Saturday, March 8, 2014

Virtual library of virtual books

A leaf of a French prayerbook from the 1400s. Gold embellishes a floral
pattern called white vine, a common feature of medieval illumination. 
IN ANOTHER BLOG we paid tribute to Stanley S. Slotkin, a Los Angeles businessman who traveled around the world collecting historic treasures and sharing them, especially with colleges and universities. The Mount was among his beneficiaries.

The View newspaper of May 10, 1960, makes note of Slotkin's generosity to the Mount,  inviting students to visit what was then called the Treasure Room of the Coe Library to see his medieval manuscripts. They now reside in the Spearman Room of the Chalon Campus library, which houses MSMC Archives & Special Collections.

In his travels, Slotkin bought up centuries-old Bibles, Qur'ans, prayer books and antiphonaries in Europe and the Middle East. His idea was to make these cultural treasures accessible to ordinary folks, not just rare-book dealers and collectors. So he had the books disbound and the pages removed, distributing them in sets of a few dozen leaves to various institutions. But except for occasional displays or exhibits, most libraries just kept them safely stored in a drawer, as we've done at the Mount.

The Digital Age, however, offers an interesting possibility. If those of us with leaves of books will share information about our holdings, the original books can be recreated virtually online by linking the scanned images. For example, if CSUN has pages 149 and 150 and the Mount 147 and 148 of a 16th Century Bible, we now have four consecutive pages. Add in scores of institutions and pages, and you could, in theory anyway, see the original books come to digital life.

At the urging of a visiting scholar at our neighbor the Getty Center, we have been writing up descriptions of our little collection and putting up some of the digitized manuscripts and printed pages online. Unfortunately, we don't have information about publication. Slotkin typically included reproductions of the title pages with the donated book leaves, but our collection either lacked them, or they were lost along the way. But a real expert can size up physical elements like script, typography, paper, parchment, ink, illumination and dimensions and match them with other holdings by linking the descriptive information (known as metadata) online.

If you want to view some of the Mount's holdings in this digital jigsaw puzzle, visit our new Omeka website at http://msmcarchives.omeka.net. We'll be adding more images in the next few weeks so visit early and often. For some interesting background about medieval prayer books, which make up much of the Mount's collection, see the Getty's wonderful resources at "The Medieval Bestseller: Illuminated Books of Hours."



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