Emblematica Online
Reviewed August 2020
Virginia Kerr, Retired Head of Communications and Development
Center for Research Libraries

The Emblematica Online project is a model of collaboration for shared discovery among the most significant collections in the U.S. and Europe of emblem books, an esoteric genre published from c. 1500-1750 primarily in Northern Europe and Italy. An essay on the Emblematica website notes that emblems—hybrid combinations of iconographic images with mottoes and epigrams—are “one of the primary vehicles of cultural knowledge during the early modern period, expressing highly complex ideas in compact forms.” An estimated 6,500 books with emblems were published, depicting concepts applicable to a wide range of human experience, including natural philosophy, politics, love, war, and everyday life. These primary sources are valuable for humanities researchers in many fields, including material culture, literature, musicology, and interdisciplinary studies.

Emblematica Online homepage

This open access resource is hosted by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, developed in collaboration with the Herzog August Bibliothek, Wolfenbüttel. The result is an aggregated collection of 1,388 emblem books selected from six library collections, digitized as high quality facsimiles. Image-specific metadata has been generated for over 33,200 images from just 200 of these books (typical emblem books contained anywhere from fifteen to 1,500 images). While the majority of the content was complete by 2016, it remains a valuable resource for emblem research.

The Emblematica interface supports browsing books and indexed emblems as well as searching for books by standard elements:  keyword, author/contributor, publication date and place, and publisher. Results can be filtered to create subsets by century, place of publication, language, and the source collection. Individual emblems are searchable by keywords, motto transcriptions, and Iconclass notations (classification numbers) and terms (headings). The hierarchical Iconclass indexing includes both concrete descriptions (“flying mammals: bat”) and abstract concepts (“fearlessness”).

By systematically applying Linked Open Data (LOD) services, the Emblematica developers capitalized on qualities of the Semantic Web to address both the complex thematic relationships of emblems within and across various publications as well as the operational challenges of integrating metadata in multiple languages from several countries. Catalog entries link to multiple LOD name authority sources for book authorship. Since Iconclass is LOD compatible, image searches can be executed in English, French, German or Italian. Since each Iconclass term has been assigned a persistent URI, emblems with related content can be linked. Some image metadata also links out to comparable themes in other genres found in the Festkultur database and the VKK print database.

While the interface is fairly clean and intuitive, some functional limitations must derive from the resource-intensive challenges of generating granular access for this complex content from multiple collections.  Individual digitized emblems can be viewed on several platforms, but the full, indexed metadata is only available in the Emblematica window. To view an emblem in its original context, the researcher is directed out to various source platforms hosting page-turning tools. To consult indexing for surrounding images in the same volume, one must toggle between platforms, and unfortunately the Emblematica image metadata does not reference book page numbers. The complexities of retrieving this aggregated content might be better addressed if the forthcoming “Search tips” are made available.

Emblem with text belowThis resource is best suited for researchers with existing knowledge of the cultural context of emblem books, especially for finding known or related items. The most useful feature for serendipitous discovery is the connection of images  through linked Iconclass terms and notations (such as “sun represented as face, wheel, etc.”).To make the site more useful for undergraduates or novice researchers, a number of additional features are desirable: a bibliography of key reference sources and publications (the “Additional Resources” section currently only cites numerous publications about the project); English language translations for the emblem texts; more detailed explanation of the Iconclass system in the search interface; and the addition of interpretative annotations where possible. Since the project will promote specialist research, perhaps crowd-sourced annotations could be incorporated. Expanding image indexing through crowd-sourcing has also been considered, according to the developers (see Timothy W. Cole, Myung-Ja K. Han, and Mara R. Wade, “Linked Open Data and Semantic Web Technologies in Emblematica Online,” in Early Modern Studies After the Digital Turn, L. Estill et al eds., 2016).

The layered relationships of emblematic images and texts might be broadly compared with the interplay of text and images in today’s social media. Emblematica Online provides a framework for diving deeper into the cultural signifiers of an earlier time.

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