December 2018 marked the beginning of a collaborative project between the Herzog August Bibliothek (HAB) and the Bodleian Libraries. Funded by The Polonsky Foundation, the two institutions are in the process of digitizing several hundred medieval manuscripts from German monastic libraries. Once digitised, the manuscripts with their accompanying information are made publicly available on the project website. We are currently halfway through the project and are achieving excellent results.
At the time of writing, this project site features 96 manuscripts digitised by the HAB, out of an expected 200. Two of these are outstanding examples of illuminated manuscripts from the Dombibliothek Hildesheim. The manuscripts were written at former libraries of five northern German monasteries. The HAB have also already digitised a further 27 manuscripts, which will soon be added to the project website by our Oxford colleagues. Thanks to excellent camera equipment acquired with funds from The Polonsky Foundation, the HAB photo department has been able to capture 59,323 images (as per end of March 2020). With more than 4,000 images from around eight manuscripts generated each month we have consistently exceeded our monthly target of 3,786 images.
Beside a few earlier parchment manuscripts, the corpus includes late medieval paper manuscripts primarily belonging to the library’s Helmstedt, Augustean, Novi, and Extravagantes collections. Before being incorporated in the library’s collection here in Wolfenbüttel, these manuscripts were preserved in monasteries and collegiate churches in Hildesheim (Sülte), Helmstedt (Marienberg), Bad Gandersheim (Clus), Braunschweig (St Blaise), and Bad Bevensen (Medingen). Having first digitised several manuscripts with Helmstedt shelfmarks from the Benedictine Abbey of Clus, we then progressed with those from the Augustinian Nunnery of Marienberg near Helmstedt and the Collegiate Church of St Blaise in Braunschweig. For many of the manuscripts from Clus, we have detailed descriptive information available as they are part of a current cataloguing project. However, manuscripts from Marienberg and Braunschweig, the majority of which are part of the Augustean collection, have not been subject to this level of research. Descriptive information for these manuscripts is much more limited, drawn from late 19th century catalogues which do not comply with today’s cataloguing standards.
The HAB will digitise around 200 manuscripts from the circa 600 codices that had been identified as candidates for this collaborative project. After their selection, our conservation department checks each manuscript in order to ensure it is suitable for digitisation. The conservators identify whether precautionary measures are required to stabilise the manuscript before it can be positioned with a sufficient opening angle for photography. The preservation of our historical cultural assets is a high priority and we strive to minimise any wear and tear to the fragile manuscripts throughout the digitisation process. The next steps are carried out by colleagues from our photo department: they generate high-resolution shots using their camera equipment and the “Grazer Cradle” or the Wolfenbüttel Book Reflector. The photographers capture images not only of each manuscript page, but also of its front and back boards, the top, fore, and bottom edges, and the spine.
Before the images can be published in our openly accessible online manuscript database, image-page-concordances and further metadata have to be added to aid the user’s experience when browsing or conducting research. The metadata provides information on the historical and codicological backgrounds; this includes the manuscript’s format, page dimensions, writing material, language, decoration and illumination, content, place of origin, dating, and provenance. To ensure successful delivery of the project outputs, HAB created a new post specifically for the collection and preparation of data. Thanks to this additional resource, 123 manuscripts have been supplied with foliation and further information since autumn 2019 (foliation refers to the counting of leaves; one leaf, lat. folium, has a front and back page which are called “recto” and “verso”, hence “fol. 1r” and “fol. 1v” respectively). After their preparation in XML (“Extensible Markup Language”) with a program that is well-established in the field of Digital Humanities, the data is uploaded and published in the database. The pieces of information are gathered from the print versions of the manuscript catalogues that are partially being updated and thereby adjusted to today’s standards in current cataloguing projects.
Both the Oxford and the Wolfenbüttel project members communicate the progress they have achieved at the end of each month. Project staff from both libraries and representatives from The Polonsky Foundation usually meet twice a year, in Germany during autumn and in the United Kingdom during spring. Due to covid-19 lockdown measures and travel restrictions, we were unable to meet in person for our April 2020 conference scheduled to take place in Oxford. However, we were able to meet by video link and could discuss in detail the current workflows and agreed next steps.
At this moment, another ten months of collaborative work lie ahead of us and, despite the current disruption, we are confident of achieving our key goal: to offer our researchers and the interested public a unique collection of manuscripts from German monastic libraries, digitised to the highest quality.
Irina Rau is the HAB’s research assistant for the Manuscripts from German Speaking Lands project
Christian Heitzmann is head of the HAB’s manuscript department and coordinates cataloguing and digitizing of medieval manuscripts at the HAB.