Permanent Seminar on Manuscript Analysis, Description, and Documentation
During the last decades, the study of European, Asian, and African manuscript traditions has made significant progress. This has had an impact both on our understanding of how their contents and material structure relate to each other, and on their scientific description. Scholars have become aware that the information provided by catalogues is sometimes misleading. The presentation of data does not always result in a correct understanding of an object’s genetic and evolutionary history in relation to its contents; sometimes it even indicates that cataloguers have missed a manuscripts’ physical and historical complexity. Even when the data that is given is objective, it is not always available for comparative studies because of the way it is presented and encoded.
At the same time, printed catalogues have been complemented or replaced by electronic ones whose promoters and features are numerous and whose levels of quality vary. Consequently, manuscript cataloguers now need a very diverse skillset: they not only need solid knowledge of palaeography, codicology, and text histories, but also have to be familiar with programming languages and practices.
There are old and prestigious cataloguing traditions with rigorous and comprehensive operational standards. However, most existing printed and online catalogues (even within one manuscript culture) describe the physical features of manuscripts very heterogeneously, including the most common ones (dimensions, collation, ruling techniques and types, et cetera). Comparative codicology has also shown a lack of basic standards for the physical description of non-codex books from different cultural areas. The same is true for contents. There is still no consistent identification and representation of titles and names.
As for the advent of electronic catalogues and full digital reproductions, the last twenty years have shown that exploiting the potential of IT in the field of manuscript description and documentation is not as simple and straightforward as one might have expected. Uncritical enthusiasm and general suspicion are equally unjustified. Instead, the advantages, limitations and open issues of electronic catalogues and manuscript digitisations need to be soberly assessed. The same applies to the conditions required to make e-catalogues and digital manuscripts useful, durable, and interoperable in the long term. The pioneering work on the IIIF standard is an example of good practice in this field.
The conference on ‘Manuscript Cataloguing in a Comparative Perspective: State of the Art, Common Challenges, Future Directions’ (Hamburg, 7-10 May 2018) gave rise to the idea of creating a ‘Permanent seminar on manuscript analysis, description and documentation’. It is intended as an open, informal, and exploratory space that brings together researchers from different traditions on the theme of manuscript description and documentation, addressed from a comparative perspective. An open network includes established scholars and manuscript cataloguers, early-stage researchers, and professionals from numerous universities, research centres, and conservation libraries. The members of the ‘Permanent seminar’ meet periodically (usually online) to exchange ideas; share news about projects and best practices; and to discuss the principles, methods, and the evolution of manuscript cataloguing and digitisation. Specific topics are suggested by the network’s coordinators or participants. They may refer, for instance, to the following aspects:
- Reflecting the formats of books belonging to various traditions and describing their physical and historical features and content to develop best-practice standards for cross-cultural comparative studies;
- Providing a critical overview of the descriptive approaches in use, the reasons for their adoption, and their relevance;
Monitoring available and needed resources to describe manuscripts and to manage databases and image collections (unique identifiers, textual archives, repertories of scribes, et cetera);
- Reflecting the methods and tools for searching and sharing information in order to increase the interoperability among different initiatives;
- Comparing cataloguing and digitising practices concerning different manuscript formats in different manuscript cultures;
- Integrating best practices related to traditional printed catalogues, electronic catalogues, and digitised manuscript repositories.