Cataloguing the Illuminated Manuscripts of the Koninklijke Bibliotheek and the Museum Meermanno-Westreenianum

From card file to the world wide web


With its five hundred illuminated medieval manuscripts, containing some 8.000 images, the Koninklijke Bibliotheek holds the largest collection of manuscript painting in The Netherlands. Although small in size compared to national libraries like the British Library, the Bibliothèque National de France or the Vatican Library, the collection boasts a rather large number of high quality books and it is especially well-supplied in its specific collecting area of Dutch illumination.

The foundations of the collection were laid in 1798, when the library of the former Stadtholders, the princes of Orange-Nassau, was converted into a `national' library. In the first four decades of its existence important collections were acquired, for example those of the Leiden jurist Joost Romswinckel, the Grand Pensionary Jacob Visser, the eccentric Brussels aristocrat Joseph Désiré Lupus and Georges-Joseph Gérard, secretary to the Académie belge. The last two were acquired thanks to the personal initiative of king William I, who also purchased several individual precious manuscripts for the library. A second flowering of the collection of illuminated manuscripts took place during the librarianship of W.G.C. Byvanck, who added a large number of manuscripts originating from the Northern Netherlands. Since the second World War the Koninklijke Bibliotheek has seen an active policy regarding the acquisition of illuminated manuscripts, despite the fact that sharply rising prices have made it increasingly difficult to acquire major items. The main consideration at this has been to preserve the Dutch medieval cultural heritage for the Netherlands.

Cataloguing the collection

The most important manuscripts were described in the twenties and thirties in publications by A.W. Byvanck, Les principaux manuscrits à peintures de la Bibliothèque Royale des Pays-Bas et du Musée Meermanno-Westreenianum à La Haye. Paris, 1924 and Les principaux manuscrits à peintures conservés dans les collections publiques du Royaume des Pays-Bas. Paris 1931. (Bulletin de la Société française de reproductions de manuscrits à peintures: 15) and by A.W. Byvanck & G.J. Hoogewerff, Noord-Nederlandsche miniaturen in handschriften der 14e, 15e en 16e eeuwen. 3 vols. 's-Gravenhage, 1922-1925. Since the appointment of an art historian as curator of medieval manuscripts, Anne S. Korteweg, some larger exhibition catalogues appeared, like `Schatten van de Koninklijke Bibliotheek. Acht eeuwen verluchte handschriften', published in 1980. However, increase of interest in medieval manuscripts, and the growing demand for accessibility to the collection's images, necessitated a more comprehensive and systematic survey of the material.

In 1983 the curator was fortunate enough to be able to enlist two young art historians, both of whom specialized in medieval illumination. Hans Brandhorst, who performed his term of national service in the library as a conscientious objector, made short descriptions of the manuscripts, while Klara Broekhuijsen, who entered the library through an employment measure of the government, described the miniatures, historiated initials and border scenes. Starting out from a little card file compiled by one of the former curators, they eventually had to search through the 1500 `red boxes' in which the medieval manuscripts are stored. In this pre-computer era both began by creating a card file, but in the final phase of their work their files were merged into one system and published as a book. In this inventory, which appeared in 1985, the manuscript descriptions are ordered by country and date. The images are listed underneath each description, while a large iconographic index at the end gives access to the different subjects.

Bibliographic research

The gathering of the literature on the manuscripts was done for some twenty years by Hélène Peeters, and continued by Henriette Reerink, both staff members of the Department of Special Collections. Contributions to the bibliography were also provided by several temporary staff members of the Department, a.o. Jelka van de Velde, Ed van der Vlist and Klaas van der Hoek.


A year after the cardboxes were turned into print, the Koninklijke Bibliotheek jumped into the then forefront of developments in automating library material by launching a videodisc comprising both miniatures and woodcuts. This videodisc was a joint enterprise between the Koninklijke Bibliotheek, Qbit Interactive Media at Utrecht, and PICA, the National library automating service. It contained almost 7000 illustrations, some 4000 of which were images of miniatures taken from ninety major illuminated manuscripts; the remaining part were some 2800 images of woodcuts from Netherlandish incunabula. A computer program, running on a separate PC, enabled the retrieval of iconographical elements in the descriptions together with the corresponding illustrations. For the descriptions of the miniatures those from the Brandhorst/Broekhuijsen inventory were somewhat expanded and translated into English. For the standardization of the subject titles of the miniatures the iconographic description system Iconclass, the completed edition of which was just published in 1985, proved to be of invaluable help. Although at that moment the Iconclass numbering was not applied, its English descriptions considerably facilitated the preparation of the translation itself.

