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Social Distancing and Site Visits

Working with Manuscripts in the Time of Covid-19

As a crucial first step of the Peripheral Manuscript Project, the project’s Principal Investigators (PIs) must make site visits to each partner institution. These visits have to happen before the included manuscripts can be transported from their home institutions to the Herman B. Wells Library at Indiana University, Bloomington, where the Digitization Team will capture images of each manuscript. These meetings offer the PIs the chance to become better acquainted with the special collections at each institution and to confirm that items fall within the scope of the project. Most importantly, site visits ensure that the material condition of each manuscript item is recorded so that it can be digitized using the most appropriate method for each individual item. 

While these visits are a key early step in the project, they also pose significant logistical challenges, particularly due to COVID-19 travel restrictions. With twenty-two participating institutions located across eight states, the PIs must navigate not only the baseline logistics of assigning, scheduling, and completing site visits but also state travel and safety measures. The geographical spread of the project has meant that the PIs need to be sensitive to multiple state and municipal regulations as well as the health and access guidelines instituted by partner institutions. States may have implemented travel restrictions and quarantines, and host institutions may have staff working from home or visitor restrictions in place to ensure that social distance is possible during the visits. Meeting these logistical challenges requires careful coordination with the partner institutions and has required that, ultimately, the visits have had to be completed in stages.

Each visit follows specific procedures. Before the PIs arrive, our colleagues at partner institution have completed a detailed inventory form, noting all items that they hope to include in the project. Since more manuscript items have continued to be uncovered since the original grant was written, some items are being brought to the PIs’ attention for the first time. Confirming the information provided by partner institutions is the first step for each visit, and then PIs proceed to document any metadata that partners possess on the manuscript items that have been earmarked for inclusion in the project. Team members also record the basic measurements of each item, record the incipits, and, whenever possible, the titles of each work. Along with these textual elements, the PIs note other identifying aspects of the manuscripts, including musical notation, illuminations and other painting, and watermarks. These details help the digitizing team decide which technologies will be used in the digitizing process, and they also help the cataloguing team match the physical items to their digital records.

These visits additionally allow the team to make more informed decisions about the transport of each item. The inventory forms submitted by partners include space to note condition issues for each manuscript. Some of these, such as discoloration or smudged ink, primarily impact readability, while others, such as fragile bindings or flaking pages, require special consideration both for scanning and transporting. All such issues are recorded so that these fragile items are each handled with the proper care throughout the digitization and description process.

Despite the geographical and public health challenges of organizing site visits, their importance to the project makes the necessary planning worthwhile. In fact, several visits have already been completed, and some extraordinary finds have been added to the project as a result. Check back soon as we begin to spotlight some of the wonderful manuscripts that will soon be ready for digitizing.

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A Continuously Expanding Periphery

When the Peripheral Manuscripts Project, the three-year project to digitize and describe medieval manuscripts from Midwestern institutions, officially began on June 1st, the principal investigators and the cataloging and digitizing teams were expecting to include approximately 480 items, including codices, leaves, documents, and one scroll in their digitization and description work, based upon initial partner reported inventories.

By late July, however, partners reported identifying an additional 130 items for potential inclusion in the project, funding permitting, which would bring the total number of manuscripts selected for inclusion over six hundred. This additional material was identified as partners prepared for the July 2020 virtual partner meetings which served as the initial launch of our project. These meetings, spanning four days, were an opportunity for project staff and partners to meet and discuss policies and processes and to plan future steps, including finalizing inventories, scheduling site visits, and transporting, storing, and digitizing materials. Following brief introductions,  Lisa Fagin Davis, Executive Director of the Medieval Academy of America and an expert in Manuscript Studies, gave an overview of the history of manuscript collections in the United States and the current state of manuscript cataloging, digitization, and discoverability. 

The meetings also included several rounds of “lighting talks,” which gave partners a chance to highlight their institutional collections and to share some of their recent manuscript discoveries. University Archivist Kristina Schulz (University of Dayton), for example, uncovered a bound collection of sixty manuscript fragments ranging from the ninth to the eighteenth centuries. Thirty-two additional fragments were also identified at Knox College, and twenty fragments more were found at the Saint Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology. One new codex, uncatalogued and undescribed, was discovered by Goshen College. These exciting new discoveries highlight the importance of focusing on the under-described medieval collections at regional institutions in order to gain a fuller understanding both of what these items might reveal about the historical contexts in which they were produced and of how medieval manuscripts circulated across the Midwest.

The conversations among our partners during July’s virtual meetings also prompted our partner, Meg Miner, University Archivist and Special Collections Librarian at Illinois Wesleyan University to search through the stacks in IWU’s special collections for manuscript binding fragments that might be found in their collection of early printed books. Binding fragments are pieces of manuscripts reused in the binding process, and Meg found three binding fragments in situ, i.e., still within the binding. Studying these fragments in situ can offer invaluable insight into both the fragments and the books they are binding. The contents of the fragment can reveal the location where the book was bound or the identity of the binder, and the fragments themselves can preserve noteworthy texts and scripts. As the Peripheral Manuscripts project team meets over the coming months, we will keep looking for new potential material such as this that we might include in our project.  

Every manuscript is a unique cultural artifact that sheds light on its medieval readers and later collectors. As our project builds momentum, we are excited to see what other items might be revealed over the coming months, and we hope to incorporate at least a few of these newly identified items into our project as we proceed. Check back as we update the blog with spotlights on manuscripts from the project as well as posts about the digitization and cataloging process. We are excited to share our journey of discovery with you!

By Dov Honick, PhD Student, Medieval Institute, the University of Notre Dame

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MEST Announcement at IU Bloomington

In July of 2020, Liz Hebbard (PI of the Peripheral Manuscripts project) described the concrete goals of this project in a blog post for the Medieval Studies Institute at IU Bloomington. You can read her post to learn more about our initiative by going to: https://blogs.iu.edu/medieval/2020/07/06/peripheral-manuscripts/.

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Grant Announcement

On January 9, 2020, the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) announced the projects that were selected to receive funding through 2019 Digitizing Hidden Special Collections and Archives awards. We are thrilled that our project, “Peripheral Manuscripts: Digitizing Medieval Manuscript Collections in the Midwest,” was one of the 18 initiatives that received funding.  

Our work officially begins on June 1, 2020! Follow us here and on Twitter (@peripheralmss) to receive updates on our progress.