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Review: Childree on Flüeler, e-codices

Codex Bodmer 88, 57r

We will have to tote our manuscripts along with us every step of our journey. Manuscripts gave birth to the discipline of Classical Studies, and they will always remain our most valuable resource, necessary and indispensable dum Capitōlium scandet etc. So although e-codices (e-codices.unifr.ch) is in essence just a collection of pictures, the task it has undertaken is highly significant. Because the task is so significant, the choices made about how that task is carried out are highly significant as well.

            E-codices makes available online high-quality images of manuscripts from collections in Switzerland. At this point it has published online over 1500 manuscripts, amounting to more than 500,000 manuscript pages. Some of the sources are well-known—the Stiftsbibliothek of St. Gallen provides 594 manuscripts, and there is a substantial number from the Universitätsbibliothek at Basel, the Burgerbibliothek at Bern, the Fondation Martin Bodmer, and the Stiftsbibliothek at Einsiedeln. In all, sixty-seven institutions have contributed. Most of the manuscripts are Latin; only thirty-one are labelled as ancient Greek, and the remainder are Germanic.

In evaluating an image repository, two chief considerations need to be addressed:

            (1) what is the quality of the images?

            (2) what kind of access to the images is provided?

(1) Quality

The images themselves are of uniformly high quality and appropriate size. Most of the manuscript images I examined were at a resolution of 4872 × 6496 pixels (the equivalent of a 31 megapixel camera, or 16 × 21 inches if printed in high-quality at 300 dots per inch). Some images are at 6132 × 8176 — half again as large. It is hard to future-proof image resolution: the eye almost always says bigger is better, but there is a point of diminishing returns, and there are practicalities to consider of storage and computation-time. It is at any rate churlish to complain too much when the images are already, in effect, larger than life-size.

In practice, at 100% zoom, text is big and sharp. If anything is illegible, it will be due to the scribe’s hand, not the image. The grain of the writing material, tears, cuts, holes, ruling, are all clearly visible. 

            Page-images are available to download in JPEG format at several different resolutions, including full size. (While it seems obvious that anyone working with manuscripts and interested in downloading an image would want it in the maximum resolution possible, a surprising number of similar websites only offer lowered resolution versions.) Ideally, uncompressed TIFFs would be available to work with. A note mentions that “TIFF files may be ordered from the respective libraries for reproduction”; it is not clear how readily these files are available for scholarly uses besides reproduction.

            It is trickier to assess the quality of these manuscripts as a collection. Scholars tend to seek out manuscripts for specific and personal projects, and what one considers fascinating and essential another will think bizarre and irrelevant. Nonetheless, someone will make use of manuscripts like  Genève, Ms. lat. 49 (Jerome’s Chronicon); someone will want to study Bern, Burgerbibliothek 366 (Valerius Maximus); I myself have been using Codex Bodmer 88 (Horace) to read the Epodes with my undergraduate students. Admittedly, the sort of foundational manuscripts that show up in Texts and Transmission are relatively rare here—but this is perhaps a benefit. The manuscripts that constitute the main lines in the textual tradition of major authors are at this point well-published and well-known; the long scholarly tradition preserved in the so-called deteriōrēs, however, remains to be sifted. These “less important” manuscripts won’t get internet headlines when they are digitized, perhaps, but their marginal status makes it all the more important that they be preserved through digitization.

(2) Access

Access is considered here under three heads: interface, licensing, and availability.

            The interface has been exceptionally well thought-out. Across the top of the main page are links to a Person Index, a menu with links to information about the project itself, a search box, and buttons to translate the interface and data into German, English, French, or Italian (E-codices is to be commended for the thoroughness of their translation).  The person index leads quickly to pertinent manuscripts for any ancient author.

The searchbox checks broadly against metadata, so it can be used to search by title, author, manuscript shelfmark, place of origin, and several other categories. Search results are accompanied by a set of filters that are genuinely helpful in winnowing down the list. Overall, it is refreshingly simple to navigate to e-codices, search a term or two, and find what you’re looking for. It is equally pleasant to roam through search terms and filters and stumble upon interesting manuscripts indirectly. Each individual manuscript’s overview page features full details and description.

The “view” page is responsive and quick in zooming in or out, moving from one folio to another, or pulling up thumbnails of the entire manuscript. The website has also been designed to be perfectly usable on tablets and even phones.

            No matter how well-designed the site, though, scholars will always want to manipulate source materials like these in ways that cannot be predicted or cannot be accommodated by the website’s interface. This is why a simple download button and direct access to the images themselves is so vital. Even this is of limited use, though, if the images are burdened with restrictive licensing. Happily, e-codices has proven extremely scholarship-friendly in both aspects. Full-size images are available at a click, and the images are licensed sensibly with a CC BY-NC 3.0 license which allows non-commercial use with attribution. This means that scholars can work with these images, read these texts, study and research and publish their research without interference from obtrusive copyright claims. The alternative approach towards licensing, like that of the Digital Vatican for example, restricts all rights, mars every image with a large watermark, and only offers images for download at impractically small sizes. Everyone in our discipline should encourage the adoption of a common-sense and scholar-friendly approach to licensing and access like that of e-codices.

      One further aspect to consider under the head of access, perhaps the most important: manuscripts have always been severely restricted in several ways: restricted geographically, restricted to those holding certain academic credentials, restricted to those at the “right stage” of their career, restricted by gender and race, restricted to the purview of the specially trained. This is e-codices’s chief contribution to our discipline of Classical Studies: publishing these manuscripts in this manner begins the process of eradicating these tenacious restrictions and opens up access to anyone interested in reading and working on classical texts—scholars from different locations, with different backgrounds, and of different skill levels. The end result is more scholars creating more scholarship, and a larger, healthier discipline.

Metadata:
 
TITLE: e-codices: Virtual Manuscript Library of Switzerland
DESCRIPTION: an archive of manuscript images from collections in Switzerland
URL: e-codices.unifr.ch
NAME: Prof. Dr. Cristoph Flüeler
PUBLISHER: none
PLACE: University of Fribourg
COLLECTION TITLE: none
DATE CREATED: 2005
DATE ACCESSED: September 1, 2016
AVAILABILITY: Free
RIGHT: CC BY-NC 3.0
CLASSIFICATION: databases, digitization, images, Latin, linked open data, manuscripts, texts
 
Randall Childree's picture

Randall Childree is Associate Professor of Classics at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina. He holds a B.A. from the University of Alabama, and an M.A. and Ph.D from the University of Florida. His research has no focus, and instead has roamed across time and genre from Latin elegy to early Christian Latin authors. But, he does spend an awful lot of time working on what digital editions mean for textual criticism, and he wishes more teachers at all levels would use manuscripts in their classrooms.

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