The Blessings of Modern Technology: Computers and Manuscripts

January 30, 2014 § 2 Comments

HMML in 1987. Brother Peregrine Berres, OSB, with an up-to-date XT computer, floppy disks, and a dBase manual.

HMML in 1987. Brother Peregrine Berres, OSB, with an up-to-date XT computer, floppy disks, and a dBase manual.

“The blessings of modern technology are enabling us to secure the existence of these ancient documents for future reference.” (Julian G. Plante, in Manuscripta, vol. 11 (1967))

One of the areas where the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library (HMML) has long labored lies in the efforts to make manuscripts more accessible through computerization. In fact, the first mention in our records of a computerized manuscript catalog comes already in 1966! Of course, digital photography was not yet a concept to be explored, so the focus remained on serving scholars by providing searchable descriptions of the manuscripts. The fairly new director of what was then called the Monastic Manuscript Microfilm Library–Dr. Julian G. Plante–wrote in a letter to Father Oliver Kapsner, OSB (field director in Austria):

“Father Ephrem, Assistant Director of the Institute [today’s Collegeville Institute], has asked me if we had considered the possibility of using the computer in connection with the microfilm collection. Our conversations led to a meeting with Father Fintan, who is in charge of the computers, and Frater Balthasar, who is at present computerizing the contents of the library’s biblical journals. Let me give you the results of that meeting. Father Fintan estimated that for $3,500.00 the provisional inventory (the cards you type) of the almost 5,000 projects now on hand could be placed on computer cards and provisional catalogs produced according to author, subject, incipit, title, date, project number, and codex number. This work could probably be completed by July of 1967.”(Julian G. Plante, December 15, 1966; emphasis mine)

Dr. Plante foresaw disadvantages in the inaccuracy of the information gathered from the provisional inventory cards on the films, along with the fear that having such information readily available might slow the progress of in-depth cataloging.  However, the advantages outweighed these potential problems:

“Now for the advantages: In the first place it will markedly expedite the work of producing an adequate catalogue. Our present plan, as you know, is to go through the films one by one, making out 3×5 cards for each item catalogued. The computer will supply the information from the inventory on sheets of paper with plenty of room for corrections. Instead of my having to write down everything with the great likelihood of errors in my transcription, I will only have to correct an existing text. This should involve considerably less work and be more accurate. I am told that it is astonishingly easy to make corrections on the computer cards.” The second advantage is that a provisional catalog will open up the collection for the use of scholars. Not only will they have available for use here the provisional catalogs mentioned above, but the computer will be able to pull for them any particular items in which they have a special research interest. From our point of view, the more the collection is used by scholars, the more accurate we will be able to make the catalog since every scholar who uses the provisional catalog will be helping us discover its errors.” (Julian G. Plante, December 15, 1966)

Father Oliver responded rather positively in a letter dated January 4, 1967:

“All told, balancing advantages and disadvantages, it looks okay to use the computer in order to make the material in the microfilm collection quickly available in some form. It will take a long time to catalog the microfilm collection, which is expanding rapidly, adequately.”

We have no pictures of the earliest computer work at HMML in the 1960's, but here we see cataloger Thomas Amos in 1990. He edited the catalog of HMML's Alcobaca (Portugal) collection on computer.

We have no pictures of the earliest computer work at HMML in the 1960’s, but here we see cataloger Thomas Amos in 1990. He edited the catalog of HMML’s Alcobaca (Portugal) collection on computer.

Encouraged by Father Oliver’s support, Dr. Plante proceeded to hire a consultant and student workers to set up a pilot project to test the feasibility of cataloging manuscripts with computers. The original optimism of 5000 manuscript descriptions in computer format by mid 1967 did not materialize, however. This is not the place to track all of the correspondence related to the project, but I would like to include a few notes here from the “first” report on “The Computerized Catalog of the Microfilms.” The project got underway in 1967 and work continued into early 1969. The goal was always to serve those who would use the manuscript microfilms:

