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