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As reported by the BBC. This time it’s the oldest known manuscript of the Bible, the Codex Sinaiticus, which has been in several pieces in different countries since its 19th-century discovery. The digital version is expected to be online in 2009, and will enable not just scholars but anyone to view the entire text together. The article indicates that a translation of the original Greek will also be available.

This brings up several issues. First, there is the fact that when historical texts like this are digitized, they are often in languages which are not familiar to many potential users. Even someone who speaks modern Greek is likely to have difficulty with a text in the fourth-century version of the language, which furthermore does not have the modern convention of space left between words. Thus although digitization does improve access, that alone is not sufficient for many.

Translations are therefore necessary in order to make these texts truly available for wide use. Then more questions are raised: Who will do the translation? Into what language(s)? Will the translations be copyrighted and who will own the copyright? For a text like the Bible, where the choice of wording for translation can have significant effects on interpretation and thereby affect religious understanding, the problem of who will translate and how is especially critical. In the case of the Codex Sinaiticus, which includes two additional books in the New Testament and which has other important textual differences from other manuscripts, this may be a major consideration.

The article doesn’t mention how the digital form will be made available – through a website, on a cd-rom, or what other means. Nor does it give any indication of image format, methods of searching/viewing, etc.; these may be things as yet in flux. It will be interesting to see how the digitization of the Codex is carried out and presented, and what effects the availability of this text has on Biblical studies and indeed on religion generally.

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The John Rylands University Library at the University of Manchester has over 4600 images in its digital library, including several hundred images of papyri (http://rylibweb.man.ac.uk/insight/papyrus.htm). The largest numbers are written in Coptic and Greek, but there are also some Demotic and hieroglypic texts. The library plans to add more digitized materials over time, as this is only a fraction of their holdings (none of their Arabic-language papyri have yet been digitized, for instance).

Of interest is the fact that there are two methods for accessing the materials: a browser, and a downloadable client which provides greater functionality in searching and viewing.  The client requires a username and password, but the page that explains the two options also provides a public username and password, so access is not restricted to University of Manchester users. This option strikes me as an excellent one, allowing individual users to choose what will be most effective for them.

The same page also gives overall copyright information on the collection (with a note that individual images may have different copyright restrictions). In general, private study and educational uses are permitted, although the latter must acknowledge the university, and boilerplate acknowledgment language is provided. Other uses require written permission and usually fees, and links to the request forms appear on the page.

I’m finding the differences between the ways that scholarly digital image collections are organized to be very interesting. The best of them have good searchable metadata, easy-to-use interfaces, and images that can be viewed in different resolutions. These are all obviously things to think about when creating or revamping such a collection.

The John Rylands Library is continuing to put additional rare and fragile manuscripts online (not just papyri). There’s a recent article from the Telegraph that indicates that a 14th-century recipe book is among the items to be digitally photographed and added to the collection in the next year. It’s really quite astonishing (and wonderful!) to see all of this work being done.

The Dead Sea Scrolls are going to be digitized! (Article in the Guardian.) This will be a great boon to ancient historians and religious historians. There’s been a tremendous amount of scholarly controversy (with political implications at times, even) since their discovery, and because of the extremely fragile nature of the fragments, very few people have been allowed to examine the originals. Digitizing them will involve multiple extremely high-res photographs using regular light, infrared, and multispectral cameras, which will actually be better than looking at them in person since it will enable the researchers to see ink that has faded to badly to be seen by the naked eye. Wow.

It will be about five years before the project is completed, but that’s a blink of the eye, historically. I’ll be interested to see how they structure the finding aids, and how readily available these images will be (will there be a fee, for instance?).

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