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A 17th-century manuscript in Penn’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library is one of over 1,800 handwritten works that will be digitized and available online. Credit: , ,

Penn has embarked on the largest project of any research university to digitize manuscripts, or handwritten documents.

Two grants awarded to Penn’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library will be used to create a digital database called Penn in Hand of over 1,800 manuscripts dating from the 11th to 19th centuries, Curator Nancy Shawcross wrote in an email.

The first part of the process, digitizing over 800 manuscripts dating from the 11th to the 16th centuries, will be completed by July 31.

David McKnight, director of the library and curator of the Schoenberg Center for Electronic Text and Image, wrote in an email that many research university libraries are working to digitize their books, but Penn is the first to take on a project of this size.

The manuscripts, once digitized, will be available to anyone who visits the Penn in Hand website, not just Penn students. “While digital does not replace the material object, it does provide access to materials when the library is closed, images can be shared in a collaborative way and, finally, the geographical boundaries dissolve, thus scholars from around the world can view our manuscript holdings,” he wrote.

Penn holds more than 2,000 Western manuscripts produced before the 19th century.

The library is also building a Scholar’s Digital Media Lab, where McKnight says he envisions faculty, students and researchers can work with high-resolution images and the physical manuscripts in tandem.

The grants were awarded to Penn by the National Endowment for the Humanities, a government agency “dedicated to supporting research, education, preservation and public programs in the humanities” according to its website. The NEH has more than 40 different grant programs that are awarded to museums, archives, libraries, colleges, universities, public television, radio stations and to individual scholars, NEH public affairs specialist Paula Wasley wrote in an email.

“The grants strengthen teaching and learning in the humanities in schools and colleges across the nation; facilitate research and original scholarship; provide opportunities for lifelong learning; preserve and provide access to cultural and educational resources; strengthen the institutional base of the humanities,” Wasley wrote.

“As the future beckons it is incumbent for librarians to keep pace with new technologies — creating digital surrogates address a current need and anticipates future uses that we can only imagine,” McKnight wrote.

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