There’s a Map for That

An unlikely pair of scholars is bringing crowdsourcing to scholarship on the Middle Ages.

By Mary Jo Patterson

Illustration by Justine Beckett.

Imagine, for a moment, you’d like to learn how medieval mapmakers depicted Noah’s ark. Perhaps you’re a scholar. Or maybe you read about the explorers who claim to have found the ark’s remains on Mount Ararat in Turkey.

You can use your laptop to view high-resolution photographs of these fragile old manuscripts in the British Library’s digital collection or Cambridge University’s Parker Library on the web. They’re beautiful. But to understand what you are seeing and reading—medieval maps are full of Latin inscriptions—you’ll have to track down related scholarship the old-fashioned way. That means assembling and consulting books and journals.

A humanist and a computer scientist from Drew have teamed up to unite computer technology and scholarship. They’re creating an interactive website, Digital Mappaemundi, which will allow users to search, study and annotate medieval maps. (Mappaemundi is Latin for “maps of the world.”) Their collaboration, which began in 2009, was funded by grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

“We’ve created tools that allow a scholar to select a page of a digitized manuscript, create a bunch of annotations around it and link to other ideas and concepts that people will be able to find online,” says Martin Foys C’90, associate professor of English and a medievalist.

Collaborator Shannon Bradshaw, associate professor of computer science, believes their “annotation toolbox” will encourage new scholarship. “In the annotations scholars leave behind, we envision a dialogue emerging, much the same way scholars of Jewish writings have done for millennia,” he says.

Foys and Bradshaw also believe the tools will someday be applied to a broad range of uses, from online museum exhibits and news archives to medical records. “Say you had a database of  X-rays of bone fractures,” says Bradshaw. “M.D.’s could go in there, select an image and create annotations describing what happened.”

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