On collaborative research

This is an exciting time.  Preparing to leave for Ostiglia last year, I had absolutely no idea what I would find once there, and I do remember vividly the sense of adventure and apprehension that accompanied my preparation for the trip.  I had met with the students (Karen Stafford, Molly Ryan, Laura Dallman, Carolyn McClimon, and Matthew Leone) a couple of times, and had attended a number of technical meetings with our IT group (Bill Guerin, Phil Ponella, and Giuliano Di Bacco); I had seen and actually tried out the cataloguing template we would be using; and I had gone over the set up for our on-site computer network.  But it all remained rather theoretical, fuzzy, and a bit scary; I was definitely aware that in dealing with the technical aspect of the project I was out of my depth, and would depend on the expertise of the team.

For someone trained as a humanist scholar, this is very much new territory: most of us are not prepared to think as part of a group.  We have the tendency to dream up something, and then own it in its entirety, and often protect it as “our own” domain. We are expected to think up all the questions, work out the answers, and parry all comers’ “challenges.”  Our habits make us soloists, not ensemble players; our models are the “greats” of the profession, who carried out sometimes enormous projects alone (think of Einstein’s The Italian Madrigal, an epic effort if ever there was one). Although this mindset can produce brilliant works, it is not always positive for the field as a whole, as it tends to stifle discourse and produce stagnation, at least in its worst manifestations.  We can all think of examples, both in the profession at large and in our own departments.

The seminar itself proved the value of collaborative work, and it was a pure pleasure to participate in it.  I had been a RISM cataloguer in graduate school, working under John Howard’s direction and cataloguing manuscripts at the Boston Public Library; I felt confident enough about the Greggiati holdings, which are similar to those at the BPL, and looked forward to introducing the students to the task.  The process turned out to be more fluid, complex, and ultimately more interesting than I expected.

First, I had not imagined that we would find the existing SBN catalog so useful; more than that, we had the unexpected bonus of working with the librarian, Elisa Superbi, who had been one of the original cataloguers and knew the collection intimately from a musicological perspective.  She was generous in welcoming the project, helping us figure out just how to shape our work, and being open to the incorporation of our changes and additions into the existing catalog.  Second, it became obvious from the first day that my role could not be that of a traditional seminar leader; having five or six manuscripts in play at once raised unpredictable technical and historical problems, and I found myself being more of a sounding board for the students’ questions and ideas.  It was more often a case of having to work through a problem encountered in a manuscript than of providing answers; more challenging, but also far more fun.

Staying flexible proved to be more useful than being “professorial” — not surprisingly — and in the event the back-and-forth among us all quickly leveled the group dynamics.  Karen brought to the table her experience in library cataloguing, helping to resolve questions of terminology, standardization of descriptions, and other technical issues, and in short order the others became instant “experts” on the questions raised by each of their manuscripts.  We all benefited from this: routinely, each presented his or her manuscript to the others, so we could see the range of issues raised by copyists’ decisions, binding problems, environmental damage (not much, but some is inevitable), and practical musical matters.  I learned a tremendous amount from the accumulating wisdom in the room, and can confidently say that I speak for all of us in this regard.

I am confident that this year’s research team will have a productive and exciting time, and that it will enjoy the warm and generous hospitality that Ostiglia showed us last year.  May the weather stay cool for you, and have a great month!

And don’t forget: you have nothing to fear from the delicious food, save a few extra pounds.  You can always take those off later.

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