Mass manuscripts online? – The Virtual Manuscripts Room project

Possibly a very important announcement here.  The project proposal is very badly worded, so I’m not quite sure of this, but it sounds as if the Mingana library is going to make all of its manuscripts available online.  A German NT group is also involved.  I’ve buzzed an email to the Mingana to see what it’s all about.

Later: OK, I think I understand what is going on.  Here’s my understanding, and yes, this could be HUGE!

A bunch of people at Birmingham called ITSEE are developing a website to allow researchers to work on texts.  If you want to see a passage in an ancient text, the idea is that you can just click and see the relevant manuscript witnesses, then and there, for each part of the text.   The site will be a kind of manuscripts workbench.

Imagine you want to work on some text.  First you get images of the manuscripts uploaded.  Then you go into the workbench, and start tagging the page images — image 1 shows text chapter 1, verse 1; image 2 shows text chapter 1 verse 19, and so on.  Repeat this for all the manuscripts in the system, and then you get a set of links for the text.  Then enter some kind of raw electronic text, and link that in the same way.  You then end up with a way to browse the text, and see whatever variants you want, in the manuscripts, at the click of a  button.

In order to make this work, they need to prime it by uploading lots of images of manuscripts.  This is the bit that will start everything else.  At the moment, they have two sources to draw on.

Firstly, the Birmingham people have access to the Mingana collection of oriental (Syriac and Arabic) manuscripts.   They’ve started to digitise these and upload them.  At the moment the website isn’t working or displaying anything much (because someone forgot to install a Python library on the server; early days, all this), but there are definite signs of Syriac mss there.

Secondly a German institute have a load of New Testament manuscripts in horrible low quality microfilm, and are going to input these.  Their particular interest is to make it possible to work on the critical text of the New Testament.

The images will need lots of tagging.  This tagging will be a huge job, and the idea is to involve volunteers — suitably qualified scholars — to do this in their own interest as they work on the text.  The more people contribute, the more valuable the results will be.  We’ll start with raw manuscript pages, which will gradually — for some texts — grow tagging data (data like “this page starts at chapter 3, verse 2”, etc).

The project is being talked about a lot by people interested in the New Testament.  But that’s really accidental; that’s just one community around one text and one set of manuscripts.  But the clear intention is to provide this online workbench for all scholars to work — collaboratively or alone — on critical texts using the manuscript evidence from photographs. 

Because the Mingana Syriac and Arabic mss will be digitised, this will have a really important effect on Syriac and Christian Arabic studies.  Frankly it could revolutionise things!

If a community comes into being, as it will for the NT mss, then a Wikipedia-type effect will occur.  That would mean that far more can be done, far more quickly, than is presently possible.  Once the data base has a certain number of manuscripts in it, the hope is that it will snowball, and more and more material will be added.

There is a formal launch date in July.  They aren’t ready yet, tho.  But isn’t it exciting!?!


10 thoughts on “Mass manuscripts online? – The Virtual Manuscripts Room project

  1. Hi Roger, if you check out the webpage I linked to,
    you will see that the idea is to create an environment where in the future libraries can add images, scholars can add transcriptions. The mingana collection is among the material the project has started with. The German NT group is the Institut für Neutestamentliche Textforschung, the institute founded by Kurt Aland, of which work stands behind the major editions of the Greek NT. They have a vast microfilm collection of GNT MSS. There are still copyright issues to work on, but basically the idea is to make images publicly available in this environment.

  2. Many thanks for the note. I was actually rushing out of the door to the dentist when I saw it, and scribbled my quick post.

    That page makes it very little clearer to me. Someone needs to be told that their PR is really rubbish. I still can’t work out whether only NT stuff is going online, or what. I shouldn’t have to guess!

    The blog gives python errors such as “TemplateSyntaxError at /vmr/blog/2008/oct/15/start/”.

    But… I’ve just found this! Page images from Syriac mss. This is pure gold; except that none of it works and all the page links are broken.

    I’ve emailed David Parker and let him know about all these problems. It could be a very exciting project. But first it needs a sensible English language intro. I’ll write one, if I can get my head around it.

  3. Roger, any MSS can be made available in this environment. The Mingana collection is located in Birmingham, as is ITSEE, so it is not surprising that they will be made available. Also, as I said, the partner in Münster has a vast collection of NT MSS on microfilm which may be scanned and entered into this environment (which is of course not as good as color images). But this is just the start. The idea, I think, is to build an open environment where other institutions can make their material available, and where scholars can work with transcriptions, etc. One important and time-consuming step is to index the MSS one by one. This is done by going through the pages of a manuscript and note which verse it begins and ends with. So when the user will click on a certain verse in a certain MS they will see the right image. This is described by Jan Krans in the blogpost I referred to (VUNTblog).

    But, as I said, the official launch of the VMR is in July so we cannot expect that web-site I referred to, to work properly until then.

  4. By contrast I’ve just had a note from the Bibliotheque Nationale Francais. Apparently they want 20 euros for **every page**, if I want a set of photographs of an Arabic ms. Of course it costs them nothing, or nearly so. I’ve written an angry email back.

  5. I did access this, but the first thing that appeared was a sniffy little box complaining that I was using the world’s most widely used browser, Internet Explorer.

    Only in the state sector…

    I sort of lost interest after that.

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