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Professors digitize medieval manuscripts

By Rotem Ben-Shachar

February 17, 2009 5:37 am

Google “medieval manuscripts” and more than a million hits come up.

But only one leads to a catalog with copies of complete medieval manuscripts.

This UCLA-based database, called the Catalogue of Digitized Medieval Manuscripts, was created by UCLA English Professor Matthew Fisher and former English Professor Christopher Baswell last December. It currently holds more than 1,000 manuscripts, all of which are organized by location, author, title, language and shelfmark ““ an ancient form of cataloging.

Between 5,000 and 6,000 people from 20 countries and all 50 states visited in the first three weeks of the Web site’s launch, Fisher said.

“The site has been met with great enthusiasm. It’s been incredible,” Baswell said.

In the past 10 years, libraries have begun digitizing complete medieval manuscripts so the public can have access to them. Unfortunately, they were nearly impossible to find on the Internet because they were not well-publicized, Baswell said.

When Fisher and Baswell began working on the project, even though they have very similar research interests, the lists of digitized manuscripts they both had shared nothing in common.

“It showed how difficult it is to find these manuscripts,” Fisher said.

Medieval manuscript searches on the Internet usually only bring up a single illustration from a manuscript, not a complete copy of a manuscript, Fisher said. For literary scholars, this is not enough; they need manuscripts in their entirety to study them in depth.

Before they were digitized, manuscripts were inaccessible because the only way to see them was to go to the libraries housing them, Fisher said. Unlike books, each manuscript is hand-crafted and has its own unique details that cannot be reproduced.

Because of the need to make manuscripts more accessible, Baswell began talking about creating a searchable catalog of digitized manuscripts six years ago.

“People thought it was a good idea, and I got a little bit of seed money, but it never got off the ground until Matthew Fisher came to UCLA (in 2006),” Baswell said.

Fisher was key to the project because not only does he specialize in medieval literature, but he also has a background in software design, so he had the technical capacity to create the Web site.

“I helped receive funding and helped develop the concept, but Matthew Fisher made it happen,” Baswell said.

Fisher began developing the Web site in the summer of 2007. With the help of two web developers and two graduate students who did data entry, the Web site was completed 18 months later.

Fisher said he was very involved in the technical aspect of the Web site. He gave the developers detailed specifications, made all the graphics and did some of the programming himself.

“He did a brilliant job,” Baswell said. “It’s very rare for a site to have very few glitches at the beginning.”

The database is currently far from finished. Graduate students are continually searching for more Web sites and many people have sent links throughout the catalog Web site.

Fisher said he hopes the Web site will have between 2,000 and 3,000 manuscripts by the end of this academic year.

“I think there are between (5,000) and 10,000 (digitized manuscripts) out there, but it’s impossible to know,” Fisher said, explaining that manuscripts are hard to find on the Internet. “We have a strong starting point, but we want to continue adding more.”

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Rotem Ben-Shachar
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