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medieval libraries, middle ages, Great Britain, digital humanities, manuscript studies, catalogues, cataloging practices
T heM edievalL ibraries ofGreat Britain project (abbreviated as MLGB3) aims to provide comprehensive and searchable information about medieval English libraries and their books. By collating evidence from both surviving medieval books and library catalogs, and by adding digital [End Page 356]images of features of medieval books that provide information about provenance and ownership, such as their bindings or ownership inscriptions, the project offers scholars of medieval manuscripts and libraries an important new research tool. Its online structure allows users to search and isolate records by library, text, author, type of evidence (such as shelfmark or inscriptions on provenance), and other variables. MLGB3 is hosted by the Bodleian Library, directed by Richard Sharpe and James Willoughby, and funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
MLGB3 draws on and is named after Neil Ker’s Medieval Libraries of Great Britain, a book that identifies all medieval libraries in Great Britain based on evidence found in surviving manuscripts. First published in 1941, a second, revised edition of the book appeared in 1964 and a supplement by Andrew Watson appeared in 1987. Additional information on medieval British libraries and their catalogs has been drawn from the Corpus of British Medieval Library Catalogs (henceforth CBMLC), a series that prints editions of extant medieval British library book lists and catalogs.
The combination of Ker’s research on surviving manuscripts and the CBMLC’s research on surviving medieval catalogs is important for two reasons. First, Ker’s research allowed for the positive identification of numerous medieval British libraries for which no catalog survives, widening significantly the number of libraries included in the project. Second, since the vast majority of the manuscripts listed in medieval library catalogs no longer survive, the inclusion of the CBMLC’s cataloged books makes the MLGB3 project useful for understanding not only the vagaries of manuscript survival, but also patterns of book ownership and use in the Middle Ages. The project spans the eighth to sixteenth centuries, the start date constrained by manuscript survival and the end date determined by the dissolution of the monasteries in the mid-sixteenth century by Henry VIII.
MLGB3 is currently in its beta version, with data transcribed from the eight thousand file cards on which Ker and his collaborators recorded evidence such as shelfmarks and ex libris inscriptions that give proof of the medieval locations of books. It is not clear how many file cards remain to be uploaded; the website advises users to crosscheck the website’s data with the printed editions of Ker to ensure they have “all the information.” The plan to include digital images of as many manuscripts as is feasible will [End Page 357]eventually allow users to check many of Ker’s original observations for themselves. The images are of very high quality but are only of select leaves containing, for example, observed provenance marks, rather than digitized versions of entire books. Thus far the beta version includes only descriptions of the full contents of manuscripts at the cathedrals of Lincoln, Hereford, and Worcester, along with Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. Like Ker, MLGB3 excludes books that remained in their original college libraries at Cambridge and Oxford.
The varied and high-quality information made available by this project, as well as its enhanced search capabilities compared to the print version of Ker’s book, makes MLGB3 a significant asset for those who study medieval English books, authors, and libraries. The body of work on which it draws is exemplary, and it promises to be an extremely useful tool once completed. As it stands, however, there are certain interface difficulties that will hopefully be smoothed over before the project reaches a more complete state.
The website interface has four main tabs: Browse, Advanced Search, Authors/Titles, and Medieval Catalogues. The Browsetab takes users to an alphabetical list organized by each library’s geographic location, starting with Abbots-bury (Dorset) and its Benedictine Abbey of St. Peter. A user...