Searching for Digitized Manuscripts: The British Library, Part 2

(Psst! You can find part 1 here.)

So the British Library is in the process of phasing out one database of digitized manuscripts,  Digitized Manuscripts site (DM), in favor of another,  Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts (CIM).  This post is going to focus on searching the DM.

Before we get too far in here, remember that you’re not going to find everything in the DM.  The only things that can be found here reliably are the Cotton manuscripts – that is, any manuscript with the word “Cotton” in the shelfmark. So, the Lindisfarne Gospels, AKA Cotton MS Nero D.IV, are going to be in the DM.  Also note that the DM is being tinkered with because it is going away, so don’t be surprised if things don’t load correctly or you get an error.

The British Library DM: Simple Search

This search method isn’t labeled “simple search” like it is in CIM. Rather, it’s just the simple search box that’s on the first page of the DM.

If you know the shelfmark designation, you can throw it in here.  Otherwise you could search for a keyword.  I don’t really recommend using this keyword function the same way you would when searching the CIM, since it’s basically a full-text search of a manuscript’s metadata – you know, that big long block of text that covers the language, physical description, ownership, and bibliography.  Not everything has specific descriptions of images or features, so don’t think of it that way.  Instead, think of using it as the “common name” search for a manuscript.

When I think of the Lindisfarne Gospels, I don’t say in my head, “Oh! That’s Cotton MS Nero D.IV!”  I think of them as the Lindisfarne Gospels, or else, “the Hiberno-Saxon gospels with the fun initials and display text.” If I just type “Lindisfarne” in the keyword search, I’m going to get anything with Lindisfarne as part of it’s data. This is going to be more than just the Lindisfarne Gospels that I want, so I could also narrow it down by date range, or just pay attention to my search results.

Each result is going to have the shelfmark, a brief description which often includes the common name, and a date or date range of creation.  You can narrow your results significantly if you know the shelfmark of an item.

Clicking on the result takes me to the Manuscript Display page.  This details all the fun information about the manuscript that the library has.  Below this is the meat of the thing – the digitized manuscript itself.  Because of the way manuscript images are scanned and stored in the DM, the folios are often divided up into sections. You can still leaf through the whole manuscript in one smooth go, but if you’re looking for a specific folio, you can click directly on the section that has it to save you some clicking time.

I have to say, I love the viewer that the DM has. You get a full page, or a full page spread, or a folio, and you can really zoom in to see detail.  There’s no easy way to save images apart from taking a screenshot (or using Window’s Snipping Tool, if you have Windows 7 or higher). But if you’re like me, you have a computer nearby when you’re doing scribal stuff anyway.


This isn’t really a search so much as it is an outline of the various collections within the BL’s array of manuscripts – which is really cool!  A lot of these collections link you back to either the CIM or the BL’s digitization blog.  This spot also features highlighted items, such as the St. Cuthbert Gospel and Henry VIII’s Psalter.


Clicking “search” in the top bar navigation takes you to the same Advanced Search page that you would get if you clicked the corresponding link in the Simple Search box.

In this search, the fields are broken up to better represent the metadata fields in the manuscript details.  If you wanted to see items from a particular date range that were from a specific area (such as Lindisfarne), you could adjust the date slider and type in the terms in the “Provenance/Acquisition” field.  If you were looking for works by a particular scribe (maybe Matthew Paris?) you could search under “Author/Scribe.”  Lots of possibilities here.

Again, I will note that while I adore the “hands-on” view of the manuscripts that the DM provides, I find that searching the CIM is much more user friendly, especially if you don’t have a particular item in mind.

Then again, when it comes to browsing manuscripts based on image content, date, and region, nothing beats what I’ve got in store for you from the University of Oxford. Stay tuned!


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