SLU Librarian Helps Preserve the Past for Future Generations of Scholars

Most days you can find digital humanities librarian Debra Taylor Cashion, Ph.D., MLIS, tucked away in a quiet corner of Pius XII Memorial Library examining and researching some of the most fascinating and historically significant material many of us have never seen. 

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Modern technology connected with antiquity when Haroon Iqbal (left) of SLU’s IT department snapped a selfie with SLU digital humanities librarian Debra Taylor Cashion, Ph.D. (right) and Lisa Fagin Davis of the Medieval Academy of America as they explored Rome during a break from presenting at the International Imaging Interoperability Framework Vatican Conference.

But in June, Cashion took some time away from the University campus to head to Rome where she had been invited to give a presentation about SLU’s METAscripta project to a global audience at the International Imaging Interoperability Framework (IIIF) Vatican Conference at the Augustinian Patristic Institute. 

Cashion, who is also an assistant librarian in the University’s Knights of Columbus Vatican Film Library in the Department of Special Collections, shared some interesting facts about the history of the library's digitization and metadata project. 

"METAscripta uses innovative metadata methods for summary indexing, embedded image tagging and controlled vocabulary crowd-sourcing to support and encourage the study of the VFL microfilm collection of manuscripts from the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana (BAV), or Vatican Library," Cashion said.  

"This collection was created in the 1950’s by Father Lowrie J. Daly, S.J., professor of medieval history, and Dr. Charles J. Ermatinger, professor and Head of the Vatican Film Library, the latter who served in the “Monuments Men” of the Allied Armies during World War II," Cashion added. "METAscripta brings the history of the VFL collection into the present and future and continues the long-standing collegial relationship between SLU libraries and the BAV.  

In addition to presenting at the conference, Cashion also connected with several international colleagues who work on manuscript digitization projects, including Paola Manoni, metadata librarian at the Vatican Library (BAV). Those meetings led to some amazing discoveries. 

“At one of these meetings Dr. Ambrogio Piazzoni, the Vice Prefect of the BAV, gave me a tour of the library, including the closed stacks where the manuscript collections are kept,” Cashion said.   

She also learned some interesting details when Piazzoni’s colleague and head of the BAV photography department, Irma Schuler, showed Cashion the facilities where microfilms are processed and stored.  

“I was amazed to find that some of the equipment shown in the Vatican Film Library photos from the 1950’s is still in use at the Vatican,” Cashion added. “I shared with Irma and her colleagues some of these old photos I had scanned for for display on the METAscripta project website, and they not only recognized their equipment but also knew some of the people in the pictures.”  

In addition to presenting at the conference, Cashion also had the opportunity to make new friends and add to her own knowledge. 

“On two occasions I was invited to dinner at the homes of colleagues, including Francesca Mazari, who was born and raised in Rome,” Cashion said. “She is also writing a book with Dr. Ambrogio Piazzoni about Vatican Bibles, so that was a great learning experience on many levels. “ 

Cashion’s trip to Rome also included seeing the sights of Rome, including St. Peter’s, the Vatican Museum, Sistine Chapel, Castel Sant’Angelo, the Pantheon, the Colosseum, the Trevi Fountain, the Campidoglio, Santa Sabina, the Roman Forum, and the Circus Maximus.  

“The major benefit of the trip was to learn more about the IIIF academic community and software initiatives so that we can develop IIIF as the core technology for the METAscripta project at SLU,” Cashion said. “I am grateful for the chance to do that but also for the experience of exchanging new ideas in one of the venerable cities of the world, one to which SLU Libraries has been directly connected since the 1950’s and the founding of the Knights of Columbus Vatican Film Library.” 

SLU colleagues Haroon Iqbal of the IT department and Patrick Cuba of the Ong Center for Digital Humanities also had the opportunity to participate  in the conference and Cashion says they all returned with enhanced knowledge and a deep appreciation for SLU’s involvement in preserving knowledge that will provide perspective and inspiration for scholars, researchers and historians far into the future. 

“The major benefit of the trip was to learn more about the IIIF academic community and software initiatives so that we can develop IIIF as the core technology for the METAscripta project at SLU,” Cashion said. “I am grateful for the chance to do that but also for the experience of exchanging new ideas in one of the venerable cities of the world, one to which SLU Libraries has been directly connected since the 1950’s and the founding of the Knights of Columbus Vatican Film Library.” 

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Debra Taylor Cashion, Ph.D., MLIS, in her office in Pius XII Memorial Library, where she leads a team of graduate assistants and students using painstaking precision and technology to preserve works from the past for scholars and students of the future.

While her conference and visit to Rome is behind her, Cashion, along with her graduate assistants Blake Hartung (Ph.D. Theology, 2017) and Amy Nelson (Ph.D. program, English); and student workers Bing Han (grad student-electrical engineering), Sai Tonikonda (grad student-mechanical engineering), Olivia Smithhisler (undergrad student-mechanical engineering) and Genna Hilbing (undergrad student- music),  is full speed ahead with her ongoing digitization projects, actively involved in the Broken Books project at SLU’s Ong Center for Digital Humanities where she served as CDH Associate Director from 2013-2015 and  finishing work on a major publishing project, The Primacy of the Image in Northern European Art, 1400-1700, an anthology of 42 art history articles just published by Brill.