Curiosity Podcast Transcript: Magic Or Medicine: Medieval Mysteries

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Have you ever wanted to discover a long-lost magic spell or incantation? Well, now is your chance! On this podcast, experts from the Newberry Library in Chicago discuss how you can read and even help decipher unique medieval manuscripts from the comfort of your own home. They also take a closer look at how understanding magic in the Middle Ages can help us understand our world better.

Stream or download the podcast using the player below or on our podcast page, and scroll down to follow along with the full episode transcript. You can also find the episode on iTunes, Stitcher, or Soundcloud.

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Curiosity Podcast Transcript

Cody Gough:

I'm curious, why is it so important to look back and understand how people used to live?

Christopher Fletcher:

The reason we do the things that we do is because of the choices and decisions that were made in the past. What we can do by studying history is understand why people made the choices that they did at a particular time, and when we know that, it gives us a better sense of why we do the things we do and how we might do them differently.

Cody Gough:

Hey. Cody Gough here from Curiosity.com. Today, we're gonna learn about medieval magic and more. Every week, we explore what we don't know because curiosity makes you smarter. This is the Curiosity podcast. Have you ever wanted to discover a long lost magic spell or incantation? Well, I sure have, and I've got some good news for you because today, I'm gonna talk to a few guests from the Newberry Library in Chicago who could actually use your help transcribing and translating medieval manuscripts. All you need is an internet connection. Now, if you're not into fantasy worlds like Harry Potter, then don't worry, the word "magic" is more than potions and curses. We'll get into how literature and technology can teach us more about magic and medicine, spells and superstitions, and even religion from the Middle Ages to today. Stick around to learn how you can help discover history.

From September to December 2017, the Newberry Library will present a gallery exhibition called "Religious Change in Prints, 1450 to 1700," which explores how the printed world changed through religious interpretation in Europe and the Americas. Now, lots of libraries have exhibitions, but this one has kind of an interactive element. I will start with Jill Gage, custodian of the John M. Wing Foundation on the history of printing and bibliographer for British literature and history. Wow, that's a ...

Jill Gage:

That's a very long title. Giant business card.

Cody Gough:

Is that about right? Did I sum it up pretty well?

Jill Gage:

Right. For that part of the project, it really is an opportunity for people to get to see up close in their homes around their computers manuscripts and books from the 1450s to the 1700s and to participate in transcribing them to get a chance to try that and to tell us then what they've learned about the project, about what they've learned about the books.

Cody Gough:

Yeah, because a big part of the gallery exhibition that you'll be having is books that are being transcribed and translated by everyone? People around the world?

Jill Gage:

Anyone who wants to do. Yeah. People around the world. People around the world have contacted us about this and have tried their hand at it and have wanted to tell us what they've learned.

Cody Gough:

I also have in the studio Matthew Clarke, the digital initiatives and metadata assistant. Matt, tell me what exactly on the backend is happening that is allowing people to do this and why you're crowdsourcing transcription and translation.

Matthew Clarke:

I arrived, actually, at the Newberry relatively recently, a few weeks after this project had been publicized. It basically runs in a platform called Scalar, which uses a plugin called Scripto. It presents users with an image from the manuscript and then a text box. Users are able to transcribe and translate what they see in the text box below.

Cody Gough:

Scanned images of historical books that were around that were written maybe in the 1400s, 1500s, and taking those images and transcribing them. Why can't computers do that?

Matthew Clarke:

Computers can do it with printed pages, certain printed pages using OCR, Optical Character Recognition I think it's called. I've heard that computers may in the near future actually be able to do this, which might complicate matters for us.

Ashley Hamer:

Hold your horses, Cody. Ashley here. Getting a computer to read ancient handwriting is not as easy as it sounds. Think about the last time you had to read someone's messy handwriting. You probably could identify like the capital letters pretty easily, but then you have to start doing some detective work. The way that letter loops means it's either an "a" or a "u," but in context with the rest of the word, it's probably an "a." Your brain does this automatically, but computers just follow the instructions we give them. All "a's" look like this. All "u's" look like this. As a result, it's taken them decades to even be able to distinguish characters in two different fonts, let alone all the possible styles of handwriting. With the rise of artificial intelligence and machine learning, though, we may be able to train computers to interpret the writing in historical documents the same way our brains do.

Matthew Clarke:

Yeah, but I think it has to do with just the shape of the ... maybe the differences in handwriting from person to person.

Cody Gough:

We're having a party in here. I've also got Christopher Fletcher, the program assistant in the Renaissance Center. You're the resident religious studies scholar. Can you tell me what books are we talking about?

Christopher Fletcher:

Now?

Cody Gough:

For this particular project.

Christopher Fletcher:

What books are we looking at.

Cody Gough:

Yeah.

Christopher Fletcher:

For the exhibition in general, we're talking about any books, any manuscripts as well that really show this religious change that's going on in this period, 1450 to 1700. The impetus behind this exhibition is the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther posting his 95 thesis to the door of the castle church Wittenberg, which started what we've come to call "the Reformation," which created just this whole enormous series of religious changes in Europe and America that really are at the root of all these major changes in this period that we've called the early modern period, because it's in this period, this very period, 1450 to 1700, that we start to see things, that we start to recognize more as modern.