The national 'Alexander Willem Byvanck project'

After the collection of the Koninklijke Bibliotheek had been catalogued in this summary way, some six art historians and codicologists decided to found a working group with the purpose of cataloguing all illuminated manuscripts in the country. In its name - Alexander Willem Byvanck Working Group - it honoured the man who initiated the study of manuscript illumination in this country some eighty years ago. The project was based in the Koninklijke Bibliotheek, which was prepared to bear the overhead costs, office expenses, and provide working space. Since 1989 the project got a ten-year grant from the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO) to cover the costs of travelling and photographic material. In 1990 a database was set up, containing two different files: one for the description of the manuscripts and another one for the descriptions of the images. For the database management system the PC software Inmagic was chosen, acquired shortly before by the Koninklijke Bibliotheek for use in the Department of Special Collections. In the past twelve years the working group not only described 95 percent of the nation's holdings on illuminated manuscripts, but also developed a new, expanded description model.

The digitization of the medieval illuminated manuscripts of the Koninklijke Bibliotheek

Initial phase

In 1995, when the Koninklijke Bibliotheek decided to take the digitization of its collections to a higher level, the 'Byvanck project', now based in the KB and supported by NWO, provided both a natural context and a logical starting point. In line with the iconographical focus of the cataloguing efforts mentioned above, it was decided to limit the first release on the Internet to manuscripts with nameable representations, that is: miniatures, historiated initials and marginal scenes, and to hold back the manuscripts with decoration only for a later revision. The project started in April 1998 as a joint effort of the Koninklijke Bibliotheek and the Department of Computer & Arts of Utrecht University. Having contributed to the initial data analysis and having provided technical consultancy, Utrecht University withdrew from the project in February 1999, because of changed research goals of the Department.
To begin with, work on the by then outdated descriptions of the manuscripts of the Koninklijke Bibliotheek was continued: the existing descriptions from the catalogue of Brandhorst/Broekhuijsen and the videodisc were entered in the database. The adaptation of the descriptions of the 330 manuscripts was mainly done by Anne Korteweg, with the assistance of the members of the Byvanck working group.
Of the iconographic records made for the earlier videodisc, some 2000 could be used for the new project after they were made to comply with the new Byvanck description model. The remaining number were translated and adapted from the Brandhorst/Broekhuijsen inventory by Jelka van de Velde en Klaas van der Hoek. As a separate small project, Yassu Frossati had assigned Iconclass notations to the ninety manuscripts included on the videodisc. Assigning notations to the remaining 240 manuscripts was started by Klaas van der Hoek who also compiled a document about the requirements for the web catalogue. At the beginning of 2000, the Mnemosyne partnership continued the editing of various fields of the iconographical database.

The present state

Cataloguing is a library's core business. It is by its very nature 'work in progress', both because libraries keep buying books and because the cataloguing process itself always reflects changes in the readers' expectations and the developments of library sciences. The whole digitization effort itself - a new form of cataloguing, if ever there was one - is an argument in this case.
It is therefore merely good library practice to point out that this electronic catalogue of the illuminated manuscripts is no exception to the rule. It will have missed its target if it does not provoke reactions - from scholarly communities and from the general public - that will in due course affect its content and structure. At the same time it should be realized that the information offered at any point in time represents a 'frozen' moment of an ongoing process. The catalogue descriptions will continue to undergo revisions and corrections due to new insights. Undoubtedly, inconsistencies and errors will be found in the descriptions as they are now. More importantly, new material will be added to the system, as is foreseen for the end of 2001, when the descriptions of the illuminated manuscripts of the Museum Meermanno-Westreenianum will be included.

A first major addition: the illuminated manuscripts from the Museum Meermanno

In 2001 the Museum Meermanno-Westreenianum was closed for a major redecoration of its building. In the course of that year its manuscript illuminations - temporarily stored at the Koninklijke Bibliotheek - have been digitized. The descriptions of the manuscripts that had been prepared by the Byvanck project, were revised and expanded. On February 15th 2002, the museum re-opens its gates. To celebrate this, an exhibition of French illuminated manuscripts is organized which carries the title 'Splendour, Gravity and Emotion'. Simultaneous with the launching of this exhibition the manuscript illuminations from the Meermanno collection are added to the present database and website. Its circa 70 manuscripts contain some 3,000 miniatures, initials and border decorations. They bring the total number of catalogued illustrations to almost 11,000.

