“Freely available online”: What I really want to know about your new digital manuscript collection

So you’ve just digitized medieval manuscripts from your collection and you’re putting them online. Congratulations! That’s great. Online access to manuscripts is so important, for scholars and students and lots of other people, too (I know a tattoo artist who depends on digital images for design ideas). As the number of collections available online has grown in recent years (DMMAP lists 545 institutions offering at least one digitized manuscript), the use of digital manuscripts by medievalists has grown right along with supply.[1] If you’re a medievalist and you study manuscripts, I’m confident that you regularly use digital images of manuscripts. So every new manuscript online is a celebration. But now, you who are making digitized medieval manuscripts available online, tell us more. How, exactly, are you making your manuscripts available? And please don’t say you’re making them freely available online.

I hate this phrase. It makes my teeth clench and my heart beat faster. It makes me feel this way because it doesn’t actually tell me anything at all. I know you are publishing your images online, because where else would you publish them (the age of CDRom for these things is long gone) and I know they are going to be free, because otherwise you’d be making a very different kind of announcement and I would be making a very different kind of complaint (I’m looking at you, Codices Vossiani Latini Online). What else can you tell me?

Here are the questions I want answered when I read about an online manuscript collection.

  1. How are your images licensed? This is going to be my first question, and for me it’s the most important because it defines what I can do with your images. Are you placing them in the public domain, licensing them CC0? This is what we do at my institution, and it’s what I like to see, since, you know, medieval manuscripts are not in copyright, at least not in the USA (I understand things are more complicated in Europe). If not CC0, then what restrictions are you placing on them? Creative Commons has a tool where you can select the restrictions you want and then gives you license options. Consider using it as part of your decision-making process. A clear license is a good license.
  2. How can I find your manuscripts? Is there a search and browse function on your site, or do I have to know what I’m looking for when I come in?
  3. Will your images be served through the International Image Interoperability Framework (IIIF)? IIIF has become very popular recently, and for good reason – it enables users to pull manuscripts from any IIIF-compliant repository into a single interface, for example comparing manuscripts from different institutions in a single browser window. A user will need access to the IIIF manifests to make this work – the manifest is essentially a file containing metadata about the manuscript and a list of links to image files. So, if you are using IIIF, will the manifests be easily accessible so I can use them for my own purposes? (For reference, e-codices links IIIF manifests to each manuscript record, and it couldn’t be easier to find them.)
  4. What kind of interface will you have? I usually assume that a page-turning interface will be provided, but if there is some other interface (like, for example, Yale University, which links individual images from a thumbnail strip on the manuscript record) I’d like to know that. Will users be able to build collections or make annotations on page images, or contribute transcriptions? I’d like to know that, too.
  5. How can I get your images? I know you’re proud of your interface, but I might want to do something else with your images, either download them to my own machine or point to them from an interface I’ve built myself or borrowed from someone else (maybe using IIIF, but maybe not). If you provide IIIF manifests I have a list of URLs I can use to point to or download your image files (more or less, depending on how your server works), but if you’re not using IIIF, is there some other way I can easily get a list of image URLs for a manuscript? For example, OPenn and The Digital Walters publish TEI documents with facsimile lists. If you can’t provide a list, can you at least share how your urls are constructed? If I know how they’re made I can probably figure out how to build them myself.

Those are the big five questions I like to have answered when I read about a new digital manuscript collection, and they very rarely are. Please, please, please, next time you announce a new collection, try to go beyond freely available online and tell us all more about how your collection will be made available, and what users will be able and allowed to do with it.

[1] In 2002 33% of survey respondents reported manuscript facsimiles “print mostly, electronic sometimes” and 47% reported using “print only”. In 2011, 44% reported using them “electronic mostly, print sometimes” and 17% reported using “electronic only”. This is an enormous shift. From Dot Porter, “Medievalists and the Scholarly Digital Edition,” Scholarly Editing: The Annual of the Association for Documentary Editing Volume 34, 2013. http://www.scholarlyediting.org/2013/essays/essay.porter.html

5 Replies to ““Freely available online”: What I really want to know about your new digital manuscript collection”

  1. About the “How are your images licensed?” question: we tried to add that information to the libraries we had in the DMMapp data.

    Besides the difficulty of finding clear statements for many libraries, we also came across pearls like this:

    Uso de las imágenes
    Puede descargar las imágenes que sean de dominio público si son para uso privado o personal.

    Roughly translated as:

    Using the Images
    You can download the images that are Public domain for private or personal use.

    “That’s not how it works!”, and I gave up.

    1. Hi Giulio! Yes, I think this is a huge issue. The problem may be (as you note with this one institution) that a lot of institutions just don’t understand how licenses work, so they don’t really know what to say about them. BTW I was thrilled when I noticed that you started including that information in your database, thank you for including it!

    2. One that always annoys me is bogus assertions of rights. No, unnamed American Museum, your digitizations of manuscripts are NOT copyright 2016

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