Milestones on our way towards the project goal

A mid-term review on the Polonsky Foundation digitization project                                     “Manuscripts from German Speaking Lands”

December 2018 marks the beginning of a cooperative project between the Herzog August Bibliothek and the Oxford Bodleian Libraries. Funded by the Polonsky Foundation the two libraries have been digitizing several hundred medieval manuscripts from German monastic libraries and made them publicly available online with further information on every single item. The project is now halfway through and well on the way to an extraordinary result. The official project website already shows 84 of around 200 manuscripts. Two of which are outstanding examples of illuminated manuscripts from the Dombibliothek Hildesheim, which can be explored online. They were written at former libraries of five northern German monasteries.

The number of manuscripts digitized by the HAB actually counts 123 already. The digitized material is gradually transferred to our Oxford project colleges and posted on the project page. Thanks to the excellent camera equipment the HAB acquired with funds from the Polonsky Foundation, our photo department was able to create 59.323 images until the end of March 2020. With more than 4.000 images from approximately eight manuscripts generated each month we have constantly exceeded the monthly target of 3.786 images.

Cod. Guelf. 269 Extravagantes, fol. 1r: Paper manuscript
from the late 15th century with tracts on the life of the nuns
with blue R-initial and so-called Fleuronné-ornament in red

Apart from a few earlier parchment manuscripts, the corpus mainly includes late medieval paper manuscripts primarily belonging to the libraries’ Helmstedt, Augustean, Novi, and Extravagantes collections. These had been preserved in monasteries and collegiate churches in Hildesheim (Sülte), Helmstedt (Marienberg), Bad Gandersheim (Clus), Braunschweig (St Blaise), and Bad Bevensen (Medingen) before they were incorporated in the library’s collection here in Wolfenbüttel. Having initially digitized several of those manuscripts with Helmstedt shelfmarks from the Benedictine Abbey of Clus, we have now increasingly continued with those from the Augustinian Nunnery of Marienberg near Helmstedt and the Collegiate Church of St Blaise in Braunschweig. Whereas numerous manuscripts from Clus are being described in detail in the course of a current cataloguing project, the ones from Marienberg and Braunschweig, the majority of which are part of the Augustean collection, still lack this kind of research and thus in-depth description. For them, only descriptions from the end of the 19th century are available, which do not comply with today’s scientific standards.

Of the total of around 600 codices selected for the project, around 200 manuscripts are being digitized at the HAB. Once they have been selected, our conservation department takes a closer look at each individual manuscript to check whether it can be digitized at all or whether, for example, stabilization measures need to be                                                                                           taken in advance to allow the necessary opening angle of the manuscript.

The good condition of the historical cultural assets is always our highest priority and we seek to avoid causing any damage to the fragile originals through the digitization process. The next steps are carried out by the colleagues from our photo department: They generate high-resolution shots not only of the single manuscript pages, but also of its front and back boards, the top, fore, and bottom edges, and the spine with the help of the so-called “Graz Book Cradle” or the Wolfenbüttel Book Reflector and their camera equipment.

Before their publication on the online manuscript database accessible to all users, image-page concordances (pagination or foliation) and further metadata have to be added to the images to provide the best possible orientation for discovery and research.  The metadata provide information on the historical and codicological backgrounds including the manuscript’s format, page dimensions, writing material, language, decoration and illumination, content, place of origin, dating, and provenance.

Since autumn 2019 there has been a position specifically created for data preparation and so far 123 of the manuscripts have been supplied with foliation (i.e. 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) and further information. After their preparation in a special markup language called XML (“Extensible Markup Language”) with a program that is well-established in the field of Digital Humanities, the data is uploaded and thereby 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.

At the end of each month, the project staff from Wolfenbüttel and Oxford exchange information on the progress of digitization and organize a meeting in spring and autumn of each year, alternately in Germany and the UK. Due to travel and contact restrictions caused by the worldwide corona crisis, the third meeting with all project participants could not take place in Oxford at the beginning of April 2020. However, the project partners and the Polonsky Foundation as the donor met in a video conference and were able to discuss the current workflow and the remaining steps that need to be taken in detail. Now another twelve months of joint work lie ahead of us and we hope for achieving results just as successful as before in order to offer our researchers and the interested public a unique fund of manuscripts from German monastic libraries, digitized in best quality.





About the authors

Irina Rau is a research assistant in the project "Manuscripts from German-Speaking Lands". Her work focuses on the collection of metadata on the digitized manuscripts, the control and updating of the signature documents in the WDB and the creation of the image-page concordances for the digitized manuscripts via XML for more user-friendliness.

Dr. Christian Heitzmann is head of the department "Manuscripts and Special Collections" at the Herzog August Bibliothek. His research focuses on medieval manuscripts, as well as the history of libraries and the history of traditions.