Lot 23 in the Western Manuscripts & Miniatures auction at Sotheby’s in London during the summer of 2012 was something quite rare. Described as a decorated manuscript on vellum, with ninety-nine leaves paginated in an eighteenth-century hand: with missing leaves, discolouration of pages and a binding attached some time during the 19th century, it appeared to be an unassuming item , “almost certainly written by a professional scribe for a Medieval Welsh lawyer, perhaps in Brecon, South Wales.” [Sotheby’s, Provenance] At some point during its lifespan the manuscript crossed the Atlantic Ocean and ended up in America, possibly in the company of Welsh colonists. Ultimately the manuscript became the property of the Massachusetts Historical Society, based in Boston; from there, it returned to the UK for auction. Sotheby’s noted in its e-catalogue that:
“Manuscripts in Medieval Welsh are of near-legendary rarity. The first text in Welsh is the note commonly entitled Surexit, added c.800 to the St. Chad Gospels, closely followed by a single fragmentary tenth-century leaf with a computistical text (Cambridge University Library Add. MS 4543). Then there is nothing until the mid-thirteenth century. In fact, for the whole Middle Ages only 250 books or fragments of Welsh origin survive, of which only 80 contain any words of Welsh (Medieval Welsh Manuscripts, pp.3, 40 and 57-64)”.
Hywel Dda, or Hywel the Good, was King of Wales circa 880-950, beginning his reign as ruler of Deheubarth in South-West Wales, and expanding his control to encompass almost all of the Welsh kingdoms [Sotheby’s e-catalogue, 2012]. A ruthless state builder, amongst Hywel’s achievements was the creation of the first Welsh coinage in over a thousand years, and the consolidation of the Law of Wales [Davies, A History of Wales, p.84, 2007].
The Laws of Wales came to be “a powerful symbol of…unity and identity, as powerful indeed as [the] language” [Davies, 2007, pp.85-86] and were constructed partly from ancient Brehon law (a form of Celtic justice system shared with Ireland), focusing on restitution for crimes rather than capital punishment [Sotheby’s e-catalogue, 2012]. Hywel’s laws were not “created de novo; [they were] the systemisation of the legal customs which had developed in Wales over the centuries…folk law rather than state law” [Davies, pp.85-86]. They took an enlightened standpoint on the treatment of women, particularly in respect to divorce and the division of property [Sotheby’s e-catalogue, 2012] and were not “concerned with the enforcement of criminal law through the apparatus of the state…[and] contained elements of mercy, common sense and respect…which would be lacking in the Law of England until very recently.” [Davies, pp.85-86]
English opinion on the Laws was rather different to that of their Welsh counterparts; Archbishop Pecham believed that the Laws “‘contain a great deal that is contrary to reason…(and many of their provisions) are in clear derogation of the laws of God as found in the Old and the New Testament.’” [Davies, R. R., 1966, p.143]. In fact, he claimed that Hywel Dda’s authority “came directly from the Devil and that the laws and customs of Wales, especially those relating to marriage and the rights of bastards, were quite fitting for a race of adulterers who claimed descent from Brutus and the exiled Trojans.” [Davies, R.R., p.143]
Despite this, royal officials from the English royal court upheld the Laws, or risked incurring the wrath of a people whose cultural identity was defined by them. Hywel Dda, then, “convert[ed] a public law which was administered on the basis of small kingdoms, a law which possibly varied over small distances, into a common public law for the whole of Wales.” [Jones, 1998, p.674] A lawyer would add to the Laws, quoting the result of a case and changing and augmenting clauses. All amendments to the text would be copied without distinguishing between ancient and contemporary laws, and therefore we are unable to distinguish between those laws that were old in Hywel’s time, or those contemporary with the manuscript in which they were inscribed. [Davies, p.86, 2007]
The opening of Welsh legal texts “proclaimed that the great law-giver, Hywel Dda, was ‘prince of the whole of Wales’ and that the curse of ‘the whole of Wales’ was to be visited on anyone who failed to observe those laws…” [Davies, R.R., 1996, pp.9-10]. Of these Welsh legal texts there appear to be around thirty that have survived to this day, dating from the 13th to 16th centuries, in both Welsh and Latin. The manuscript which Sotheby’s had in their possession was the Boston Manuscript, a pocket-sized book written in medieval Welsh and featuring coloured decoration, used probably by an itinerant judge in South Wales in the 14th century, with hand-written additions demonstrating its use as a working text [Heritage Lottery Fund, Boston Manuscript of the Laws of Hywel Dda arrives home at NLW, 2012].
In July of 2012 the National Library of Wales, with financial assistance from the Heritage Lottery Fund, purchased the document for the sum of £541,250.00.
With the manuscript now in the possession of the Library, the project was to conserve the original manuscript and to make it available to the people of Wales. Part of this process was to digitise the manuscript and make it freely available on the National Library of Wales website.
