may sometimes feel like a solitary endeavour, we lean more on each other than we think. The history we write, the Middle Ages we know, are not written by a single solitary hand, they are created and formed and reformed by all of us together.




My stay in Philadelphia was coloured by the tragic accident and passing of Will Noel, former SIMS director and respected colleague. I wish his family, friends, his colleagues at Princeton and his former colleagues at SIMS all the strength and love in the world.

Photos: Suzette van Haaren | SFB 1567, 2024