10 and 1/2 Lessons in Manuscript Database Building

A while ago, I was invited by the Fernuniversität Hagen to present on a topic close to my heart: online manuscript databases. I became interested in this topic when I started to build my own manuscript database as a part of the Innovating Knowledge project in 2018. Back then, I thought manuscript databases are cool, important, and the right way to go for small postdoc projects like mine – oh boy, how wrong was I!

In the five years since the beginning of my project (and in the three years since the launch of the first version of my database) I have changed my opinion quite a lot. As I learned a lot about the complex lives (and inevitable deaths) of manuscript databases, I became significantly more skeptical about the long-term value of what I have termed SDMMPs (small digital manuscript metadata projects), especially as long as there is no overreaching infrastructure or community supporting them. In 2021, I started to map the budding ecosystem of SDMMPs to learn more about their life and death cycles and understand what is out there and what the prognosis is for the long term. I presented my thoughts on the SDMMPs at the On the Way to the Future of Digital Manuscript Studies workshop in November 2021. At the time, I could account for more than 50 manuscript database projects (including mine). I have continued to survey the landscape since: I am currently aware of more than 70 projects. Their number continues to grow and there is no indication that the manuscript database trend abating, quite the contrary!

The collage of various database logos prepared for the On the Way to the Future of Digital Manuscript Studies workshop (November 2021).

My own experience with building a small manuscript database and the discussions I have had with my colleagues planning to start a database project or already working towards a manuscript database as a part of a funded research project made me realize that while databases are popular and certainly useful for specific purposes, many manuscript scholars and historians developing them are ill-equipped to bring them to life and, more importantly, make them last past the project funding end. I certainly made many mistakes on my journey.

The mistakes, the conversations, my own journey made me distill some of the most important lessons I learned while building the Innovating Knowledge database into a videopresentation for the Hagener Forschunsdialog. I upload the video here for those who may be interested in the subject and think they may benefit from advice of a fellow medievalist. Enjoy and let me know whether you find the 10 and 1/2 lessons for manuscript database building useful!

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