Blogging Your Medieval Research

Over the past ten years, OMS has become one of the largest communities of medievalists worldwide. There is a phenomenal breadth and diversity of research taking place at Oxford, and a wide range of exciting creative practice and public engagement activities. This year at OMS, we are hoping to feature one blog post each week to highlight the range of work going on, and to draw attention to the range of work that goes on here.

This week we are starting with a blog post on blogging, and public engagement. There are tips here from Tuija Ainonen and from TORCH on how to best use the blog format as a medievalist. Particularly if you have signed up to write a blog post for us, please see below!

Reaching out with Medieval Manuscripts:

(Tuija Ainonen) 

What do you get when you put together an excited group of medieval manuscript specialists and ask them to discuss blogging and teaching with digitized manuscripts? The answer: trumpets, drapes, marginal animal appearances, fake back-drops, cries of agony, laughter and lots of good advice.

A worldwide audience (from California to New Zealand!) gathered in three online sessions that were organized as additional evening events for the International Medieval Congress (IMC) at Leeds, 6–9 July 2020. The organisers were very pleased to see that each session had well over 100 participants. Our speakers shared their experiences on using digitized medieval manuscripts for teaching, and for reaching out to various audiences via social media, mainly through blogging and tweeting. 

Blogging manuscripts with #PolonskyGerman

Tuija AinonenAndrew Dunning and Henrike Lähnemann (all of University of Oxford) opened the sessions by discussing their experiences on blogging for Manuscripts from German-Speaking Lands – A Polonsky Foundation Digitization Project. The project is in the middle of a three-year collaboration between the Bodleian Libraries in Oxford and the Herzog August Bibliothek in Wolfenbüttel. Funded by The Polonsky Foundation, the project seeks to open up the medieval German manuscript collections of two world-class libraries for research and reuse. The two libraries will digitize c. 600 medieval manuscripts of Germanic origin between 2019 and 2021.

Watch to hear some thoughts on writing project based blogs on a variety of topics.

In the first session each presenter highlighted a blog post they had written. By opening up their writing processes they provided some useful tips for what to do, and what they would do differently. Even with specialized projects the aim is to write to non-specialists, so using approachable language and sentence structures is essential. As illustrative images are taken from digitized copies, it is crucial to provide readers with the manuscript shelfmark, folio reference and a link to the digital copy. It is important to follow the libraries’ attribution and guidance for terms of use that are provided in the meta-data of the images. However, the best place of the shelfmark is perhaps not on the title of the blog post. 

Teaching the digital codex 

In our second session Mary Boyle (University of Oxford), Julia Walworth (Merton College, Oxford) and Leonor Zozoya-Montes (University of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria) continued the theme of manuscript outreach. Discussions considered teachable features and pedagogical approaches to teaching with digital codices. Teaching the Codex was launched at Merton College, Oxford with a colloquium in February 2016, and it has since published formidable blogs on teachable features and links to paleographical and codicological training resources.

Listen to great insights into how to approach teaching the digital codex.

Their individual and collective insights provided the listeners with lots of new ideas and thoughts. Perhaps the not-so-pretty manuscripts also deserve more time in the limelight provided by blogs. Various teachable features and manuscripts that cover multiple texts provide fertile ground for highlighting medieval manuscripts from various different viewpoints.

Blogging manuscripts for the general public

In our final session Alison Hudson (University of Central Florida) and Alison Ray (Canterbury Cathedral Archives) took us through a whirlwind of images and advice on good social media practices as they showed us examples of their twitter and blog behaviour.  

An excellent brief introduction to successful tweeting and blogging practices with medieval manuscripts

With a handy and useful group of guidelines for continuing our journey on blogging and tweeting with medieval manuscripts, one particular thought is worth repeating here. We as manuscript researchers and readers are in the best position to showcase and promote the work we do. Blogs provide us a handy way of showing ways in which medieval books are still relevant today, and how the old authors, compilers, scribes and readers of old continue to speak to current audiences.  

Tips for translating your research to a lay audience:

● The blog text should be written in an easily readable style, but do not underestimate your readership. Abstract concepts can be difficult to wrap one’s head around, so consider using analogies and word pictures to explain yourself.
● Please make sure your writing is not bogged down with complicated jargon. Provide definitions or a glossary for technical terms if you can’t avoid them. Avoid complex grammatical structures where possible.
● Express your ideas in the active voice, and phrase your sentences positively rather than negatively.
● The aims and objectives of your research should be clearly signalled so that the reader can understand the impact and uses of your work.
● Give concrete everyday examples wherever possible and clearly define your timescales.
● Put your research in context and explain which gap your research is filling. How does this study/event/podcast/conference fit into the bigger picture? Why is it needed? What will it be used for?
● Do not be afraid of using bullet points, diagrams or images to get your point across. All images should be accompanied by alt text however (a brief description of the image or diagram).
● Use the first person: Do not be afraid of writing in first person. A blog post is different from an academic article. It is important to engage your reader, and one way to do this is to craft a story. Do not be afraid of sounding immodest. For example, if you have discovered something new and exciting in the archives, tell us! “I made this discovery”. Remember, text that is essentially autobiographical but that avoids first person does not necessarily sound humble, but rather impersonal. You want your reader to connect with the people, places, and discoveries in your story.
● Personal touches: Nothing lightens up a blog post quite so much as a personal touch, such as an anecdote from your event, or a wry comment on your research aspirations. Think about including comments from other sources.