Saturday, 8 December 2007

Beowulf - lost voices reimagined

The last The Scout Report. is showcasing a project from Winsonsin University who have out up a new modern translation of Beowulf .

Often described is the oldest narrative poem in the English language, it is a dramatic set of adventures from well known sources of the fifth- and sixth-century Scandinavia.

Though the tales had their origins in oral traditions, the text has always been seen as one the best examples of the emerging English language. Melvyn Bragg, for instance, rightly, made much of them as one of the key texts in his masterful Adventure of English, which , co-coincidently, is enjoying a rerun on the New Zealand version of the History Channel.

Hard to credit this series is 5 years old. Lesser kown but equally compelling is his brilliant radio set, The Voices of the Powerless . This is still available in its entirety, here.

And a Norton version of Heaney's Beowulf is here
University of Nevada subject guide here.

But back to the Wisconsin Beowulf. You can listen to the poem in a modern translation plus read a modern translation on the screen. It's a really good example of how the new media channel can bring back to life the original power and place of the oral tradition. And Wisconsin deserves a modest round of applause for this addition to the web.

However, despite my pleasure in this, I do have a gripe. The design and layout is really bad. It screams the worst aspects of the old style boring library view of the universe - indeed the menu looks like a first grade library cadets attempt at his/her first reference card.

As for the navigation - well lets just say there isn't one - not one for humans anyway.

All of which is such a pity - so much so I'm breaking from my normal practice of just not commenting on inadequate web responses from the formal world of library and heritage.

There is so much to do, and key resources like the Scout Report, once a must see weekly resource, needs to lift its game in what they choose to offer as benchmarks of good practice.

Moreover, it is all such a pity. There was a good idea - and a good deal of solid intellectual and scholarly work has been done to execute the idea - so why can't there be a similar respect for the medium's ability to show compelling design and navigation, which in turn will not only add to the scholarly work, but be seen as a component of it?

Libraries and other key institutions really need to get past thinking that making things visually compelling or even interesting isn't part of their job, and provided they get it on screen, then they have done their bit.

Apart from anything else, the web medium just won't stand for it - audiences will dwindle and no matter how worthy the effort, unless people are actively using the resource, the effort will be in vain.

That said, please have a look and a listen, and make up your own mind, Here.


Anonymous said...

Hear, hear for giving libraries a good kick up the arse in terms of design. Too much of library web presence is created by a staff member with a basic knowledge of Frontpage, who is co-opted to be web designer. Or else dire Council webmasters. Just take a browse through NZ public library web sites via the atrocious .

The second issue with the Beowulf site is what I call TEI-itis.Nothing wrong with a bit of scholarly encoding, but... It appears the staff there have put all their resources into marking up the text, and have just used a default XPAT stylesheet & XSL file for design. Mark-up people are not good design people.Sound familiar? Take a look at NZ's own NZETC as an example. Brilliant content, but no design sense - they still have that horrible blue wallpaper circa 1996. Other earlier text digitisation projects such as Virginia's Electronic Text Centre and even Gutenberg suffered from the same thing.

Alison said...

Hello thinman and Paul,

I don't think you would find a single person at the NZETC who disagreed with your comment about our "horrible blue wallpaper". Our looks are certainly not our best feature. However I can say that this year changing our appearance has been a lower priority than adding content and functionality (eg links out to Te Ao Hou), and making some substantial changes to the back end to allow us to work more efficiently (see for example Jamie's paper on entity authority management). I don't think we need to apologize for that. The site may be ugly but the navigational framework is sophisticated. On the other hand we don't want the nasty blue bobbly carpet to distract users from exploring the collection and it's an objective for 2008 to make some long overdue changes.

Con said...

What wallpaper? ;-)

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