Illuminated Manuscripts on the Internet: How do we do it?

We are digitization specialists in the Department of Manuscripts and Rare Books. We’re working to digitize the collection of medieval illuminated manuscripts.

Scanning the pages of a medieval manuscript

This is an installment of the weekly interview series, on the Culture Comment blog. It’s called “Behind-the-Scenes.” Each week, we’ll discuss new facts and information about the people that make the Walters Art Museum tick. Now, let’s meet digitization specialists Diane Bockrath and Ariel Tabritha.

Diane Bockrath & Ariel Tabritha: We are digitization specialists in the Department of Manuscripts and Rare Books. We’re working on a special project funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities to digitize the Walters’ collection of medieval illuminated manuscripts and make it available on the Internet. That means we capture a high-resolution digital image for each and every page in the books, using a 33-megapixel camera and a custom-built book cradle system that supports the fragile bindings. Then we crop and correct each image for color, perform quality control, and deliver the images to their long-term archival homes, along with their appropriate descriptive information, or metadata.

The images are available under a Creative Commons license, which means that anybody can use them for any noncommercial purpose, for free. Everyone: serious scholars, art enthusiasts and casual visitors can benefit from our images. You can see some of the books we’ve digitized already on the Walters’ website and virtually turn the pages. So far, we’ve completed imaging the Islamic collection and have just started on the English, Dutch, German, Armenian, Byzantine, and Ethiopian manuscripts. By the end of the project, we will have imaged more than 200 manuscripts in their entirety, including the bindings.

What are your backgrounds?

DB & AT: We have different but complimentary backgrounds. Ariel has a photography degree from the Rhode Island School of Design and I have a master of library science degree from the University of Maryland. It takes a lot of different skills to put together a successful digitization program: people knowledgeable about conservation, photography, cataloging, information science, computer programming, data management and the history of the book all contribute to this project.

What especially interesting books have you digitized?

Books both large and small from the collection of the Walters Art Museum
Books both large and small from the collection of the Walters Art Museum

DB & AT: All kinds! Our system is very versatile, so we’ve digitized books large enough to warrant two people to lift and small enough to fit into the palm of your hand. One manuscript we really loved working with is a Book of Navigation, written by the famous Ottoman Turkish admiral and explorer Piri Reis in the 17th century. It was exhibited in the Maps: Finding Our Place in the World exhibition here at the Walters in 2008. The book has page after page of colorful, beautiful maps—it is really quite extraordinary. (It’s also a very long book and consequently it took a very long time to digitize!)

What is the biggest challenge in your job?

DB & AT: Getting sidetracked by looking at the books for too long!

Ok, well other things, too. We’re working with what people like to call the cutting edge of digital imaging technology, which is great to boast about, but when something malfunctions there’s often not an easy, off-the-shelf fix. We’ve done a lot of troubleshooting to keep things up and running, which in the long run means you certainly learn a lot. It’s rewarding, too, when you find the solution.