What we learned from attending a hackathon and looking at an old book

This is a story on our experience working with experts from different fields and what we found out about appreciating historical books.

Together with Darjan, Nicole and Indre from the YAAY team, I accepted the challenge to meet new faces and spend two days developing something fresh from scratch.

For those who don’t know us, YAAY is an information design agency from Switzerland. We focus on finding visualisation solutions to complex contents. We have proven our approach in a range of client projects. Some were even awarded.

During our two days at the hackathon we created an app prototype. We realised that historical books have a way of hiding interesting secrets. Our prototype tries to change that.

The Swiss Open Cultural Data Hackathon 2016 took place for the second time after its initial instalment in 2015.

In the weeks before the event many institutions across Switzerland made new additions to the catalogue of cultural open source data. Our team was not prudent enough to look through the list in advance.

So we had to learn that ideally you come to a hackathon with a rough proposition of what you want to work on.

This year’s host was the University Library Basel who opened their main reading room to the occasion. A rare event considering the fact that it’s a place where as much as a whisper is usually frowned upon.

Some of the better prepared participants pitched their ideas while we were unsure where our creative approach might be a good fit.

We spent our first moments on our own browsing lists of data sources not knowing where to start.

De humani corporis fabrica

Lucky for us, while navigating through wikis, library archives and downloading PDFs of old books, a 16th century medical book caught our attention.

De humani corporis fabrica (Latin for “Of the Structure of the Human Body”) did not only spike our interest. Radu Suciu (@radusuciu), another hackathon participant had joined our group after arriving a moment late. A lucky coincidence — as it turns out he’s not only familiar with the book but has all kind of interesting tidbits to tell about the book.

Radu did his PhD on medical publishing and as part of his work studied said book by the Dutch anatomist Andreas Vesalius thoroughly — a milestone in medical illustration, he would let us know.

Opening illustration of the Fabrica showing Vesalius disecting a body.

Make the Fabrica interesting

As Radu keeps explaining the book one thing becomes clear — We would have never had the possibility to fully appreciate the book for it’s worth from looking at the digitized copy.

And at this moment we were set on trying to change this.

I now recall seeing the book a few years back at the Theater Basel during a special event accompanying a play. It was not the original but instead a facsimile (from Latin fac simile ‘make alike’), which is a modern reproduction as true to the original as possible.

The book has an impressive size and even in the copy one could see the incredible craftsmanship that went into the illustrations. Seeing the book and being able to flick through the pages was a memorable event. Yet I did not fully understand how to place the work. At what time was it created? Who was it for? What’s written on the many Latin pages?

It turns out even to Latin speakers it’s a hard read and despite its fame it still remains unfamiliar to many. The book is written in humanist Latin, full of complex sentences and literary flourishes. The books sheer size and volume make reading it a difficult task.

«This is no student handbook, easily slipped into the pocket like Guinther’s Introduction, but a major work of learning; it is not meant for small-town surgeons with only a smattering of Latin at best but for European intellectuals who could appreciate the style as well as the content of the book and who could afford to pay for it.»
Vivian Nutton

Having an expert in our hackathon group that could tell us interesting facts about the book made it appealing and offered new insights. We were able to understand the significance of the work.

The digitized version we were working with was scanned from a rare and valuable copy of the Fabrica. It was made available to the public as part of the Open Cultural Data movement.

We learned that the physical book is in fact property of the University Library of Basel, the exact place where the Hackathon took place.

Somewhere in the Library it is stored in a dark place under appropriate conditions to prevent its deterioration. Consequently, it cannot be easily accessed by the public.

Even if you could get a hold of the thing, it is big and hard to browse. Ultimately you don’t know anything about the book and having it in your hand will only change little about that fact.

I could see the focus on large and numerous illustration as opposed to text but only through an expert’s stories I was able to understand what impact the book had at the time it was created.

Historical books often don’t reveal what’s interesting about them to an unknowing beholder.

How YAAY approached the book

YAAY had a closer look at the digitized version of the book without reading a single page. A process we dubbed “visual exploration”.

The book features many full page medical illustrations but also hundreds of textual pages. Out of the scans we developed a categorisation of the pages based on their content. We made a distinction of fully, partly illustrated and text only pages. The analysis was transformed into a colored bar, showing a visualization of all pages and their content type — the “DNA” of the book.

The “DNA” strip shows the occurrence of stories across the 700 pages of the Fabrica.

Based on the content analysis and Radu’s elaborations we created so called “stories”. In total we constructed four story examples for the prototype.

Each story is assigned a color in the “DNA” representation of the book. The strip shows where and how frequently a story occurs.

For instance we came up with a story on “The Muscle Men of Vesalius” — shown in yellow. The bar reveals that most of the “muscle-men” are found in a cluster of pages around page 200. The story explores the full body illustrations and tells how they are all shown in a peculiar manner.

App showing a detail view of a page.

The full anatomized bodies adopt suggestive postures and are highly contextualized or “staged” (bodies are placed against a background of ruins or on the outskirts of a city). The mix between art and science is at its best.

The so-called “muscle-men” were greatly successful and lead to a tradition of artistic representations of cut-up bodies from the Renaissance to the 19th century.

The stories are entry points into the book. The reader can follow a storyline, or at any point start exploring the book.

Pages containing a story are highlighted in the DNA bar upon selection.

Another example of a story: Books and chapters of the Fabrica usually begin with decorated initials, which tell a story through a small drawing — the robbing of a grave, the vivisection of a pig, puttis restraining a patiente.

It is not known whether the responsibility for making or choosing these initials belonged to the author or the printer. It is extraordinary that so many of them are related to the Fabrica’s subject: medicine and anatomy.

The result of our labor was a clickable prototype.

Our research into the book also brought up some interesting facts about the book. Such as its whereabouts at the University Library.

These meta data offer an interesting view on the work. We incorporated some figures, which we found especially fascinating, as an infographic.

This has potential!

From our initial uncertainty, YAAY came to believe that this approach can be transformed into something with lasting value.

The app and the contents could be fleshed out for the Fabrica. In addition, the approach is not limited to this specific book.

Any book which is either rare, valuable or both could be turned into a more accessible form. The “DNA” navigation, the concept of stories, as well as the presentation in an app can be seen as a universal method.

Furthermore, a similar approach could work for other pieces of art or science. Museum exhibitions or paintings are only two of the ideas I can come up with.

I am curious to see where our findings lead us to.