permanent seminar

Proposal for the Establishment of a
Permanent Seminar on Manuscript Analysis,
Description, and Documentation

During the last decades, the study of manuscripts belonging to European, Asian and African traditions (not only in codex form) has made significant progress, with a relevant impact on the understanding of the relationship between their contents and material structure and on the approaches to their scientific description. Scholars have become aware that the information provided by catalogues is sometimes misleading; moreover, the presentation of data does not always allow to understand correctly the genetic and evolutionary history of the objects in relation to their contents, and sometimes even leads to the suspicion that the manuscripts’ physical and historical complexity has escaped the attention of the cataloguers. Even when objective data is given, 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 gradually complemented or replaced by electronic ones, increasingly numerous and varied as regards their promoters, features, and quality of the outcome. Consequently, contemporary manuscript cataloguers ought to have not only a good training in the fields of palaeography and codicology and a solid knowledge of text histories, but also a growing familiarity with programming languages and practices: a varied set of basic knowledge and skills that only a long and patient practice allows to strengthen and refine.

Despite the existence of old and prestigious cataloguing traditions, reflected in rigorous and comprehensive operational standards, the existing printed and online manuscript catalogues (even within one and the same manuscript culture) are very heterogeneous as regards the description of the physical features of the manuscripts, including the most basic and recurrent ones (dimensions, collation, ruling techniques and types…); more recently, comparative codicology also evidenced the lack of basic common standards for the physical description of non-codex books from different cultural areas. The same is also true for the rendering of the contents, still very lacking both from the point of view of the identification and the consistent representation of titles and names.

As for the advent of electronic catalogues and the increasing online availability of full digital reproductions, experience gained in the last twenty years has shown that the way to fully exploit the potential of IT in the field of manuscript description and documentation is not as simple and straightforward as one might have expected and hoped. Between uncritical enthusiasm and equally unjustified suspicion, the need is increasingly felt for a sober assessment of the advantages, limitations and open issues of electronic catalogues and manuscript digitisations and for a thoughtful reflection on the further developments and the conditions required to make e-catalogues and digital manuscripts useful, durable and effectively interoperable in a long-range perspective. the pioneering work concerning the IIIF standard is an example of good practice in this field.

The interest aroused by the conference on “Manuscript Cataloguing in a Comparative Perspective: State of the Art, Common Challenges, Future Directions”, held at Universität Hamburg, CSMC, on May 7-10. 2018, gave rise to the idea of creating a “Permanent seminar on manuscript analysis, description and documentation”, intended as an open, informal and exploratory space that will aggregate researchers from different manuscript and scholarly traditions on the theme of manuscript description and documentation, addressed in a widely comparative perspective. Our aim is to create a network that includes established scholars and manuscript cataloguers, early stage researchers and professionals from a variety of universities, research centres and conservation libraries. The members of the “Permanent seminar” will meet regularly (indicatively once a year), in Hamburg or elsewhere, to exchange ideas; share news, projects and best practices; discuss relevant issues related to the principles, methods and evolution of manuscript cataloguing and digitization. The topics, which will come from suggestions made by the network’s participants, may refer, for instance, to the following aspects:

  • a shared reflection on the description of physical, content-related, and historical features of manuscripts belonging to various cultural traditions and book formats, aimed to developing best-practice standards for the cross-cultural comparative study of the described features;
  • a critical overview of the approaches in use, the reasons for their adoption and their compared relevance;
  • a constant monitoring of available and needed resources for the description of manuscripts and the management of databases and image collections (unique identifiers, textual archives, repertories of scribes, etc.);
  • a shared reflection on the approaches and tools for searching and sharing information, in order to increase interoperability among different initiatives;
  • a comparison of cataloguing and digitising practices, concerning different manuscript formats in different manuscript cultures;
  • a better integration of best practices between traditional printed catalogues, electronic catalogues and digitised manuscript repositories.
  • Etc.
If you are interested into joining the network, please fill in the form below.

For more information please contact manuscript-cultures [at] It would be very important for the Permanent seminar to profit from your experience and support.

Looking forward to reading from you,
best regards,
Marilena Maniaci, Patrick Andrist, Alessandro Bausi, Michael Friedrich

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