- Fragmentarium: Digital Research Laboratory for Medieval Manuscript Fragments
Books come apart. This troubling fact has discouraged generations of curators, librarians, archivists, book historians, researchers, and anyone invested in the preservation of books both as material objects and conduits for texts. We put great emphasis on the image of the unbroken book as a powerful cultural symbol of knowledge, one that seems almost anathema to destroy or fracture. In the medieval past, however, books were also objects composed of valuable physical materials that were inadvisable to waste. The parchment folios of a manuscript with little use value could be repurposed to support the structure of a new manuscript or printed book, as quire guards, pastedowns, or flyleaves. Of course, books have been broken more recently, typically by book dealers who did the math and found some manuscripts worth more by the leaf than by the book. Some dealers, such as Otto Ege, may have even seen the enterprise as a democratic effort that disseminated medieval material into more hands across a greater swath of the public. Today, though still in business, book-breaking dealers are often decried, yet we're still left with the remnants of centuries of deconstructing books for use, profit, and the "common good": hundreds of thousands of fragments in thousands of institutions across the globe.
The Fragmentarium (https://fragmentarium.ms), a digital library and web platform founded in 2015, seeks to reunite manuscript fragments at repositories across the world and emphasize them as a locus of scholarly enquiry. An outgrowth of the e-codices digitization project, the Fragmentarium is directed by Christoph Flüeler and managed by William O. Duba, both of the University of Fribourg, with the assistance of numerous other researchers there and abroad. At the heart of the project is the digital library, which, in their words, is "conceived as a social platform for libraries, scholars and students to do scholarly work on fragments." The digital platform allows for institutions and users not [End Page 85] only to upload images but also to add tags and metadata that augment the discoverability of the fragments in the collection.
Digital platform is a carefully chosen term as it goes beyond the characteristics that define digital libraries and archives. The Fragmentarium imagines itself as a space that not only brings together images and descriptions of fragments from numerous institutions but also enables their research and use in classrooms. The first phase of the project (2015–2018) functioned as a closed laboratory in which case studies were published to verify the feasibility of digital fragmentology at the project's sixteen partner institutions, which include repositories such as the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, the Bodleian Library, the British Library, the Vatican Library, and Yale University's Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, among others. In phase 2, which runs from 2019 to 2022, the Fragmentarium will open up the platform to other collections, researchers, and teachers who wish to add to the extant database. This trajectory of increased openness follows efforts to increase public awareness of the project, including hosting workshops on cataloging, an active social media presence, and the publication of an open-access e-journal, Fragmentology, which published its first annual issue in 2018.
When the project comes to fruition, the Fragmentarium may be the preeminent digital environment for the study of medieval fragments. As the project's activities and outreach gesture toward inclusion and collaboration, so, too, do its technological practices. The team behind the Fragmentarium have emphasized interoperability across national borders and between institutions. Entries for individual fragments work seamlessly across major browsers and even on mobile devices. Following a brief learning curve, users will discover that the high-quality images of the fragments are easily zoomable and manipulated in the web utility's frame. Metadata and descriptions are also easily found by clicking on an information widget. Impressively, the utility allows multiple images to be arrayed in various sequences; for example, if several fragments from the same manuscript are found in an entry, one can view them in the order in which they...