+ Medieval Manuscripts: St Gallen Trove Now Online

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A one million dollar grant from the Andrew W Mellon Foundation is making it possible for one of the oldest and most valuable collections of handwritten medieval books in the world to be made available online, according to John Tagliabue’s article in the N Y Times.

The manuscripts are housed in the magnificent baroque halls of the Stiftsbibliothek — literally, the abbey library — in this quaint town nestled in the rolling hills of eastern Switzerland.

For centuries, scholars from around the world have flocked here to pore over its vast collection of manuscripts, many written and illustrated before the year 1000.

Included in the collection are curses against book thieves, early love ballads, hearty drinking songs, and a hand-drawn ground plan for a medieval monastery drafted around AD 820.

Believed to have been founded in the ninth century, the library was built about two centuries after an Irish Monk called Gallus established the monastery in the center of this city.  The monastery was dissolved by local authorities in 1805.  The library is now the property of the Roman Catholic Church.

As computer technology improves, the scanning of library collections has become commonplace.  Google has embarked on an ambitious project to scan entire libraries into databases.  Last month the executive arm of the European Union appropriated $175 million for a program, known as “Europeana,” to digitize European libraries.

The idea to scan these manuscripts was born as a reaction to the devastating floods that swept Dresden, Germany and its artworks in 2002, says Ernst Tremp, an expert on medieval history and the library director.

It began as a pilot project and grew sharply last year when the Gallen project was incorporated into a program to digitize all of Switzerland’s roughly 7000 medieval manuscripts.

At the same time, the Mellon Foundation agreed to finance the St Gallen project with a two-year, $1 miilion grant, with an option to extend it for another two years after 2009.  Wrote Donald J Waters of the Mellon Foundation, St Gallen “fits into a larger plan to help make key sources of evidence for medieval studies available online.”

And so, day by day, a team of scanning experts works in a small room above the library, gingerly arranging manuscripts on two large frames that use suction devices to spread the pages and lasers to ensure that they are not spread so wide as to damage a binding.

After that, high-resolution digital cameras and video recorders then copy the pages, downloading the images to a database where they are prepared for presentation on the library’s Web site, www.cesg.unifr.ch.  

Already about 200 manuscripts are in the database, and 144 are available online.

Christoph Flueler is an expert on early manuscripts who is overseeing the scanning.  He says the ability to put such a database online affordably was made possible by the reduced price of computer memory, which he said costs about a fifth of what it did early in the decade.

“We can now achieve very good quality,” he says.  “Six or seven years ago, such memory was simply not affordable.”

About 130,000 visitors are expected at the library this year because of the project, compared with about 100,000 a decade ago.  An even greater number of scholars are now studying the library manuscripts using computers rather than working in the actual library.

Says Flueler, “The library has become more visible.  On the Internet we now have more visitors than in the real library.”

Local people are finding the library more accessible as well.  Despite regular exhibits of outstanding books, some said, visiting hours were always limited and reception areas narrow.  Visitors had to line up in a confined hallway and there was no gift shop or cafeteria.

“It is a jewel,” says Dr Uwe Lorenz.  Lorenz, a retired director of gynecology at St Gallen’s main hospital, is a part-times James Joyce scholar and knowledgeable about the town’s literary history.

But he has criticisms.  “They should have done a lot more.  I know many people in St Gallen who have never set foot in the library.”

Others are angry that foreign money was necessary to put the manuscripts online.

For much of the city’s history, relations between the monastery and the townspeople have been tense, marked by division between the merchant class and the monks — even before the Reformation.

When the Reformation came the town turned Protestant, while surrounding territories, ruled by the monastery’s prince-abbot, remained Catholic.  The town’s Protestant church, a soaring neo-Gothic building, stands across from the Catholic cathedral.

“Keeping each other in check,” says Michel Fischbacher, whose family textile business has been  a  mainstay of the local economy since 1819.

The scanning has increased the requests from museums and libraries who want to borrow the manuscripts themselves and to use the illustrations in books and other publications.  The demands have become so great that Mr Flueler set up a small company last year to handle them, the profits going toward the financing of the scanning.

sole source: Article by John Tagliabue in the N Y Times on 10/18/08.   www.nytimes.com

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