By Liam Kinney
Stanford University Libraries has partnered with the Walters Art Museum, a public museum in Baltimore, Md., to offer more than 100,000 high-resolution images of medieval manuscripts stored at the museum online.
The Walters holds one of the largest medieval collections in North America, with 150 single leaves and 850 illuminated manuscripts produced between the ninth and 19th centuries.
While approximately two-thirds of the manuscript images are already available online through the Walters’ digital collection, uploading them to the Stanford Digital Repository will provide a backup in case of file corruption and give scholars new tools to analyze the manuscripts and compare them with other works.
The partnership between the University and the museum began after Robert Sanderson, an information scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory with an interest in digital humanities, noticed the deficiencies of the Walters’ online storage system and began initial conversations with both parties about a possible collaboration.
Plans for storage of the images in Stanford’s repository were finalized at a meeting between Stanford’s Digital Medieval Projects (DMP) Director John Haeger, DMP Manager Benjamin Albritton and William Noel, a former curator for manuscripts at the Walters.
“The greatest dangers that special collections face are not that they are overused but that they will become irrelevant, and digitization is the best advertisement that special collections can have,” Noel said. “The conservation of data in a technological environment is something we don’t excel at, like most libraries, but Stanford had a fantastic digital infrastructure.”
Albritton said that uploading the Walters’ manuscripts to Stanford’s digital repository is part of a wider series of projects in medieval content preservation and inter-institutional collaboration, noting that the long-term preservation and access provided by the digital repository will give the Walters manuscripts “a great deal of exposure across the scholarly community and beyond.”
“The Walters collection of nearly one thousand manuscripts is one of the most important collections of historically unique documents in North America,” Albritton said. “This trove of content is now available to Stanford scholars from many disciplines and will drive research in a number of areas.”
The 20 faculty and staff in Stanford’s medieval studies program look forward to using the manuscripts in their research, according to Professor of English Elaine Treharne.
According to Treharne, the “lively and stimulating” group of medievalists at Stanford organize and participate in seminars, workshops and colloquia on topics ranging from 11th-century literacies in Chinese, Arabic and the Western cultures to ecclesiastical acoustics, sound and singing from the eighth through the 15th centuries.
“Stanford already has a world-class digital repository and some excellent and beautiful original materials in the special collections at Green Library, but the Walters art collection has a unique and exceptional range of manuscripts from all over the medieval world, including outstanding Byzantine and East Asian materials that can now be minutely scrutinized by scholars,” Treharne said.
According to Treharne, the digitization of these manuscripts will allow scholars at Stanford “to begin to understand the importance of books and documents to cultures that precede ours,” and will also give them the opportunity to analyze how the history of books has been shaped by society.
Allowing Stanford access to their medieval archives also provides several major benefits for the Walters, as Stanford Libraries’ active digital medieval program ensures widespread academic use of the images, while Stanford’s repository guarantees preservation.
Noel said that he is confident that the manuscripts will prompt new interests at Stanford, and he noted that the transfer of the digital images to the Stanford repository mitigated his fears that the manuscripts would eventually be forgotten.
“They’re pinnacles of human cultural achievement,” Noel said. “They are the marks of life well spent. They are the responsibility of a civilized society to care for, and they make life worth living.”