TRAME: blowing nobody any good

I have been hoarding interesting links during this period of backlog (at least since the last lot) and at some point I will deluge them upon your terminals, but for now there is one in particular I want to talk about. Long-term readers will know that I have a long-orbit bee in my bonnet about funding grants for developing digital resources that already exist. There seems to be no offender here more prolific than the idea that it would be great to establish a unified catalogue of medieval manuscripts on the Internet, despite the fact that there are so many of those that one of the most established of these portals has officially quit keeping up. This was the frame of mind in which I encountered – I no longer remember how – an Italian initiative called TRAME, Text and Manuscript Transmission of the Middle Ages in Europe, and stubbed this post.

Screen capture of the front page of the TRAME site

Screen capture of the front page of their site, click to enlarge (for reasons given below, I’m not linking through)

Inspection reveals that this is not quite the usual deal, in several ways. Firstly, it seems a much more cooperative and consensual a metacatalogue than one of the previous ones, which intended to scrape online content by aggressive querying (not how they put it, but still true) and present it through their own portal; on this one you as manuscript-holding institution have to opt in, and they encourage you so to do. Secondly, it is collecting not actual digitised manuscripts but digitised catalogues of manuscripts. The first of these might be expected to limit their scope, though Italy seems to be good at these digital alliances. The second, however, greatly increases it: lots more such catalogues exist than do new manuscript digitisation efforts, so they are able, having mapped the incoming database to their own (a project in which I suspect I recognise the hands of the Università di Firenze), to present really quite a lot of data. On the other hand, because of the first that data is of quite varied quality and because of the second, ultimately all it is is a manuscript finding aid, not an actual repository.

I did a very quick test case that illustrates the issues. Firstly, my Italian not being so great and me not having really read the instructions, I tried just the word «aprisio» in the search box, but it returned nothing, so I bethought myself of metadata not data and started plugging possible author names in. I was searching, you may guess, for things Catalan and the surprising thing is that I found some. Slightly more surprising to me was that some turned out to be at the Escorial library in Madrid, which I didn’t think had any manuscripts digitised, and this is about the point where I discovered that we are dealing only with catalogue entries. But I persevered because there is really only one manuscript about the Escorial I know anything about, Z.II.2, which is the judge Bonhom’s copy of the adapted Visigothic Law.1 It is there, but all you get is the shelf-mark, so, well, what use is this?

It’s not as if asking the Escorial’s website gets you anything better, of course: its search engine breaks under the simplest query and if you poke far enough into their site you find what purports to be a download of their 1910 catalogue of Latin manuscripts that actually comrpises only the Prologue of its first volume.2 So there is probably less use TRAME could be, but it gets worse. Another example. Having with my first search established that there were manuscripts in this database from the Biblioteca de l’Universitat de Barcelona, I made it show me everything they had there, and this is revealing. Firstly it’s replicated between constituent databases a lot, some manuscripts appearing in several, but it’s the nature of those databases that makes me cross. For this search, lots comes from a resource called BISLAM, Bibliotheca Scriptorum Latinorum Medii Recentiorisque Aevi, which is available through the portal with which the whole effort apparently started, a subscription service called MIRAbile.3 And what that means is that all you can get from a given search in it is an entry like the below and an invitation to subscribe for more information.

Screen capture of a MIRAbile database entry without subscription

There are those of us who would call this spam, and I’m really quite surprised that they got public funding thus to funnel people to their own pay-site. This seems to be the model of all the databases they connect, in fact. And since one of those databases, MSS-b, appears to be a citation index for manuscripts that, unless you have a subscription to that, gives you only single citations of manuscripts in scholarly literature but neither a verified shelfmark for the manuscript nor any part of the relevant scholarly publication. Again, what use is this? I would submit, not a whole lot.

Screen capture of a subscription-less MSS-b database entry

In fact, unless you really need to know a selection of odd mentions of the manuscript you work on and have a research library of international calibre to find them in, the only real use I can see for TRAME is to funnel your money towards their electronic subscription services. Presumably it’s this proud use of public money that means that the ‘costs’ page just links out to a parent body’s homepage and that there has been no news on this project’s website for nearly two years. I’m surprised and disappointed to find that one of their partners is the Institut de Recherche et d’Histoire des Textes, and rather sorry to find any universities involved with it at all. May it have made no-one rich!

1. Text printed as Jesús Alturo i Perucho, Joan Bellès, Josep M. Font Rius, Yolanda García & Anscari Mundó (edd.), Liber iudicum popularis. Ordenat pel jutge Bonsom de Barcelona (Barcelona 2003), and online for free here, but I’d still like to be able to virtually see the manuscript.

2. P. Guillermo Antolín (ed.), Catálogo de los códices latinos de la Real Biblioteca de l’Escorial (Madrid 1910), 5 vols.

3. Roberto Gamberini (ed.), BISLAM. Bibliotheca Scriptorum Latinorum Medii Recentiorisque Aevi. Repertory of Mediaeval and Renaissance Latin Authors (Firenze 2003-2010), 3 vols & CD-ROM, which I’m sure is a very useful thing in its way but not free.

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