Digitization for Research and Scholarly Communication

Mara Wade’s contribution to the IPRH blog was prompted by a series of serendipitous conversations on the local bus. In this post, Prof. Wade uses her work with Emblematica Online, an online resource for emblem studies, to explain how digitization can inspire, aid, and shape research.  —bM

It really pays to ride the bus. That’s how several conversations about the IPRH blog and its theme of Publication evolved, and among them, some of the intellectually most productive discussions of this semester.

This posting treats digitization as a research activity and addresses issues central to digital scholarship and publication. While scholars love finding just the book they need in Internet Archive, Hathi Trust, Project Gutenberg, or Google Books, digitization alone does not answer research questions. The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), for example, does not fund digitization for its own sake, but only within larger programs of research. While funding agencies understand, of course, that in some cases one must build a digital corpus in order to conduct research, digital scholarship seeks to reap the benefits of digitization.

Research for Emblematica Online seeks to exploit the benefits of digitization through enhanced description with rich metadata. Our goal is to enable the discovery of new connections among intellectual and artistic resources of the Renaissance, and thereby pose new research questions, foster new modes of research, and create new practices in scholarly discourse, e.g. through semantic web technologies like annotation and linked open data (LOD) that enables the discovery, sharing, and connection of related data that was previously not interlinked. The key issue is that the merit of the research associated with the corpus drives the digitization.


Early modern emblems (1531-1750) were a primary vehicle of cultural expression in the Renaissance, and therefore constitute a key genre to understanding the early modern period. Combining text and image, emblems were often used to convey complex ideas in a compact and compelling format. The study of emblems today informs multiple academic domains, such as art history, cultural history, national and classical literatures, semiotics, political science, musicology, and religious studies.

The surviving exemplars of early modern printed emblem books are geographically widely spread, with half a dozen libraries in Europe and North America holding the primary research corpus. One of the leading collections worldwide is in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library at the University of Illinois.

Domain expertise in both Renaissance studies and information technologies drive the research for Emblematica Online. In a nutshell, Emblematica Online curates a virtual collection of one of the single most significant genres of the Renaissance, and then seeks to expand the benefits of digitization by creating extensive metadata for discovering the individual emblems within the books. While digitization is, of course, a necessary first step, researchers investigate how to enhance the discovery and use of the virtual collection for research and pedagogy.

Scholars have engaged with the printed book for over 500 years, and until now the book format has determined how content may be discovered and explored. Exploiting new digital technologies of the book, Emblematica Online poses new research questions and asks if exposing finer layers of granularity—the emblems within the book and the parts of the emblem, i.e. the transcribed mottos and picturae descriptors—facilitates research and pedagogy.

What_Is_EmblemThese picturae and their associated texts offer a unique window on Renaissance mentalities and the early modern social imaginary. Opening this complex and nuanced world to scholarship is central to our research at Emblematica Online. The project demonstrates how scholars and librarians can collaboratively create the kinds of metadata, interfaces, and functionality to make emblems more useful to researchers and teachers. In addition to serving the needs of Renaissance scholars worldwide, research on digital emblematica provides a platform for digital information research that potentially has practical applications well beyond the domain of emblematics.

One of the many examples of how textual and technological research reciprocally informs each other is the development of a URI (Uniform Resource Identifier) for each of the individual emblems indexed in Emblematica Online. The URI is a persistent web address which allows users to be able to cite, refer, and return to a particular emblem.


In the past, scholars went to a rare book library and ordered up books A, B, and C. In the digital environment they can still work at this book level. But the important change here is that researchers can also now work at a greater level of granularity, for example requesting emblems 2 and 3 from book A; emblems 10 and 21 from book B; and so on.

Emblematica Online provides the opportunity to study relationships among individual emblems that is not possible based on book-level metadata alone. Being able to search across several books allows researchers to interrogate the entire corpus for relationships among textual and pictorial themes and motifs, iconography, proverbs and adages, and similar features.

