Illuminating Medieval Manuscripts in the Digital Age, Part III

The Walters recently launched a new website that houses its digital collection of manuscripts: Featuring a user-friendly design, the site provides visitors with intuitive search options, including the ability to refine their search by date, geography, subject, culture, and more. 

Lynley Anne Herbert is the Robert and Nancy Hall Assistant Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts at the Walters. She started working at the museum as a fellow in 2010, and was soon brought on board as a part-time cataloguer of Western manuscripts for the NEH-funded manuscript digitization project. It often took her and the digitization team up to two weeks to catalogue and digitize a single book.

In this three-part conversation series, she recalls some of the amazing discoveries, observations, and challenges along the way; how the newly published data is helping to digitally reunite centuries-old volumes; and the benefits that open access provides. 

In the third installment of our conversation with Lynley, we discuss why sharing our data as open source benefits the museum, our audiences, and academic research. Read the whole series here.

All Walters manuscript images are open source and free to download and use. Do you think keeping the digital manuscripts open access will be beneficial to your field of study?

Oh, yes. The first benefit is that if scholars can get an image free from us, they’re going to publish our book instead of somebody else’s. It’s already happening with our Islamic manuscripts. People are using them on book covers, and things like that, because they don’t have to pay for the rights to use the images, whereas a lot of places are still charging an arm and a leg to use an image. That’s really prohibitive when you’re a new scholar publishing your first article, or even for an established scholar publishing a book. So I’ve had a lot of scholars tell me, “I’m going to publish the Walters’ image from your Book of Hours instead of somebody else’s because I can do it for free, and it’s really high quality.” And they’ve been very good about telling us they’ve published and giving us the credit, from what I’ve been able to see.

It’s a huge boon for us because it gets our collection really out there and visible in a way that it wasn’t before. Everybody’s using it and publishing with it. I think that’s really huge for our institution because it gets our name out there attached to fantastic images. So that’s exciting!And making this completely free changes scholarship. It encourages people to work on researching our works because they know that they can then publish them. I know scholars personally who have chosen one of our works to write a book about or to write an article about because they know that’s an option.

Digitization specialist Ariel Tabritha working in the digitization lab.

Are there any other benefits?

I’ve heard from people from different walks of life. There’s a woman who creates embroideries based on our Books of Hours. She sits in her house in West Virginia, and she pulls up our digital manuscripts, looks through them to find a really beautiful margin, and makes embroideries from them. She actually contacted me, and wound up coming here one day just to see a few of them in person because she was so excited about what we were doing. And she’s not a scholar, which I think is wonderful! We’re reaching people that would probably never be that excited about this stuff in totally new ways,and that’s pretty exciting.

Just because I’m a manuscripts scholar with a PhD doesn’t mean that the random person walking in the door can’t appreciate these works—and I think part of my job is to help them get there. To help them understand that medieval art can be funny or sophisticated or beautiful.

Why is it important to you to reach both scholars and enthusiasts?

I think it’s a combination of factors. My job as a curator is to try to reach as many people as possible and to try to get them excited about medieval art, medieval manuscripts. Just because I’m a manuscripts scholar with a PhD doesn’t mean that the random person walking in the door can’t appreciate these works—and I think part of my job is to help them get there…to help them understand that medieval art can be funny or sophisticated or beautiful. I think especially with medieval art, I always find that there’s a little bit of a prejudice against it. People think that “medieval” is sort of stodgy and overly religious, and the style may feel too flat and unnatural.. So, I always feel that it’s sort of my quest in life to help people really be able to engage with the things that they’re seeing and with the art, and with the texts, and just the whole culture.

Is that why you made such an effort while cataloguing to have the accompanying text be generally accessible as well?

I feel that if you write in a way that’s only for scholars, you’re missing 90 percent of the people out there who might actually really love these things, if they just “got it.” So to be able to put it in a way that is accessible for everybody, it speaks to our goal as an institution to be able to reach people through the art. But also personally, I just find it really rewarding when anybody can just look at this and go, “Wow, this is really beautiful and so interesting!” So for me, I think it’s both institutional and personal.

It does speak to the Walters’ founding mission—to have the collection be accessible to all.

I look back at the way Henry Walters wanted to be. He was very generous with his art, in terms of allowing people to see it, and with his books. I know that he actually actively invited people to come and study his manuscripts. He would have the library set up for the day with anything they wanted to see; and if they couldn’t make it to the museum, he would put the work in a crate and send it to them. We have letters back and forth between him and James Anderson, Henry Walters’ building superintendent who took care of  library requests at the time, where he’s talking about these things. So we know that he was really generous in that way. And I think the fact that he left all of the art to the city, to the people of Baltimore shows that he wanted people to have it, and to engage with it. So if we’re going to put it out there in the world through this project, and if we’re going to give it to people, we should give it to everybody.  I think Henry Walters would be delighted by what is possible today.

Have you gotten feedback from colleagues in your field about the Walters’ digitization efforts?

Everybody sees us as the leaders in this field. Actually, when I went to the International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo, MI, there was a session about digital imagery. During the question/answer portion, they asked a question that nobody had the answer to, but I knew the answer from the way we did things here. So I raised my hand and began my thoughts with, “Hi, I’m from the Walters…” and before I could continue, their response was, “You’re from the Walters? Okay, everybody, let’s thank the Walters!” And our institution got a standing ovation! The entire room burst into applause, and they said, “Thank you for all you guys do. You’ve led the way from day one.”

What a nice compliment!

Yes, it was amazing!  And such a wonderful sense of camaraderie, as these were fellow manuscript scholars from around the world. Every time I meet somebody at a conference, as soon as I say I’m from the Walters, they are instantly just so excited. Often the next thing they say is, “Oh my goodness, I use your website every day!” But I get that from people who are not scholars, too, so that part is exciting to me as well. We have already reached so many people.


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