The medieval world goes away and we see something that looks more like what we have. Religion was at the heart of that. The religion was the most stable pillar of medieval society. It was the one thing that no matter where you lived, in Europe anyway, you could count on Christianity on the Roman Church as being that thing you could always count on. When that gets taken away in large part through print, the fact that ideas spread more quickly, more widely, more people are reading more things, with the loss of that stability it just causes this ripple effect that affects every level of society. We're examining that relationship, the relationship between print and religious change.

What we're doing in the exhibition is pulling out ... and in the digital resources we're doing as well, we're pulling out all of these different books that show this relationship, show how print is making religious change different or how religion is driving changes in the printing industry itself. The books that we're talking about in this particular resource, our transcribing faith resource, which is what the transcription site is called, are manuscripts. What these do is they really show us what's going on on the ground. One of our major emphasis with this project is to try to get people as much as we can into the experience of these religious changes. How do the people living in the 15th, 16th, 17th centuries experience these changes. How do they deal with them, how did it change the way they thought, the way they acted, the way they lived.

Manuscripts are great for that because manuscripts are not printed, so they're not mass produced. Someone had to sit down and write out every single word that we have in these manuscripts. A great record of how individuals, and in the case of the magical charms book, at least three individuals experience these religious changes. What did they think was important, why do they bother to write it down, what else did they record in there? It really gives us a nice picture of how an individual person, what their view of religion was, how they experienced these changes. That's part of the exciting thing, is making these very unique sources. There's no other book quite like any of these books anywhere else in the world because manuscripts are all these very singular witnesses to a particular experience. We're making that available for the crowd, for anyone who wants to to look in them and see what they can find.

Ashley Hamer:

The three books receiving the most attention from the project are the commonplace book, cases of conscience concerning witchcraft, and the book of magical charms. The commonplace book is full of poems, jokes and games. Cases of conscience concerning witchcraft tells the story of a Puritan leader involved in the Salem witch trials. To many, the most interesting book is the book of magical charms. In this book, one translator found instructions to perform a conjuring under a crescent moon equipped with incense, a sword and holy water. Others have discovered how to treat nose bleeds and sore fingers, heated dice, and even speak with spirits. Visit the Newberry Library's website from the show notes. You never know what you might discover next.

Christopher Fletcher:

It's very exciting to see, and getting to how we validate these things, the crowd has actually been doing that to a certain degree. I know I've received a couple of emails from people who have reported going on and correcting something here or there. It's sort of like how Wikipedia, like people can go on and fix something that they think is wrong. We have been seeing that. People who do have expertise are getting onto the site and using it and making certain changes. That's not something we expected when we launched it, but it's been really neat to see that start to happen.

Cody Gough:

Yeah. Matt, what kind of response have you seen from everyone? Who's coming? Is it mostly people in Chicago near the Newberry or everywhere?

Matthew Clarke:

No, actually we've gotten a huge response, and a global response too actually. I've received emails from people in countries all over the world. In South America, in Europe, in Asia I think. It's [inaudible 00:09:27] Most of the respondents have been in the US or the UK. People have just been incredibly generous with the sort of support they're offering. People have gotten in touch to offer books, for instance, that we might not have that could be used as resources and the interpretation of these texts.

Cody Gough:

Wow.

Matthew Clarke:

For instance, to me, the most interesting respondents have been self-identified witches and warlocks and Wiccans.

Cody Gough:

Wait, really?

Matthew Clarke:

Yeah. For instance, the first one that I really remember was an email from an alchemist in Canada who was very excited because he'd done some work on the Book of Solomon, which I actually never really hear of, which I guess is a major book for alchemists. I think the first charm in the book is the Solomon bond. I don't know if it's [crosstalk 00:10:12].

Christopher Fletcher:

There is one. Yeah.

Matthew Clarke:

I actually read that and was like, I gotta get in touch. He did. I guess he speaks Latin and Hebrew and wanted to just do what he could. I got an email from a witch in California, an ink witch, actually, who is also offering her help.

Cody Gough:

An ink witch?

Matthew Clarke:

An ink witch. I'm not sure what an ink witch is still. She said she's been a witch since the 70s. I don't know if she's been an ink witch since the 70s or just a witch. I'm not sure what the process is.

Ashley Hamer:

Yeah. I got nothing.

Cody Gough:

Ink, like I-N-K?

Matthew Clarke:

I-N-K, yeah. Not an incorporated witch. [crosstalk 00:10:50] She was really helpful too. There's a witch in the UK who runs a production company, actually. She said that she had access to an extensive network of occultists who could help us over the winter months. There is someone else ...

Jill Gage:

The winter months.

Matthew Clarke:

Actually, you, Chris, brought ...

Christopher Fletcher:

Off season.

Matthew Clarke:

Off season. She wanted a few months to pouring over the manuscript in PDF, actually. She wanted a PDF. Chris, you brought me a letter from someone in Ohio who was a registered spiritualist.

Christopher Fletcher:

Yes.

