Navigating the Digital World

By Irene O’Daly

Recently, the library of Trinity College, Dublin made their most famous manuscript, the Book of Kells free to view online. While this is a welcome move, I was disappointed by the relative lack of browsing ease that the resource facilitates. In an extensive critique, Dr Katy Rudy highlighted the failings of the website – pointing out that the resolution of the images is insufficient for in-depth examination, and that the images are not numbered by folio, making it difficult to navigate and reference the manuscript accurately. While there is no doubt that digital reproductions of manuscripts are a valuable resource for the sedentary scholar, it would seem that not all digitisation projects are created equal, nor serve their end-user with the same degree of efficiency.

The number of manuscripts available in digital format grows by the day and several variables affect their usefulness for study, or, indeed, enjoyable browsing.  Significantly, a resource is only as useful as the tools that are provided to allow accurate searching and referencing of images. E-codices, the ‘virtual manuscript library of Switzerland’ allows keyword searches of manuscript descriptions, but also provides a basic browsing-index which allows one to select certain features, eg. date or language, and even allows one to choose specific types of liturgical manuscripts. A similar approach is used by The Royal Library in Copenhagen, which provides a browsing index categorised by author, date, and, loosely, by genre. Akin to casting one’s eye over a library shelf and noticing that the book next to the one you intended to borrow also looks interesting, such indexes can often extend one’s understanding of a collection.

E-codices Browsing Index (Search Screen)

E-codices Browsing Index (Search Screen)

Along these lines, large scale digitisation projects, such as the virtual reconstruction of the Lorsch abbatial library or the scanning project conducted for the Bibliotheca Carolina facilitate the understanding of digital images within a context. Capturing of the holdings of a library at a specific time, whether medieval, as in the case of Lorsch, or modern, as in the case of the ambitious digitisation of the Fondo Plutei of the Biblioteca Medica Laurenziana in Florence, may prompt conclusions regarding origin, provenance or use.

The quality of information provided for consultation alongside the images also matters. While slightly clunky, the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek (BSB) in Munich’s images are linked to a scanned version of the library’s catalogue, for example, which provides information about provenance, contents, and foliation. Recently, the BnF scanned the index cards containing bibliographic information about its manuscripts (Fichier bibliographique des manuscrits latins et grecs) and linked them to their online manuscript catalogue entries. Furthermore, one can now consult the Catalogue général des manuscrits des bibliothèques publiques de France online. While the digitisation of these resources may seem of secondary importance, they provide the apparatus that gives manuscript images meaning.

A final word in defence of quantity over quality. There is, naturally, a considerable qualitative difference between manuscript images that have been recently photographed in high-resolution colour and those images that have simply been produced by scanning already available (usually black and white) microfilms.  Although frequently maligned, the latter approach has been used to some efficacy by the BSB in Munich and by the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (BnF). While black and white scans hide important features of the text, such as ink colour, and may mask marginal interventions, the (presumably) cheaper cost of making already available images accessible often allows consultation of the complete manuscript. This, in my opinion, is preferable than simply being able to access a few individual high-quality images from a manuscript, particularly when those images have been selected to show off illuminations or pretty details, rather than the more mundane aspects of the text.

Clm 18474, f. 1r - scanned microfilm image, complete with thumb []

Munich BSB Clm 18474, f. 1r – scanned microfilm image, complete with thumb []

In sum, the process of digitising manuscripts must go hand in hand with the provision of adequate resources which allow the image to be understood in the context of the codex within which it is found, and the collection it comes from.

A non-exhaustive list of some useful digitised manuscript resources:

Swiss Libraries:

Royal Library of Copenhagen

Digitised Manuscripts in German Libraries:

Early Manuscripts at Oxford University

Digital Scriptorium:

Illuminated manuscripts in the BnF:

Illuminated manuscripts in French public libraries (outside the BnF)

Illuminated manuscripts in Bibliothèque Mazarine and Sainte-Geneviève

Resource containing manuscripts scanned largely from eastern European libraries:

The Warburg Institute Iconographic Database

Irish Script on Screen

Medieval Manuscripts in Dutch Collections:


BSB Munich:

British Library:

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