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A technician from the Schoenberg Center for Electronic Text & Image scans a old copy of The Daily Pennsylvanian to add to a digital collection. Over 950 manuscripts are now online. (Courtesy of Penn Libraries)


The secrets of the Rare Book and Manuscript Library on the sixth floor of Van Pelt Library have now been revealed on the internet.

A two-year grant funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities has allowed Penn to finish digitizing medieval and Renaissance manuscripts produced before 1601. A second grant was secured in March to digitize manuscripts from 1601 to 1800.

“Penn in Hand: Selected Manuscripts,” an online collection, currently offers over 1,400 online facsimiles of manuscripts. The collection also includes over 100 facsimiles of the Lawrence J. Schoenberg Collection, a collection of late medieval and early modern manuscripts donated in April by 1953 College graduate and Wharton MBA recipient Lawrence Schoenberg.

Van Pelt is one of the first American libraries to have a large public digitized collection that is free of charge, said Nancy Shawcross, curator of the Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

In the future, Shawcross hopes to secure another grant to digitize the library’s collection of Indian manuscripts, which is the largest collection in North America.

The digitization process is a collaboration between the curators of the Rare Book and Manuscript Library, the library’s computing department and the Schoenberg Center for Electronic Text & Image, which scans the manuscripts.

The online collection will make it easier to access and search for manuscripts. This will be a huge help to researchers, said Joe Zucca, director of Planning and Communication for Penn Libraries. He hopes the digitization will increase exposure of Penn’s “hidden collection.”

“With more exposure, young scholars will know that Penn is a fertile place” for medieval and Renaissance research, he added.

Digitization will also increase research collaborative opportunities, Zucca said.

“It allows people from other universities to gain access to our astonishingly broad collection of items,” Comparative Literature and Literary Theory graduate student Yelizaveta Strakhov said. “This will change the face of medieval studies for the next ten years.”

English professor Rita Copeland teaches a seminar for graduate students on written comments and addendums on manuscripts from the Middle Ages.

Before the manuscripts were digitized, Copeland brought copies of manuscripts or microfilms to pass around in class. She now instructs students to view the digitized manuscript online before class and pulls up the image in her seminar.

With digitization, “you can also magnify the image, which makes medieval handwriting easier to read,” Copeland said.

Strakhov, who uses the collection frequently for her dissertation, calls it “absolutely marvelous.”

The online database allows her to access the material when she is off campus. “It’s so nice to bring [the manuscript] up on my laptop at three o’clock in the morning. It makes my life much easier.”

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