Lehigh to help create digital library of medieval manuscripts

The Philadelphia Area Consortium of Special Collections Libraries (PACSCL) has announced that Lehigh has been awarded a $499,086 grant on the corsortium’s behalf for its project Bibliotheca Philadelphiensis: Toward a Comprehensive Online Library of Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts in PACSCL Libraries in Eastern Pennsylvania and Delaware.

The grant comes from the Digitizing Hidden Special Collections and Archives initiative of the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR), generously supported by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

The project, led by consortium members Lehigh, Free Library of Philadelphia and the University of Pennsylvania Libraries, and involving a total of 15 partner institutions, will complete the digitization and online presentation of virtually all of the region’s medieval manuscripts–a total of almost 160,000 pages from more than 400 individual volumes. The images, together with descriptive metadata, will be released into the public domain and easily downloadable at high resolution.


The manuscripts in this project range from simple but functional texts intended for the students of science, philosophy, and religion to jewel-like works of art in the collections of such institutions as Bryn Mawr College, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Rosenbach Museum and Library.

“With the addition of materials previously digitized by member libraries, Bibliotheca Philadelphiensis will provide access to more than 2,000 manuscripts in total,” notes PACSCL chairman Ronald Brashear. “It will allow users to view and download the manuscripts in almost-microscopic detail and to compare them with related works in collections across the country and abroad.” Brashear is also director of the Othmer Library at the Chemical Heritage Foundation, which is contributing images of its medieval and early modern alchemical manuscripts to the project.

“We’re excited to be able to participate in this project both as a scholarly contributor and as a lead partner in the grant development and implementation,” notes Bruce M. Taggart, Vice Provost for Library and Technology Services at Lehigh University. “The digitization of our medieval manuscripts has been a high priority for our special collections department for the past decade.

"Our Trustees back in 1878 purposefully acquired Lehigh’s volumes specifically to teach the history of the book as an integral part of understanding the origins of the technology of book production. Since then the manuscripts have become an integral part of coursework in both the humanities and the hard sciences. Both our students and our faculty have asked for online access so that they will not be limited by their ability to visit the Special Collections department during its regular hours.”

Adds Lois Fischer Black, Curator of Special Collections at Lehigh and Principal Investigator of the project: “Some of our materials are also of high interest to the international community of scholars, particularly our works of alchemy and astronomy, and we get regular requests for digital images.” 

The images and metadata will be hosted by the University of Pennsylvania Libraries’ OPenn manuscript portal. They will be released to the public domain at high resolution and available for download – by the page, by the manuscript, or by the collection – together with descriptive metadata. Many of the manuscripts to be digitized by the project are held in the collections of the Free Library of Philadelphia. In addition to digitizing its own collections and serving as the project’s fiscal agent, Lehigh will dark archive the project’s images and metadata, providing a critical backup outside the city of Philadelphia.


The project participants include the following area libraries and museums: Bryn Mawr College, Chemical Heritage Foundation, College of Physicians of Philadelphia, Franklin and Marshall College, Free Library of Philadelphia (lead contributor and co-principal investigator) Haverford College, Lehigh University (principal investigator, fiscal agent, and dark archive), Library Company of Philadelphia, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Rosenbach Museum and Library, Swarthmore College, Temple University, University of Delaware, University of Pennsylvania (OPenn host and lead imaging/metadata center), Villanova University.

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