Killing Palaeography

Towards the end of last week on some electronic mailing lists and more publicly on Mary Beard’s blog, A Don’s Life, the intention of King’s College London to eliminate palaeography and the only chair in the UK in the subject was reported. The news apparently had been circulating among some circles primarily in the UK for a week or so previous.

There is a facebook group that has over 1,700 members (and counting) as well as letters that have been posted to the principle such as that from Jeffrey Hamburger. The Medieval Academy of America has also sent a response.

are we there yet?

are we there yet?

This elimination, which would cease funding of the present position at the end of the summer, thereby rather suddenly pushing out the present holder, the very awesome David Ganz, is part of a larger sweep whereby all academic staff in the School of Arts and Humanities at King’s have to re-apply for their own jobs before the 1st of March, after which King’s will cut 22 positions in the humanities. Details on a similar cut in philosophy/computational linguistics can be found here with links to more general information.

This is terribly disheartening for reasons that many of the letters and other posts have addressed. The move in palaeography also presents a specific quandary highlighting some of the incoherence in broader higher-ed movements. Many have noted the persistent trend towards the practical and applicable. A trend pronounced enough that one can find “Applied Palaegraphy” offered. I get that higher education should serve society, especially from the time I’ve spent at public institutions, which I have particularly cherished for their public mission and service.

However, at this very same time a number of digitization projects, widely regarded as a good way of securing external funding, are near completion, underway or in the pipeline. The high level of interest in digitizing old materials indicates that there is a belief that access to these materials is in the public’s interest, that wider access serves a public good. A few weeks ago, Will Noel told a Rare Book School group about the numbers and disperse origins of browsers looking at the Walters Art Museum Islamic manuscripts, which are uploaded and available here as the project is in progress.

Given that visual access to this past is of value, how does it follow that positions that offer people the tools to interpret and better understand the past that they apprehend with their eyes are to be ‘disappeared’? If we manage to produce this public good–let’s just say we achieve the digitization of every manuscript ever, giving the public and academics unprecedented access to what was once hidden away in the archive–the effort will be undermined, if not rendered entirely useless, if the institutions that have supported access have at the same time eliminated the people who can make that access mean something.

The public availability of medieval (and other) manuscripts (as well as other ‘old stuff’) will no doubt inspire comments and insights from non-specialists and non-academics. This is a welcome change (witnessed, for example, when the Staffordshire hoard went on-line). But public commentary does not replace academic study. Indeed, the digitization projects illustrate how they must be complementary. There is then a clear use for palaeography. Despite the seeming incongruity in the phrase, palaeography can be, and is, and applied science/art in the digital world.

(Now is it an art or science???)

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