The material falling within the orbit of the project is diverse. It includes manuscripts written in most of the major languages and scripts current in Europe in the medieval period (excluding Greek), represented by fragments as well as complete codices, and ranging in date from the ninth to the early sixteenth century. A parallel project to compile and publish descriptions of Greek manuscripts acquired this century is also under way, but has not yet reached the stage of developing automated procedures.
Some of these manuscripts are well-known and extensively published , whilst others have never even been mentioned in print. Most fall somewhere between these two extremes: the majority have been described in one or more unpublished typescript catalogues prepared by successive generations of Bodleian staff, notably the loose-leaf `Green Folders' of catalogue descriptions, and van Dijk's Handlist of the Latin Liturgical Manuscripts ( 1957-60), and have thus been made known to readers who visit or otherwise contact the Library. Almost all the illuminated manuscripts were described, albeit very briefly, in the three volumes of Illuminated Manuscripts in the Bodleian Library ( P[auml ]cht and Alexander 1966-73); while many others have been described in greater or lesser detail elsewhere. However the only group of post-1916 accessions to have been systematically catalogued to modern standards remains the manuscripts from the collection of J. P. R. Lyell, of which a detailed catalogue was published in 1971 ( de la Mare 1971).
One of the first questions to be addressed was the actual cataloguing methods to be employed. Although the 1971 Lyell catalogue was widely considered exemplary, we nevertheless thought it right to re-examine questions of content and format in the light of developments during the last quarter of a century. During this period, cataloguing, of both existing collections and new accessions, has steadily continued, but the pressure of other duties has meant that no catalogue of any group of manuscripts had yet been brought to the point of publication. We thus had the opportunity to re-think, in some cases from first principles, what information we should be aiming to provide in the new catalogue. As with any limited-term project, the crux of the task was to find an acceptable compromise between the ideal and the realistic: the ideal might be an extremely detailed catalogue, embodying new research, and with a large number of reproductions, but achieving such a goal might well be unrealistic, given the limited resources at our disposal. On the other hand, if we set ourselves the much more modest aim of producing only a basic summary description of the manuscripts, prompt completion would be achieved[mdash ]but the end product would, in all probability, fail to meet most needs of its intended audience. Our aim was to find an acceptable compromise by providing information at different levels of detail.
At the most fundamental level, a catalogue may be little more than an inventory, simply informing potentially interested readers of the existence of the manuscripts in a given collection, and providing a shelfmark or other reference number to allow them to be located. To satisfy this requirement a very brief `Checklist' description of over 550 manuscripts has been compiled, and will be made available electronically: this will act as a finding aid to give readers a general idea of what material might be of use to their studies, and will be a starting-point from which to pursue their enquiries. The checklist contains information under the following heading:
At the opposite extreme, a catalogue may contain so much detail, so clearly expressed, that students are able to glean the information they need about manuscripts from the catalogue, without recourse to the manuscripts themselves. A good catalogue will inform the user which manuscripts do not need to be consulted, as well as which ones might reward further study. This clearly has benefits not only in terms of saving the student time and other resources, but also in terms of the preservation of unique and often fragile materials. In addition to the Checklist, therefore, detailed catalogue descriptions are being prepared, and these will be made available in stages, both in printed and online form. It is our full intention that these descriptions will be linked to digitized images.
A middle way between these extremes is to be tested in the foreseeable future. As stated above, many of the manuscripts covered by the Project have existing unpublished catalogue descriptions in typescript, prepared over the course of the past several decades. While not always meeting today's demanding standards, these descriptions were prepared by the Library's professional staff, and contain a wealth of unpublished information. It is therefore planned that these descriptions will be entered onto the online system, being checked for accuracy in the process, but otherwise with minimal alteration or expansion, to serve as yet another level of finding aid and information provision.