Matthew Clarke:

She called herself. Who also wanted to lend some books and said that we should get in touch with Druids, who might be willing to help us.

Jill Gage:

This is interesting, because this manuscript was created in the early 17th century, which is exactly when James I is writing his book on demonology, so he was an avid witch hunter and had a witch hunter general actually, who we talked about. It's amazing that they ... They didn't get them all, obviously, because they have thrived in England and are now running BBC probably.

Christopher Fletcher:

The fact that it is a manuscript helps to point to that, because in an age of print, especially in a place like England, England had a very centralized authority. The vast majority of all the printing in England happens in London where the king is. They did a very good job of censuring and controlling the presses and making sure what got off is what they wanted. If you had some views or some interests that did not quite line up with what the king wanted, you wrote a manuscript. They're not just for magic. Magic was one of the things that obviously James was not a big fan of. The church in general, both Protestant and Catholic churches looked down on magic. They didn't like it. They tried to do everything they could to stamp it out, but for those who were interested in it, wanted to preserve it, you could write it down in a manuscript, copy it that way, circulate it that way.

One of the things that this particular book, the magical charms book, shows is that for all the efforts that various church and secular authorities made in trying to control this stuff and stamp it out, they were never 100% successful. People always found a way to continue to practice the kind of religious culture that they were familiar with and manuscript was a good way for them to do that. It may be possible to draw a bit of a line between this manuscript and the production company that we have these days.

Cody Gough:

They weren't able to stamp out the Reformation in the same way, right? Martin Luther's text, that somehow got to printing presses all over. Isn't that kind of how the whole process began?

Christopher Fletcher:

Yeah. Germany's different. Germany in the 16th century has no central authority whatsoever. Germany is broken up into many, many, many different little principalities. Martin Luther was from Albertine Saxony. There was also an Ernestine Saxony next door. They were just a few miles apart. There are all sort of principalities and every sort of local guy could control his presses, but nobody could control them all. For Luther, what was his big support for him was that when he started to print his ideas, there was no single person as there would have been in England who could say, "Okay, nope, nothing by Martin Luther gets printed." There was some places that did that. Bavaria, for instance, was a place where they said, "No Martin Luther at all." Saxony, Brandenburg, all these other places were like, "Sure, Martin Luther can be printed here." Once it's printed, those copies can be circulated further and further. Yeah. A lot depended on where you were.

Jill Gage:

In England though, it's interesting, is we have magic in Shakespeare, a lot of it in Shakespeare right in the same period, on stage and in print. Macbeth, the Temptress, for example. Even Hamlet, where there's, like, spirits.

Cody Gough:

Yeah. Lots of supernatural elements.

Jill Gage:

Macbeth was hugely popular because of the witches on the stage.

Cody Gough:

Do we know why that is?

Jill Gage:

People liked witches. I don't know.

Cody Gough:

Do we know why he wasn't beheaded after he wrote his first few ...

Jill Gage:

That's interesting, because he really was the ... We think of him as being Elizabethan, but he really was the dramatist of James I. That's an interesting question, actually. I don't know that we have a lot of time to answer it here. I think magic on stage or magic in literature is quite different than how do you cure a toothache or how do you [inaudible 00:15:09] out a witch in real life. There are a lot of connections between what goes on on stage and sort of a cathartic type of witchery.

Cody Gough:

Sure. I believe I was looking at the list of texts, and where are they all originating from? Are they all over from Europe or are there any American texts? Where did you get them? How did the Newberry Library end up with these manuscripts?

Jill Gage:

From various places. This is a gift, this book of magical charms was a gift we received in the 80s from a man who collected a lot of science and a lot of medical material from the early modern period. First book of plastic surgery, how do you treat women's health issues. There are a lot of books like that, and this is one of the manuscripts that he gave as well. He obviously sought more in the realm of science and not religion. We have acquired things from all over. Some of it through purchase, some of it through other gifts over the years. Lots of different ways.

Cody Gough:

Where do they find these? Does some guy just go down to his basement one day and say ...

Jill Gage:

That actually happens. Yeah. Especially with something like this where it's not quite clear what it is unless you have some handwriting skills or some language skills, so there are things that sit around. People do approach us all the time with things that they think might be of interest to us.

Cody Gough:

I've read a couple of the pages, and the handwriting can be quite challenging at times.

Jill Gage:

We have a specialist in handwriting who happens to volunteer for me every week. He looked at this book of magical charms and he said ... because a single person in the early modern period could have different handwritings for different types of material. You might write Latin texts in one handwriting, and then French text in another kind of handwriting. You might write formal letters to somebody in formal secretary hand, and then use an italic hand for something else. This is something that people learned in school. They learned different kinds of handwriting. Often, in order for you to get a job working for somebody, you had to be able to write exactly like that person, for example. I would fail miserably in this period, we all would. People this day can barely write one kind of handwriting, but that's one of the things that we need to think about too, is one person doing this. Our specialist thinks he's identified three different people writing in the book. There are some cases in which the same person ... It looks like two different handwritings, but it's really the same person just writing in different styles, or has gotten older, or he hit his head and now his handwriting's not so good as that used to be.

