Making a digital medieval manuscript

Bridget Whearty and Astrid Smith in the digitization lab

As the CLIR postdoctoral fellow in Data Curation for Medieval Studies at Stanford I work primarily with data about large collections of digitized manuscripts and fragments. For example, I have helped to make our teaching collections more easily discoverable in Searchworks. I've also been bringing together partner institutions' descriptive metadata to feed a specialized manuscript search environment. 

In practice, I write code to transform batches of 70, 300, 500, or 1000+ manuscripts at a time: I've gotten very comfortable thinking of medieval manuscripts in the tens, hundreds, and even thousands. But the truth is that these large batches of digital-medieval manuscripts I curate are built of unique, single objects. Single objects that, just like the physical objects they grow from, are made by individual people, in particular environments, under specific institutional, financial, and social pressures. 

In order to better understand the process that leads to the creation of a digital-medieval book, I recently followed the digitization of a fifteenth-century book of hours, Stanford University Libraries, M0379, from the request for digitization, through the slow hard work of taking the images and hours of post-production labor, to its arrival in Stanford Digital Repository (SDR). 

Actually, I got to do something rarer and more wonderful than just "following" others' work. When Astrid Smith, our digitization specialist in rare and fragile materials, learned of my interest, she invited me to join the project as her assistant. 

Her offer was irresistible. Medieval manuscript scholars are increasingly interested in experiencing how medieval books were made. In the name of experiential learning, we have our students craft books, medieval-scribe-style, and we attend professional seminars where we get to learn to do the work ourselves. For me, getting to step in as Astrid's assistant on the digitization of M0379 was the next logical step in this kind of experience-based research in the History of the Book. If I want to understand what really goes into the creation of the objects whose data I’m curating, then it’s time to roll up my sleeves and learn by doing.


This example uses Stanford University Libraries' sul-embed code. DLSS will explain how you can use this code in your own posts in the near future.

In a forthcoming post for CMEMS (the Center for Medieval and Early Modern Studies) I will be giving a detailed overview of what I have learned during this fascinating experience. My work with Astrid and the Digital Production Team exposed an unexpected and exciting similarity between the modern digitization studio and the medieval scriptorium - from the care taken in preparation of materials to the presentation of a final product to our patrons and stakeholders. 

Venture into the digitization studio, like I've been lucky enough to do with M0379, and you'll find stirring echoes of late medieval book culture in the hidden labor and laborers who make and maintain our digital-medieval books.