Digitisation and the National Library of Wales

I have been really fascinated to read about the digitisation of the Boston Manuscript containing the Laws of Hywel Dda, (see end of post for links.)

Firstly I think that  this acquisition demonstrates the vital role played by institutions such as the National Library of Wales in acquiring, preserving and displaying artefacts of cultural significance. The Laws of Hywel Dda codify the distinct legal system operating in Wales between the mid 10th century and the mid 16th century. As with all legal systems, the Laws of Hywel Dda were continuously revised and updated, so each manuscript witness has the potential to capture a law or precedent which has not been preserved elsewhere. The manuscript has been in private hands in America and Professor Paul Russell notes that the auction seemed to be promoting the manuscript towards private collectors. Manuscripts and artefacts in private hands are often all but invisible to scholars and general public; in purchasing an important cultural document such as this one, the National Library of Wales puts a piece of Welsh history into the public domain. Times are obviously hard and I do not want to engage extensively with the issue of cuts in this post but it would be remiss not to point out that our libraries, even the great national libraries, are struggling on reduced budgets. When they are short of money, we risk items of cultural significance passing out of the public and scholarly domain into private hands. This is a loss to us all.

Obviously the National Library of Wales have not only purchased the manuscript but they has repaired and are in the process of digitising it. Fascinatingly, the manuscript is not being digitised in a cradle as is usually the case for medieval manuscripts. The manuscript had been bound too tightly and has been completely unbound as part of the repair process. Each page is being individually repaired, conserved and digitised in a flat-bed scanner before being rebound in a more sympathetic way. The decision to digitise while the pages are unbound has a number of advantages as well as drawbacks. In many digitisations, undertaken using the 90 degree cradle, details of marginalia, annotation, decoration and even damage in the gutter may not be accurately captured. This may not be immediately problematic for the casual viewer who merely wishes to see a medieval manuscript but for scholars, especially scholars of the book, digitisation is not always satisfactory because these details are partially obscured. Conversely, choosing to digitise the manuscript unbound means the digital representation will be obviously different from the rebound end product of this period of repair. I do not mean to offer an answer to this conundrum, merely to highlight some of the wider implications of digitisation. Yes, digitisation is a vital tool for Special Collections. Digital representations of library treasures can be used to promote the holdings of an institution. Digitisation also allows the general public and scholars to closely examine artefacts, to read texts in their original manuscript context, without going through extensive screening. Digitisation also aids preservation as there is less call for the artefact to be handled. However, viewing a digital representation is not the same experience as viewing the original artefact and the choice to digitise the Boston manuscript while it is unbound only highlights the gulf between the virtual form and the physical object.

I am also interested by this digitisation because the Boston Manuscript is not in a particularly good condition nor it is particularly beautifully decorated or written. As I wrote in my Library MA dissertation, there can be a tension between the desire of an institution to digitise the most beautiful objects or the most scholarly important and interesting. The general public is often most interested in beautifully illustrated and illuminated texts but high quality illuminations are most likely to be found in Books of Hours and other prayer books which are unlikely to attract many readers. In contrast, many literary texts are preserved in scrappy, damaged and plain manuscripts. The contents may be fascinating to scholars but there is little aesthetic appeal. The Boston Manuscript, however, is still likely to attract both scholars and the general public given its importance to the history of Wales.

Capturing the Laws of Hywel Dda

A Medieval Manuscript Comes Home to Wales

Welsh Law – Wikipedia


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