PACSCL Libraries to Digitize All Their Medieval Manuscripts

Free Library of Philadelphia Lewis Ms 185, fols. 2v-3r

Project will create the country's largest regional online collection of medieval manuscripts; fifteen libraries will create images and descriptions for 160,000 manuscript pages

BIBLIOTHECA PHILADELPHIENSIS --  list of manuscripts to be included (link to Google sheet -- subject to minor corrections following condition review) 

The Philadelphia Area Consortium of Special Collections Libraries (PACSCL) announced that member library Lehigh University has been awarded a $499,086 grant on PACSCL’s behalf from the Digitizing Hidden Special Collections and Archives initiative of the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR), generously supported by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation,  for its project Bibliotheca Philadelphiensis: Toward a Comprehensive Online Library of Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts in PACSCL Libraries in Eastern Pennsylvania and Delaware.

The project, led by PACSCL members Lehigh University, Free Library of Philadelphia, and the University of Pennsylvania Libraries and involving a total of 15 partner institutions, will complete the digitization and online presentation of virtually all of the region’s medieval manuscripts – a total of almost 160,000 pages from more than 400 individual volumes. The  images, together with descriptive metadata, will be released into the public domain and easily downloadable at high resolution.

PACSCL first showcased the variety and depth of the region’s collections, one of the largest in any metropolitan region in the United States, in a 2001 exhibition, “Leaves of Gold: Manuscript Illumination from Philadelphia Collections,” at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.  The exhibition and its associated catalogue drew heavily upon the manuscripts to be digitized in this project and sparked a surge in scholarly interest in the Philadelphia collections.

The manuscripts in this project range from simple but functional texts intended for the students of science, philosophy, and religion to jewel-like works of art in the collections of such institutions as Bryn Mawr College, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Rosenbach Museum and Library. “With the addition of materials previously digitized by member libraries, Bibliotheca Philadelphiensis will provide access to more than 2,000 manuscripts in total,” notes PACSCL chairman Ronald Brashear. “It will allow users to download the manuscripts, view them in almost-microscopic detail, and compare them with related works in collections across the country and abroad.” Brashear is also director of the Othmer Library at the Chemical Heritage Foundation, which is contributing images of its medieval and early modern alchemical manuscripts to the project.  

The images and metadata will be hosted by the University of Pennsylvania Libraries’ OPenn manuscript portal (http://openn.library.upenn.edu) They will be released to the public domain at high resolution and available for download – by the page, by the manuscript, or by the collection – together with descriptive metadata via anonymous FTP or anonymous rsync. Many of the manuscripts to be digitized by the project are held in the collections of the Free Library of Philadelphia. In addition to digitizing its own collections and serving as the project’s fiscal agent, Lehigh will dark archive the project’s images and metadata, providing a critical backup outside the city of Philadelphia.

“We’re excited to be able to participate in this project both as a scholarly contributor and as a lead partner in the grant development and implementation”, notes Bruce M. Taggart, Vice Provost for Library and Technology Services at Lehigh University. “The digitization of our medieval manuscripts has been a high priority for our special collections department for the past decade. Our Trustees back in 1878 purposefully acquired Lehigh’s volumes specifically to teach the history of the book as an integral part of understanding the origins of the technology of book production. Since then the manuscripts have become an integral part of coursework in both the humanities and the hard sciences. Both our students and our faculty have asked for online access so that they will not be limited by their ability to visit the Special Collections department during its regular hours.”

Adds Lois Fischer Black, Curator of Special Collections at Lehigh and Principal Investigator of the project, “Some of our materials are also of high interest to the international community of scholars, particularly our works of astronomy and alchemy, and we get regular requests for digital images.”  

“This project affirms the Penn Libraries’ commitment to open data,” says William Noel, Director of the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts at the Penn Libraries.  Penn has already released more than 1,600 manuscripts, including those from the recent bequest by Lawrence J. Schoenberg, into the public domain on its OPenn portal. “Our staff has long advocated for open access to manuscript collections, and this project takes open data to a new level among manuscript collections,” continues Noel. “One of the best ways to preserve information is to share it, and this project has been designed to encourage widespread sharing.”  The Penn Libraries’ Schoenberg Center for Electronic Text and Image will provide imaging services for several participating member libraries, including almost 120,000 pages from the Free Library of Philadelphia.

Dot Porter, Curator of Digital Research Services in the Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies (SIMS), University of Pennsylvania Libraries, and one of two co-Principal Investigators on the project, explains that the architecture of the OPenn site allows others to make use of the data with or without downloading it. The openness of OPenn's design makes it possible to  use the raw materials to create any sort of digital resource. Project data will be available through two resources: the Medieval Electronic Scholarly Alliance (MESA; http://www.mesa-medieval.org/), where they will be able to be searched alongside manuscripts and other medieval materials from institutions across the US and Europe; and the existing digital manuscript search and browse facility hosted by SIMS, built using the Library of Congress’s viewshare software (http://viewshare.org/views/leoba/openn-and-digital-walters/). Adds Porter, “The files will ultimately be made available through the International Image Interoperability Framework (IIIF). Any scholar or institution using tools that incorporate IIIF will be able to use images from OPenn to compare similar manuscripts held in libraries across the continent or around the world.”

"The medieval collections in our Rare Book Department are unusually strong for a public library,” notes Siobhan A. Reardon, President and Director at the Free Library of Philadelphia, “and specialists in the field of medieval studies have long been aware of the richness of our holdings. Generous support like this helps us to forward our mission to advance literacy, guide learning, and inspire curiosity by making these treasures of our cultural heritage available to our broad and diverse audience.”

“This will be the Free Library’s second manuscript digitization project, “ adds Janine Pollock, Assistant Chief at Parkway Central, and co-Principal Investigator, In 2007, with the support of the Institute for Library and Museum Services, the Free Library cataloged all of its medieval manuscripts. “As part of the project, we digitized all of our leaves and cuttings and a small number of images from each bound volume, or codex. Now, with this project, all of our codices will also be available to a research community that has been asking for them as a result of the sampling currently available online.”

The project participants include the following area libraries and museums: Bryn Mawr College, Chemical Heritage Foundation, College of Physicians of Philadelphia, Franklin and Marshall College, Free Library of Philadelphia (lead contributor and co-principal investigator) Haverford College, Lehigh University (principal investigator, fiscal agent, and dark archive), Library Company of Philadelphia, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Rosenbach Museum and Library, Swarthmore College, Temple University, University of Delaware, University of Pennsylvania (OPenn host and lead imaging/metadata center), Villanova University.

PACSCL is very grateful to the three lead applicants for their hard work in bringing the project proposal to fruition, to the rest of the partners for  their participation, and to CLIR for its continued support for PACSCL. 

Press coverage: Allentown (PA) Morning Call, January 17, "Lehigh University part of massive effort to turn medieval treasures into a virtual gold mine"  

(Image, above: Free Library of Philadelphia Lewis Ms 185, The Lewis Psalter, fols. 2v-3r)