One of the things we found out through this project is we're learning a lot about ... One thing the Newberry and other libraries always depend on, we have books and we want researchers to come in and look at those things, and then they tell us something about what they've looked at. Then that gets put into public scholarship. You might come in and publish an article and then someone else might say, "I've looked at that same book, and I think it's wrong." There's a public arena for that, which tends to be academic journals or academic conferences. What we're really trying to do with his kind of project is democratize that so you could be sitting at your house and you could say, "I think it's this." Someone sitting in Germany can say, "I think that word is wrong. I think it's a different word." One of the things we have to figure out as an institution is how we're gonna present that. That's just something we're thinking about going forward very carefully.

Cody Gough:

Yeah. Why make this and these texts and certain texts available to the general public and not just people who study medieval medicine, for example, or the Reformation, because there are a lot of libraries where you have to say, "All right, I need these transcripts. I have to fly to Morocco, or I have to go to Bogota or somewhere else." What makes these different?

Jill Gage:

First of all, the Newberry is open to the public. We've always been open to the public. Anybody 14 or older can come in and see any book or manuscript we have. You can come in and see a medieval manuscript, you can see books about Luther. You can see a Shakespeare's first folio. Anything we have. That's part of what we do. We don't turn people away. We think that books and manuscripts are for everybody and it's not just for scholars. That's also part of the projects that Chris and Matt can tell you more about. Not everybody can come to Chicago, so why not make things more accessible for them.

Cody Gough:

Is there anything chemically about these that make them more durable or able to be digitized?

Jill Gage:

No. In general, books printed before the 19th century are much sturdier than other books that are printed on cotton paper, so they're not acidic. The paper's not acidic. It doesn't fall apart. They tend to be easier to digitize. They're really sturdy.

Ashley Hamer:

Have you ever wondered why more modern paper would be acidic? Book makers in the 19th century didn't just drench their paper in acid. What they did do is use additives, like aluminum sulfate, also known as paper maker's alum to harden the paper, what is known in the paper world as sizing. Unfortunately, those additives are acidic, and overtime, they break the molecular bonds in the cellulose of the paper and eventually make it disintegrate. Whoops. These days, there's a big push to make paper more alkaline, since alkaline paper holds up better over the years. That's why you'll see paper advertised with the words "acid-free" and "archival-quality."

Jill Gage:

It kind of just depends on the books. Some things are really tightly bound. Some things have been kept in an attic for 50 years, so that's maybe not so good.

Cody Gough:

Sure. I think it's great. I think every library should do this.

Christopher Fletcher:

Yeah. I'm a medievalist by training, but I was excited to work on this project because one of the emphasis was to try to make this history more relevant to people. I know this from teaching this material before, is when I teach the Reformation in class, students would come in, you could see in their eyes, it's just like, "Well, this happened 500 years ago. What does this have to do with me?" When in reality, these changes we're talking about are fundamentally important for how our world ends up the way it is today. The success of Luther and the other religious debates in the 16th century is a huge contributing factor to news, the idea that people would want to know what's going on right now, what am I hearing about. They wanted to get the most recent information. That's not a sort of thing people did as often in the Middle Ages, and it's precisely these religious changes that are at the root of what becomes this great now home media in and of itself as really very closely tied to that.

We wanted to bring out that as much as possible. A way to do that was to share our materials with people. The problem with the manuscript is that to work with a manuscript, you have to be sitting in front of it. You can't just see the other copy of it. There have been transcriptions of other manuscripts made, but by doing it this way, we opened it up to people who wouldn't normally have the chance to come here, whether they're across the ocean in United Kingdom or there are certainly places, say, in the city of Chicago who have never been to the Newberry. They wouldn't have a reason to come up there. Now they too can get on their computer and see, oh, there's this manuscript that I can get involved with. It's trying to bring the materials that we have to a larger audience and hopefully getting them to engage with it in their own way and hopefully come in to the Newberry and see what else we have.

Cody Gough:

How did you become interested in your current field and to studying that period?

Christopher Fletcher:

Well, I got interested in the Middle Ages originally because I remember thinking back on social studies, we basically skipped 1,000 years of history. We talked about Rome and then Rome fell. Then there was a little bit on Charlemagne and a Crusade, and then we're in the Renaissance, and I was like, that's an awful lot of time. What happened in there? Then when I went to college and started doing some more work in there and started doing some more medieval scholarship, I came to find that a lot of the assumptions I had and very popular assumptions about the Middle Ages were actually wrong, and that the Middle Ages were much more complex and diverse and interesting period of time that I'd ever realized. I started doing that.

That transitioned into this project, and I became much more interested in thinking, "Well, why doesn't everybody else think this? Why doesn't everyone else find religious history or medieval or early modern history as interesting as I do?" I came to think that the problem was that it was a communication issue, that the people in academia weren't doing much public outreach attempt to reach out to people and explain to them how this was important. With that in mind, this project that I worked on last year when I applied for this fellowship was right up my alley. It was something that asked me to work with the subject matter I was interested in, but specifically to think about ways to make it more engaging.

