Identifying manuscripts in social media
Some days ago a number of articles and blogposts appeared in my twitter timeline criticizing “twitter streams that do nothing more than post ‘old’ pictures and little tidbits of captions for them”1 , e.g. https://twitter.com/medievalreacts
Sarah Werner (whose blogpost I highly recommend!) and others rightly criticized these accounts for using unattributed and unidentified historical pictures for their own commercial purpose, making it impossible to access the underlying historical context of those pictures.
Following the debate on twitter, however, I stumbled across a few tweets (quoted below) that prompted me to scrutinize my own social media practice as a historian, especially the limitations and potential of scientific work using social media, and twitter in particular.
An increasing number of scholars not only employs the microblogging network for channeling private messages, but also to provide glimpses into their professional work and expertise. I have characterized this as a revival of the so called context of discovery (Reichenberg)2 .
Following both the logic of social media and the nature of historical research on the Middle Ages, a good deal of this information shared on twitter consists of digitized images of medieval manuscripts, to which sometimes additional information is added.
There are four types of such tweets:
- Existing images are shared or indicated
- Existing images are scholarly commented on
- New material is published directly on twitter
- Colleagues react by commenting or enquiries
The last point is particularly interesting, because twitter sometimes enables ad hoc collaboration on a small scale that leads to additional scholarly value preserved in written tweets for a distant scientific community to use. It works like a chat between experts on a conference, but is accessible from all over the world and for a long period of time.
@EdvanderVlist Ed, I almost fell off my chair: this is such an unusual hand, with lots of regional influences. Shall have to go to The Hague
— Erik Kwakkel (@erik_kwakkel) April 22, 2013
@EdvanderVlist have a look at CMD It Rome I, pp 29-30 (Rome BNC Farf. 1). Same type of "airy" round hand with v similar features.
— Erik Kwakkel (@erik_kwakkel) April 22, 2013
@EdvanderVlist is this KB? Can I use it in a lecture on Aristotle mss I am giving in May?
— Erik Kwakkel (@erik_kwakkel) April 23, 2013
The key to a fertile use of twitter for scientific purpose however is the ability to identify both the cited manuscripts and the tweets referring to them. Without an individual reference to the cited manuscript, the shared information cannot be used beyond the immediate context or linked to other information. As scholars, we are of course well trained in giving accessible references, but certainly not in an environment that supports only 140 characters.
— Erik Kwakkel (@erik_kwakkel) April 11, 2015
— Medieval History (@medievalhistory) April 11, 2015
Social media were not designed for an academic purpose in the first place. Twitter does not support footnotes or other scientific systems of references. It only provides 140 characters in the textual body of a tweet to give both the crucial information and a proper traceable signature.
This creates a number of problems:
- The limitation to 140 characters may not be sufficient to give full reference
- Different people may use different styles or abbreviations in quoting shelfmarks
- It is difficult to connect multiple information properly, particularly if a number of tweets are referring to each other
- Searching on twitter becomes very difficult and sometimes arbitrary
So, although it is certainly important to give a correct signature of the manuscript in question in a tweet, it is not the ideal way of making reliable references. Twitter, however, does provide a system of reference that can be very powerful if used properly: the hashtag.
Hashtags are normaly used to tag tweets with a certain buzzword specifying the content of a tweet. They are also used as a marker for tweets commenting on a certain event, for instance a lecture or linking additional information to it.
A first step to enhance the scientific usage of twitter for historians (here is a very good introcduction to twitter by Mareike König) would be to apply hashtags as a method of identifying manuscripts dealt with scientifically in their tweets. By doing so different information on a certain manuscript could be collected to a digital folder: Images, life tweets from autopsies, literature and papers, blogposts and comments, whatever scholars on twitter may find worthy of micropublishing it. Using hashtags consistently could improve the scientific value of information shared.
The nice thing about twitter is its ability to connect a crowd of people around a shared topic of interests or an event marked by such a hashtag in a very short period of time. Usually, this works pretty well, because people interested in an ongoing event, let’s say #IMC15 (Leeds International Medieval Congress), agree on a convenient hashtag that is used exclusively by all participants in order to prevent two separated clouds of information.
A system of referencing manuscripts (or any other kind of historical sources) in tweets, though, has to endure for a longer period of time. If signatures are chosen arbitrarily by an ad hoc agreement, this decision cannot be reconstructed by someone who was not part of the agreement. This holds true for the citation of manuscripts in particular, because there are several slightly different conventions for quoting them. 10 Years from now, scholars cannot be certain if scholars in 2015 referred to a manuscript on twitter as #BSBMünchenClm250, #BSBClm250, #MünchenBSBClm250 or simply #Clm250 (or more likely all of them simultaneously in different languages, thus creating different clouds of isolated information).
Even if it may contradict the intuitive logic of social media, creating identifiers that follow certain standardized and reproducible rules becomes an imperative as we share more and more scientific information out of a semiofficial context of discovery – semiofficial because it has not been published “properly” in an article. Only by standardizing references we can make microinformation last beyond the social now, and prevent it from drifting through a digital space lacking resonance.
One possible way would be to use a system of place holders that are deposited somewhere, such as used in e-musicology, e.g. the cantusdatabase.
However, such a method would require an institutional setting, which is not how social media (should) work. To me, it makes more sense to reach an agreement on certain rules how to mark tweets referring to a manuscript, citing manuscripts as social scientific crowd, just as we do when creating an exclusive hashtag for a conference.
To start this discussion, I propose the following:
In general, tweets on manuscripts should always include the conventional shelfmark of the manuscript in question. The hashtag does not replace the shelfmark, but tags the tweet. The hashtag should be consist of the following parts based on the shelfmark:
- Two-letter country code ISO 3166-1 alpha-2: E.g. De for Germany.
- First two characters of the English name of the City, if the name consists of two words the first character of both words should be used: For instance Mu for Munich but NY for New York.
- Common Abbreviation of the library as used by the institution itself: E.g. BSB for Bayerische Staatsbibliothek; Bl for British Library; UB for Universitätsbibliothek.
- First three letters of the collection if there is one: For instance Har for Harley; Clm for Clm.
- Number of the manuscript
- Parts like cod., ms., hs. should be excluded, no dots should be used.
London British Library Harley 2799
München BSB Clm 250
Paris BNF Cod. lat. 4593
This system can provide both a short and individual reference to any manuscript mentioned in social media and it can link manuscripts to other information such as papers or literature.
This information can then be traced and found later without knowledge of an arbitrary ad hoc agreement of the crowd, but through applying the given rules of hashtag building.
People using social media, twitter in particular, usually like the absence of conventional constriction. They rightly advocate the benefits of open circulation of knowledge which in itself does not include the necessity of special knowledge to create hashtags. And this is a good thing, in general. However, if you share information you consider valuable from a scientific point of view, I think you should also secure scientific usage.
Of course, the method and rules suggestioned in this blogpost are far from perfect and open to debate. An important debate that does not only feature funny historical pictures and silly captions but the very condition of historical research in times of social media itself.
— Michael Schonhardt (@Quadrivium_Blog) April 17, 2015
Click here for searching other tweets dealing with the Arnstein Bible or simply click the hashtag used in the tweet above.
- Sarah Werner: it’s history, not a viral feed. Blogpost: http://sarahwerner.net/blog/2014/01/its-history-not-a-viral-feed/ 26.01.2015.
- Hans Reichenbach: Erfahrung und Prognose (Maria Reichenbach und Hermann Vetter (Hg.): Gesammelte Werke Bd. 4, Braunschweig 1983), S. 3f.