The Heroic Age

A Journal of Early Medieval Northwestern Europe

Issue 9 (Oct 2006)

Oswald, King and Saint: His Britain and Beyond   |   Issue Editor: Michelle Ziegler

Founded 1998   |   ISSN 1526-1867

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Electronic Medievalia

Continental Business


Electronic Medievalia: Global Warming for Humanities Computing? Strategic Changes in the Economic Forecast

Patricia Kosco Cossard1
University of Maryland

§1.  Medievalists have played a significant role in the development of humanities computing. Not only is Roberto Busa, S.J., whose pioneering Index Thomisticus applied computing to humanities scholarship, acclaimed to be its founder but numerous other scholars and electronic scholarly projects have developed what began as a practice into a field within the larger area of humanities. As the field matured and its pioneers looked towards emeritus status, the problem of sustainability rose as a primary concern. Daniel Paul O'Donnell addressed this issue in this column's Winter 2004 issue. That column offered savvy advice on how individual scholars can ensure sustainability by following these simple rules: do not write for specific hardware or software, maintain a distinction between content and presentation, and avoid unnecessary technical innovation (O'Donnell 2004).

§2.  In this article O'Donnell also identified an area that has yet to be sufficiently developed among medievalist in spite of the illustrious participation in humanities computing, that is, an established community of practice. But what are communities of practice? Can they be established? Are they sufficient to provide a strategic advantage to identify, nurture, and accelerate the productive use of information technologies for the benefit of the international medievalist community?

What are Communities of Practice?

§3.  A survey of the literature on this topic surfaces the idea that communities of practice are a specific type of ubiquitous informal network. They are characterized as small informal groups of highly specialized professionals who form networks in order to work more efficiently or understand their work more deeply (Sharp 1997). They can be extremely helpful when members work together over a period of time and have an extensive body of communication. Members use the community for sounding boards as well as direct collaboration. These informal networks are essential structures for any learning organization. By its very nature academic institutions define a knowledge-based organization, therefore it is not surprising to find a tradition of informal learning networks or discourse communities within it.2

§4.  Traditionally, informal networks have been characterized by intense face-to-face collaborations and have commonly been limited to groups of less than fifty. In the academic framework they are similar to collegial conversations at meetings and seminar presentations of papers-yet-to-be-published. However, since the introduction of email, listservs, and reflector groups, a new type of network, the scholarly communities of practice, have arisen. Enriched by their unlimited geographic dispersal which technology provides, they do not suffer in any way even though members may never actually meet face-to-face for community participation.

Can they be established?

§5.  Typically, a community of practice is not an authorized group. Collaboration is direct, informal, and is marked by a collegial bond to take responsibility for getting a specific type of work done. Their ubiquity is inextricably tied to informality. A discourse community can be said to be established in the sense that it develops identifiable lines of communication while still maintaining informality. Often, in a learning enterprise, as in the case of academics, what begins as an informal community of discourse eventually matures with defined theories and methodologies. It is at this point that its practical principles then compete with administrative principles and formal structures.

§6.  Within the framework of academics, with its definite and tangible economics of scholarship, establishment, formality, and authorization often conflate, eventually surpassing the informality of communities of practice. Periodic reporting meetings (conferences), formal reporting structures (publication and peer review), and written procedural documentation (promotion and tenure) effectively burden participants and inhibit informal exchanges. However, while informal community discourse, conference presentations and peer reviewed publication all combine to make up what is called scholarly communication, it is the developed, authorized, and formally documented communication vehicles that are most valued by academic administrative structures and its principles of formal quality control (peer review). Authorization is inherently formal which is mutually exclusive with the informality which defines communities of practice.

§7.  A successful discourse community can sometimes mature into an actual field. Since communities of practice focus on continually new learning, individual participants often develop innovative skill sets. Participants who have pioneered the field, or are participating in the dynamics of its development, naturally desire to be recognized and rewarded for their innovations by the scholarly economic system. Furthermore, individuals within the community need to be able to build up a record of achievement and reputation. Thus a maturing community of practice needs more than a listserv to meet communal needs.

§8.  I would argue that once a community of practice begins to develop formal structures, i.e. other forms of communication beyond listservs and ephemeral news, then it is fast becoming something more. I do not mean to say that the need for communities of practice then begins to decline. Quite the contrary, let me argue that they are always necessary to the rigors of the academic disciplines and indeed always exist. However, when one particular discourse community begins to show signs of developing formal structures it indicates the development of a new and authorized field.