Rich descriptions (metadata) are therefore developed for individual emblems: for instance, mottos are transcribed and then indexed with multiple notations according to the established vocabulary and multilingual thesaurus of Iconclass. The following screenshot is of an entry in Emblematica Online, showing the emblem with its pictura and associated texts, the motto transcribed, and the emblem described with Iconoclass headings:


Because of this standardized metadata, Renaissance scholars can conduct searches across multiple books held in remote locations worldwide from a single point of access, OpenEmblem Portal, within Emblematica Online. But scholars also need to be able to reproduce their results and refer to their sources precisely. When Emblematica Online “unbinds” the emblems from the books for cross-collection searching, scholars still need to be able to identify their sources in an unambiguous fashion.

Concurrently, the researchers who are tasked with creating descriptions of emblems for Emblematica Online need to exchange large amounts of metadata with partners at the Herzog August Bibliothek (HAB), Wolfenbüttel, and with the Iconclass providers at Arkyves in the Netherlands and Foto Marburg in Germany. The metadata must be accurately linked with the individual emblems with which it is associated, and the individual emblems with their source book.

To address the challenge of identifying digitized emblems in an enduring way, researchers at the University of Illinois developed a so-called “emblem handle” in collaboration with partners at the HAB. This handle, or URI, facilitates the exchange of emblem metadata with international partners, and can be registered in the databases. The URI of an emblem might look like this:


Such a URI also provides scholars with the precise digital bibliographic information that they need for their research. Scholars can now search across virtual collections held in worldwide repositories, identifying relationships among images and texts from the emblem books as well as exploring connections between emblems and works of art and architecture. They can unambiguously identify the emblem and its source book as well as the collection where it is held today.


The project is now focused on aggregating emblematic resources at varying levels of granularity from our new partners Glasgow University and Utrecht University, together with content contributors Duke University Library and the Getty Research Library. Building upon this large corpus of metadata for Renaissance studies, Emblematica Online researchers can explore semantic web technologies for emblem annotation and linked open data.

together-matthias-haker-photographyThe federally funded project Emblematica Online provides many more examples of how research drives a digital project, bringing together the combined the expertise of an international research team of subject experts and library and information specialists.

The researchers at the University of Illinois currently involved in this project are myself, librarians Timothy Cole, Myung-Ja Han, and Harriet Green, who work with Tom Kilton and Patricia Lampron, and graduate students Johannes Fröhlich and Brandon Locke. We also work with Betsy Kruger and Angela Waarala in Digital Content Creation and Caroline Szylowicz in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library. The undergraduate Emblem Scholars who have contributed to the project over the long term are Melina Nunez, Heidi Heim, and Patricia Fleming.

Emblem-cat_miceOur research results are widely disseminated on the Web, at conferences and in tier-one scholarly venues, including two volumes of peer-reviewed essays, Emblem Digitization: Conducting Digital Research with Renaissance Texts and Images and Digital Collections and the Management of Knowledge: Renaissance Emblem Literature as a Case Study for the Digitization of Rare Texts and Images.

The grant funding for Emblematica Online has evolved over the years from initial support from the University of Illinois Campus Research Board, a Transcoop grant from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, to a Bilateral Digital Humanities grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the German Research Foundation (DFG), and currently a grant from NEH in the category of Historical Collections and Reference Resources (HCRR). This latter program “supports projects that provide an essential underpinning for scholarship, education, and public programming in the humanities.”

In the spirit of HCRR, Emblematica Online expands the utility of emblem literature to make the content of emblem books more widely available and to improve its discoverability and promote its use in research and pedagogy.

WadeHeadshot_WarsawMara Wade is Professor of Germanic Languages and Literatures at the University of Illinois and Chair of the Society for Emblem Studies. She serves on the editorial boards of the Renaissance Quarterly and Emblematica, and is a member of the academic advisory board of the Herzog August Bibliothek, Wolfenbüttel. Her 2013 co-edited volume with Sara Smart, Exeter University, The Palatine Wedding of 1613: Protestant Alliance and Court Festival, was presented at the Frankfurt Book Fair and was awarded the Weiss/Brown publication award from the Newberry Library, Chicago.

This entry was posted in Theme: Publication (2013-14), Yearly Theme and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Digitization for Research and Scholarly Communication

  1. Pingback: Blog Posts | Mara R. Wade

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