Monks, Manuscripts, and Modern Technology

And now for something completely different.

This has nothing to do with the IF Comp. Nor does this have anything to do with adventure games, interactive fiction, or indie game development. It does, however, concern a medieval European abbey and the intersection between monks, manuscripts, and modern technology, and if you haven’t noticed I just can’t help but be drawn to juicy stuff like that.

I caught this story in the NY Times while traveling on a cross-country flight, and thanks to the miracle of the web you, too, can partake. John Tagliabue reports that a vast collection of handwritten medieval books and manuscripts, one of the oldest and most valuable collections in the world, is going online with the support of a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. (Link may require a login to the NY Times web site.)

The monastery in St. Gallen, Switzerland, is so old that it was dissolved over two hundred years ago, in 1805. However, the abbey library (Stiftsbibliothek) still houses a huge collection of handwritten manuscripts, including 350 that date before the year 1000, and is an understandably popular destination for visitors. The St. Gallen project’s goal is to digitize all of the library’s manuscripts using high-resolution digital cameras and video recorders; 200 are already in the database, and 144 of them are available online, right now, on the project’s web site at Even for everyday shmucks like me to stare at in awe while sitting at my computer in my underwear.

It’s all part of a larger project to digitize all of Switzerland’s roughly 7000 medieval manuscripts, similar to what Google is trying to do with entire libraries here. But where Google’s project involves high-speed scanning of printed books, this is the slow, careful, page-by-page scanning of incredible works of art.

The results so far, at least to this completely untrained eye, are impressive.

The web site, which is in Swiss German (and translates well enough with babelfish), has images in four resolutions, from small, low res previews to very high res shots that enable up-close examination of some of the smallest details. The same goes for the front and back covers, and the spines.

It’s perhaps no substitute for scholars who might benefit from examining the original manuscripts, certainly. But this represents a phenomenal increase in accessibility for these rare documents, and the doors that a project like this opens might be prodigious. It embodies all that is awesome about technology and the internet.

Plus, it’s just so damn cool.

Images are © 2005-2008, Stiftsbibliothek St. Gallen. Story is © 2008, The New York Times Company.

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One Comment

  1. georgeolivergo
    Posted October 19, 2008 at 1:17 PM | Permalink

    No kidding, that is sweet.

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