After evolution has taken a few more turns, will our digital books (?) be inked into tangible form?
Bringing a Trove of Medieval Manuscripts Online for the first time
by JOHN TAGLIABUE
October 20, 2008
ST. GALLEN, Switzerland — One of the oldest and most valuable collections of handwritten medieval books in the world, housed in the magnificent baroque halls of the library in this town’s abbey, is going online with the help of a $1 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
Dominic Buttner for The New York Times
The Stiftsbibliothek, or abbey library, in the Swiss town of St. Gallen. Its collection of medieval manuscripts is being digitized.
Dominic Buttner for The New York Times
The project is making the library in St. Gallen, Switzerland, more popular; annual visits are up 30 percent from a decade ago.
For centuries scholars from around the world have flocked to the Stiftsbibliothek — literally, the abbey library — in this quaint town nestled in the rolling hills of eastern Switzerland, to pore over its vast collection of manuscripts, many written and illustrated before the year 1000.
The collection includes material as varied as curses against book thieves, early love ballads, hearty drinking songs and a hand-drawn ground plan for a medieval monastery, drafted around A.D. 820, the only such document of its kind.
The library is believed to have been founded in the ninth century, about two centuries after an Irish monk named Gallus established the monastery that would become the center of the city that now bears his name. The monastery was dissolved by local authorities in 1805. The library is now the property of the Roman Catholic church.
Today, as computer technology improves, scanning library collections has become commonplace. Google has embarked on an ambitious project to scan entire libraries into databases. Last month the executive arm of the European Union appropriated $175 million for a program, known as Europeana, to digitize European libraries.
The idea to scan the library’s manuscripts — above all, the 350 that date from before 1000 — was born as a reaction to the devastating floods that swept Dresden, Germany, and its artworks in 2002, said Ernst Tremp, an expert on medieval history who is the library director.
What started as a pilot project in 2005 grew sharply last year, when the Gallen project was incorporated into a program to digitize all of Switzerland’s roughly 7,000 medieval manuscripts. At the same time the Mellon Foundation agreed to finance the St. Gallen project with a two-year, $1 million grant, with an option to extend it for another two years after 2009. St. Gallen, Donald J. Waters of the foundation wrote in an e-mail message, “fits into a larger plan to help make key sources of evidence for medieval studies available online.”
So now, day by day, a team of scanning experts works in a small room above the library, gingerly arranging manuscripts on two large frames that use suction devices to spread the pages and lasers to ensure that they are not spread so wide as to damage a binding.
High-resolution digital cameras and video recorders then copy the pages and download the images to a database, where they are prepared for presentation on the library’s Web site, www.cesg.unifr.ch. Already, about 200 manuscripts are in the database, and 144 are available online.
Christoph Flüeler, an expert on early manuscripts who is overseeing the scanning, said the ability to put such a database online affordably was made possible by the reduced price of computer memory, which he said costs about a fifth what it did early in the decade.
“We can now achieve very good quality,” he said. “Six or seven years ago, such memory was simply not affordable.”
The project has increased the number of visitors the abbey library draws, to an expected 130,000 this year from about 100,000 a decade ago. In addition, an even greater number of people are now studying the library manuscripts on their computers than study them in the library itself.
“The library has become more visible,” Mr. Flüeler said. “On the Internet we now have more visitors than in the real library.”