Cody Gough:

I would imagine certain popular culture elements right now are maybe getting some people more interested in this. Maybe somebody sees an episode of Game of Thrones and decides, "Oh, I want to learn about old magic." Matt, have you seen any messages like that or gotten any indication of what kind of people are being drawn to this project?

Matthew Clarke:

I haven't got any explicit references to Game of Thrones or other pop cultural things that have drawn people to the project. Really, it's just the content of ... It's the book of charms especially. I think we mentioned there are five manuscripts on the site. It's the books of charms and the fact that there's the gothic dimension to it. I think that it's not just our time right now, but there almost like a universal timeless appeal

Jill Gage:

Yeah. There's a timelessness ...

Matthew Clarke:

... to ghosts and spells and the enchanted world and that sort of thing.

Jill Gage:

How do you keep a witch away from your house? How do you cure a toothache?

Matthew Clarke:

It's a persistent question.

Jill Gage:

Yeah. It's a question.

Cody Gough:

You mentioned the toothache. I was reading one of them, and one of the remedies to a toothache is I believe hanging a dead man's tooth round your neck. There must have been a logic to this, is all I can think about. Where does something like that come from?

Jill Gage:

It's not that different from superstition. Why do you throw salt over your shoulder if you spill salt, or why, you know, knock wood or do whatever. There's a great book by Keith Thomas who's a big historian, called "Religion and the Decline of Magic." Is that what it's ...

Christopher Fletcher:

I think so.

Jill Gage:

I guess it's not so important that I remember the title. He talks about this. He talks about the relationship between magic and religion in the medieval church and then how it changes. A lot of it is based on superstition or why do we think that certain objects have so much power. It seems like a completely impractical way to cure a toothache that you'd have to go find a dead body, or maybe there's so many dead bodies around that they're trying to find ways to deal with that. There's actually, I think, a lot to be said. It sounds kind of goofy now, but I think that there's a lot to be said about what it actually asked you to do.

Christopher Fletcher:

The tooth part makes sense, right? If you're gonna cure a toothache, it's teeth-related, so there's this one. You're not gonna go pull a tooth out of a living person and hang it around your neck. There might be some legal implications there. It's interesting for me to see spells like that. I think those are actually the more interesting ones for me from this book because it really shows people trying to control the world around them. It's not just simply knowing spells because it's cool and weird or gives you some sort of street cred with a certain type of person. They're interested in how the world works.

For them, the fact of the matter was was that the supernatural world and the physical world were not separate. They overlapped all the time. If you have a toothache, which sucks to have a toothache and you want to get rid of it, the idea that you could do something as simple, we presume, as taking a dead man's tooth and wearing it around your neck and solving that problem was very appealing to these people. They were looking for ways to solve these problems and felt that the supernatural was a perfectly viable way to do that.

Jill Gage:

We have printed books that are basically household tips and have lots of recipes and things. The way to cure baldness, for example, which you took bear grease and rubbed it on your head. I don't know. I always remembered that one, but it also seems really impractical.

Cody Gough:

Where do you find bear grease?

Jill Gage:

There are lots of bears, I guess, at the time, and they had bear bathing. You're hunting bear. I don't know. I think there is a lot of overlap between what they thought was actually science and medicine and then magic, these kind of magical spells or charms. That's what makes this book so particular, this manuscript so particularly interesting, is it's not kind of an outlier of society because this person also has passages from Luther and lots of religious books, but also hard science, what we call hard science, and lots of things. It's that magic isn't something that sits outside of daily life. It's that magic is integrated in daily life and it's not totally divergent from religion or anything else for this particular person, which I think is what makes it so interesting.

Cody Gough:

You mentioned more transcribing and translation projects than this current one right now. What else is on the Newberry's website?

Matthew Clarke:

There are a few other digital resources, which are part of this particular project. There's a polyglot bible resource, which I believe is now public, which features a number of bibles in different languages across both Europe and America too. There's another resource dedicated to the Luther controversy, which I think you mentioned already, and we have a number of upcoming resources too. One of which is devoted to modern manuscripts, transcribing modern manuscripts, which is another similar crowdsourcing project.

Cody Gough:

How do you approach these from the digital perspective? Do you just run every book through a scanner and upload it as PDF?

Matthew Clarke:

Our department is large. I think the first stage is, yeah, to have a project manager, like Chris for instance, develop the project, pick out the books. The books are then sent to digital technicians who do scan them. The images are uploaded to a content management system. Then someone like myself takes the images, attaches text and images to a platform, text written by someone like Chris again or Jill, the project manager. Then we produce a sort of digital exhibition or a crowdsourcing project in that way.

Cody Gough:

Okay, and the scanning technicians, do they have to do anything special to preserve it, like avoid certain types of light or anything that you're aware of?

Christopher Fletcher:

Yeah. They have special conditions, special equipment where certain books may have a very fragile binding, so they need to be put into a particular machine that has a special cradle for them to sit in. Of course, light is always an issue. Like any photography room, they have to keep the light down or use special kinds of lights that also won't reflect too much off of it. They have a lot of ways to do this, but it's really not a complicated process. I was actually surprised by that as someone who hadn't had a lot of experience doing digital humanities. Before I did this previous project I thought, man, to make a website you must have a different kind of advanced degree than I do to formulate this, but it's really just a simple as what do we want to talk about, how do you want people to see it, and how is it that we can make that happen. It ended up being a lot easier than I realized, in part because our digital team is so very skilled. That helped a lot too.

