In Context: DLF and Stonehenge

By Charles Henry posted

When preparing remarks for the 2014 DLF Forum in Atlanta, my thoughts fixed on a recent visit to Salisbury, in Wiltshire, England. The visit was replete with stimulating conversations about creating a new digital library from the rare holdings of the Salisbury Cathedral's library and archives, and included a revelatory trip to nearby Stonehenge and it environs.

Discussions about the prospects of a digital library and the historical and cultural heritage of Stonehenge often returned to one concept: context, and its critical importance for the integrity and meaning of any phenomenon, whether hundreds of tons of stone or a weightless scan. From the Latin con+texere, which means a weaving together, the word defines the circumstances that form the setting and background of a phenomenon—e.g., an event, an object, a sentence—with the implication that the meaning of such an event or object or sentence is better understood and assessed by knowing this context. Decontextualized knowledge is a diminished and less effectual means to grasp the world.  By extension, decisions and plans are strengthened by knowing the context of the circumstances that precede and inform one's desired goals. Context in this respect entails a complex interplay between past, present, and future. Some thoughts about DLF follow, but first to the green gentle hills of Wiltshire.

The context we discussed pertaining to the Salisbury Cathedral's plans for a digital library involved the tension between the physicality of the books and manuscripts and the importance of that material tradition, and the proposed scanning of the objects that would render them a virtual, incorporeal entity. The dynamic interplay between the three-dimensional world and the virtual is intricate. The spectrum of issues pertaining to the materiality of the texts and their migration to a digital surrogate is essentially the context of the object, and can include the provenance/location of their origin; the history of where the manuscripts were housed; the material of the manuscripts, often essential to its interpretation (paleography, critical bibliography, forensic analyses); the content without recourse to the physical conditions, but within the intellectual milieu of the period of composition (cultural context); and finally the technical specifications of the digitized surrogate. 

A “floating” or decontextualized digital object of a manuscript would have some value, but a relatively impoverished one. A digital surrogate with metadata describing the circumstances of its history and intellectual heritage, on the other hand, would provide information that contributes significantly to its interpretation. The relationship between the physical manuscript and its virtual manifestation is a fundamental aspect of any well-designed digital library, and the subject of intense scholarly investigation. The contribution of such libraries to humanistic inquiry rests in part on the degree of detail and accuracy in which the context of the object is captured and expressed.

Close by the library, a far more ancient monument rises from the high plains of Salisbury: Stonehenge, a remarkable and mysterious Neolithic edifice constructed with enormous engineering acumen. While walking the windy rise of Salisbury Plain, I noticed how frequently visitors took pictures of themselves with the great stones as backdrop: selfies framed by the 20 ton Sarsen boulders and bluestones, the latter hauled from Wales nearly 250 miles to the west. About 100 yards from Stonehenge is a highway that is continually subject to traffic jams and "tail backs:" motorists stop and take “snaps” of the looming stone circles. Intriguing as these photographs may be to their owners, Stonehenge as a monument is a small piece of an enormously complex environment that stretches to the horizon in all directions.

Modern research, using tools such as subterranean radar imaging, along with more than a century of excavations reveal that Stonehenge was not an isolated edifice but rather one piece of an expansive complex of settlements, ditches, troughs, barrows, wide avenues, and circles made of wood that prevailed for nearly six thousand years. The rock circles, chalk lines, and burial holes of Stonehenge did not spring up suddenly but were worked and reworked over centuries, starting about 3000 BCE, and likely began as a much simpler wooden edifice. Looking at a map that designates the Neolithic and Bronze Age construction in the area, Stonehenge is not easily found, so widespread and numerous are the archeological remains.

The culture that settled the area and eventually raised those stones had no writing. Stonehenge and the local proliferation of what appears to us as highly symbolic expressions in earth and wood and rock are the result of conversations that took place over thousands of years, in which information about the sky's luminaries, particularly the sun and moon, was gathered and assessed; burial rituals were defined; and ceremonies that attracted people from hundreds of miles away were promulgated by word of mouth: knowledge orally transmitted across hundreds of generations. Stonehenge, we know, framed some of this knowledge—to this day the rising and setting of the sun at solstice can be glimpsed through its trilithons. Because there is no written record of the millennia of activity, the precise meaning of Stonehenge and its broader context will always remain elusive. But we know enough to infer that these hills were of extraordinary significance, reshaped by minds of profound sophistication within a culture of breathtaking continuity and focus.

We can also surmise that taking a picture of Stonehenge captures almost nothing of this heritage. To be satisfied with a simple image without recourse to the four-dimensional context of the sleeping ruin is at best a fleeting, superficial means of knowing.

When reading through the program of the 2014 DLF Forum, I was struck by the depth and breadth of the presentations, which range from digital humanities, copyright for at-scale projects, new forms of publishing, sustaining open source software, advances in institutional repository design and access, new tools for display and analysis of large scale archives, challenges specific to liberal arts colleges, and many others. It was not difficult to conclude that one of the most salient and critical of DLF's contributions to higher education is context. There is a pervasive tendency in higher education to be easily distracted by a new technology, app, or resource—to invest the bright objects of the moment with more importance and aspiration than is warranted, much like the roadside snaps. 

DLF, working with key programs, projects, and experiments in the United States and abroad, explicitly supports the bigger picture and provides a unique context within which to make more thoughtful and informed decisions about what has past, and is passing, and may come. The Forum is a collegial exchange, a conversation of the highest order, where ideas and insight are tested and refined. Unlike our Neolithic counterparts, these discussions are recorded and more widely shared, a contribution not only to the representative institutions that compose DLF, but of significance that achieves the level of a national good.