Researchers create vast virtual library of medieval manuscripts

February 11th, 2009 - 4:18 pm ICT by IANS  

Washington, Feb 11 (IANS) Somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000 rare and precious medieval manuscripts have been scanned over the past decade into formats that could be studied over the Internet if only scholars knew they existed and knew where to find them. “Searching for medieval manuscripts gets you millions of hits, most of which have nothing to do with manuscripts, and when they do, they usually feature only images of a single page rather than the entire book,” said Matthew Fisher, assistant professor of English at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). “Since finding these great projects is so tough, they’re functionally invisible,” he added.

Fisher set out two years ago to remedy the situation. With the assistance of two graduate students in English, a computer developer from UCLA’s Centre for Digital Humanities (CDH) and Christopher Baswell, former professor, Fisher decided to collect links to every manuscript from the eighth to the 15th century that had been fully digitised by any library, archive, institute or private owner anywhere in the world.

In December 2008, the group launched the initial results. The UCLA-based ‘Catalogue of Digitised Medieval Manuscripts’ now links nearly 1,000 manuscripts by 193 authors in 20 languages from 59 libraries around the world, allowing users to flit from England to France to Switzerland to the United States - to name the locations of just a few of the featured repositories - with the click of a mouse.

Highlights include the largest surviving collection of the works of Christine de Pizan, one of the first women in Europe to earn a living as a writer. The manuscript was commissioned by Queen Isabeau of France in 1414 and is now held by the British Library.

An Irish copy of the Gospel of John, bound in ivory and presented to Charlemagne sometime around 800, is now in the library of the monastery of St. Gall in Switzerland.

Another is the Junius manuscript, one of only four major manuscripts preserving poetry in Old English. Dated to around 1000, the book is now among the holdings of Oxford’s Bodleian Library.

“Because these manuscripts are so old and fragile, libraries are digitising them, but you can’t find them,” Fisher said. “We’re completing the step of making them accessible to the world.”

Employing a Web application designed by the CDH, which promotes the use of computer technology in humanities research and instruction, the ‘Catalogue of Digitised Medieval Manuscripts’ allows users to search for manuscripts according to their author, title, language and archiving institution.

In its first three weeks of operation, the site had almost 5,000 visitors from Australia, England, France, Italy, Germany, Spain, the Netherlands, Sweden, Switzerland, Austria, Canada and all over the United States. In addition to librarians and academics, the site has been visited by hobbyists from such groups as the ‘Society for Creative Anachronism,’ said an UCLA release.

“The chorus of response has been, ‘Thank you,’” said Fisher, who joined UCLA’s faculty in 2006. “‘We needed this.’”

“We’ll never replace the joy of sitting down with an 800-year-old book,” he said, “but we will bring the wonder of these manuscripts to people who might never experience them otherwise,” said Fisher.

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