Cody Gough:

Yeah. I always just assumed you had to go to some laboratory and scientist are inventing new types of light or something and it all has to ... It's like when you go to an art museum, you can't take a picture of anything. Every ray of light is going to do permanent undoable damage to every piece of art work and all that kind of stuff.

Ashley Hamer:

There is some very cool technology being developed to help out with digitizing these old books. In 2016, researchers at MIT created a camera that can actually read the inside of a book without opening it. It uses terahertz radiation, a kind of radiation that falls between the microwave and infrared spectrums and has the fascinating superpower of making different chemicals produce their own frequencies. Paper has one frequency, the ink on the page has another, and this camera can hone in on just the frequency it cares about. When the researchers announced it, this camera could only see nine pages deep into a closed book, but who knows what it might do in the future.

Cody Gough:

You haven't found that as much?

Jill Gage:

Not for this. Part of it is actually picking the right materials that will show up well, especially again with the 19th century, the paper got worse, the ink got worse. Sometimes, there's a lot of show-through from the other side. Picking materials that will photograph well and that people will actually be able to read without us doing too much stuff. I think a lot of it is sort of pre production in a way, sort of that process. Then the images themselves are basically very high resolution photographs, or similar. A larger part of the process was actually figuring out how we could set up a website where people could transcribe them. What is the technology behind that. We have another project through the Renaissance center, which is a French paleography project, which shows different kinds of French handwriting through the centuries, and people can come in and see French handwriting from the 15th century or 16th century, different styles.

I think we had learned a lot ... Neither of you worked on that project, nor did I, but I think we learned a lot on how a transcription technology works, or what kinds of websites are available for that. I think we really learn from other projects that we've done at the Newberry, and how things work or don't work or what makes them easy. If it's too hard or too complicated for people or the technology doesn't work, they're not gonna do it. I think something about this project is it all sort of magically came together where it's pretty easy for people to do it. You don't have to jump through a lot of hoops. You can look at the manuscripts and then immediately pull it up and start doing it right away. I think I just tried it without reading any instructions right away or doing anything. If you start it and don't finish it, that's fine. Nobody's standing over you. I think we really learned a lot from other projects on this one.

Christopher Fletcher:

Yeah, and there are other things. Most of the manuscripts that we have up there on our transcription project are English or at least mostly English, so that was on the front end, the pre production end, as Jill put it. We have a lot of German stuff that's really interesting, but if we put that up, we're probably gonna get a smaller response of people who are interested in it. We stuck with the English and Latin, which brings in the translation part. We also should probably mention that our conservation department is also very much involved in these projects as well before they get photographed, they get sent to conservation, and they do their own review of can we photograph this item? Will it stand up to the process? Sometimes we send them things and they say, "Well, you can't have the whole book, or you can have these pages from the book." They do a very good job of helping to make sure that the stuff that gets photographed is able to withstand whatever process it has to go through for that to happen.

Cody Gough:

Interesting. Matt mentioned that you help decide which manuscripts or which materials to choose for certain projects. How many manuscripts are sitting somewhere in a vault at the Newberry that will maybe someday be transcribed and translated?

Christopher Fletcher:

Yes, thousands. We have a wonderful manuscript collection all the way up to the modern period as well. I'm sure we have more modern manuscripts than we do medieval or modern ones.

Jill Gage:

Good luck reading that handwriting. Good luck reading 19th century handwriting.

Christopher Fletcher:

Yes.

Cody Gough:

Really?

Jill Gage:

I think 17th century handwriting is much easier.

Christopher Fletcher:

Cursive is a mess. When you get more cursive, it's harder to read. I think this project, this religious change project is in many ways trying to break new ground. The library has tried to do things that we haven't done before. One of them is making our materials more widely available for the crowd to do with. This is one important aspect. I think it's safe to say that it's exceeded anyone's expectations when we first put this out there of the people who'd be interested or be willing to participate in it. With that being the case, I wouldn't be surprised to see more manuscripts be made available and perhaps even some day, the non-English ones. German ones, French ones, which as Jill mentioned, we're already sort of doing. We're beginning an Italian paleography project now. Working on our Italian manuscripts. There's a lot to be done. We have a wonderful collection with a lot of really great stuff.

Matthew Clarke:

To give what Chris said some context to in terms of exceeding expectations, from what I understand, the digital resource that what the most page views in the entire year last year was digital collections in the classroom, got 380,000 or something like that, page views over the course of the entire year. This got 180,000 in three weeks alone.

Cody Gough:

Wow.

Matthew Clarke:

Yeah, which is incredible, I think.

Cody Gough:

Yeah. That is quite significant. I was going to ask, do you think that this might inspire other libraries or institutions to maybe follow suit with the digitizing?

