Interviewing Dr Hoffmann-Ruf about “Qalamos: connecting manuscript traditions”

The new portal ‘Qalamos: connecting manuscript traditions’ provides metadata of oriental manuscripts from more than 25 collections in Germany. I am glad to interview Dr Hoffmann-Ruf, project coordinator of the research project.

Q1. Theodora Zampaki: Dr Hoffmann-Ruf, could you please say a few things about your studies and your academic position?

Dr. Michaela Hoffmann-Ruf: I studied at the University of Tuebingen where I also obtained my PhD in Islamic Studies. In 2016, I completed my habilitation at the University of Bonn. Since August 2020, I’ve been coordinating the research project “Orient-Digital” funded by the DFG ( Since November 2021, I’ve shared my position as coordinator with my colleague Larissa Schmid in order to pursue another research project at Ruhr-Universität Bochum. In this project, I work together with Prof. Johann Büssow.

Q2. What are the goals of “Qalamos: connecting manuscript traditions”?

The main objectives are (a) to provide metadata of oriental manuscripts in Germany and (b) to establish and implement common standards for metadata of all entities related to manuscripts. Whereas the earlier ‘Orient-Digital’ application was limited to the collections of the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin, the new project is creating a portal, now named ‘Qalamos: connecting manuscript traditions’, which provides metadata of Oriental manuscripts from more than 25 collections in Germany. The applicants and main project partners are the following: Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin, Forschungsbibliothek Gotha, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek München, and Universitätsrechenzentrum Leipzig.

Q3: Would you describe briefly the content and structure of the project?

The technical base is a MyCoRe database, which had been successfully used for smaller-scale projects in Berlin, Gotha, and Leipzig. A central part of our work is extracting data from existing printed or handwritten catalogues. Additionally we provide online access to digitized manuscripts of various collections. When creating new database entries we refer wherever possible to existing authority files either from the Gemeinsame Normdatei (GND) or the Library of Congress (LoC). However, we also initiate new GND entries when necessary. Up to now metadata for more than 10,000 manuscripts from seven collections have been entered manually. In addition to that, the data from other databases as well as from collections of the Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften and the Österreichische Nationalbibliothek have been migrated into the new database.

Menu options including options for data import (persons, works) from GND and LoC

The Qalamos database contains various data modules, among which the modules for manuscripts and persons are the most important. Moreover, it retains the modules for manuscript notes, book bindings, and book art from the earlier applications. It greatly improves on the authority files for persons connected to a manuscript’s history, supporting and easing research on different aspects of manuscript culture. In addition, a new module for works has been created, so that all manifestations (i.e., manuscripts) of one work may be linked to the work-specific data set.

At this point, however, we only create data sets for works that are known to circulate in several copies within the manuscript collections. This module also makes it possible to make relations between different works visible, for instance by ways of abridgement, commentary, or translation. Each data module is conceived according to the specific data that it contains; e.g. the manuscript module provides data concerning material information. Data sets for manuscripts, work titles and persons can be searched in original script as well as in DMG and LoC transliteration systems and are also accessible through indices. Upon launch, facet filters will further improve the usability of the database. Technical developments are complemented by a new design that takes into consideration the results of a usability study carried out in the first phase of the project.

Example of a persons dataset including biographical information and links to manuscripts and works

Q4: You mention that the metadata of Arabic, Persian, and Turkish manuscripts from more than 25 cooperating institutions will be integrated in Qalamos. Would that make it easy for a researcher to use Qalamos?

Yes, because when accessing a data set of a particular author you will find all manuscripts and works that are connected to this person in all participating collections.

Result display of manuscripts

Q5: Do you use any criteria for the selection and arrangement of manuscripts?

As mentioned above, we concentrate on extracting data from existing printed or handwritten catalogues.

Q6: Could you explain how a scholar working on Graeco-Arabic Studies can use “Qalamos”?

One can look for a certain author and will find all works and manuscripts connected to this person. Or, when looking for a certain work, one will find all copies of this work as well as commentaries, translations, abbreviations, etc.

Work dataset of „al-Qānūn fī al-ṭibb“including links to related works (commentary, abridged version, excerpt)

Q7: What are the benefits for someone who will use the materials of “Qalamos”?

One can easily find out how many copies of a certain work exist in collections in Germany and what other works are related to this work without the necessity to browse through all the dispersed, often hardly accessible printed catalogues. When opening a dataset the users can immediately see if there is a digital version available and access it directly. We further provide information on how to contact the holding institution or obtain access to the respective manuscripts.

Q8: Could you share a few thoughts about future plans of the project?

At the moment the project focuses on manuscripts in Arabic, Persian, and Ottoman Turkish. In a second phase, for which we are going to apply for funding, we plan to include South Asian manuscripts from various collections. Other points that we intend to concentrate on is the further improvement of the use of authority records (GND) and to visualize the relations between persons and works. Finally, we would like to strengthen and expand the exchange of standardized metadata with other applications such as for example Bibliotheca Arabica.

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