Big Rock Candy Mountain: Can We Take the Medieval Manuscripts to a Digital Wonderland?

Pauli Assinen - University of Helsinki / Helsinki University Library (Finland), Matti Myllykoski - University of Helsinki / Helsinki University Library (Finland)

Presentation type: Lightning talk


Imagine that all scholars, teachers and students interested in medieval manuscripts could find them just like that – in one good catalogue and most or all of them digitized. Imagine them having easy, direct and open access to the earliest sources of European culture. Imagine them creating new critical editions and learning more from the texts in the most original form we possess them.

Some hundred years ago, only some specialized scholars worked on ancient manuscripts. Such a specialist took the train from Berlin to study a manuscript in Rome. In the last decades of the 20th century, he took a plane. The digitization of the manuscripts has changed the situation completely. Now all potentially interested scholars, teachers and students, thanks to Gallica, Manuscripta medievalia, DigiVatLib and other great and small websites, have access to incredible amount of digitized manuscripts.

In the long run, this will have a huge impact on creation of critical editions of ancient texts. For example, in 1904 Franz Weihrich published the latest critical edition of Augustine’s De consensus evangelistarum. As a backbone of his edition, he used 20 early manuscripts from 6th to 11th centuries. However, there are 24 early manuscripts that Weihrich was not able use for his critical edition, and 12 of these have been digitized. Nowadays it is possible for an interested scholar, or even layperson, to find digitized manuscripts that have not been mentioned in critical editions of classical texts.

Can we make the long run shorter? Can we bring together all the digitized manuscripts in one place where they could be used in various ways: creating new editions on ancient texts, discussing questions of their interpretation, finding out how to use them for teaching purposes, and so on?

Yes, we can. We have all the elements needed to build a Digital Manuscript Wonderland (DMW). It would be a virtual research and learning environment, where several stakeholder groups (researchers, teachers, students, journalists, all citizens) can reuse digitized manuscripts in various ways. As mentioned we already have lots of manuscripts digitized and digitizing continues. DMW could give a platform for digitize on demand service to bring out need for materials not digitized yet. To enhance interoperability and reusability we need FAIR metadata and DMW could have tools for evaluating metadata. Other DMW services might be edition making, making and sharing of teaching material, TDM services and linked open data services.

Although all the needed technical components already exist, unfortunately implementation is not straightforward. Moreover, more important than technical implementation is the human network, getting together dreamers and makers of DMW, in the spirit of African proverb: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together”.


  • Discovering IIIF resources,
  • Linked Open “Usable” Data (LOUD) and IIIF,
  • Interoperability in IIIF contexts,
  • IIIF communities (3D, archives, museums, manuscripts, newspapers, etc.)


  • mediaval manuscripts,
  • digitization,
  • digital humanities,
  • virtual research environment,
  • virtual learning environment