selgā has been in active progress now for a year and a half. In its short time of existence, the project has accumulated 784 entries for texts, 502 for manuscripts, and 5680 for the bibliography — so far with an emphasis on early Irish literature, but already extending across a wider spectrum of Celtic studies. Since this flurry of activity has carried on without much further comment or reflection from my part, it seemed to me high time (if not long overdue) to give you a small interim update on the process, on some of the decisions taken along the way and on plans for the future.
As outlined elsewhere, *selgā is an ongoing cataloguing project that aims to connect the dots: it makes the first infant steps towards offering a web-based gateway or compass to the written sources and scholary resources of Celtic studies — texts, manuscripts and publications — and whatever connects them. By increasing their visibility, it is hoped that it will be a valuable aid to research and teaching. An important prerequisite to making such content widely available is that it comes free of charge. The website will not be locked away behind a paywall.
The means to build the catalogue, and perhaps a commendable end in itself, is ultimately to create and foster a vibrant working environment in which scholars and students from around the world can collaborate within their fields of interest and at the intersections of their disciplines. Especially in view of financial and other uncertainties that universities are facing these days, a platform for international cooperation may be exactly what is needed.
The collaborative editing platform that was chosen for our undertaking is MediaWiki (MW). Of the various modules added to the core package, the most important one is no doubt Semantic MediaWiki (SMW), whose annotation mechanisms bring many organisational advantages to the table. It is sometimes thought of as a free, open-source alternative to Microsoft SharePoint, with a more easily adaptable structure to fit one’s needs. Another forte is its usability: user forms courtesy of Semantic Forms allow editors to create entries and add or modify data, while the source text can still be edited in the traditional MW way.
SMW is rapidly becoming recognised as a powerful and flexible tool for working with, presenting and sharing complex sets of data. While many wonderful initiatives may be ‘here today, gone tomorrow’, SMW enjoys an active support base with a dedicated team of developers in addition to reaping the benefits from the success of MW. MW/SMW is also beginning to gain a foothold in the burgeoning world of digital humanities, but more prestigious examples are needed that can showcase its true potential in terms of catering to the specialised needs of teaching and research. I hope, therefore, that selgā may be an instructive and inspiring prototype for other endeavours in the humanities. Note in this regard that Tionscadal na Nod, also available from this site, works on the same premises and is linked to relevant components of selgā.
A first demand that had to be met was a sound and solid bibliographic system that could be used on its own right as well as serve the wider needs of *selgā. Our former reference repository *datlā was abandoned in favour of an on-board approach with more integrative and fuller indexing possibilities than was possible to date. In short, this means that the potential of MW/SMW was harnessed to build a fully customised system and data plan from scratch. Inevitably, the decision has entailed a good deal of work, but the result is well worthwhile.
All references are automatically placed in the category ‘References’ and can be searched through a special SMW-powered search facility: Special:RunQuery/Search_references. For easy reference, there are also ancillary pages for authors, journals and monograph series, although it should be pointed out that not all authors, journals or monograph series necessarily have their own page.
Many of the publications in our bibliography have been entered because they are considered necessary or useful readings for those with an interest in specific texts or manuscripts. Perhaps the majority is included by virtue of the general purpose of our bibliography (in which case their exact relevance may not (yet) be indicated). Here are some examples of other unifying principles that have been at work in its compilation:
- By author category
- By series
- By journal
Also worthy of note is that Dr. Karel Jongeling, who has taught Welsh and Hebrew at Leiden University, has kindly provided us with a CSV file that contains an extensive list of studies on the Welsh language, from the early modern days of scholarship right down to the present. Wholesale import is not possible at this stage, but work is underway to adapt the file for conversion. Meanwhile, the same bibliography can be consulted online from Dr. Jongeling’s personal homepage: http://www.punic.co.uk.
The focal area that has stood out thus far is the creation of many basic entries for ‘texts’, a term which is somewhat generously used to cover a wide variety of textual items: prose narratives, poems, compilations, anecdotes, treatises, homilies, glosses, charters, genealogical tracts, textual fragments, and so forth. Most of these texts are transmitted in manuscript form, but on the odd occasion, wax tablets and printed books are also taken into consideration. In selgā, a ‘text’ can also designate individual parts of a larger unit. In addition to the main entry for the Táin bó Cúailnge and in addition to separate pages for the three main recensions of this momentous epic tale, the various episodes are given separate attention. A template placed at the bottom of the page allows readers to catch the sequence of episodes at a glimpse. Poems, including the roscada (non-syllabic accentual verse), will be given their own entries and the well-known scribal memoranda at the end of the Book of Leinster version can be found at this location.
Information about individual texts usually includes (1) an overview of manuscripts in which they are preserved and (2) lists of publications such as editions, translations and secondary studies (again, see Táin bó Cúailnge for an example). Both (1) and (2) are linked to relevant entries in the catalogue, if available, and retrieve preformatted reference details from those pages. What is by meant by the latter is, for instance, that the full citation is stored only once, on its own reference page (e.g. Carey 1994a), and can be called wherever a citation is required. In this way, editors are spared a lot of unnecessary double work and consistency of formatting does not have to rely solely on the constant vigilance of copyeditors.
Not every text has had the fortune of a complete, critical edition and translation that can be called satisfactory by modern scholarly standards, and not every potentially significant text, even if edited, has attracted the attention it rightly deserves. A powerful use of a system like selgā is that it can be used to bring the state of research into sharper focus. For instance, a convenient way of keeping track of such desiderata is the use of annotation associated with the pages ‘Edition wanted’ and ‘Translation wanted’. Students who wish to undertake an edition and/or translation for their final thesis and are looking for a suitable choice of text are welcome to take a look. Please don't hesitate to contact me if a new edition/translation has been published, if we have overlooked anything, or if you're a scholar who is in the process of preparing an edition or translation and wish to leave a note that work is underway.