Jill Gage:

Yeah. It takes a lot to do that and not every library is equipped for that. Not every library has the resources that we have. Some of them do. Crowdsourcing is fairly new. It's not terribly new, but it's 10 years old or something like that, so I think people just keep learning from the projects that are out there.

Ashley Hamer:

Ten years old? Almost exactly. The term "crowdsourcing" was coined in 2006 by journalist Jeff Howe in a piece for Wired Magazine. The actual practice, though, is much older. The Toyota logo, the Sydney Opera House, and even Alaska's state flag all came out of calls for contest entries from the general public. As far back as 1714, the British government put out a call for solutions to what was called "the longitude problem." Basically, it was really hard for sailors to figure out where they were in the world longitudinally, and that confusion killed thousands per year. The 20,000 pound price eventually went to the clockmaker, John Harrison, for his invention of the marine chronometer.

Jill Gage:

When you put stuff out there, people do respond, and I think it's a great way to learn about the collection, so I think we'll see more of it as we go forward.

Christopher Fletcher:

Yeah. Just pretty much generally, you see in libraries and universities too sort of a larger emphasis on digital humanities and trying to find ways to bring this material to a broader audience in a more engaging way than has been done in the past. I wouldn't be surprised at all to see more projects like this from different institutions around the world even. As a part of this project, I've had a discussion with some German librarians, and they're very much into digitizing their collections and making them more available. I think it's something you're gonna see around the world, really.

Cody Gough:

What's been your favorite part of the project?

Christopher Fletcher:

Working with the stuff. I joke with people that last year I had the best job at the library because all I had to do was find interesting things in the collection and find interesting ways to talk about them. That, for me, has been good. Really the response. The transcription website has gotten the biggest response, but the responses we've gotten from the other digital resources we've done has, again, exceeded our expectations of the number of people who have noticed and tried them or found them interesting. The most rewarding part, I think, is seeing how the general public, not just other scholars, but just regular people have been excited by this and are willing to try it. My older sister is a music teacher and she was very excited to tell me, "Oh, I tried it and it was really fun. Everyone else should try it." That's the sort of thing that's been really fun to see happen now.

Cody Gough:

Yeah. Matt had some really interesting stories. I've gotta ask what has been your favorite part? Anything in particular jumped out?

Matthew Clarke:

Any of those emails. Yeah. Just I think in general the sort of give and take between ... Not the give and take, but the correspondence between myself and various of the witches and warlocks and Wiccans. Just the opportunity though too to work with ... I mentioned I just began here, to work with people in the digital initiatives and services department and just to learn so much from them about how this works has been, to be completely honest, one of the more exciting things for me.

Cody Gough:

Yeah. It's really cool. Do you have a particular interest in medieval history or it just happened to be something you're getting into now?

Matthew Clarke:

My background is in romantic poetry in book history. I've never really studied medieval history that much, but it's becoming increasingly ...

Cody Gough:

You have to post the manuscripts from that.

Matthew Clarke:

Yeah.

Cody Gough:

From that next. Very cool. To ask everybody, Jill, do you have a favorite part of the project?

Jill Gage:

Just getting to learn more about our 17th century English manuscripts. I think to spend a lot of time, it's rare that I get to spend a lot of time with a single book or manuscript because we're so busy, and just the chance to really learn about this and learn from other people and from my colleagues and then people all over the world about it has been really fun.

Cody Gough:

Anybody want to add anything that we didn't cover on this project or on what the Newberry is doing currently?

Christopher Fletcher:

As a historian, I'm very interested in not taking any part of our contemporary world for granted. The way we live, the way we do things, all have a history. There's a reason why we do the things that we do and think things that we think. What's great about studying history is that it throws all of those different things into such sharp focus. If you look at religious history in the Reformation, or even in the Middle Ages, you can see how people reacted to certain situations. When you have religious differences or significant difference between two people, how do they respond to that? How does the Catholic and the Protestant respond? It's just so starkly visible and it looks so different from the way we normally do things. It's easier to draw attention to look at what's going on here. Look at the experience here.

There's a lot about what happened in the Reformation that was not great for a lot of people and understanding why they made those decisions, why there was so much chaos and destruction and confusion after that can help us in our own day where we have similar challenges. Where we now have people shouting at each other over left versus right, conservative verus liberal. Every bit as aggressively as they were doing in the Reformation. If we understand how they did things in the Reformation, I think can help us figure out how we should work now.

Cody Gough:

If people want to get involved, they can just go to the Newberry's website. What section is it under?

Jill Gage:

You click on the banner that's one every page that says "Religious Change, 1450 to 1700."

Christopher Fletcher:

Right. If you go to the Newberry's homepage, it'll be right there at the top.

Cody Gough:

We'll have links in the show notes, of course, also in the podcast. I do want to wrap up with a curiosity challenge, and I hope one of you at least came prepared with some kind of random trivia that has nothing to do with your field of expertise.

Jill Gage:

I'm an expert at everything, so it's a little hard. No, I'm kidding, or nothing. That's how we [inaudible 00:42:42]. I don't have any expertise. Sure, I do have a question. In 1862, which actor came through Chicago and played Othello to much acclaim? Notorious actor.

