What do modern newspaper comic strips and 16th century illustrated medical texts have in common? For PhD candidate Jacob Murel, the common thread is the way that both comics and medical diagrams employ images and words together to create a narrative, and to transfer knowledge. Murel has been fascinated for many years by the symbiotic relationship between visual art and the language we use to quantify and transfer the information contained in those visuals. That fascination has propelled him throughout his higher education – after completing his undergraduate studies, he completed an MA in English, with a thesis focusing on comic art criticism.
For his PhD, Murel chose Northeastern for the opportunity to work and study with Distinguished Professor of English and Art + Design, Hillary Chute, an expert on comics and graphic narratives. Alongside this, he has contributed to Northeastern’s Women Writers Project, which aims to encode early modern texts by women writers from the 16th to 19th century in order to make them accessible to modern scholars, teachers and students.
All of this inspired his current research, which focuses on 16th century medical text production and analysis of how the images contained therein are catalogued by modern scholars for study.
“In early modernity, people would include handwritten annotations alongside medical illustrations, often summarizing the content of the image – the notes would describe the function of the depicted systems,” Murel explains.
“Compared to that, I am looking at what people do today if we look at indexing as a form of modern annotation. What information do we deem important to record to describe the image? In the example of the NLM, when they record information, they look at metadata details like the source, date of publication, the contributor; they don’t record information like what the image shows, or what it relates to. The question I’m asking is…how can we improve our indexing practices to provide more useful information to scholars, or just the everyday user?”
While the subjects may seem wildly different, Murel feels right at home. “It’s studying the same relationship between text and images as in comics,” he says, “Just in a different context.”