There’s a wonderful phrase in Dutch: “het nuttige met het aangename verenigen,” which means something like “to unite that which is useful (nuttig) with that which is pleasant (aangenaam).” Although in general academia tends to be firmly tilted towards the former, occasionally it does happen that the coveted combination of utility and pleasantness is achieved. The week I spent at Villa Vigoni in Menaggio, Italy, together with a number of colleagues in late February/early March 2023, is a particularly great example thereof.
The occasion for meeting there and then was a week-long workshop organised by Francesca Cadeddu and Marco Büchler. Its title, “Religious studies in the digital age: aligning research methodologies and national strategies,” neatly alludes to most of the topics that were covered by scholars coming from various disciplines, ranging from linguistics and history, to computer science and the digital humanities. Each morning started with three presentations followed by a Q&A session. Taken together, the presentations comprised a wealth of topics such as the opportunities of AI, the encoding of particularly challenging primary sources due to their layout or use of little-studied languages (or both), the need for multilingual metadata, and so forth. However, the topics that were addressed were certainly not only technical in nature. Questions about representation, e.g. of underrepresented communities or understudied languages, formed an important part of the discussions as well.
I gave a short talk on the link between physical and digital (and/or digitized) sources, mainly on the basis of three projects I currently am or have been involved in: my own research project on the Schism of Utrecht, European peace treaties of the pre-modern era in data (FriVer+), and the Archaeology of Reading in Early Modern Europe (AOR). How to maintain the links between primary (archival) sources and their digital surrogates? More importantly, how to convey to users the structure and limitations of digital data sets? If we want to ensure the (correct) use of our data by other scholars, robust documentation, albeit arguably not the sexiest part of academic projects, is necessary more than ever.
Interesting as the presentations were, they served a more important goal and mainly were meant as a segue into broader discussions about the various aspects and dimensions of a research infrastructure for religious studies. Discussions about the contours of such a research infrastructure – what could/should it look like, what kind(s) of data should it comprise, is a separate infrastructure for religious studies is actually necessary – transitioned seamlessly into questions about whether the sources used by religious studies are in any way unique and clearly distinguishable from the sources used by other disciplines. These discussions are very timely indeed: both in Germany (with the NFDI consortia) as well as in other European countries significant sums of money are invested in creating academic infrastructures. At the European level, too, initiatives for the creation of infrastructures have been or are undertaken, such as the Research Infrastructure for Religious Studies (ReIReS) and the RESILIENCE consortium that aims to create a research infrastructure for religious studies (several members of this consortium were present at and co-organised the workshop).
In the end, I think that we, although not providing a blueprint for a future research infrastructure for religious studies, did have engaging discussions and supplied the organizers with helpful ideas on how to move forward. The atmosphere certainly helped – although as a group we were heterogeneous in terms of disciplinary background and seniority, everyone seemed to be at ease to raise questions and share thoughts (or at least that was my impression). Because of the way in which the workshop was structured, with presentations in the morning and the discussions in the afternoon, these days were fruitful, but very intensive as well. Luckily, each day was punctuated by several delicious meals. As one might expect, the Italian cuisine certainly did not disappoint. Moreover, breakfast, lunch, and dinner proved to be good occasions to get to know each other and/or to catch up, and to have a chat about topics other than research or academic life in general. And if that was not pleasant enough, Menaggio is situated next to the breathtakingly beautiful lake Como, while the grounds and immediate surroundings of Villa Vigoni are equally stunning. Going for a wander while discussing work-related matters, following the example of the peripatetic philosophers (although I’m not making any grandiose claims about the level of our conversations), truly was a splendid example of “het nuttige met het aangename verenigen.” More of such workshops please!
Featured image and all images in this post: photo by author, all rights reserved.