Cody Gough:

Notorious actor from 1862. I'm a little rusty on my 1800s actors. Annie Oakley is the only name I even know. There's no way that's even remotely accurate.

Jill Gage:

That's it. True. No, I'm kidding. John Wilkes Booth played Othello in blackface in Chicago to great reviews and was called the actor to watch, the great star of the future.

Cody Gough:

There are so many things wrong with that.

Jill Gage:

That's true.

Cody Gough:

With that sentence.

Jill Gage:

That's true.

Cody Gough:

Wow. That is definitely something I didn't know. That was really great piece of trivia. I'm gonna try to teach you all something, a random fact, since you gave me so much knowledge. What I want to ask is, I made this one a little harder because there's three of you. One of the world's libraries straddles two countries. Can you name the cities that the library is located in? I can give you a hint for the countries if you want.

Jill Gage:

Okay.

Christopher Fletcher:

Sure.

Cody Gough:

Countries are US and Canada. There is actually a library that straddles the two countries. Wow, no?

Jill Gage:

No. Oh, my god, I'm so embarrassed. No.

Christopher Fletcher:

I'm not a librarian.

Matthew Clarke:

Is this a large library? What sort of library?

Cody Gough:

I'm not actually sure how large the library is. That's a good question. Oh, my gosh. You look so distressed that you don't this one.

Jill Gage:

I don't work on America.

Cody Gough:

I will reveal. The library is actually the Haskell Free Library, and it straddles Vermont and Quebec. It's in the city of Derby Line, Vermont, and Stanstead, Quebec. The building sits directly on the border between the US and Canada, but what's really interesting is that its spot gives it a couple remarkable claims to fame. It's a library and opera house, and the library books and circulation desk are on the Canadian side, but the entrance is on the US side. The building has been called the only library in the US with no books. The opera house stage is in Canada, but its seats are in the US, so it's the only US opera house with no stage.

Jill Gage:

Wow. My god. That's great trivia.

Cody Gough:

You can learn more about that and read about that on Curiosity.com. We'll also have that in the show notes.

Christopher Fletcher:

I did not know that I didn't know that.

Jill Gage:

No. Me too.

Cody Gough:

There you go. Do you know where the world's oldest library is? That one's oversees, so you might get that one. No?

Christopher Fletcher:

What's the country again.

Cody Gough:

Morocco.

Christopher Fletcher:

Morocco?

Cody Gough:

Yeah.

Jill Gage:

No.

Cody Gough:

Random library trivia. Something you'd never thought you would experience.

Christopher Fletcher:

Need to work on that.

Cody Gough:

Yeah. I'll have links to all that stuff in the show notes again, but that's okay. Now I got to teach you all something.

Jill Gage:

That's great.

Christopher Fletcher:

That's great.

Cody Gough:

Sorry I only have the two trivia questions. We'll save three if you [inaudible 00:45:50] studies, because there's three of you, so there you go. Thanks again for joining me. Really appreciate it.

Jill Gage:

Thank you.

Christopher Fletcher:

Thank you, Cody.

Cody Gough:

I've got some exciting news this week, so stick around. First, I'm gonna give you a chance to earn some extra credit. If you've been learning something new everyday on Curiosity.com, then this should be a piece of cake. This week's question, what's the most effective way to make your password more secure? I'll give you a hint. It's probably not the same strategy you're already using. The answer in just a minute.

Here's the big news. You can see us live. We're gonna be doing a live episode of the Curiosity podcast in Chicago on Tuesday, October 3rd at the Beat Kitchen in Lake View. You can RSVP for the even on our Facebook page where we'll post details and ticket information as soon as it becomes available. Pencil us in for October 3rd if you'll be in the area. I promise you it will be super fun. Are you curious about podcasting? I'm gonna be on a podcasting panel at Gen Con 2017 on Saturday, August 19th. I'll be joining podcasters from the GonnaGeek Network to talk all things podcasting and you can search the Gen Con event guide to figure out where to find me at the Indianapolis Crowne Plaza from 10 to noon. Stop by and say hi if you get a chance.

We've gotten some really kind feedback about the Curiosity podcast, and we really appreciate it. Honestly, it means a lot that we're making peoples lives just a little bit better in today's crazy world. Truly, the greatest compliment you can give us leaving us a five star review on iTunes or Stitcher, because that really does help us out. Please email us at podcast@curiosity.com if there's anything you'd like to hear on future episodes.

Here at Curiosity, we cover a wide variety of topics every day. That brings us to today's extra credit answer. What makes a better computer password? One word, length. When it comes to password security, length is more important than complexity. According to Infosec Institute, a 16 character password made up of just numbers is just as difficult to crack as an eight character password that uses all possible characters. Check the show notes for links to learn more about this on Curiosity.com, or search for password in the Curiosity app on your Android or IOS device. Ashley Hamer's insights were absolutely spell-binding this week, so thanks to Ashley for those and thanks to you for listening. Extra special thanks and two thumbs up if you told a friend to check us out. Anyway, that's all for this week. For the Curiosity podcast, I'm Cody Gough.

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