Bodleian Library MS. Canon. Bibl. Lat. 60, fol. 73v

Manuscript Journeys: From German Lands to Digital Libraries

Earlier this month, the Bodleian hosted a panel discussion to celebrate the (near!) completion of our Manuscripts from German-Speaking Lands digitization project. Before a small audience in the Weston Library in Oxford, and a much larger one watching live online from across the globe, the speakers reflected on the work of the project, international cultural exchange, and the role of digital objects in a modern library.

A recording of the livestream is available to view below and on YouTube.

Richard Ovenden, Bodley’s Librarian, beamed in via video to welcome us to the event and introduce the project – which has now digitized over 600 manuscripts and 230,000 pages, all freely available to view online. Richard thanked The Polonsky Foundation for their support, and reflected on the projects’ achievements. As well making available online manuscript collections from the Bodleian Libraries and the Herzog August Bibliothek, the project has promoted this shared medieval heritage to scholars, students and the broader public, and allowed our two libraries to share experience, techniques, technologies and approaches.

Richard then introduced Julia Gross, Charge d’Affaires of the German Embassy in London. Her Excellency reminded us of the centuries-old academic and cultural bonds between Britain and Germany, and the dynamic cultural interchange which has shaped the destinies of both countries. This relationship requires constant investment and commitment to flourish, and the will and curiosity to engage with one another. Libraries can act in this spirt as champions and protectors of shared cultural heritage, preserving the connections between countries and cultures. Projects like this enrich our societies, and celebrate openness, curiosity, and the desire to care for our common heritage.

Martin Kauffmann, Head of Early and Rare Collections at the Bodleian, unveiled the short film, “Manuscript Journeys: from German Lands to Digital Libraries”, commissioned by this project. This film follows the path of a manuscript during digitization, from initial selection and conservation, through to photography, cataloguing, and publication online. Staff from both libraries discuss their work, and the history of the collections being digitized.

After the film, Peter Burschel, Director of the Herzog August Bibliothek, and Joanna Story, Professor of Early Medieval History at the University of Leicester, then spoke further on the history of the collections digitized by this project, and the long history of Anglo-German cultural interchange they represent.

Professor Burschel related how the collections ended up in our respective libraries following the upheavals of the Reformation and the Thirty Years War. He encouraged us to consider the manuscripts’ cosmopolitan history, and think of them as diplomats which can help us overcome national boundaries and enter into shared projects such as this.

Professor Story highlighted the 8th century Anglo-German origin of many of the religious houses featuring in this project – and of the manuscripts themselves. Anglo-Saxon missionaries who travelled to the Frankish kingdom established monastic houses with the support of the Carolingians, and soon began importing books from Anglo-Saxon kingdoms’ houses, or producing manuscripts of their own. Manuscripts from these scriptoria were produced using Anglo-Saxon methods, exhibiting the characteristic Anglo-Saxon “Insular” style in script and decoration. The manuscripts produced at the monastery of St Kilian in Würzburg, now in the Bodleian and digitized for this project, typify this early medieval connection.

A list of books held by the Cathedral Church of St Kilian, Würzburg, c. 800. Bodleian Library MS. Laud Misc. 126, fol. 260r.

Next, Professor Henrike Lähnemann, chair of Medieval German Literature and Linguistics at the University of Oxford, explained how she has used digitized manuscripts for teaching – especially during the pandemic. The past year has required re-imagining how to teach palaeography and the history of the book using digital methods. High-resolution digital facsimiles produced by this project have provided crucial objects of study for her students, permitting collaborative palaeography exercises, the production of digital editions, and comparisons between manuscripts which would otherwise not be possible. Far from lessening the importance of the physical objects themselves, these digital encounters can serve to heighten a student’s excitement for when they finally meet the manuscripts face to face.

Lastly, Marc Polonsky, Managing Trustee of The Polonsky Foundation, spoke on behalf of the project sponsors. The project, like others also sponsored by The Foundation, brings together the principles of widening access to cultural heritage and encouraging collaboration between institutions. This collaboration includes not only bringing together complementary collections, but developing and sharing best practices and building communities of research.

The event closed with questions. Martin Kauffmann invoked (and challenged) Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, asking the panel whether the aura and charisma of physical originals still holds in the age of digital facsimiles (a resounding: yes!). The audience then asked how projects are decided upon. Richard Ovenden noted that digitization is expensive work, and requires marrying the priorities of a library with research funding and charities like The Polonsky Foundation. The availability of good catalogue descriptions is also decisive in the viability of a digitization project. Lastly, the panel were asked which would endure longer: the manuscripts, already hundreds of years old, or their digital facsimiles. Joanna Story noted the hardiness of parchment and fragility of URLs, while Henrike Lähnemann likened digital facsimiles to linguistics translations: always evolving, never definitive. Richard Ovenden highlighted the important work that libraries and archives do around digital preservation. This vital, ongoing work adds to the cost of being a modern library - which makes collaborating with other institutions all the more important.

Tim Dungate is Digitization and Digital Engagement Manager at the Bodleian.