SGML has proved a useful medium for encoding information about manuscripts at both the collection and item level: its hierarchical functionality is ideal for expressing the intellectual structure of a collection, and its combination of flexibility and rigour make it suitable for a detailed item-level description. Our experience so far is that these features have made it far easier to implement an SGML-based solution than a complicated relational database equivalent. The TEI itself has proved a solid basis for a cataloguing standard, its modular structure and easy extensibility paying dividends when it comes to building up a set of elements for manuscript metadata, and in providing a structure in which to place them.
The Bodleian's archivists and cataloguers have been able to adopt SGML as their cataloguing medium with very little difficulty, and can now easily encode directly into SGML without the need for an intervening interface (such as a database form). A sophisticated authoring package such as Author/Editor can make the process of encoding much faster, by use of macros for instance, and allows fast and easy navigation of a complex document.
If a well thought out interface is provided, the system's users themselves need know nothing of SGML or the structures of the DTDs used. The WWW has proved a convenient and powerful medium for dissemination of SGML-based metadata: the conversion from SGML to HTML is easy to do, using any common scripting language, and powerful SGML-aware software, such as Open Text's PAT, can provide performance to match any conventional database. There are, unfortunately, few suitable turnkey SGML systems which can do the same, but, for those without the resources to design their own interface, Panorama provides an acceptable medium for making records available to the Internet, albeit with the provisos noted above.
The cataloguing Project at the Bodleian Library described above has depended for its success on co-operation and consultation on a number of levels. At the local level, every catalogue entry is scrutinised in detail by the medieval specialists on the Bodleian's permanent staff, and benefits enormously from the dialogue that results from their comments and contributions. Similarly, every aspect of the cataloguing method has been (or is still in the process of being) discussed with SGML specialists, so that they may better understand the needs of the medievalist scholar, and so that the medievalists involved in the Project may better understand the possibilities and limitations of the SGML system being developed.
At the national and international level it is sincerely hoped that the cataloguing and encoding methods developed at the Bodleian will be discussed, commented upon, and constructively criticised by the participants of the MASTER Project, and others besides, so that the final solutions reached can be as widely applicable as possible, and bring us a significant step closer to meeting the needs of our readers, and providing an aid to research that will be of benefit for decades to come.
As noted above, the work presented here is an on-going project, and we are conscious of several things in the present description which we propose to change. Although our chief goal at this stage has been to test the adequacy of our provisions only for the cataloguing of a part of the Bodleian's collection of medieval Western manuscripts, we hope that it will also provide at least a useful first attempt at the problem of describing other types of hand written resources, ranging from clay tablets and classical graffiti to modern notes and `spoiled papers'. However, even in the limited domain in which the system is currently employed, it should be regarded only as a preliminary sketch.
For the most up to date version of the TEI extensions used in this project, and related discussion, the interested reader is recommended to consult the Project's web pages at http://www.bodley.ox.ac.uk/mss/.