Will that Surrogate Do?: Reflections on Material Manuscript Literacy in the Digital Environment from Islamic Manuscripts at the University of Michigan Library
material manuscript literacy
Near Eastern Languages and Societies
The widespread dissemination of digital surrogates for Islamic manuscripts certainly has the potential to impact scholarship both positively and negatively. Realizing a positive impact is contingent on the accessibility and quality of the digital surrogates and the training extended to the scholars working with them. Indeed, while manuscript digital surrogates have the potential to enhance access for those scholars who might otherwise neglect manuscript evidence, they may also enable neglect of material qualities and with them the essential historical context for the content of a codex. This is particularly concerning for the field of Islamic manuscript studies for which so much codicological and palaeographical groundwork is yet to be conducted and ample training in material manuscript literacy is still lacking. Perhaps surprisingly, our experience with manuscript digital surrogates at the University of Michigan has demonstrated that even “materially distant” digital surrogates can actually enhance understanding of manuscript features, including appreciation for material aspects, and help advance the codicological projects of Islamic manuscript studies. The key is introducing basic material manuscript literacy via exposure to physical artifacts and relying on the surrogates as tools for descriptive training.