§9.  Within the past few years there is evidence that this is being witnessed in medieval studies. For instance, the Digital Medievalist Project was established in 2003 in order to provide a web-based internationally accessible virtual space for medievalists applying digital media to their research and teaching. Along with managing an active listserv with over 200 members, a refereed journal, news bulletin for announcements, resource center, and wiki, the project also organizes conference sessions and holds business meetings (Baker, Foys, et al. 2003).

§10.  Following the example of the Digital Medievalist Project a separate community of practice has been established for the classics, the Digital Classicist. Although it doesn't offer a peer-reviewed journal, it does offer a list of best practices guides to the application of humanities computing to the study of classics (Bodard, Garces, et al. 2006)

§11.  The web-sites of both communities are collections of resources that inform members and foster communication among them. A review demonstrates that sections of promised content remains underdeveloped or sporadic in activity. This I would argue is not a cause for concern if they are vehicles for simple communities of practice. By its nature the communities that support these spaces are voluntary and informal and membership can be transitory which is appropriate for a community of practice. However, it appears that these projects are attempting to be something more. For instance, the Digital Medievalist Project publishes a peer-reviewed journal and organizes conference sessions. Both projects have some form of governing structure. These projects appear to be in that liminal space between establishment and authorization. I would argue that this indicates formalization into a field of medieval studies computing.3

Are communities of practice sufficient to provide a strategic advantage to identify, nurture, and accelerate the productive use of information technologies for the benefit of the international medievalist community?

§12.  The two projects described above are relatively new enterprises where developing a critical mass of effort over the long term is not yet guaranteed. While they appear to demonstrate recognition of a new field, they are only two examples of a potentially isolated indicator. Strategic effort is needed to adopt the new field into the scholarly economic system.

§13.  Thus, I argue that communities of practice alone are not sufficient. There remains a critical need to strategically identify, nurture, and accelerate the productive uses of information technologies for the benefit of medieval studies. Communities of practice cannot provide that strategic edge for the following reasons. Technology is expensive, and humanities, at least in the United States, are not well funded. Technology demands an infrastructure that is collaboratively and strategically built. Scholars need to attend to scholarly economics, so if there is minimal or no return for the investment the critical mass of scholars will not be reached. While communities of practice help at the grassroots individual level, there also needs to be action at the institutional and national policy level as well. The good news is that there is movement on these fronts.

§14.  In 2004, the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) appointed a national Commission on Cyberinfrastructure for the Humanities & Social Sciences. During 2004, this Commission held a number of public forums in order to describe and analyze the current state of, articulate requirements for and potential contributions of, and recommend emphasis and coordination areas of humanities and social science cyberinfrastructure for information, teaching, and research (Commission on Cyberinfrastructure, 2004).

§15.  In November 2005, the ACLS Commission issued its Draft Report (Commission on Cyberinfrastructure, 2005). The report recognizes a rapid transition to digital knowledge environments where technology is used for the presentation, preservation, and study of cultural heritage. Although the Commission believes that the academy is on the edge of profound breakthroughs in the understanding of society and culture because of the application of computing to the humanities, they caution that it is not inevitable. The promise of this future needs to begin with strategically building a cyberinfrastructure. The Commission recommends broadly distributed efforts within a commonly agreed upon conceptual framework.

§16.  The report identifies five core underlying principles for this conceptual framework: collaboration, experimentation, sustainability, interoperability, and accessibility. It makes seven specific recommendations. It identifies the primary need for concrete strategies to nurture and validate scholarship and digitally literate scholars. These strategies articulate the inclusion of digital means and methods within graduate curriculum and valuing digital scholarship and publication as equal to traditional print humanistic publication. It calls for a change in public and institutional policies in order to foster open access tools and content. It recognizes the contribution that librarians and technologists bring to digital projects and encourages collaborative research models which make librarians and technologist equal team members. Furthermore, collaboration needs to be centered in interdisciplinary labs and research groups at the institutional, regional, and national level. Content and tool building is seen as essential and recommends that continued investment be made in this area. Of course, funding is a huge concern, the report recommends a restructuring of the funding model whereby development of the infrastructure would be regarded as a strategic priority for the advancement of the humanistic fields. Finally, the report recognizes that there is a fundamental need for leadership and that leadership requires structure. It recommends that a coordinated effort among ACLS, the National Academy of Arts and Sciences, NEH, NEA, the Institute for Museum and Library Services, and others convene a series of meetings whereby this structure can be developed.

