A letter to the principal

I’m throwing the following up here, not because I think its the best, only, most excellent example of the form, but because I’ve been advocating letters to some in person. I could have circulated it via a palaeography-oriented list or site and had it there. However, on the electronic list to which I belong the letters circulated have primarily been from those in pretty established positions, people with inside clout. And seeing those can have the effect, not just for me but for other people that I’ve spoken with, of leading more junior people with the impression that it’s not their place, that the grown ups will take care of it, or that letters from the kid’s table won’t have any affect.

I don’t know the truth of the matter, but part of me thinks that people making these types of decisions expect outcry from the area concerned. If I were principal, before the announcement of the decision I would have already banked on getting letters from all the major academic societies, organizations and institutes. What might be surprising would be individuals writing out of their own initiative. And one might argue, the further outside the hierarchy the better or at least the more surprising.

So for what’s its worth, here’s my perspective (I did help draft a more official letter from the director of my department as well with a more institutional perspective):

Dear Professor Trainor,

I am writing in support of the continued existence of a chair in palaeography at King’s College London. By this time, you will have received many letters from colleagues and more prominent members of the profession, whose concerns and sentiments I share and so will not repeat in toto. For my part, I hope to impress upon the administration at King’s that I believe that should this position be eliminated, the decision will disadvantageously position the university in the future.

The digitalization of written material from the past represents one of the most exciting developments not only for those of us who study ancient, medieval or modern documents, but also for a general public interested in its own past or the past of other peoples and nations.

On-going digitalization projects–an area of activity in which King’s College has been particularly active and forward thinking–promise to give unprecedented access to previously sequestered material. The general public, people who may never have the opportunity to see a medieval manuscript in person, will and can now experience international treasures on the websites of prominent collections, such as the British Library, or on flikr photostreams where individuals can comment on the wonders, as is being done for the Islamic collection of the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore.

This increased access and concurrent growing interest engender a greater demand for people who have the skills and ability to decipher historical and literary documents. Virtual copies of ancient writing available on hard drives and portable devices ensure that palaeography is a skill that will continue to be called upon in the future.

Letters you will have received from archivists and those involved in digital humanities attest to the important role that palaeography plays in making the past available to the present public, a crucial condition for the perpetuation of an informed public sphere. With the only established chair in palaeography in the UK coupled with its impressive digital initiative, King’s College is uniquely positioned to play a world-leading role in providing access to and understanding about the human past.

Because King’s is fortunate to have in David Ganz an internationally respected and profoundly generous incumbent, it is tempting and entirely justified to defend the maintenance of his individual position. The loss of David Ganz would be a severe blow to colleagues and the reputation of the university.

However, I would also like to emphasize that losing the chair will be a severe blow to the university’s future. When financial outlooks are more promising, without a chair in palaeography and the community that the position inspires King’s will likely find itself forced to build from scratch a programme that trains students, librarians and the public to decipher, engage and understand the digital archive that the university will have invested so much to produce.

Letters go to: Professor Rick Trainor, The Principal, King’s College, The Strand, London WC2R 2LS and copy to Professor Jan Palmowski, Head of the School of Arts and Humanities.

(And yes, I agree the banner would be even better with anglicana or secretary hand, but I got what I got!)

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