The New York Public Library kicked off 2016 by releasing over 180,000 digitised items as high-resolution downloads, sending scholars over the moon. This treasure trove included Medieval and Renaissance illuminated manuscripts, ancient religious texts, and over 20,000 maps and atlases. And the NYPL declared it a “free for all” allowing anyone to use the materials for anything whatsoever, no digital permissions needed.
The digitisation of collections has been ongoing for the last decade—first in CD-ROM and then web form—but the NYPL’s release took this to a whole new level. The publicity garnered reveals a wide public interest in the digitisation debate as well.
Digitisation is important for access, and organizations which value accessibility should be using digitalisation to help them. Not only does it improve scholarly access, but it levels the playing field, helping people outside the field of academia as well as those unaffiliated with universities; now people who live too far from these institutions to see primary source materials are able to see them through these efforts.
Wider dissemination of special collections will also encourage scholarly use, and the public (and future scholars) will have an archived version of a piece should anything change or happen to the original in the future—an alarming prospect indeed!
In an environment where many universities, libraries and museums still jealously hoard their collections despite the overwhelming benefits of digitisation and sharing with the public, the NYPL’s announcement was exhilarating. For one thing, this means I can post images from their collections here without having to ask them:
In fact, I can post as many as I want and subtitle them however I want as the NYPL has explicitly encouraged the use and remixing of all its digitalised items. Since flying to New York to look at the NYPL’s manuscripts in person is impractical at best, and unlikely for the average student, these digitisations are a huge boon for future scholars.
One of the joys of being a UCL student though is the proximity to the British Library—which is much closer than New York! However, there are still certain manuscripts that can’t be handled even with a Reader’s Card. But the British Library followed up the NYPL’s announcement with further additions to their ongoing Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts which, with their Digitised Manuscripts website, is a formidable scholarly resource. The British Library also maintains a goodwill policy over the digitised images, setting out a code of conduct but not a legal contract.
Much of UCL’s Special Collections is also digitised online and anyone browsing the collections is free to copy them for personal study or research. Among the digitalised collections are the Bentham Manuscripts, the Orwell Archive, Montefiore Testimonials, and the Gaster Papers.
UCL’s Medieval Manuscript Fragments Imaging Project has also digitised a collection of manuscript fragments in order to develop new imaging techniques for recovering text which has deteriorated. These fragments are mainly from early bindings but have yet to be fully described and researched.
By making these images available for the first time to a wider community, UCL is increasing awareness of the fragments and encouraging the study of these individual pieces in a wider context.
By bringing these primary source materials to people the world round, digitalisation democratises access and opens up new possibilities in scholarship and public engagement. Stay tuned as the institutions at the forefront of this effort forever change the way that scholarship is conducted!
Arendse Lund is an MA student in Medieval and Renaissance Studies at UCL. You can check out her latest projects at arend.se.