THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Medieval manuscripts blog

3 posts from March 2010

28 March 2010

Vatican Library to digitise 80,000 manuscripts

Monsignor Cesare Pasini, Prefect of the Vatican Library, sent out an "extraordinary" Newsletter 5/2010 on 24 March (see full text as posted by the Evangelical Textual Criticism blog) announcing plans to digitise 80,000 manuscripts held by the Vatican Library. Planning and consulting, as well as testing of workflow and infrastructure, have been finalised. The Newsletter also discloses some details about the project: it is planned to be implemented in three phases over a 10 year period and will initially involve 60 staff in the first phase, incremented to over 120 staff in the second and third phases. A Metis System Scanner and a 50MP Hasselblad camera ("depending on the different types of material to be reproduced") will capture the images which will be stored as FITS (Flexible Image Transport System) files, a non-proprietary file format, originally designed for the storage and transmission of mainly scientific images. The 40 million manuscript pages are anticipated (following "a rough calculation") to take up a total of 45 petabytes storage space.

I am naturally very excited about the news. This is a very ambitious project on one of the world's most important manuscript collections. I will keep my eyes peeled for any further details and developments. I am particularly interested in the business model that the Vatican Library will adopt in making these manuscripts digitally accessible. In particular, I am thinking of the manuscripts that are held across institutions and the potential for aggregating them (or even 'virtually re-uniting' them) in Virtual Research Environments.

08 March 2010

Which manuscripts should we digitise?

A detail from the Golden Canon Tables, showing decorated frames on parchment painted entirely gold and a portrait of a male figure, probably one of the Apostles.

Detail from the Golden Canon Tables, Add MS 5111/1

The obvious answer to this question is: all of them! We all want access to free digital resources, but creating them is tempered by a series of practical considerations. How can we best deliver digitised manuscripts to your desktops? One answer is to secure funding for independent digitisation projects with achievable goals. Such a series of projects has to be placed squarely within a vision and strategy. At the start of each one we have to ask ourselves: which manuscripts should we digitise next? For the first phase of the Greek Manuscripts Digitisation Project, we chose 250 manuscripts which offered a good range of all the different types and included some notable highlights of the collection. Before the Project, these manuscripts were among the least accessible since they had not been catalogued to modern standards. We are very grateful to the Stavros Niarchos Foundation for funding the first phase of the Greek Manuscripts Digitisation Project, supporting our vision, and making our work possible.

It is, however, crucial that we also engage you. Here’s how. Contact me to answer the following question: which particular Greek manuscripts held by the British Library would you like to see digitised and why? I cannot promise that your favourite manuscript will be in the next phase, but I can assure you that your feedback will inform our decision.

Juan Garcés

03 March 2010

Codex Nitriensis

A page from a 6th-century palimpsest, rotated to display a text in Syriac.

A page from a 6th-century palimpsest rotated 90° counterclockwise to display the Syriac text by Severus of Antioch, Add MS 17211, f.20r, 

Sometime between the late 8th and early 9th century AD, Simeon, a monk at the convent of Mar Simeon of Kartamin, copied a Syriac text for Daniel, episcopal visitor (periodeutes) of the district of Amid in Mesopotamia (see notes in Add. MS 17211, ff. 53r and 49r). We owe to this event the partial survival of several older copies of Greek works, since Simeon reused parchment sheets from which Greek text had been scraped or washed off to copy the treatise against Joannes Grammaticus of Caesarea by the author Severus of Antioch. Today, Simeon's Syriac copy survives in two manuscripts at the British Library. The Syriac text has been rebound to reconstruct the sequence of the underlying (scriptio inferior), barely visible Greek texts of a 5th century copy of Homer's Iliad (Add. MS 17210) and a 7th century copy of the Gospel of Luke (Add. MS 17211, ff.1-48) as well as a 7th or 8th century copy of Euclid's Elements (Add. MS 17211, ff.49-53).

Add. MS 17211 is, of course, better known as 'Codex Nitriensis', betraying the fact that Simeon's manuscript once belonged to the convent library of St Mary Deipara in the Nitrian Desert of Egypt. Its text, containing parts the Gospel of Luke, is also known in New Testament scholarly circles under its Gregory-Aland 'number' R or 027.

Many ancient texts survive as palimpsests, the faint remains of texts on reused parchment that sometimes reappear over time or are recovered with the help of modern technology. A famous example of a Greek palimpsest and the use of cutting-edge technology used to recover the underlying text is the Archimedes Palimpsest. The Rinascimento Virtuale project (see the official site in Italy or at Hamburg University), a collaboration between 51 partners (including the British Library) from 26 European countries in 2001-4, featured a number of technological approaches to make palimpsest text readable. The image below was produced as part of the Rinascimento Virtuale project and is the result of a processing algorithm used on standard, high-quality digital images of Codex Nitriensis.

Juan Garcés

A page from a 6th-century palimpsest, which has undergone multi-spectral imaging to reveal the text of the Gospel of St Luke written in Ancient Greek.

The same page as above, image-processed to make the text of Luke 9:22-33 more readable, Add MS 17211, f.20r.