Medieval manuscripts go digital via prestigious European fellowship

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Medieval manuscripts go digital via prestigious European fellowship

A huge collection of about 60,000 medieval and early modern manuscripts - and the people and events they record - will come alive digitally to scholars around the world thanks to a 21st century scholar winning a prestigious award.

Dr Toby Burrows, manager of The University of Western Australia's eResearch Support and Digital Developments Unit, has won a European Commission two-year Marie Curie International Incoming Fellowship.

He will be hosted by the Department of Digital Humanities at King's College London - one of Europe's leading centres for digital humanities research - and will focus on the collection of self-confessed ‘vello-maniac' Sir Thomas Phillipps (1792-1872).

Sir Thomas was the greatest English collector of manuscripts in the 19th century and spent nearly 60 years and 250,000 pounds (A$350 million today) for the biggest manuscript collection ever assembled by an individual collector, larger than most collections in public institutions today.  After his death, the collection was broken up - and UWA has one of his manuscripts in Special Collections: a 15th century copy of Virgil's Aeneid.

Dr Burrows will use innovative Linked Data technologies to reconstruct the histories of these manuscripts.  "The scale of the Phillipps collection is a significant challenge to traditional research," he said.  "Analysing the individual histories of 60,000 manuscripts is beyond the capabilities of researchers working manually through thousands of catalogue entries. I will be applying and testing a range of new e-research methodologies and approaches designed to enable large-scale data analysis."

The project will map the complex network of people, institutions and events connected with the manuscripts in the Phillipps collection over many centuries.  "This is a new technique which has been dubbed ‘network archaeology'", said Dr Burrows.  "It has the potential to reveal exciting new patterns in the history of cultural heritage objects and artefacts."

Marie Curie International Incoming Fellowships are extremely competitive.  They are intended to bring leading international researchers to the European Union to share their expertise and knowledge.  Only a handful of Australians have been awarded a Marie Curie International Incoming Fellowship at the experienced researcher level.

"This is a great opportunity to demonstrate just how innovative Australian digital humanities research is becoming," Dr Burrows said.  "I'm very pleased to be able to showcase the knowledge and insights being produced by the digital humanities community at UWA."

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