Emblem Digitization: Introduction

Mara R. Wade
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Wade, Mara R. “ Introduction,” Emblem Digitization: Conducting Digital Research with Renaissance Texts and Images, ed. Mara R. Wade. Early Modern Literary Studies Special Issue 20 (2012): 1. <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/si-20/WADE_INTRO_EMLS.htm>.

1.     Emblem scholars working with the OpenEmblem Research group have set a compelling example for international cooperation in the digitization of this Renaissance genre that serves well as a model for other initiatives in the digital humanities.[1]Their aim is to create corpora of digital emblem books that provide browsing and search functionality for a specialized form of print literature that shaped Renaissance culture. The scholars and projects associated with the OpenEmblem Research group have established an international community of researchers who work to define best practices and open standards, who seek informed solutions for the web presentation of linked texts and images at both the book and the emblem level, and who negotiate their increasingly complex subject matter through their dedicated work.  These scholars regularly present this research at forums such as the Renaissance Society of America, the Modern Language Association, The Society for Emblem Studies, and Digital Humanities, as well as at many specialized conferences, symposia, and meetings of research groups. Through expert collegial discussion, international collaboration, and hard work they have leveraged digital emblem studies to the forefront of digital Renaissance studies.

2.     By creating sophisticated metadata for the web-based study of the early texts and images that comprise the Renaissance emblem, the various projects have defined new research questions regarding subject based humanistic inquiry on the web and make innovative research questions and analysis possible. This is a community driven area of research in which emblem scholars define their needs and seek and provide solutions for their research problems. The papers assembled in this volume explore various aspects of this search for solutions, the technologies and research questions involved, and the solutions themselves. The volume demonstrates the workings of a loosely organized research consortium and attests to the collegial negotiation of research hurdles, to the sharing of data and expertise, and to the excitement of collaborative work that benefits entire research communities worldwide. While we continue our work, we are aware that we are simultaneously opening up new avenues for research that we have not yet imagined. An acute awareness of the need to remain flexible and open to those as yet unanticipated research questions informs our work. While seeking solutions for today, we hope to open new research for tomorrow.

3.     One of the reasons that this approach works is that it is community driven. While the lone scholar in the ivory tower is an image often conjured up for the individual humanities scholar, particularly for the scholar of this Renaissance genre, emblem scholars have embraced the digital world in their research needs. Scholars with similar interests gathered around mutually interesting research questions involving access of remote collections, questions of bibliography and book history, presentation of rare books in the web-based environment, and making rare and sometimes unique texts freely accessible through rich metadata for both texts and images. Many technical research questions concerned metadata exchange, the development of a schema for emblems, workflows for the creation of huge amounts of data, registries of digital books, mass digitization, and digital preservation. Scholars stay interested because they continually are (re)defining research questions that interest them and that are appropriate for the funding models available to them. Simultaneously they are working within an international framework of scholarly exchange and communication. The fact that humanities research agendas drive the projects makes this brand of international scholarly inquiry durable. This is a vibrant research community whose proven track record confirms it as a sound working model for the creation of historical digital resources in the humanities.

Digital Emblematica: The Background

4.     Given the various research interests of the individual research teams, the paucity of international funding schemes for qualitative humanities research, and the extremely varied genesis of the projects, the ability of emblem scholars to define common standards and goals is noteworthy. In a very early phase independent projects appeared, such as those at the Universidade da Coruña, Literatura Emblemática Hispánica,[2] at the Bayrische Staatsbibliothek, Munich, Digitalisierung von ausgewählten Emblembüchern der frühen Neuzeit,[3] at the Pennsylvania State University, The English Emblem Book Project,[4] and at the Memorial University of Newfoundland, Alciato’s Book of Emblems[5] The projects’ titles make clear that the focus in most cases is on a particular national tradition, for example, English and Spanish emblems, or on a key work of emblem literature, such as Alciato’s Emblematum liber (1531). Among these projects, only Munich presents a diverse collection of emblem books from many traditions.[6] While these projects were at the forefront of emblem digitization, they emerged as stand alone projects, and very soon projects agreeing on common standards emerged. The consensus concerning practices of emblem digitization positioned the various participating projects well for future collaboration. Their early vision has allowed us to reach the present phase of creating a portal for emblem studies within the project Emblematica Online that incorporates data from many projects and aggregates it at a single point, pointing users back to the original repository. While the various projects have extremely varied levels of granularity at the book and the emblem level, their adherence to a basic template for metadata, best practices, and common standards have allowed all projects to move forward as a group.

