Digitizing the Ancient: Marsh’s Library, Dublin

A running theme for my blog posts this semester seems to be my newbie status. This term, I and my cohort are taking the concepts we have learned during our course and converting them into action. And in attempting to take action, I am discovering how little I really know.

Sorta like if you took Jon Snow out of Westeros and asked him to set up an online banking account.  (Images from Wikimedia Commons courtesy Wons Noj, Greg Henshall)

Sorta like if you took Jon Snow out of Westeros and asked him to set up an online banking account. (Images from Wikimedia Commons courtesy Wons Noj, Greg Henshall.)

My internship at Marsh’s Library is no exception. If you have not yet visited, I strongly urge you to go.[1] Marsh’s is a beautifully preserved 18th century library and was the first public library in Ireland. It was founded by Archbishop Narcissus Marsh,[2] and was opened to the public in 1707. Entrance costs three whole euros, and entitles you to see the exhibits, sit at a table where James Joyce sat, walk where Jonathan Swift would have walked, try your hand at writing with a quill pen, and savor the magical dusty-book atmosphere. If that’s not enough, during a recent viewing, I realized the library makes an appearance in the 1996 film Michael Collins, so your three euros lets you walk the hallowed halls where Liam Neeson also tread.

Marsh’s always has an exhibition or two on display which allow visitors to see pages from its collections, centered around a theme. At the moment, the exhibitions are “From Lublin to Dublin: Jewish Books in Marsh’s Library”[3] and “James Joyce, Apocalypse and Exile.” Ordinarily, when an exhibit comes down, it’s gone—there is no guarantee that that page of that book will ever be displayed again. However, my internship aims to produce a website for one retired exhibition, “Imagining Japan, 1570-1750.” “Imagining Japan” opened on the 14th of April 2014 and displayed books from the period shortly after Europeans first landed on Japanese soil, through the arrival of trade ships and missionaries, to the expulsion of all Europeans save one Dutch port in Nagasaki. Some of the most exciting items included maps of Japan which illustrate increasing understanding of its geography and then a knowledge plateau[4]; accounts by missionaries often showing how conflicts raging on the continent between Catholics and Protestants led to similar infighting in Japan; merchants’ accounts, including daring tales of sea exploration and reports on this newly-discovered culture; and fictional tales set against the backdrop of Japan and Taiwan[5], notably Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and the historical fake George Psalmanaazaar. I find myself blessed with fantastically interesting items, which motivates me to make an exhibition worthy of the source material.

Nagasaki Harbour

“Nagasaki Harbour: Population of the City about 70,000. The little island Desima contains the Dutch Factory.” From Maps of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, London, 1844. With the permissions of the Governors and Guardians of Marsh’s Library, Dublin.

The mandate from my internship advisor, Sue Hemmens, Deputy Keeper[6] at Marsh’s, is a digital exhibition that preserves some of the “look-and-feel” of the physical collection, the sense of opening and closing dusty old maps and rifling through ancient books. I naively thought building such a site would be a relatively straight-forward, but the project has turned intimidatingly complicated quickly.

Thus far, I have focused my attention on two areas—developing my knowledge of the source material, and devising a plan for the website. As a researcher, I have the rarefied privilege of actually touching and turning the pages of the books which were included in the original exhibit[7]. I have spent many hours reading those texts which are in English and French[8], and taking photographs to help me create the initial “draft” of the website. In my readings, I have found myself particularly drawn to two topics: descriptions of the Japanese people, which sometimes reflect the stereotypes that permeate the West’s understanding of Japan even today, but can also contain surprising accuracies or flights of utter fancy; and the use of Japan as a proving ground for religious conflict in Europe. My first-hand encounters with the exhibition items, therefore, are shaping how I plan to design the website. Necessarily, the site must follow a single structure, and that structure will be based upon the original, physical exhibition; but I plan to include a tag cloud to give users the opportunity to discover interesting alternative threads themselves. The physical exhibition was also limited in that each book had to be opened to only one page—I look forward to including images, transcriptions, and translations from multiple pages of a few of the books.

Map of Japan from the Ortelius

Abraham Ortelius’s 1587 atlas Theatre de l’univers contains two delightfully squiggly maps of Japan. In this example, the archipelago is pleasantly plopped between “l’Amerique” and “Tartaria.” With the permissions of the Governors and Guardians of Marsh’s Library, Dublin.

My other initial task was choosing a platform and basic design for the website. After researching available platforms, I chose Omeka 2.0. Although I have never used Omeka myself, I read in informal blogs and published case studies that it is relatively simple to learn, while simultaneously creating professional results. Additionally, I wanted a platform that would allow me to play with the mapping elements of my source materials, and include a timeline to place exhibition items in their broader historical context. Omeka’s Neatline plugin seemed to fit the bill. However, I have been surprised by the steep learning curve if you plan to customize your exhibition at all. Omeka is touted as “WordPress for museums” because of its clean front-end design. And the interface is very intuitive—a few minutes of clicking and I understood its functionality. However, the front-end of Omeka does not provide much scope for customization, and so I find myself tentatively diving into the guts (i.e. hard coding) of the website. At first, I did not realize that Omeka dynamically generates each page based on templates and a database it builds through the front-end upload of exhibition items. This means that to customize a page, I need to learn the labyrinthine folder file structure Omeka creates, and how to code within the files themselves. Learning these skills is daunting, and I may not be able to complete the “beautifying” of the webpage in the time allotted for the internship.

A map of Japan from 1704

There’s no particularly good reason to put this picture here; I just wanted to include another early map of Japan. This one is from A collection of voyages and travels, printed in London in 1704. With the permissions of the Governors and Guardians of Marsh’s Library, Dublin.

However, thinking about Omeka as a database-building platform has changed my workflow. I now plan to focus on creating items with appropriate Dublin Core metadata, and then building a more basic website. I am lucky to be working with Sue, who has a lot of experience working with Omeka and has been invaluable in showing me how customization works; once I have established a good foundation (materials, structure), I hope to learn from her how to get the “look-and-feel” of maps and old paper.


[1] The library is on the grounds of St. Patrick’s Cathedral and accessed via St. Patrick’s Close, so you can easily make an afternoon of lovely, ancient places.

[2] Who, I believe, also taught herbology at Hogwarts in book 5 of the Harry Potter series.

[3] I believe this exhibit is coming down soon, so if you want to see some neat Hebrew-language books, head in soon!

[4] Following the expulsion of most Westerners, and sometimes reflecting the target demographic for the book.

[5] Then called “Formosa.”

[6] “Keeper” is Marsh’s fancy word for librarian, not another Harry Potter reference.

[7] Not that I’m special–all researchers can make an appointment with Marsh’s to view materials as required.

[8] Unfortunately, I cannot read Latin, the language of choice for most of the religious accounts of Japan.

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