The Johns Hopkins Gazette: October 16, 2000
October 16, 2000
VOL. 30, NO. 7


Sheridan Libraries Awarded Grant to Digitize Medieval Manuscripts

Johns Hopkins Gazette Online Edition

The university's Sheridan Libraries have received a $65,000 grant from the Samuel H. Kress and the Gladys Krieble Delmas foundations to continue the development of an innovative Web-based research tool for the study of medieval manuscripts. The grant will implement the second phase of the Eisenhower Library's Roman de la Rose project, which already has created digital surrogates of three manuscripts of a 20,000-line love poem, each dating back to medieval times. This new prototype has allowed medievalists for the first time to surpass the limitations of the print world by making a comparative analysis of rare and fragile works held in different locations.

The first phase of the Roman de la Rose project began in November 1998, when Stephen Nichols, the James M. Beall Professor of French and chair of the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures, approached the Eisenhower Library staff about the possibility of digitizing medieval manuscripts in order to teach his graduate students. In doing so, he brought up an age-old dilemma facing research libraries: How do you increase access to materials while preserving rare and fragile originals?

Under Nichols' guidance and with input from medievalists in this country and in England, within one year, Brian Harrington, of the library's Digital Knowledge Center, and Elizabeth Brown, of its cataloging department, had created a prototype containing digital surrogates of three Roman de la Rose manuscripts, written in the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries. This famous allegorical love poem was written by two authors. Begun by Guillaume de Lorris around 1230 and continued by Jean de Meun approximately 40 years later, Le Roman de la Rose is probably the most influential work written in the Old French vernacular.

Today, the three manuscripts can be viewed and searched simultaneously on the Roman de la Rose Web site at

Users can page through and do side-by-side comparisons of folios of three different historical documents that are kept in separate locations: the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore, the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York and the Bodleian Library in Oxford, England.

"A rare partnership of scholars, curators and technical experts was integral to creating the digital surrogate in the first phase of the project," said Cynthia Requardt, co-project director and the Kurrelmeyer Curator of Special Collections at the Eisenhower Library. "But the centrality of the scholar's input in the development process has been a hallmark of the initiative."

In collaboration with the Morgan and Bodleian libraries, the second phase will focus on developing sophisticated search capabilities to support searching each manuscript for features that are studied in such texts, like rubrics and miniatures. Another enhancement will be the development of a database of Old French variant spellings. Improved site navigation and refinements to the display of the manuscripts will be informed by ongoing usability testing, including development of a method to remotely assess the usefulness of new search and display features.

There are nearly 300 copies of the Roman de la Rose manuscript in libraries throughout the world. If the prototype is successful, Requardt says, the Eisenhower Library would like to expand the project by adding other manuscripts of the poem for further study.