Broken Books

brokenbooks_demoimageBroken Books is a digital humanities project built collaboratively between Pius XII Memorial Library and the Center for Digital Humanities. The goal of the Broken Books project has been to build a web-based application that provides a digital solution to the problem of studying a dismembered and dispersed pre-modern manuscript. Using online images, descriptive metadata, and nimble digital tools for relating these, Broken Books provides an online environment that allows any researcher to manage their own reconstruction project and permits outside users to add images and information to it. Each project begins with one manuscript or “anchor object” that supplies the first images and metadata from which the project is built. Once the project is begun, additional users can contribute images and metadata to the online reconstruction, with the approval and oversight of the person who started the project.

The test-case manuscript that inspired Broken Books is the Llangattock Breviary, a lavishly decorated manuscript made in the 15th century for Leonello d’Este and his court chapel at Ferrara, Italy.  Deriving its nickname from a later owner, John Allan Rolls, the 1st Baron Llangattock and father of the co-founder of Rolls Royce, the Llangattock Breviary was sold as a bound volume of 512 leaves at Christie’s, London in 1958.  After the sale, the breviary was broken apart and re-sold as separate leaves on the American market by Goodspeed’s, a rare book and manuscript dealer from Boston.  Saint Louis University is the owner of seven Llangattock leaves, preserved in the department of Special Collections and accessible online through the Vatican Film Library research guide as well as in the online database of Digital Scriptorium.  The project has grown from images of these seven leaves to a collection of digital surrogates from all over the world, for a total of 84 leaves thus far.

Recently published data demonstrates the need for a method to reconstruct dismembered manuscripts. The Conway-Davis “Directory of Collections in the United States and Canada” reports that the total number of pre-1600 manuscripts in North America is close to 63,000 items, of which almost half are individual leaves, many of which were detached from formerly bound books. Broken Books has already expanded to include two more test case manuscripts: the Beauvais Missal, researched by Lisa Fagin Davis of Simmons College, and Beinecke MS 401 and 401V, researched by Ray Clemens of Yale University. Although still under development, primarily by Bryan Haberberger of CDH, it is hoped that it won’t be long before Broken Books can be used by anyone interested in using digital images to reconstruct a book that some time in its history was broken apart and scattered among various locations.

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Debra Cashion

25 August 2016

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