The first stage was the conservation of the item. The book was analysed at Sotheby’s on the 6th June 2012, at New Bond Street, London by Iwan Bryn James, the Conservation Unit Manager at the National Library of Wales. He established that the 19th century binding was in good, clean condition “(with no dust, mould growth or other visible infestation)” [James, unpublished, 2012], and appeared to have been rebound in a modern binding in the 20th century, with the old spine leather overlaid on top of the new leather. James had several observations to make on the manuscript:
“Although the binding is strong, it is very tight, and only opens to 45º. This rigidity has caused the vellum leaves to distort in a previously unstable storage environment (fluctuating temperature and humidity). This rigidity has also caused many leaves to split or tear – pages 23 and 43 are very brittle…At least 32 leaves are missing. These are the leaves that were replaced with 19th century paper.” [James, 2012]
Furthermore, the green pigment on some of the pages used to decorate some of the main characters had burnt through the vellum, leaving holes in the pages: probably because the pigment used to colour those letters was the copper-based verdigris. Some of the initials had been cut away, causing the loss of borders and text, and in places repairs had been undertaken using modern vellum, with the repairs themselves now coming loose from the manuscript. The whole manuscript, despite being generally in “a good and stable state”, was in need of some repair and consolidation [James, 2012].
James further highlighted the level of damage to the Hywel Dda manuscript during a meeting there after the manuscript had arrived at the Library. There were, he said, missing pages throughout, and all the pages were victim to some damage. At some point the original cover had been removed: the manuscript had been rebound in the United States around 1840 and repaired again late in the 20th century, with new backing, the application of Irish linen on the spine, and a new headband, lining and leather. The earlier restoration work appeared to have been undertaken with hot animal glue and thus had led to the manuscript becoming distorted. In that condition, the manuscript was simply too fragile to be touched by researchers or digitisation staff, and it was recommended that the manuscript be subjected to a full conservation process, with the manuscript being unbound and the vellum leaves flattened. Tears would be repaired, and the verdigris initials consolidated, with “a more flexible and sympathetic and compatible” binding applied [James, 2012].
The experienced conservation staff at the National Library would undertake this work , with the assistance of other experts in the field (CADW, the British Library and the Library of Congress, amongst others).
Because the binding had been removed as part of the conservation process, it followed that once the conservation work had been completed the digitisation work could be undertaken before the binding was replaced.
At the benchmarking meeting held on the 6th November 2012, the manuscript was shown and a discussion held as to how the digitisation process should proceed, with the participants shown the manuscript’s structure for the benefit of those scanning the artefact. The foliation would follow that applied to the manuscript by Edward Lhuyd the antiquarian, and the scanning process would include missing folios (to be represented by a blank parchment leaf, with the team instructed to ensure that it be made apparent that the blank leaf was not part of the original manuscript) and portions of opposite pages.
The leaves would be kept singular to assist with tracking. Essential data for capture was assessed as being the old covers, the first paper and endpaper (recto), and the manuscript leaves:
“For digitised images, the Library’s digitisation policy defines a default image resolution and requires a master uncompressed image….digitised image file specifications…vary depending on the nature of the original artefact (e.g. published or illustrated texts, colour or greyscale, archival documents in different inks on different papers, maps or graphs). According to the nature of the artefact, a series of guidelines are given regarding the end resolution, bit depth, compression…” [National Library of Wales Digitisation Strategy, 2008/9-2011]
In addition, the technical details for capture were detailed in the benchmarking meeting report, an extract of which is shown below :
The timescale for digitisation was put at three to four days, with the application of tracking thereafter (adhering to “the principles and methodologies for the creation of tracking data for digitisation projects using the General WOMBAT workflow model”).
The first stage of tracking involved the creation of a detailed list of the manuscript structure by the Manuscript Librarian at the Library. This list was then passed to Morfudd Jones, the Metadata Librarian, for the creation of a corresponding Excel file “for the purpose of creation of tracking data in preparation for the scanning” [“Tracking the Boston Manuscript”, National Library of Wales, 2012]. This meant providing each page of the manuscript with a digital filename, with a second column supplying the corresponding page label (for example, f.53r) “to ensure that the right image is linked to the correct label in the eventual presentation on the Digital Mirror”. Once this file has been created it is added to the Library’s Wombat [Workflow Management and Tracking] workflow system, which tracks the digitisation process and ensures that quality control is maintained throughout “from the delivery of the manuscript to the imaging unit, the scanning of each individual page, the QC for each image, to the returning of the manuscript to the collection” [Tracking the Boston Manuscript, National Library of Wales, 2012]. The Imaging Team then scanned the original document, and the work was returned to the team undertaking the metadata, with a METS document automatically generated from the WOMBAT data.
METS (or Metadata Encoding and Transmission Standard) is “a data encoding and transmission specification, expressed in XML, that provides the means to convey the metadata necessary for both the management of digital objects within a repository and the exchange of such objects between repositories” [Digital Library Federation, 2010].
The Library is familiar with the use of metadata: “structured information that describes, explains, locates, or otherwise makes it easier to retrieve, use or manage an information resource. Metadata is often called data about data or information about information” [NISO, 2004] in its traditional catalogue systems, and the Library’s website explains the three “broad categories of metadata” dealt with on digitisation projects generally: descriptive, structural and administrative.
