Blog Post 1 (taken from Practical Exercise 1)

Christina Smith

Content, metadata, additional information, one’s ability to interact with the resources

This week’s blog post focuses upon two online digital repositories: the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts Home and the Bodleian Library’s Electronic Catalogue of Medieval & Renaissance Manuscripts.

I initially chose these two because, for the (as of yet) non-digital medievalist in me, they seemed quite opposite in appearance and functionality. It was after looking into the Bodleian’s Electronic Catalogue of Medieval & Renaissance Manuscripts more that I figured out that it serves as a catalogue—and a somewhat rudimentary one at that, rather than a full-fledged, interactive site (evident if one but compare this electronic catalogue with the Bodleian’s main site).

From the beginning, it is evident that the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts Home caters to a different audience than that of the Bodleian’s Electronic Catalogue of Medieval & Renaissance Manuscripts. The content given on the Bodleian’s catalogue is sparse, its “conventions” laid out in a teal box at the beginning. Obviously, the site gears towards a user who knows precisely what she is looking for—preferably the manuscript’s shelfmark (since that is the easiest way to search this site). Clicking on any one of the “Manuscript Collections” is useful inasmuch as it takes you to a simple list of manuscripts with their respective metadata and a few digitized images, if one is lucky. For example, MS. Barocci 1—the first manuscript listed under the MSS. Barocci collection of Greek manuscripts—has only images from the catalogue (in print form) and quarto. There are few, if any, images from the folios themselves (for example, MS. Barocci 3), not permitting the user any ability to visually compare across manuscripts. The metadata is sparse, presented in one strip, and lacking the latest bibliography. Most bibliographic material dates to the early 1990’s, showing that this site was likely last updated at that time. Obviously, there’s much scholarly work that’s been done since then! When one clicks upon the folios, they are poorly scanned and one can’t zoom in or use toolbars as is possible on the British Library site, showing that the site is designed for quick usage, perhaps only useful for acquiring date, language, and shelfmark.

In comparison, the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts Home appeals to a wider, even non-academic audience. Clearly, this is in line with the British Library’s mission statement as a whole (similar to the British Museum)—that idea that its physical library in London is a museum for the world, a place where visitors can merely ‘stop in’ to view some of Britain’s greatest wonders. The “Highlights” tab is visually appealing (located on the right hand side of the opening page), admittedly drawing one’s attention to the ‘big hits’ held by the Library—sometimes dangerously eclipsing lesser-known, but equally as important, manuscripts and items. The “Search” feature on the opening page is most useful for its “Keyword” feature. The “Date” slider is partially useful. It certainly looks good—inviting for the casual user—but the functionality payoff is not as great as one would hope. For one, there’s no information prior to 0CE, and it is also prone to stalling (at least one Macs) because of the large swathe of material it draws from. In fact, for the casual viewer (even academic, perhaps), it would be more useful to search by region of the world, or to have an interactive date bar in which certain manuscripts were located along a continuum, allowing for immediate visual interaction with the material. (Perhaps this is the art historically-trained part of me talking now!). As befitting a major national repository, the British Library’s metadata for a given manuscript is extensive indeed—its content almost a bit too overwhelming. One can’t isolate one piece of information from another, meaning that she is forced to look at the entire swathe of metadata in one fell swoop. This includes date, title, content, binding (if possible to view), language, physical description, ownership, and bibliography. The bibliography of the British Library’s online site—even for lesser-known acquisitions—is impressive indeed. Perhaps this is a function of the Library’s active connections with current scholars in the field (such as Michelle P. Brown, who both worked and published for/at the British Library), but it also illumines the Library’s emphasis on the spreading of information out into the greater world of advanced, and more casual, learning. When clicking upon a digital folio, so as to enlarge it, there is an irritating drop-down pane which appears with detail on the content of the manuscript. It’s an abbreviated version of the extensive metadata on the previous page. This serves more as a distraction than anything else, particularly when all one wants to do is to go to the navigation panel slightly below this drop-down pane. (You also can’t click on the red “British Library” banner to go back to the home page—another irritating feature!). In all, while the British Library’s website is more “glitzy” and aesthetically pleasing, it fails in some crucial components—from these small features to the fact that you can’t easily compare manuscript images with other manuscript images, save from opening new windows.

The Digital Bodleian Library, obviously a much newer online repository than its Electronic Catalogue of Medieval & Renaissance Manuscripts from the 1990’s, opens with images of the binding of a given manuscript. One chooses between the manuscripts they want from among other ones, located in boxes side-by-side. This layout is inviting, emphasizing the visual nature of the holdings—something which I mentioned above as being important when we try to recreate objects that necessarily derive meaning from their tactility and functionality as book. The metadata is wisely included on the side, not taking away from the visual aspect of the page and its scribal hand. A negative, though, would be that the folios are preserved as single-sheets, rather than as bifolia. This doesn’t allow the viewer to have the experience of page turning recreated before them. Nor does it permit the viewer to truly see interactions across the page, across the gutter—something crucial to any study of medieval manuscripts. I need to think more about this element as I look through more digital repositories—something I haven’t spent much time doing before this class, as I’ve worked more on non-codex archaeological objects. The Digital Bodleian Library, however, overall seems to be a good compromise between the sparse, almost counter-useful layout of the Electronic Catalogue of Medieval & Renaissance Manuscripts and the overwhelming, somewhat unhelpful structure of the BL’s Digitised Manuscripts Home. The metadata of the Digital Bodleian Library does not obstruct one from viewing the codex itself, and the navigation is visually appealing and, on the whole, relatively ‘easy’ to use.


11 January 2016