Making Manuscripts Accessible: U of Michigan

A good example of bringing the disclosure of a manuscript collection into the digital age, using simple and readily available techniques, is the collection at the University of Michigan. Here I will briefly describe what they did and how they did it.

North America does not house that many Islamic manuscripts. Some 33,000 volumes. A union catalogue is well within reach, perhaps everything fully digitized. It is definitely possible. To get there, a lot needs to happen, and perhaps Michigan has laid out a road map. Michigan’s Islamic collection is about 1,100 volumes, which until recently had not received uniform attention for its description. From 2008 to 2011, they completed an impressive project to digitize almost all volumes and link this to a full, descriptive catalogue, both which can be accessed electronically free of charge.

Interestingly, they tried to crowdsource the description of the holdings, but from browsing through the manuscripts one gets the impression that nothing significant came out of this. Currently, 68 different people supplied 278 comments, but the majority are nonsense. I would suggest that students and scholars need carrots and sticks. Until proven wrong, I am going to assume that crowdsourcing is a useless idea for academic projects.

The portal website is surprisingly useless. It is not a handy gateway to the individual holdings, but does provide interesting descriptions of the collection more generally. The real access is granted through the library catalogue. I find this a surprisingly simple and elegant solution: all too often do we assume that the manuscript collections require a catalogue in book form, but here Michigan relied on technology that was already tested and tried. From this page in the library catalogue, one can easily search by keyword (use “AND SPEC ISLM” after your keyword), or categorize under subject, time period, language, etc. Title and author are bi-lingual allowing for different means at arriving at the desired result. Every entry has a link to the digital photos hosted on HathiTrust. All available manuscripts can be seen here, though HathiTrust’s search function does not work (!?) so you are better off using the library catalogue.

Here is a video on the collection and the project in general


Here is a video specifically about the digitization:

They used a Zeutsel OS10000 and a CopiBook HD Book Scanner so technically they did not make photos but scans. In a next post I shall comment on the quality of the scans.


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