About the Medieval Manuscripts in the Digital Age Project

The digital collection and website for Medieval Manuscripts in the Digital Age were developed by the Free Library of Philadelphia with a National Leadership grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services. The three-year project is the first effort to make a collection of the Free Library's Rare Book Department accessible electronically, and our first grant-funded partnership with another organization for a digital project. It is intended to serve as a model for similar medieval manuscripts and rare books projects for both this Library and other institutions. This section contains the following:

Organization and Features

The site is divided into six areas reflected in the main menu items:

  • A brief introduction to the project.
  • Manuscript Basics, including both a guide and a glossary for non-rare book specialists.
  • Tour - Information about the Free Library's physical manuscript collection, and a digital look at some of our most significant items.
  • Search - The search pages for the site are built on a relational database containing pointers to approximately 6,058 digitized images. Specific images, manuscripts, and subjects can be accessed by searching the database using the forms on the Search page. The following searches or browse capabilities are provided:
    • Quick Search - A keyword search of Subject, Notes, Artist, Scribe, Script, Caption, Title, Shelfmark, Call Number, City, and Region.
    • Country Search - Choose from a list of countries represented in the collection. Searching by country allows you to narrow your search to manuscripts produced in a specific country or countries. In general, countries are identified according to modern political boundaries. Occasionally, certain medieval geographical boundaries are used if it is impossible to determine a more precise location. For example, "Flanders" refers to manuscripts produced in an area that now comprises parts of modern day Belgium and France.
    • Multiple Subject Search - A Boolean keyword search of subjects associated with each image.
    • Browse Subject by Letter - Lists all subjects beginning with a specified letter.
    • Browse Titles by Date - Search for items within a selected date range. Searching by date range allows you to narrow your search to manuscripts produced within certain chronological ranges. For example, you may find all manuscripts produced in the thirteenth century by entering a begin date of "1200" and an end date of "1299."
    • List Titles by Shelfmark - A complete list of all shelfmarks in the collection. A shelfmark is the same as a call number. The shelfmark list allows you to browse the collection by the unique number assigned to each manuscript object. For example, if you know that the shelfmark for the Lewis Psalter is Lewis E 185, you may go directly to the records for that manuscript by scrolling down the list and clicking on "Lewis E 185."
  • Resource information about partners and other sites devoted to medieval manuscripts.
  • About This Project section containing background and technical information.

Description of the Process

The Free Library's Digital Collections Database is the core component of these web pages and all of our digital collections pages. However, this project is the result of the intersection of three distinct databases: the FLP Digital Collections database, the FLP Library catalog, and the Digital Scriptorium's database. Managing the creation and flow of content for and between these data repositories was crucial to the success of this effort. This project is also the first opportunity we have had to create record-level hyperlinks between our Medieval Manuscript web pages and our catalog.

Building Records

Two central objectives of this portion of the project were to ensure that complete and correct data was:

  • Created for each image chosen to be digitized
  • Entered into each database so that all three contained populated, appropriate data fields for all of the functions that we and our partner required

Project staff medievalists and FLP catalogers worked together to create a Medieval Manuscripts Project Controlled Vocabulary System. Medievalists were guided by their own expert knowledge, the expertise of FLP Rare Books librarians, consultations with their colleagues in the field, original research, Iconclass subject headings, and FLP and DS Data Dictionaries to complete a worksheet for each single image that was digitized. The worksheet was shared with FLP staff catalogers.

Populating and Associating the Databases

Project staff then moved ahead to enter a record for each single image into a specially-configured hybrid copy of our FLP Digital Collections and the Digital Scriptorium's (DS) databases. Meanwhile, working from the Medievalists' worksheets and guided by the Medieval Manuscripts Project Controlled Vocabulary System, the FLP catalogers created folio-level MARC records in our Library catalog.

Catalog records will include links to these Digital Collections pages for more detailed information and access to the images. These Digital Collections pages reflect this functionality by displaying a link to the folio-level record in the catalog if the item has been entered into the catalog.

In order to build this site and include these records in our existing digital images collection, the data required for the FLP Digital Collections Database was then transferred to that container via a ColdFusion script. A field was added to the FLP container that allows users to link directly from the individual images to the folio-level MARC record for that image in the Library catalog.

The original configuration of the DS database was then restored from a copy of the hybrid database, and the batch of records in that container was sent to the DS to be included in their "union" catalog of medieval and Renaissance manuscripts.

Download a PDF flowchart of this process combined with the imaging process.

Testing and Initial Deployment of the Web Pages

In order to test the many new, interrelated components of this project and bring the collection live before all images were scanned and all manuscripts were described, an initial group of 101 items was identified as a core group that was representative of the types of objects in the collection. This initial set contains 15 codices, 85 fragments, and 1 scroll. In total, 483 individual images are now fully viewable, with over 3,000 to be added in the next 13 months.


The Free Library creates archival objects as base components for all of its digital collections. These images, of course, meet our standard requirements.

Project Standards and Specifications

In addition to meeting standards, most digital projects require various accommodations specific to the parameters of the project and the media being digitized. The process and specific accommodations for imaging the manuscripts included:


Web Development and Rare Book Department staff and Scan Technicians worked together to incorporate all of the discovery processes documented above to create the Imaging Standards and Procedures for this project.

Download a PDF of the Image Data Worksheet used to capture metadata at the camera scan station.
Download a PDF of the flowchart of this process combined with the description/cataloging process.

Ordering Reproductions

Requests for reproductions should be directed by mail to:

Rare Book Department
The Free Library of Philadelphia
1901 Vine Street
Philadelphia, PA 19103-1189

Note: All requests must specify the desired formats and give details of the intended use of the materials. Processing fees will apply to all requests. An additional fee may apply depending on the nature of the intended use. Contact the Rare Book Department for more information at 215-686-5416 between the hours of 9:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m., Monday through Friday.


The Rare Book Department of the Free Library of Philadelphia holds 255 medieval and Renaissance manuscript codices, 2,000 leaves and fragments with decoration or illumination, and 1,000 leaves with text only. Yet, the Free Library's collection has for many years been relatively little known, mostly due to the unavailability of precise and detailed information about its contents in scholarly publications or on the World Wide Web.

As a public institution, the Free Library is committed to providing access to its collections for the broadest possible audience. In 2004, the Free Library of Philadelphia received a generous grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) to create 3,055 digital images from 1,400 historically and artistically significant medieval manuscripts in our extensive Rare Books collection. The goal was to dramatically increase awareness of, and access to, its significant collection of medieval and Renaissance manuscripts, for both the scholarly community and a global audience of Web users. We also sought to create a replicable management model for other public libraries, providing guidance for expanding access to special collections through digitization. The project's technical design incorporates industry standards and best practices for image capture, storage, and metadata, as well as emerging digitization tools for the highest possible quality, sustainability, and adaptability well into the future. The Free Library would like to thank IMLS for their support, without which this project would not have been possible.