§17.  So compelling was the need to support scholarship in the area of infrastructure, that even before the Commission's report was drafted ACLS announced a new fellowship program. The first annual competition for the ACLS Digital Innovation Fellowships was announced in July 2005. These fellowships are intended to advance digital humanistic scholarship. The inaugural round is to support five fellowships, including stipend and project costs, for a funding total of $400,000. Besides supporting the development and construction of technological structure and tools, these fellowships also raise the status of computing centers or disciplinary research centers that support the application of computing to humanities by encouraging projects that collaborate with such centers (ACLS 2005). The first class of fellows is expected to be announced by the end of May.


§18.  To date, the Commission's final report is yet to be released, but changing priorities at major funding agencies are beginning to be revealed. In the meantime, the Medieval Academy of America, an ACLS member, has taken notice of the warmer climate. For the past decade the Committee on Electronic Resources (CER) has encouraged the rigorous discipline of medieval studies computing. It is committed to taking leadership in raising the profile of medieval computing. It recognizes both the need for communities of practice and also strategic planning at the discipline level.

§19.  In the past six years, CER has introduced two new committees to the Medieval Academy's structure. The Medieval Academy's Electronic Editions Series Editorial and Advisory Board (EEAB) was inaugurated in 2005. Its purpose is to select titles for and oversee the MAA Electronic Editions Series. This includes attracting submissions, recommending readers, making publication decisions, as well as providing long-range planning for the series. The first two texts published in the series are in the SEENET Series A, numbers 5 and 6.

§20.  The second new committee is the Medieval Academy Website Review Board (MAWR), which was also inaugurated in 2005. The purpose of this committee is to provide a guide to web-based digital projects. MAWR will provide reviews of projects similar to Speculum's book reviewing service.

§21.  In its own right, CER has been sponsoring conference sessions at Kalamazoo and Leeds. At Kalamazoo 2006, CER is sponsoring two workshops on TEI. Marketed as TEI for medievalists taught by a medievalist, James Cummings, Oxford Text Archive, will be the instructor for both sessions. CER hopes to increase accessibility to mark-up training for both established medievalist scholars and graduate students thinking about delving into the digital realm.

§22.  Also this spring, CER is surveying members of the Committee on Centers and Regional Associates (CARA) in order to determine the extent of their institution's technological resources available to medievalists. The survey will collect data on the current state of integrating computing research methodology into medieval studies curriculum and research by identifying partnerships between members, computing centers, digital projects, and schools of information science. One goal of the CER/CARA survey is to produce a directory of computing medieval studies centers for faculty and potential graduate students. The survey will identify courses, summer institutes, workshops, etc. that support a curriculum in medieval studies computing. A snapshot of the present state of an emerging computing medievalist field will be derived from the analysis. The intent is to run the survey at periodic intervals in order to track the developments at the institutional level and provide data for possible funding for curricular developments. A full report of the results of the survey will be given in a session at Kalamazoo 2006.


1. Dan O'Donnell has been kind to allow me to make an appearance here as a guest columnist. I am writing this piece from my perspective as Chair of the Medieval Academy of America's Committee on Electronic Resources.

2. From this point on I will use community of practice and discourse community interchangeably.

3. I use the term as comparable to humanities computing in order to distinguish that specialty of humanities computing which is applied to medieval studies.

Works Cited

ACLS. ACLS Digital Innovation Fellowships. Web Page, July 2005. [accessed July 22, 2005]. Available at:

Baker, Peter, Martin Foys, Murray McGillivray, Daniel Paul O'Donnell, Roberto Rosselli Del Turco and Elizabeth Solopova. The Digital Medievalist Project: About the Project. Web Page, September 15, 2003 [accessed March 8, 2006]. Available at:

Bodard, Gabriel, Garces, Juan, et al. The Digital Classicist Web Page, March 3, 2006 [accessed March 8, 2006]. Available at:

Commission on Cyberinfrasture for the Humanities & Social Sciences. The Charge to the Commission. Web Page, 2004 [accessed March 2, 2006]. Available at:

Commission on Cyberinfrasture for the Humanities & Social Sciences. The Draft report (for public comment). Web Page, 2005 [accessed November 7, 2005]. Available at:

O'Donnell, Daniel Paul. The Doomsday Machine, or, 'If you build it, will they still come ten years from now?' Heroic Age [On-Line Edition]. Spring, 2004. [Accessed February 1, 2006]. Available at:

Sharp, John. Communities of Practice: a review of the Literature. Web Page, March 12, 1997 [accessed January 18, 2006]. Available at:

---- and Connolly, Daniel W. Toward a formalism for communication on the Web. Web Page, 1994 [accessed December 29, 2003]. Available at: