• Discussion Session Proposal: A Worldcat for Manuscripts?

    I am a medieval historian by training, and also a THATCamp newbie. I currently work as a manuscript specialist on a grant-funded DH project called “The Virtual Libraries of Reichenau and St. Gall” (www.stgallplan.org), now based at the UCLA Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, but which in an earlier phase of the project (before I came on board) was based at UVA’s IATH.  In a nutshell, this phase of the project reconstructs the intellectual landscape of two of the most important intellectual communities of Carolingian Europe.  We have digitized or purchased the rights to use images of about 170 Latin manuscripts that are or were owned in the Middle Ages by the Benedictine monasteries of St. Gall and Reichenau in what is today southwestern Germany / north-central Switzerland.  My work on the project mostly entails describing these manuscripts and creating TEI XML metadata for our page-images of them.

    Outside of my work on the St. Gall project, I also have used DH applications in my own scholarship, which focuses on the Venerable Bede (672/3-735) and the manuscript transmission of his works.  My work in this area has mostly focussed on database development, and so in that connection I would be very interested in a discussion of some aspects of linked data and what it means for the future.  Specifically, I’m interested in whether linked data will be the answer to what for me has become an old conundrum: namely, whereas to do serious research on medieval textual transmission you used to need to access, say, 1,000 pretty specialized books; since the digital revolution took hold you now need to access 700 pretty specialized books (half of which you might be able to find online if you look hard) and 300 different websites, one by one.  In short, access has definitely been increased dramatically, but I think there’s still a lot of room to improve in terms of leveraging technology to reduce the amount of labor expended in accessing this type of information (I’m talking essentially about eliminating busy work; obviously the hard thinking bits will always be done by scholars).  Or, to put it another way, will the growth of linked data technologies make it feasible to build a equivalent of Worldcat for medieval manuscript collections (or for that matter other types of archival/special collections)?  Can others point me in the direction of projects that have done or are attempting to do this sort of thing for other fields of study?  What would need to be done to make this happen?

    Joshua Westgard

    UCLA / Silver Spring, MD


  1. Ethan Gruber says:

    I think you’re right that linked data will play an integral role in the development of major networks of related objects. I don’t know the extent of linked data in papyri.info/ (a major portal for papyrology), but at the American Numismatic Society, we are building tools to support coin catalogs and working on defining numismatic concepts with URIs. Currently, we are working on a catalog of Roman Imperial coin-types (an intellectual concept in numismatics), which can link to physical specimens in various collection.

    I think that you can improve access of medieval manuscripts, first, by encouraging collections to provide access to their resources with stable URIs. Second, encourage them to create an OAI-PMH service which will allow you to gather a list of URIs for their manuscripts using a harvester. This data that you gather can be used to create a portal. The technical barriers are not difficult to overcome, but collections may have varying access restrictions.

  2. jwestgard says:

    Thank you, Ethan, for this helpful reply. I had not previously encountered the OAI-PMH initiative (for others who may read this, www.openarchives.org). You’re right, this looks like exactly the sort of thing I will need. On the other hand, I did have some familiarity with papyri.info, which is aiming for something very similar to what I would hope to achieve. The papyrologists have a leg up on my field in that they have certain databases like the Heidelberger Gesamtverzeichnis that at least come close to providing a comprehensive overview of the material. For medieval Latin manuscripts, there is pretty good coverage through the 9th century in three repertories. But after 900 there’s really nothing even close to comprehensive (and beginning in the 11th/12th centuries there’s a significant uptick in the amount of material). I hope I’ll have a chance at the camp to learn more about what you’re doing with the coins.

  3. Ethan Gruber says:

    Cool. I’m not a manuscript specialist by any means, but I’ll look forward to talking more with you about linked data next weekend. The same methods can apply across all facets of cultural heritage.

  4. May I remark on the beauty of your area’s Web site? St Gall itself has fascinated me (in pictures) for its beauty; and I’ve entered glorious monastic libraries. “Carolingian Culture at Reichenau and St Gall” is a delight for the complete non-specialist I am, for its images and guiding essays. How very nice this must be for you.

  5. Marlon says:

    My library just aepdtod Omeka but it has not yet been put into practice. I will probably be the first to it use for an upcoming library exhibit but have never worked with Omeka. I am hoping to have a good general over view from which new ideas can spring. Additionally, as the first user I will probably take on some training responsibilities at my institution- either student staff or other librarians.

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