Friday, July 12, 2013

Medieval Digimania

  When the very first digital images from medieval manuscripts were posted on the web way back in the age of dinosaurs (late 1990s I think it was) the potential for such resources for scholars and hobbyists was apparent. Also very apparent was the massive scale of the enterprise in terms of labour and expense before anything like a useable academic resource was available. Web technology was less advanced, so images tended to be either rapid loading and crude, or very slow loading and high quality. Then there was the issue of what those who put the images up thought the users ought to be able to do with them. In many cases not much. My favourite (not) message was "You may not download this image." Yeah, OK, so how come I'm looking at it?
  When I first put up Medieval Writing around 2000, I attempted to include links to all sites with reasonable displays of digitised manuscripts. It was actually possible. Since then it has become harder and harder to keep up, and in the last few years there has been an avalanche of sites with complete digital facsimiles of such a quality as would enable various kinds of fairly detailed research.
  There seemed to be certain national characteristics in relation to the display of manuscripts on the web. German sites went for complete facsimiles with grungy interfaces. French sites went for beautiful displays of miniatures in thematic arrangements, but isolated from their texts. French provincial libraries displayed their treasures, often buried in municipal government websites, with complex and changing urls. Switzerland went in for the full bells and whistles, complete manuscripts, funky interface and open access with its splendid e-codices website. I believe a Scandinavian site from the Helsinki University Library was the first to claim its medieval manuscript images could be used copyright free, but that resource seems to have vanished. British institutions, on the whole went for selections of pages and illustrations, so that it was never possible to study a complete manuscript. And if you could, they told you not to. American libraries flaunted their translocated treasures with arty selections.
  Now the race is on to make the world's manuscript treasures available. And institutions are realising that they can allow people to make use of them, because for starters, how are you going to stop them, and for seconds, what possible harm can it do to the original? The circulation of CDs of dubious provenance sold on eBay from countries like Spain of material on the web claimed to be copyright has been followed by a crowd of scholars republishing and re-referencing material on blogs, tweets and other new media. Even the British Library now allows its digitised manuscript images to be used without copyright restriction for non-profit purposes. Now if they would only digitise a few more complete manuscripts ....
  While talk of persistent urls for specific manuscript pages has been going on in library circles for a long time, some manuscript sites are finally making use of them, allowing other users to construct databases on whatever themes they choose across various sites. But it is still all taking time. Every listing of digitised manuscripts on the web is incomplete or out of date.
  Now one Giulio Menna of the splendidly named Sexy Codicology website is plunging into the task of providing an interactive map of all libraries in Europe offering digitised manuscripts on the web. Check the progress here. Best of luck Giulio. Big job. It's an independent project and a labour of love. The guy is crazier than me.

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