Philadelphia, December 5, 2006- Digital collections are allowing people around the world to see materials to which just ten years ago only a few scholars had access. The Free Library’s highly-anticipated fourth digital collection, which includes medieval and Renaissance manuscripts decorated lavishly with gold, silver, and other luxurious pigments, is now available through its website, www.freelibrary.org . Bibliographic records and high-resolution digital images from the Rare Book Department’s Lewis-Widener manuscript collection are available for 500 of the more than 3,000 images that will eventually make up the complete digital collection. The viewing experience is enhanced by exciting technology that allows users to “zoom in” and magnify small sections of the images, as well as an easily searchable interface that supports targeted searches for specific materials, such as Books of Hours, or by specific categories, such as country of origin. These images and their detailed descriptions will also eventually be included in the Digital Scriptorium, one of the world’s largest databases of medieval and Renaissance manuscripts.
The new digital collection will appeal to a wide range of users, from middle school students studying history to medieval historians, art historians, religious scholars, paleographers, and anyone attempting to study or experience the lives of medieval people. Presenting the collection in such a way that it is accessible by scholars and laymen alike is an important goal of this project, and background information about the history, production, and use of manuscripts is included, as well as a glossary of common terms. Since the collection also contains individual leaves, or pages, from manuscripts in collections around the world, it is also possible that these individual leaves will be virtually united with other leaves from the same work, or with the full manuscript. Such an occurrence would allow scholars to view a complete work as it was created for the first time.
Most of the surviving first-hand information about the civilization of Europe between 500 and 1500 A.D. is contained in medieval manuscripts. The codices in the Library’s collection include various types of medieval books: Bibles, theological works, liturgical books, collections of sermons, Books of Hours, classical and other secular works, and at least one almanac. Among the secular books, there is the only known illustrated manuscript of Jean Bruyant’s poem La Voie de Povrete ou de Richesse, titled in this version Le Livre du Chastel de Labour (ca. 1480). Another notable manuscript, a 16-foot long genealogy roll, was made for Edward IV of England, with miniature likenesses of his notable ancestors dating back to Adam and Eve. Among the religious codices are 51 Books of Hours, large and small, some ordinary, others of high artistic value. There is a very beautiful 13th century “Lewis Psalter” (Lewis E. 185) and the translation known as the Bible du X111me siecle, a spectacular copy made in Rouen about 1465.
This project was made possible through a three-year, $500,000 grant from the federal Institute of Museum and Library Services. With it, the Library purchased a BetterLight scan back camera to aerially photograph the books and leaves. The high quality images produced by this camera allow users to view details normally unreadable without the aid of a magnifying class. With 255 medieval and Renaissance manuscript codices, 2,000 leaves and fragments with decoration or illumination, and 1,000 leaves with text only, the Lewis-Widener manuscript collection is a national treasure few outside of scholarly circles know about. When the digital project is complete in October 2007, access to the Free Library’s medieval and Renaissance collection will have increased infinitely.
As a public institution, the Free Library is committed to providing access to its collections for the broadest possible audience. Three of the Free Library’s special collections are currently available in digital format on its web site: The United States Centennial Exhibition Digital Collection, a collection of hundreds of albumen photographs documenting the great Centennial Exposition held in Philadelphia in 1876; the Free Library’s Central Library 75th Anniversary Collection, a detailed illustrated history of the planning, design and construction of the Free Library’s Central Library building, from its conception in 1895 to its opening in 1927; and Historical Images of Philadelphia, a collection of photographs, drawings, paintings, and ephemera, selected from 20,000 images in the Free Library’s Philadelphiana Collection, explores Philadelphia’s past through its neighborhoods, buildings, and events
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The Free Library of Philadelphia system consists of 49 branches, three regional libraries, the Central Library, and the Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped. With more than six million visits annually, the Free Library is one of the most widely-used educational and cultural institutions in Philadelphia.