“One of the most important tasks facing the Monastic Manuscript Microfilm Library is [to] render to the scholars and researchers using the facility an account of the contents of the already vast holdings. If the collection is to benefit its potential users an adequate alphabetical index-catalog must be made of the contents.” “Computerization, then, consists in assigning numeric designations to the various aspects of the material on microfilm in such a way that the computer can select any of these designations, either singly or in predetermined concert, for the purposes of printing and study.” (Report 1, May 1, 1969)

Mind you, “vast holdings” in 1969 amounted to about 15,000 manuscripts, nearly all from Austrian libraries. The planned fields of data seem quite scant by today’s standards:

“In practice, the computerization of the catalog of microfilmed manuscripts means coding for language, century, incipit or beginning words of a text, as well as the obvious things like author, title and subject classification.” (ibid.)

The hope was that scholars would be able to find pertinent manuscript entries “in a matter of minutes rather than the hours generally required.” Indeed, scholars could even make requests in advance and the staff could search for relevant manuscripts before the visitors arrived. The report outlines the technical aspects of the project:

“Discussions with members of the Computer Center on the St. John’s campus were begun in December, 1966. On June 30, 1967, an IBM 029-A22 Printing Card Punch was purchased. Computerization involves the use of an IBM 1620 computer with two IBM 1311 disk drives, operating in Symbolic Programming System (SPS) language. Each catalog entry is coded for the previously-mentioned areas and then the entire entry is punched onto cards. This allows printout of not merely numbers, but the actual entry containing complete information such as author, title, incipit, codex name, codex number, project number, date and subject classification (usually more than one heading). The designated manuscripts can be obtained from the collection merely by asking for those project numbers given by the computer.” (report 1, May 1, 1969; emphasis mine)

IBM 1620 computer. From Wikipedia Commons.

According to the report, in the approximately 1 1/2 years of the pilot project, the staff had created records for the manuscripts from Stift Wilhering (Austria), a collection of about 154 manuscripts.  This resulted in a collection of about 5000 computer punch cards. For me, this is a rather frightening concept, since the entire collection from Austria alone grew to about 30,000 manuscripts. Doing some quick-and-dirty math, I estimate that the Austrian films alone would have required about 1,000,000 computer cards! Is it possible that someday I will open a closet door in the HMML basement and find boxes of thousands of computer cards? Gulp. Dr. Plante announced HMML’s computer projects in various journals, including Computers and the Humanities, vol. 2: no.2 (1967) and Manuscripta, vol. 11: no.3 (1967). The latter report still voiced optimism:

“The possibilities offered by a computerized catalog are being investigated. General areas are assigned a numeric designation which allow us to control the vast amount of material by numeric systems. … It should be emphasized, however, that progress in this area is still at an early stage. ” “The success of the pilot project seems to confirm the validity of the direction that is being planned. The blessings of modern technology are enabling us to secure the existence of these ancient documents for future reference.” (Manuscripta, vol. 11 (1967))

So, Digital Humanities made an early appearance out here on the edge of the prairie. Unfortunately, this early attempt did not survive its first report by very long. Already in 1971, Dr. Plante related in a letter that the project had been deferred:

“The major difficulty involved in computerizing the catalogue of MMML [today’s HMML] holdings is that many of the collections on deposit here are completely uncatalogued, and as a result must be catalogued manually before any computerization of information can take place.” (Julian G. Plante, August 23, 1971)

Indeed, of this in-depth cataloging, only 1400 of the 27,000 manuscripts at HMML at that time had already been fully cataloged. Correspondence files at the Saint John’s University archives indicate that interest in computers continued throughout the 1970’s, but no further projects appear to have arisen.  In 1982, another catalog computerization project was designed, but that would be a story for another day.  By the late 1980’s, HMML had a regular, standing committee investigating the use of computers with manuscript studies. This long-term interest was eventually to blossom in the In Principio project and the Electronic Access to Medieval Manuscripts (EAMMS) project in the 1990’s.

Brother John Brudney learns how to input incipits from Sister Wilma Fitzgerald during the In Principio project in the 1990's.

Brother John Brudney learns how to input incipits from Sister Wilma Fitzgerald during the In Principio project in the 1990’s.

Indeed, it seems that computers are here to stay! But then, they seem to have been with us somehow from the beginning.


Matt Heintzelman

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