Digital Humanities Experts Learn How SSRL Can Shed Light on the Past

June 27, 2011

The group of visitors who staff scientist Sam Webb showed around the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource last Tuesday afternoon was not your usual group of scientists. They were five of the world's most influential scholars and scientists in applying and encouraging the use of state-of-the-art technical expertise in preserving historic objects and in using computing tools in arts and humanities research.

The tour was arranged by Michael Toth, an independent technical and strategic planning consultant for the study, preservation and display of cultural objects by museums and libraries. He managed the Archimedes Palimpsest Project, which brought to SSRL in 2005 and 2006 historic parchment pages authored by 3rd Century B.C. mathematician Archimedes that had been handwritten by a 10th Century scribe. Archimedes' words had since been erased and overwritten, but X-ray fluorescence from iron atoms in the ancient ink identified the original words.

With its 2003 work to help preserve the 400-year-old wooden Swedish boat Vasa as well as the Archimedes project, SSRL is considered to be the pioneer in applying synchrotron radiation to help solve mysteries involving humanities and cultural objects.

Toth selected four others to join the tour:

Brett Bobley, Director of Digital Humanities, National Endowment for the Humanities. Among the many areas in which his office has interests include: open access to materials, intellectual property rights, tool development, digital libraries, data mining, born-digital preservation, multimedia publication, visualization, geographic information systems, digital reconstruction, sustainability models and technology for teaching and learning.

James Cummings, Manager of Infodev, University of Oxford (England) and Director of Digital Medievalist, an international web community created in 2003 to help medieval scholars meet the increasingly sophisticated demands faced by designers of contemporary digital projects.

Fenella France, preservation research scientist, Library of Congress, who was a key contributor to the 1998-2002 preservation of the original Star Spangled Banner. Last year she discovered original erasures in Thomas Jefferson's draft of the Declaration of Independence.

Allison Marsh, Assistant Professor of History, University of South Carolina, where she teaches, among several classes, history of science and technology and supervises the museum studies tract of the Masters in Public History program.

The visitors were all at Stanford earlier this week attending the Digital Humanities 2011 conference.

“Everyone was very impressed with SSRL, not only by its technical capabilities, but also by the great imagination, creativity and support that the staff applies to humanities and cultural projects,” Toth said.