Descriptive metadata describes “the intellectual content of the object…which is used for the discovery of objects”, whilst structural metadata “is information that ties each object to others to make up logical units and which is used primarily for storage of objects in a repository and for presentation”; finally, administrative metadata “is information that is necessary in order to manage the object: this can include information on how it was scanned, its storage format etc. (often called technical metadata), copyright and licensing information, and information necessary for the long-term preservation of the digital objects (preservation metadata)…” [Metadata, National Library of Wales]
In other words, metadata is created to make an object discoverable, identifiable: it also supports future archiving and preservation. It “serves the same functions in resource discovery as good cataloguing does…” [Digital Library Federation, 2010], and METS provides the Library with the means of creating and sharing metadata about a digital resource using “a relatively easy format…during the life cycle of the digital object.” [Digital Library Federation, 2010]
There are, of course, other metadata standards employed by the National Library, such as those suggested by the LC-AV and the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI). For example, MARC is “a format standard for the representation and communication of bibliographic and related information in machine-readable form” [Metadata Standards in use in NLW] whilst LCSH is the Library of Congress Subject Headings, which “comprise a thesaurus (in the information technology sense, a controlled vocabulary) of subject headings, maintained by the United States Library of Congress, for use in bibliographic records”.
Once the METS document is completed it is passed to the Web Development Team, who prepare the interface for the manuscript on the Library’s Digital Mirror, the online platform for the Library’s treasures, and easily accessible by members of the public and the academic community.
The digitisation of the Boston Manuscript is a very important step in the dissemination and preservation of the item, and it was obvious from the very first that once the artefact was purchased by the National Library (with the assistance of funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund) that it would need to be digitised. As I’ve mentioned in my Web Analysis Report, the role of national libraries in ensuring universal knowledge and equitable access to information continues to be a cornerstone in the development of a knowledge society , and the National Library sees its role as being “the memory of [the] nation, seeking to collect and order information materials and make them readily available to a wide audience” [The National Library of Wales: Digital Preservation Policy & Strategy, 2008], and one of the ways this equitable access is achieved is by way of the website:
“This means connecting with those visitors who are either unable to physically access the Library’s vast collections, or those who have visited in the past and wish to continue their research at a different location. It allows users admission to the library community, with all the expertise of the librarians who work there available at a distance.” [Thomas, 2012]
The object of the National Library of Wales’s Royal Charter is to “collect, preserve and give access to all kinds and forms of recorded knowledge, especially relating to Wales and the Welsh and other Celtic peoples, for the benefit of the public including those engaged in research and learning” [National Library of Wales, p.4, 2012], and as the National Preservation Office (NPO) suggests, “digital technologies can open new ways of analysis and research”, so herein lies further justification for the digitisation of the manuscript.
Digitisation, therefore, allows for access to the artefact in a variety of different forms: the original manuscript and a facsimile of the same, which can be accessed at the Library itself, and a digital facsimile which can be accessed by anyone, anywhere, whenever they chose to do so, and also allows for the reduced handling of the original, which allows the manuscript to remain in a good condition. It also creates an opportunity for further analysis. The Boston Manuscript is a prestigious artefact. There had not been a medieval manuscript written in the medium of Welsh to come to public auction since 1923. Furthermore, the Laws evoke a time in history when the Welsh were self-governing – an important factor, whether we are discussing Welsh history or our modern national identity, as the contents of that small volume and what that content represents still carries a great deal of resonance with the people of Wales. In addition, the manuscript was a working document, annotated by its owner when the law was updated, and thus bears further scrutiny by experts. It had been updated and annotated by its owner, and gives us an insight into the working law of the period.
The National Preservation Office (NPO) identifies three main components of a digitisation project as data capture and creation, data access and delivery and, eventually, managing the digital collection. However, it notes that there is no definitive way of undertaking a digitisation project, simply because the nature of the items and the defined purpose of the project will differ in each case [p.6, undated], and therefore “using a framework which incorporates guidelines for good practice and de facto standards allows the project to build in mechanisms allowing the digital image…to be progressed and maintained through any technological changes” [p.7, undated].
The National Library’s digitisation programme supports those main components, with its “explicit consideration for the preservation of those resources and a ‘scan once for many purposes’ policy” [ERPANET, p.8, 2004]. The main challenge is to encompass the range of items the Library holds whilst maintaining its responsibility to thoroughly document Welsh culture:
“…there is the historical and cultural risk of losing the national memory, which would affect the whole country, not just the organisation.” [ERPANET, p.10, 2004]
The Boston Manuscript (or the Laws of Hywel Dda, or NLW MS 24029 A) is a cultural heritage item of great significance, and it is imperative that it is preserved effectively and access to the item provided to the people of Wales, as well as those further afield. Thanks to the efforts of those working on this project, whilst “geographical isolation may prove a problem for physical visitors…it certainly hasn’t proved a barrier in the formulation of the Library’s digital preservation activities” [ERPANET, p.19, 2004], and the document will soon be available to all those who wish to access it via the Digital Mirror.