5.     As early as the 1990’s, leaders in the International Society for Emblem Studies grasped the potential of digitization for their subject. The far-reaching vision of Peter Daly with the Index Emblematicus,[7] of David Graham for digitization of both emblem texts and images,[8] and of Stephen Rawles with the template for emblematic metadata [9] reflect the engagement of scholars whose insight often out-paced the actual technical reality of the time, but who could look down the road and anticipate logical and feasible next steps. Perhaps most insightful were Graham’s and Rawles’ understanding of the need for consistent data, for international co-operation among far-flung scholars and collections, and the need for research ensembles of subject experts in Renaissance culture with the appropriate library and technical expertise. Dutch colleagues provided leadership in the field with high-level expertise and advocacy from the University of Utrecht with Els Stronks and Peter Boot, together with other members of their research group,[10] and also with Hans Brandhorst of Arkyves, whose vision for iconographical aggregation demonstrates a new hybrid model for collaboration between academia and the business world.[11]

6.      The now completed projects whose researchers provided critical early leadership and who continue to shape the discussion of digital humanities scholarship, in general, and emblem research, in particular, are at Glasgow University[12] and Utrecht University.[13] In 2006 these universities completed closely defined projects for discrete aspects of emblem literature. French Emblems at Glasgow presents 27 emblem imprints from the 16th century in transcribed and facsimile versions with extensive search functionality,[14] while the Emblem Project Utrecht completed Dutch Love Emblems of the Seventeenth Century that presents full transcriptions, page facsimiles and indexes, as well as extended search options for 27 secular and devotional love emblem books. These projects were developed independently from each other, with different funding models and different goals. Nevertheless, the fact that these projects adhered to mutually agreed upon best practices and open standards confirms their commitment to the greater collaboration among digital projects world wide and attests to their forward-looking conceptualization from the start. Both institutions continue their important work, for example, with Hermannus Hugo - Pia desideria (1624) - A Web Edition at the University of Utrecht,[15] and with Alciato at Glasgow[16] and The Study and Digitisation of Italian Emblems.[17] These projects advance digital humanistic study by interrogating one particular genre of text-image literature of the early modern period. By assembling teams of specialist subject researchers, highly skilled researchers in information technology, and curators and librarians, these research groups have set the foundations for digital emblematica.

Emblematica Online

7.     Concurrent to the emblem research on-going at Utrecht, Glasgow, and elsewhere, another international group of researchers was at work whose goal was a portal for emblem studies. Emblematica Online is the title of a joint research undertaking between the Herzog August Bibliothek, Wolfenbüttel, and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. An initial project with the same name received early funding by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation with a Transcoop grant.[18] With this support the two institutions were able to gain experience in the scanning of emblem books, metadata creation, and subject specialist website development for this genre. Each side digitized and created metadata for a small selection of emblem books. Critical to this phase of the project were two figures no longer or not directly associated with the project: Nuala Koetter, formerly at the University of Illinois library, and David Graham, Concordia University, Montreal, who has advised digital emblem projects on a regular basis. Owing to the work conducted in the framework of this project, the research partners were well positioned to make a successful bid for funding from the NEH and DFG[19] as a Bilateral Digital Humanities project.[20] This project has three main goals: 1) the digitization of large collections of emblem books from each institution resulting in a digital library of over 700 of these often rare imprints; 2) the creation of a database for searching individual German emblems on the basis of the mottos and Iconclass notations and labels, resulting in a combined total of over 15,000 individual searchable emblems; and 3) the creation of the OpenEmblem Portal that integrates all of the book and emblem level data from both the university of Illinois and the Herzog August Bibliothek and begins to import metadata from the projects at Glasgow, Utrecht, and Munich.  

8.     Much research has gone into this project from a number of disciplines and aspects of it are presented here.[21] The range of papers covers subject specialist perspectives from librarians, IT specialists, and emblem scholars, reflecting the collaborative nature of digital emblematica and the kind of research ensemble necessary to advance projects of this nature. From the technical side of the project, the papers by Cole and Han, Stäcker, and Opitz cover digital work flows for the creation of metadata and access at the level of the individual emblem, the development of the emblem schema, and the structuring and indexing of metadata. The library perspective provided by Kilton considers aspects of subject access across a number of existing digital emblem projects, evaluating current sites and making suggestions for future ones. Black presents a subject specialist survey of French emblems available on the web grounded in the broader context of emerging digitization projects worldwide, including those not specifically directed at emblem studies, while Wade makes suggestions of how currently available research and websites might possibly become integrated thematically to leverage greater scholarly communication, pointing toward new models of linking data. Two final papers by Young and Graham look forward and backward, assessing the considerable progress made in digital emblem studies and pointing to ways forward in the future. It is necessary at this point to thank two graduate research assistants who helped to prepare these papers for publication: Kathleen Smith, University of Illinois, and Elizabeth Black, now at Old Dominion University.

 Emblematica Online in Context

9.     Embedded in the triennial conference of the international Society for Emblem Studies held at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2005 was a conference on emblem digitization. While significant advancements have been made in the past five years, two keynote lectures from that conference illuminate the present volume and their perspectives continue to hold up well in the context of the present volume. Keynote lectures by John Unsworth and David Seaman contextualize the emblem research within the broader perspectives of digital humanities and digital libraries respectively.

