Comparing Digital Materials from Paris

A hands-on comparison of the digital materials from the manuscript collections of Bibliothèque nationale de France (BnF, Paris), and a review of the Gallica project.


Digitization projects have been taken up by manuscript libraries around the world. The two pillars of such libraries -catalogues and the actual holdings- are undergoing a process in which they first become available digitally, usually for a fee, then they become available online for viewing, sometimes for a fee, then they become available for download, at which point the fee may be dropped and access is granted gratis. Let us take a closer look at the different qualities of these pictures to 1) better understand what we may expect and 2) see if we can come up with certain preferences.


In this post, I will sample pictures from the collections of BnF at Paris. Initially, I wanted to combine a number of libraries from Europe in one post. I previously discussed Istanbul and Tehran independently, as I am of the opinion that their size and importance easily merited individual treatment. I did not think this was justifiable for European collections. Nevertheless, the more I looked at the Gallica project run by the Bibliothèque nationale de France, the more I wanted to say about it. It is all too easy for human beings to criticize someone else’s work but there is surprisingly little to hate about Gallica.

This post is therefore as much an exploration of why I do not hate Gallica as it is an evaluation of digital materials offered by BnF. Note that not all digital materials are offered through Gallica.

What would be bad about Gallica? Turning three potential weaknesses into strengths

Firstly, it was founded in 1997 being really at the frontiers of mass digitization and online distribution. The project is therefore running for almost twenty years. Technology meanwhile has changed so dramatically, that the project runs the risk of being reliant on arcane technology, or severely crippled due to certain decisions made at the beginning of the project which are now near impossible to turn around. My superficial experience with Gallica points in the opposite direction: it seems that Gallica has successfully managed to reinvent itself (multiple times?) over the years and is at the moment offering a solution that is current with the latest technological possibilities. Remnants of previous “cutting-edge technology” are still visible (the use of Flash SWF to ‘leave through’ a document for example), but other ways of looking at the document have been introduced and so one has a choice how to look at a document.

Secondly, the project was intent on distributing their products over a web portal. If there is one thing I loathe it is web portals. To imprison information on a proprietary platform is something I do not wish to partake in. But whow, do the French know how to built one! It is all so intuitive. The same information can be accessed in different ways. Everywhere you go it is clear where you are and how to get somewhere else. Just fantastic. When looking at a holding it shows exactly which folio of which manuscript you are looking, and more detailed catalogue information is one click away. Best of all, downloading the whole thing is two clicks away!

Thirdly, the project is run by the French and was originally explicitly meant to provide access to French cultural heritage. Nevertheless, there are currently 812 Arabic manuscripts freely available and access to them does not require command of French. Granted, not the entire site is bilingual (you will have to press the occasional ‘envoyer’ or ‘telecharger’ button), but it is good enough.

The Digital Materials Scrutinized

I do this in a format that should be familiar by now. I first show 350×350 excerpts to give an indication of the true size of the pictures. Then I give some general observations.

BnF Arabe 2825 31r f71.highres Kitab al-furusiyah TRUE

Origin: Paris, BnF, Arabe

File Size Original: 278kb

Dimensions Original: 1024 x 1524

Particular Folio: MS 2825, f. 31a: Kitāb al-furūsiyyah

Evaluation: For the low file size the picture provides an extraordinary detail. Perhaps it is helped by a great color balance and a near perfect focus. On the other hand, the hand is large which of course also helps. Text from the back of the page is seeping through, but not in an obtrusive way.

BnF Arabe 2346 f150v f312.highres Isaguji li-Aristu TRUE

Origin: Paris, BnF, Arabe

File Size Original: 266kb

Dimensions Original: 991 x 1566

Particular Folio: MS 2346, f. 150b: Īsāghūjī li-Arisṭū

Evaluation: The file size is similar but the dimensions are different. Color balance is similarly good as the previous photo, in fact, it looks like the same digitization process was applied to this manuscript as the previous one. This manuscript has marginal notes, which are remarkably good to investigate, though one may wonder if the quality will be good enough in problematic cases.

BnF Arabe 7327 9a f17.highres Al-Jawāhir al-nafīsa fī sharḥ al-Durra al-munīfah TRUE

Origin: Paris, BnF, Arabe

File Size Original: 250kb

Dimensions Original: 1024 x 1396

Particular Folio: MS 7327, f. 9a: Al-Jawāhir al-nafīsah fī sharḥ al-Durrah al-munīfah

Evaluation: Many of the same comments apply. Note the different dimension size: apparently there is no standard.

Arabe 6524 TRUE

Origin: Paris, BnF, Arabe

File Size Original: 5,3mb

Dimensions Original: 4390 x 3141

Particular Folio: MS 6524, f. 6b-7a: ʿAqāʾiq al-ḥaqāʾiq

Evaluation: Obviously, this picture is of an entirely different order. It cannot be accessed through Gallica. What we are looking at is a digitized microfilm of a manuscript. On the one hand it provides a greater detail (and a concomitant larger file size), on the other hand we may also notice a choppier image which does not provide color.

General Remarks

Images from Gallica are in one word great. They have a good cut, showing the entire page. It seems that the pictures were made one page per time, with the book being under a 90 degree angle, ensuring the least wear and tear on the physical object. The following is a good example.

BnF Arabe 2346 f150v f312.highres Isaguji li-Aristu

It even has a small source acknowledgment at the bottom. This makes me think it would even be better had there been a automatic stamp concerning manuscript catalogue number and folio number. It should be possible.

Gallica somehow has a great color balance which makes the picture a real treat to look at. The file size is tending towards problematic, though for the most part acceptable. Per two pages, the file size comes in under 600kb, whilst I would wish for at least 50% more. It is great to see how much can be had for less than 600kb, but I suspect that problematic cases, in which there is difficulty to read the text, the file size might be an impediment to a correct reading.

The digital surrogate of the microfilm shows BnF is able to churn out higher quality photos. All in all, the BnF and its Gallica project can be considered shining stars on the firmament of manuscript digitization. Too bad for me they do not have a lot of philosophical texts currently available.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s