Online and downloadable: the 5th century Oxford manuscript of Jerome

We take for granted so much these days.  The web has transformed the life of the researcher.  But sometimes we see something and we just marvel; because we remember how things once were, only a few years ago.

Long ago, maybe almost twenty years ago, I led a collaborative project online to translate the Chronicle of Jerome.  The work ends with the disaster of Adrianople in 378, and was written a year later, when everything was still in confusion.

We worked from a printed Latin text, which I scanned and placed online in a custom editor.

But it became clear, during the project, that the original work was colour coded.  Headings and columns were put in red.  There seemed no reason for our online edition not to show those colours.  But the printed text did not report this information.

Even then, the possibilities of online access were clear to some.  The Bodleian Library had a few manuscripts online, which was very unusual.  So we had access to a 9th century manuscript at Merton College Oxford.  But this was four colour, while Jerome’s preface only mentioned two.

However, at Oxford, in the Bodleian Library, there is a manuscript written around 450 AD.  It was written within a couple of decades of Jerome’s death, which is quite amazing.  The shelfmark is Ms. Auct. T. 2. 26.  As it happens, I have a reader’s card for the Bodleian, thanks to my student days.  So without much hope, in much  fear and trembling, I wrote to them and asked if I might examine it.

A gracious reply was forthcoming.  So soon after, I printed out the draft translation on paper, took my pencils, and drove to Oxford.  There I was received kindly in Duke Humphries Library, and the volume was brought out.  The librarian actually said that they were glad of an opportunity to bring it out of the vault.  And there I sat, little old me, marking up the print-out with the colours from a manuscript that had known the days of imperial Rome.

I had already laid out the complicated text in HTML, and I had made mistakes along the way.  I was amused, as I worked through the manuscript, to discover that the scribe had evidently made some of the same mistakes.  You always tended to write the year numbers first; and sometimes you kept writing them too long.  His erasures made clear that he had done the same.

At the time I had no real idea of just how valuable this item was, or how decent the librarians were being in letting a random chap rock up and handle it.   It is probably priceless.  It is an actual ancient book, written when there was still a western Roman emperor on the throne in Rome.  The first hundred pages are modern, relatively – 15th century, replacing lost original pages.  But then the stiff old parchment appears of the old book.  The book also contains the only copy of the Chronicle of Marcellinus, which is a continuation of Jerome.

These memories came back to me today when I discovered that, at the Digital Bodleian site, the whole manuscript is online, and can be downloaded in full colour in PDF form.  The permalink to the manuscript is  In fact I had a problem with the download, and the Digital Bodleian staff quickly fixed it (thanks Tim!).

Here is part of a random page (f.110v).  The left hand numbers are the years of the ruler “of the Romans”, the right hand “of the Jews”.  Tiberius appears, and the regnal years reset to 1.  The Olympiad is shown also.  The work is in columns on two pages, but this is the left side.

Bodleian Library MS. Auct. T.2.26, Jerome’s Chronicle, f110v (top)

I can say, from my own memory, just how amazing this is.  When I remember, less than twenty years ago, that access to this volume was basically impossible.  Nobody ever saw it.  But now… anybody can consult it, anywhere in the world.

It is hard to find words to say just how wonderful this is, and how overwhelming it feels, to see the PDF appear on my PC.  Unbelievable; and so very, very marvellous.


Bodleian to relocate books “to Antarctica”

Yes, it’s true!  The Bodleian library, which receives all books in the UK for free from publishers, has moved all of its books to a large storage facility on a small island off Antarctica!

The Bodleian Libraries are 40 libraries serving Oxford University, including the Bodleian Library founded in 1602.

They are entitled to a copy of every book published in the UK and have been running out of space to store works for decades.

It will be predominantly low-usage books and maps which will be stored at the site …

Staff say that if a reader orders a book before 10am, the book will be fetched back to the central Oxford site “sometime”!  Now that’s service!

Librarian Sarah Thomas said: “This has been an important year in the history of the Bodleian.

“We have tagged and moved all our books, relocated our staff, prepared the New Bodleian building for its redevelopment, opened new facilities for readers in the heart of Oxford and refreshed and developed our IT capabilities.

They add:

The project to relocate the books is now complete and has been hailed as “an extraordinary success”.

Alright, I’m being sarcastic.  But not very; and those are real quotations from the BBC here.

What they’ve actually done is to build a warehouse in Swindon, 28 miles from Oxford, down a slow windy-twisty country lane and comes into town through a major traffic blackspot.

I think they must know that they’ve done something really stupid here.  Indeed I think we can tell that they’ve already had some flack for this one.

Why else would you put a “success” story out on the afternoon of Christmas Eve, unless you wanted no-one to see it?

If you lived in a sane world, you’d build the site on the outskirts of Oxford, on the ring road, perhaps 2-3 miles from the central Oxford site, and you’d build a light railway or monorail or something which ran continuously back and forth.  Wouldn’t you?

The only reason I can think of, for such a location, is that the price of building such a site in Oxford was made artificially high by the local council.  And a Google search reveals an Oxford Mail article stating that, yes, that this is exactly what happened.

Last year, the university was thwarted in its plans to build a £28m book depository on Oxford’s Osney Mead industrial estate after a long planning dispute, and has now bought the Swindon site.

And why?

John Tanner, city council cabinet member for a Cleaner, Greener Oxford, said: “It is a great pity if our planning decision has pushed Oxford’s Bodleian Library to Swindon….”

Green group leader Craig Simmons said: “It is good that the Bodleian was not allowed to build on a flood plain at Osney Mead…”

But there’s a sweeter plum still at the end of the Oxford Mail article, in response to criticism that shuttling books that distance by van wasn’t very “green”:

Dr Thomas said the books stored at Swindon would be predominantly low demand items and there would only be two deliveries a day to Oxford, significantly fewer than the 12 daily van journeys that  would have carried books from Osney Mead.

In which case, what use is the facility? Such is the corruption of our days, that the library actually boasts that its service will be of a poor standard, rather than apologising for it.

Honest men make things work, and do things efficiently.  But we all know what the children are like, of men who have made their own fortunes.  They tend to be spendthrifts.  They throw money away, and posture, expensively, with cash that they didn’t have to sweat to earn.

That’s what is happening here, as it does in the Third World.  Neither side cares about whether things actually work, or whether money is well spent.  Amour propre is more important.  The library is pleased to spite the council, and the councillors are pleased that they showed the library who is boss in order to protect the water-vole (or whatever).  The public interest be damned, it seems.

I don’t know whether the new folly storage facility has been named.  Perhaps I might propose something, that reflects all this.

Why don’t they name it after Paris Hilton?