10.    John Unsworth offered the opening keynote lecture, “Digital Surrogates for the Printed Book: Problems and Possibilities,” highlighting the analogy between emblems and Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s concept of the “double work.”  The work is “doubled” in the sense that it has a textual and pictorial expression, much like the Renaissance emblem: “That is to say, Rossetti executes a picture and then writes a poem—typically a sonnet or a pair of sonnets—that comments and elaborates upon the pictorial work.”[22] It is interesting to note that the Rossetti Archive, as described here for emblems by Andrea Opitz from the Herzog August Bibliothek, Wolfenbüttel, once thought TEI would not serve such a complex, “double” form well and developed their own DTD for it. Unsworth maintains that “there is something about these ‘double works’ that could not be expressed in hierarchical mark-up language.” For these reasons, the scholars working under the aegis of the OpenEmblem research group have agreed on Iconclass as the preferred classification system for emblems, allowing as it does for indexing both elements from the emblem pictura and its allegorical meaning.[23] Unsworth’s research question was then how to externalize the tacit subject expertise of the scholar. Emblematica Online and its OpenEmblem Portal have done much to advance the web presentation of emblems with its extremely rich—both quantitatively and qualitatively—metadata consisting of the motto database and Iconclass notations and labels.

11.    David Seaman, now at Dartmouth College, presented a keynote lecture, “Speaking Pictures Newly Construed: Emblematic Literature and the Digital Library. His comments on metadata standards, collections, digital library architecture, production and preservation resonate today and illuminate the goals and good practices fulfilled in the emblem community. He points the way, as emphasized more specifically by Graham and Young, toward flexible engagement with these digital resources through tools, annotations, and other forms of content enrichment. He also directs our attention to digital teaching and learning.

12.    Peter Boot of the Emblem Project Utrecht also presented at the conference from his magisterial book, Mesotext Digitised Emblems, Modelled Annotations and Humanities Scholarship (2010). His interrogation and presentation of the potential of “mesotexts,” the annotations occupying the space between the objects we study and the products of our completed scholarship, offer digital humanities new possibilities for scholarly communication and collaboration.

 Emblematica Online Perspectives

13.    Emblematica Online consists, on the US side, of researchers Mara Wade, Tim Cole, Myung-Ja Han, Tom Kilton, and Jordan Vannoy and graduate students Paul Meyer and Susanne Kress and, on the German side, of researchers Thomas Stäcker, Andrea Opitz, and formerly Manuela Schink.  This ensemble has developed, so to speak, the current beta version of Emblematica Online, of Emblems 2.0. Their work relies on the sagacity and continuous feedback of a number of international scholars working with the OpenEmblem group without whom we could not have reached this point. We are particularly indebted to Hans Brandhorst of Arkyves, Els Stronks and Peter Boot of the Emblem Project Utrecht, and Laurence Grove, Graeme Cannon, Stephen Rawles, and Alison Adams of the Emblems at Glasgow, and David Graham of the Concordia University, Montreal. As emblem research advances to Emblems 3.0, it is worth recalling here John Unsworth’s question of whether we are trying to provide new answers to old research questions or to come up with an entirely new set of research questions for emblematica, in particular, and digital humanities, in general. My guess is that Emblematica Online is doing both.


[5] This project was closed in 2004; it has no search functionality. http://emblem.libraries.psu.edu/home.htm

[6] The Munich site does not include books that have appeared as facsimile reprints and presents only emblem books not contained in Henkel and Schöne’s massive print compendium Emblemata Handbuch der Sinnbildkunst (1967). This decision reflects their idea that all books in Henkel and Schöne were to be considered as “erschlossen,” that is, as already analyzed and indexed: “Vornehmlich wurden (abgesehen von wenigen Ausnahmen) solche Emblembücher ausgewählt, die nicht im Handbuch Emblemata (Henkel/Schöne) berücksichtigt worden sind und nicht als Nachdruck vorliegen. Es geht also weniger um die Digitalisierung der weithin bekannten 'klassischen' Emblembücher (Alciato, Reusner, Camerarius usw.), als vielmehr um die Erschließung von bisher weniger bekannten oder schwerer zugänglichen Titeln.” This project assumes the user has access both to the website and to the long out-of-print volume by Henkel and Schöne.

[7] Daly, 1980.

[8] Graham, 1991, 1996, 2002, and 2004.

[9] Rawles, 2004.

[13] See note 10. To celebrate the successful completion of their project, these scholars produced a volume of essays, Learned Love, 2007. http://emblems.let.uu.nl/project_proceedings.htm

[21] See also Wade 2011.

Works Cited

All websites are cited directly in the notes. 



Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editors at M.Steggle@shu.ac.uk.

© 2012-, Annaliese Connolly and Matthew Steggle (Editors, EMLS).