The aim of the project

As primary platform for the publication of the project's results the internet was chosen. This precluded the project to focus exclusively on medievalists and manuscript scholars. In agreement with the ambitions of a national library, publishing sources on the internet must aim at a professional as well as a lay audience. The project, therefore, had to find a balance between its origin as a scholarly catalogue and its additional purpose as a permanent exhibition of one of the nation's most important treasures of medieval art. The original iconographical emphasis of the cataloguing, however, from the Brandhorst/Broekhuijsen inventory down to the Byvanck project, fitted this secondary purpose very well. Research shows that a general audience is first of all interested in the subject matter of images. While subject access is an important feature of the web catalogue, the databases that are brought together in this project contain a much wider variety of information. It ranges from extensive bibliographic references about individual manuscripts to details about the texts which are accompanied by pictures, and from provenance data to the names of workshops, masters, and decoration styles.
To give a wide audience access to the most recent information the library has on its illuminated manuscripts, and to provide visual documentation on a scale that has never before been possible: that would be the best summary of the project's purpose.

Some technical aspects

Compliance with the existing technical infrastructure

An important challenge to the project was defined by the library's IT management. In spite of the fact that the project dealt with images on a hitherto unknown scale, it had to respect the framework of the existing technical infrastructure. This limitation is current KB policy for all of its digitization projects. The focus had to be on content and functionality, not on technology. The project incorporates the results of earlier projects carried out by the network services of the Konklijke Bibliotheek. This technical uniformity makes it undesirable to build a separate system for each digital collection. The three databases for the illuminated manuscripts (codicology, iconography, bibliography), built up over many years, had to be standardized and linked to the images. It is required by the infrastructure that databases are converted to XML files, a strategy that had to be followed for this project too. For each of the three databases a DTD was written, adapted from the central DTD for all of KB's digital materials. Each entry in the databases was converted into an XML record. These records were loaded and indexed into the KB's IBM Digital Library System from which they can be retrieved using the search facilities. An interface in HTML retrieves all information from the central datafiles. A central datafile management system controls all information operations such as refreshing and migration.

Slides and scans

As described above, the KB's efforts to provide information about its illuminated manuscripts date back to the videodisc project of the mid-eighties. The slides made for this disc and those that were made for the Special Collections Department's ongoing reproduction project, were the core of the slide collection to be scanned for this digitization project. The selection of views - opening, whole page, miniatures, details - still betrays this somewhat heterogeneous origin. That is why some pictures are included in the retrieval system in a single format, whereas others are shown as a miniature, but also as part of a whole page and as part of an opening. Needless to say, this 'handpicked' aspect complicated the design of the web interface.
All slides are scanned at a resolution of circa 2000x3000 pixels and stored in TIFF (Tagged Images File Format) files in KB's Digital Deposit System. Three JPEG (Joint Photographic Expertise Group) images were taken from the TIFFs: a thumbnail of 125 pixels wide (single page or details) or high (openings), a 'pull-down' reference image of 300 pixels, and an image of 750 pixels for zooming in on details.

Acknowledgements and project organization


Project management
Project leader: dr Patricia Alkhoven; dr Ad Leerintveld (June - October 2000).
Advisory committee: Clemens de Wolf, Hans Jansen.

Supervision: dr Anne Korteweg, curator of medieval manuscripts.
Codicological descriptions: dr Anne Korteweg.
Iconographic descriptions: drs Klaas van der Hoek (October 1998 - November 1999); the Mnemosyne (at partnership: Hans Brandhorst, Yassu Frossati & Peter van Huisstede (since January 2000).
Bibliography: Hélène Peeters and Henriette Reerink.

Infrastructure & software
Initial design of data management system: Stichting SERC Utrecht.
Data management system, interface design, programming: Koninklijke Bibliotheek, Den Haag.
Technical infrastructure, conversion programs & DTD authoring: Koninklijke Bibliotheek, ICT Department.
Web editor: Jan van Oorschot.

Slides & scans: Koninklijke Bibliotheek, Department of Optical Technology.

Utrecht University, (former) Department of Computer & Arts: prof. dr Jörgen van den Berg, dr Leen Breure (until February 1999).



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