Categorisation is only rudimentary at present and what there is may not be consistent across the board. This is hardly a mechanical process because categorisation is itself a topic of ongoing debate and sometimes, heated controversy. The most convenient and neutral course of action seems to me, first of all, to allow for multiple possibilities based on what modern scholarship has to say on these matters. When, for example, the language of a poem is variously described as late Old Irish and early Middle Irish, or as transitional between Old and Middle Irish, the corresponding entry will be grouped together with both Old and Middle Irish texts. The catalogue entry itself should then explain this decision and if possible, provide references to further discussion. Second, basic criteria, such as language, subject matter and form, which underlie broader types of classification, such as ‘Cycles of the Kings’, must be taken firmly into account. In fact, such criteria are essential ingredients of any refined approach to indexing textual corpora. Once a more robust classification scheme is in place, we can finally begin improving the user interface and offer better ways to combine search criteria.
In the process of creating entries for manuscripts, the emphasis has been primarily on providing a dependable framework and adding references to essential resources, notably library catalogues, diplomatic editions and digital repositories like Early Manuscripts at Oxford University and Irish Script on Screen. The contents of each manuscript are described in two ways. A list of texts for which entries are available is automatically generated can be consulted. In addition, more detailed, manually entered descriptions will be offered on separate pages. Progress in this area is naturally slow and has been most apparent with regard to the following manuscripts:
While Irish and Welsh studies are no doubt served by a number of excellent catalogues that will remain an indispensable port of call for researchers for some time to come, there is also a need for something more readily accessible that stays on top of the ongoing flow. This need is felt to be particularly acute in the case of older works. Abbott and Gwynn's Catalogue of Irish manuscripts in the Library of Trinity College, Dublin was published in 1921 and is now in serious need of an ‘update’ which is mindful of new research that has been piling up over the last 90 years. Further, work on individual manuscripts and particular collections tends to leave many loose ends that need to be tied up in a centralised manner. There is no cross-catalogue search, for instance, and the chances that textual material relevant to one's studies goes unnoticed remain very real today. It is hoped that ultimately, by addressing these concerns, the project will go some way to offering a solid platform for cooperation between manuscript-holding institutions. Needless to say, interested parties are strongly encouraged to contact us.
Above I’ve already touched upon several areas where there is room for improvement and areas where some form of partnership with selgā could be mutually beneficial. In conclusion, I would like to indicate some priorities, beginning with the most obvious one:
Thus far, all contributions to selgā have been made by only a few volunteering editors and without any funding. For my part, most effort has been invested into getting to grips with the system as a content editor and using these learning experiences to improve the site's infrastructure as I went along. By now, the project is in a fit condition to take on board new contributors. In fact, interested scholars and students who are active in any branch of Celtic studies, or whose specialism borders on this field, are cordially invited to contact me at email@example.com. Some points of clarification:
- Don't be alarmed by some of the technical terms and descriptions above. Editing pages is relatively easy and I can always give personal assistance if desired.
- The current focus on Irish merely reflects the interests of a handful of editors and is not meant to be representative of the scope of the project. For example, editors who are willing to work on entries pertaining to Welsh literature, history and law are urgently needed.
There are, of course, many other ways (ways other than editing) in which individuals and institutions can help the project. For example, editors require adequate sources and may not always have access to university libraries. If there is a way that such access can be provided or if specific works can be lent or donated to our editors, we would be most grateful.
A dinnshenchas project?
One specific goal that has set been for the future, and one extensive enough to be given the status of a subproject, is an index to the compilation known as the Dinnshenchas Érenn. A plan is in preparation on how to cover all prose and verse texts that are regarded as belonging to the Dinnshenchas Érenn and perhaps to give separate status to dinnshenchas texts that survive independently from this collection. Such an undertaking must show the correspondences in terms of subject matter, while taking into account the divergence of scholarly opinion on the complex relationships that exist between the various recensions and between the prose and verse texts. In addition, metadata will be supplied about the characters and place-names mentioned in these texts.
selgā has so far progressed without any outside funding. We hope to have demonstrated why it is a useful addition to the Celtic dimension of the so-called Digital Humanities, but it will be difficult to sustain its ongoing growth if no financial support is forthcoming. Disk storage, for instance, needs to be paid for. Because of its reliance on MW / SMW and a shared webserver, the website bears relatively low costs, but the latter also imposes certain constraints. It entails, for instance, that there is currently no support for adequate searching. The present options are a generic MW search as well as an external (Google) search for the whole site, and a property-based search for semantically stored data, but these are only imperfect attempts to make the best out of these limitations. We are, therefore, looking for private and/or corporate funding. If you are interested in showing such generosity, please send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you have any further questions, suggestions or some other reason to contact us, do not hesitate to send an e-mail.
- Dennis Groenewegen
- A. G. van Hamel Foundation for Celtic Studies
- ^ It is also the name for the online catalogue itself.
- ^ If the very word ‘wiki’ leaves a bad taste, it may be because of the occasional misunderstanding (in no small part due to the best known example of a wiki, Wikipedia) that any internet user can edit a wiki, regardless of competence. Rest assured that this is true only if this is an intended function of the site, which it is not in our case.
- ^ For a useful comparison between SMW and SharePoint from the perspective of a SMW developer, see Yaron Koren’s post on http://wikiworks.com/semantic-mediawiki-vs-sharepoint.html.
- ^ If you’re interested in pursuing such a project and need tips or advice, you are welcome to contact me at dennisgroenewegen[at]vanhamel.nl.