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I’ve drawn on the images from this site ( in teaching, especially for a class that I have taught on food in pre-modern Europe, using several of the images to illustrate points in a lecture. It’s the simplest sort of a digital collection, really, maintained by a single person out of personal interest. The images are grouped thematically on separate pages, and each theme page has thumbnails and brief descriptions of the images; the images themselves can be reached by clicking the thumbnail. So it’s not a particularly sophisticated collection in terms of organization or labeling, but since it’s also not that large of one, the way that it is set up suffices for the purpose.

Given that I’ve just been thinking about copyright issues, it’s notable that the site’s owner is erratic in attributing the origins of the images displayed. Some are; for instance, an image of a baker ( is said to be from a 1432 Flemish manuscript of Boccaccio’s Decameron. Others, like this merchant with a nutmeg ( merely have an approximate date given, but no other indication of where the image came from. The images from A Canterbury Calendar, originally from a manuscript dated to about 1280, are taken from a book published in 1984, and I’d hazard that probably no permission was given to display them online, although I might be wrong.

This is one of those areas where I find copyright law problematic. Frankly I doubt that having these images available online is going to prevent anyone who might want that book from buying it; the dozen images alone hardly comprise the information that would normally be wanted. So it’s not going to cut into sales or use of the book (the edition from which the images are drawn is out of print, in fact, although there is a revised edition in print). It’s hard to see how enforcing copyright here would encourage greater creativity. Actually I’d suspect that having the images out there on the web is what might stimulate interest and possibly new thoughts and ideas on the topic of medieval food.


The John Rylands University Library at the University of Manchester has over 4600 images in its digital library, including several hundred images of papyri ( 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.

Oxford University has digital facsimiles of more than 80 medieval manuscripts scanned and online here: The images are copyrighted but personal research use is permitted.

The project of digitizing occurred in several phases. First a number of Celtic MSS were digitized, then additional medieval manuscripts deemed particularly valuable, useful, and/or fragile. These two phases were carried out with government funding. A server failure led to the takeover of the project by the Oxford University Library’s automation department, which also redesigned the website, and it now is controlled by the Oxford Digital Library.

During the site redesign, it was discovered that some images are missing from some of the MSS. A statement on the site indicates that the library is in the process of determining what is missing and what resources are needed to correct the problem.

Several potential issues with the creation of digital collection are thus highlighted. Funding may be temporary, and insufficient to digitize as much material as might be desired (by no means all of the medieval MSS held by Oxford colleges are included). If later problems are discovered, the funding may no longer be available to correct those problems. The technology may also fail, as happened with the server that originally housed this collection. This meant that the material was moved and now falls under the auspices of a different body.

The copyright restrictions on the images mean that although an individual may download a single copy of each for private personal use (they may also be displayed in an academic lecture), from another website only a URL linking to the image location may be used, not the image itself. This is a reasonable restriction, under copyright law, but if the image locations were again later to be changed, it would make access difficult. That’s merely something to be considered.

The descriptions of the MSS (i.e., the metadata) are quite limited and not really searchable; the MSS are listed by college and shelfmark, with brief descriptions in the browsing area and longer ones when you click through to a specific MS. Medievalists are used to such things, though, so it’s less of a limitation than would be the case for born-digital items.

According to the first reading (Lee 2000), it would appear that one of my favorite sites to use with students who are writing research papers on medieval history does indeed qualify as a collection: Internet Medieval Sourcebook. This site collects many medieval texts, mostly short selections in translation, mostly from public-domain works and occasionally donated by contributors. The texts are organized thematically (with sidebar links to each of these general topics), and then either topically and/or chronologically within the theme. The collection is aimed at a user group of students studying this general topic, and indirectly at the instructors teaching them. Although the website resides on the servers of Fordham University, it is freely accessible to outsiders and also incorporates links to additional online sites and resources. One neat thing about this site is that it has been around since 1996 (so it’s positively ancient in web terms) and was created by someone who at that time was a graduate student in history, rather making it up as he went along. So in itself it’s kind of a historical artifact as a collection.

I don’t have a lot of experience finding online digital collections, so I decided I’d take a look at the library website for the University of Minnesota, where I did my PhD in history. I know that they have a number of special collections and I wondered if they’d have digitized some of them. I found out that there’s a really nifty collection of posters and postcards from WWI and WWII that has been put online, as a cooperative project between the university and the Minneapolis Public Library which also owns many of these items: “A Summons to Comradeship” – World War I and II Posters and Postcards. Each image is identified with a set of metadata, which can then be used to search the whole collection. One drawback I see is that there appears to be no way to simply browse at random except by doing a search for all the items.  A search results in a page with thumbnails of the found items, each with a truncated title as caption, so a user can’t just flip through readable-sized images and see what might be interesting; you have to click on the thumbnails one at a time to get a larger image. Nevertheless this is a fabulous and well-organized resource.

Clearly historical collections are the ones that I’m most directly interested in. A friend pointed me at the Bethlehem Digital History Project, which has digitized images of primary source materials (texts, art, etc.) also transcriptions and translations, and some information on the context, of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania from 1741-1844. There are also some more modern items. From an educational perspective, the fact that there are transcriptions/translations of the older documents is very helpful, since students might find it difficult to cope with the original paleography and orthography; but having the photographs of the originals makes it useful for more professional-level researchers as well. The items are reasonably well identified (even including the locations of the original documents) but the collection is not searchable in the way that the WWI and II poster collection is; one has to basically browse through, with the documents divided by general content and then subdivided by type.

Lee, Hur-Li. 2000. What is a collection? Journal of the American Society for Information Science 51 (12): 1106-13.