Searching for Digitized Manuscripts: The British Library, Part 1

For whatever reason, there are two ways to search the British Library’s vast collection of digitized manuscripts. One is via their Digitized Manuscripts site (DM), and the other is via their Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts (CIM).  There are some items that are in one site, but not the other.  For example, the Cotton Manuscripts (the library compiled by Sir Robert Bruce Cotton, 1571-1631, which includes the Lindisfarne Gospels) is only available in DM, whereas the Harleian manuscripts are in the CIM.  I have run into issues in the past with searching the DM – I often get an error page, which may mean that the DM is getting phased out in favor of the CIM.  I think this is the case, given the wording on the CIM’s “About” page:

Manuscripts included in the Catalogue:

The illuminated manuscripts in the following collections are included in the Catalogue:Additional, Arundel; Burney; Egerton; Hargrave; Harley; Henry Davis; Hirsch; King’s;Lansdowne; Sloane; Royal; Stowe and Yates Thompson (Oriental, for Hebrew illuminated manuscripts).

Manuscripts in the Additional collection are currently being added to the Catalogue. At the moment they consist primarily of around 675 illuminated miniatures cuttings and Hebrew manuscripts (see Italian illuminated cuttings and Hebrew illuminated manuscripts), Anglo-Norman and Anglo-Saxon manuscripts.

PLEASE NOTE: manuscripts in the Cotton collection are not yet included in the Catalogue.

My rule of thumb is this: if I can’t find it in CIM, I look for it in DM. If I can’t find it in DM, I look elsewhere.  THIS post is going to focus on searching the CIM.

The British Library: CIM

Simple Search

This might be my favorite way to search the British Library’s collection, mostly because the “keyword” search allows me to look for a subject or a feature.  For example, say I’m working on a 14th century scroll that has an historiated initial, and I want to find some examples.

Rather than having to crawl through page after page of a specific manuscript to find an item, I can browse thumbnails to find something I like.  If I need more information about a result, I can click, “View detailed record” in the left-hand sidebar to go to the full record for the manuscript.

The detailed record of an item will give me all kinds of useful information, such as origin, date, dimensions, and provenance, as well as links to all the images the library has for that item.  Now, the CIM doesn’t always have full digitizations available, but it’s better than nothing, and the scans are always really high quality when you enlarge them. They will also often have detail scans – scans that are cropped to show specific elements of a page, such as an initial or a piece of marginalia.

Manuscript Search

This is most useful if you already know the shelfmark for an item.  The shelfmark is a reference used for manuscripts that is usually made up of the collection name and a number (generally referring to the order of acquisition).  If you know the name of a manuscript, but not the shelfmark, it’s generally easy to find.  When they’re well known manuscripts, Wikipedia will often have the shelfmark reference as a parenthetical in the manuscript’s corresponding article.  I’m of the mind that including a shelfmark in a manuscript citation is essential to ensure that anyone looking at the resulting work – full written documentation or the back of a scroll – can find the referenced work with ease. After all, that’s the point of a citation!

One of my favorite manuscripts is the Taymouth Hours, also known as Yates Thompson MS 13.  When doing a manuscript search, all I have to do is select the collection from the drop-down menu, and then type in the reference number. Note that there is another warning on this page that reminds us that the library is in the process of moving the Additional manuscripts over, and that the Cotton manuscripts aren’t present at all – you’ll want to go to the DM for these.

My results page looks like this: Don’t fret, though! You can either scroll to see the first few images, or click on the shelfmark (Yates Thompson 13) to get to the full record for the item.


Advanced Search

I’ll be honest – I don’t use the advanced search on the BL that much. It gives you the option to search in the indexed fields for items, including a date range.  Ostensibly, it could be useful for looking for an item from a specific region and time period, but I prefer to use the Bodley for that kind of search.  But let’s say you’re asked to do a scroll for someone who has a late period Italian persona, or some other period that you’re not familiar with. Advanced search, here we go!

 I encourage you to poke around the CIM to get the hang of searching it.  It has some of the basic search functions you could expect of a library database, such as the ability to modify your search, and even browsing the indexes (to make sure you’re using the right term).  I also recommend taking a look at the Search Tips page. After all, this is a library website, and librarians are awesome and helping people search. It’s kind of our thing.  One thing I will point out is the use of * for truncation and Boolean search terms (and, or, and not).

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