Conference on MS encoding, Studley Priory, 2-3 Nov 1996

This was a hard working weekend conference, rather on the TEI model, organized by Peter Robinson of de Montfort University and the Canterbury Tales Project, in collaboration with Dr Hope Mayo from the newly Mellon-funded project on Electronic Access to Manuscripts. It assembled representatives from several major European manuscript collections, specifically the British Library; the Arnamagnaean Institute at the University of Copenhagen; the Institut de Recherche et Histoire des Textes in Paris; the Vatican Library; the Czech national library in Prague; the Welcome Institute; the National Library of the Netherlands at the Hague; the Marburg Institute and the Bodleian, together with experts on MARC, on the Berkeley Finding Aids project, the Text Encoding Initiative and the Dublin Core. The charmingly-named Merilee Proffitt was also present as a representative of the joint Berkeley-Columbia Digital Scriptorium project. The object of the two days was to formulate a basis for minimum level descriptive cataloguing, specirfically of western medieval manuscripts, and agree a context in which this could be developed, with an eye to future European funding.

This was an unusually well-prepared and documented meeting: brief bibliographic and biographical details of all the participants were circulated before hand, and I came away laden with paper and replete with technical detail. A full report was promised, so this should be taken only as a summary stop gap, composed from my personal and probably ursine standpoint.

The first day was taken up by presentations from each of the cataloguing experts present, recounting their own institutional policies and current practices, which proved a most instructive mixture. At the BL, for example, Michelle Brown spends one day a week "up a ladder" looking for illuminated mss, which when found are given minimal level descriptive cataloguing "at shelf" using a dtd developed by Richard Masters, while Rachel Stockdale and her colleagues are contemplating the horrors of retrospectively converting an estimated million printed textual descriptions to a structured format. Mathew Driscoll and Dominik Wujastyk gave good introductions to what was special about their own kinds of mss (Icelandic and Sanskrit respectively); Elizabeth Lalou described the latest incarnation of Medium, the medieval ms database developed at the IRHT in the 70s; we learned a little about the Vatican's 150,000 estimated mss, of which only 15% are catalogued, from Piazzoni, and also about the thinking behind the Czech National Libary's Unesco-funded digitization project from Adolf Kroll. Thomas Brandt described the Marburg Institute's MIDAS system, which underlies a very impressive publishing programme, and also a very interesting collaborative cataloguing venture called Diskus, involving several major German museums and art historical institutions. Anne Korteweg described the cataloguing scheme used for manuscripts at the Dutch Royal Library, mentioning in particular its use of PICA and of Iconclass Finally, Richard Gartner outlined theBodleian's mss cataloguing projects, using EAD and a set of TEI extensions.

Day two began with some real computer demonstrations from David Cooper, showing the Bodleian's Celtic manuscript project, and from IBM's digital library projects, in the shape of Peter Elliott and Uschi Reber. None of this had a lot to do with the stated business of the meeting, but it was nice to see some really good digital images (or would have been had I not been busily getting my own presentation ready). Real business resumed with three brief technical presentations about MARC (from Larry Creider), EAD (from Daniel Pitti), the TEI Header (me), and the Dublin Core as a discovery vehicle (from Jennifer Trant). The rest of the day was devoted to discussion of what exactly should constitute a Dublin-style core set of descriptors for manuscript materials. This began with a rather unsuccessful attempt to get everyone to agree on a top ten list of fields that must be present, got bogged down somewhat, but eventually cohered around the notion of identifying a key set of descriptive categories, within which more specific fields might be mandated. The discussion was finally given some coherence by a rather neat taxonomy proposed by Jennifer Trant, which I reproduce below. Starred items indicate those which were agreed on as essential, according to my notes.

A fuller and clearer version of this list is to be produced in the official report of the meeting. With this consensus established, the real work of defining the nitty gritty of how (for example) this consensus might be mapped on to a MARC record structure or a TEI header was left to another day. The plan is to prepare a bid for a two year development project, funded by the EU libraries programme and co-ordinated from de Montfort, which will define such implementations, systems for producing such records in technologically-challenged libraries, and a central repository for them, as well as a detailed set of Guidelines. Watch this space.

In all honesty, I must add that some credit for the hard thinking and energetic discussion which characterized this meeting may be due also to the sybaritic nature of its surroundings. Studley Priory is a beautiful building, with an excellent chef, a well-stocked bar, and some rather fine gardens for stomping around in, even on a windy November weekend.


Lou Burnard,
Oxford University Computing Services,
10 Nov 1996