Clicking a Link or Taking a Train: Archives in Question

by Jenny Weston

Two weeks ago, the project team was thrilled to hear that Leiden University will offer a month-long trial subscription to the Parker Library on the Web. For one (glorious) month, we have been granted full access to the renowned website, where we can easily browse through hundreds of manuscripts from the Corpus Christi Collection at Cambridge, complete with descriptions, transcriptions, and, best of all, high-quality images with the famous “zoom-in” option.

Parker Library on the Web Homepage

This website is a particularly spectacular example of a digitized manuscript collection, and it has given me cause to think about the future of manuscript research. With the advent of these specialized online databases, will we eventually phase out the practice of “traditional” archive research? That is to say, physically going to the archive and working with manuscripts “in the flesh”?

Indeed, the benefits of working with manuscripts online are significant. Such websites allow researchers who cannot travel to the archives a chance to see the books. Also in some cases, manuscripts are too damaged or delicate, and a digital copy may be the only way to work safely with the book. Digital databases also allow you to spend as much time as you like examining a manuscript, as opposed to working under the pressure of an archive’s (often limited) opening hours. This frees you up to focus on the details, follow curious abnormalities in the layout, or transcribe passages of interest. It is also possible to sip a cup of tea while browsing through the manuscript without the threat of catastrophe…(an important consideration).

With this in mind, why would anyone choose to work in an archive when they can work with online manuscript images from the comforts of their own living room?

I had to really think about this one. Why do I still believe it is important, when possible, to see the manuscript in person? Perhaps it is the feeling you get when you open up the cover of an 800-year old book. You can immediately sense the history and life of the book. You can feel the weight of the parchment, take in its musty (yet somehow delightful) scent, and read through it as it was originally intended, carefully lifting each folio, while taking into account the centuries of grease and grime left behind by readers who once held the same book in their own hands. It is the inspiration and connection to the books that you feel while in the presence of such remarkably old manuscripts, and I believe it is this feeling that often makes medieval research so wonderful and compelling.

Seminary Library at Rolduc Abbey

So while the digitization of manuscripts opens the door to new and exciting methods of manuscript research, I only hope that we do not accidentally close the door on archival research as well. While the archives may not be as comfortable as your living room, and the dust may send you into a sneezing frenzy, they continue to be special places of inspiration and discovery.

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