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Digitalised descriptions of Slavic Cyrillic manuscripts and early printed books in Swedish libraries and archives

Research project

Short description

The project aims to enable and promote research in Slavic culture, literature and language history through the development of digitialised descriptions of Cyrillic manuscripts and early printed books in Swedish libraries and archives. The project also aims to create a national catalogue through an open database of systematic and standardised electronic data on older Cyrillic collections of relevance for international research.

Project results

The project was implemented in two major stages: inventory and description of the material. The mapping of existing manuscripts and early prints was made in all 15 repositories included in the project. While working on the project we increased our knowledge of some additional collections where relevant material might have been preserved, and an additional 35 repositories were mapped. In all, 50 repositories located in 25 cities were investigated, in 33 of which relevant material was found. Several previously unknown manuscripts, manuscript fragments and old prints were discovered and the project resulted in descriptions of 101 complete manuscripts; 118 fragments (incl. 107 parchment fragments) out of a total of 56 different manuscripts (incl. 51 parchment manuscripts); 421 copies of old prints belonging to 305 Cyrillic and 15 Glagolitic editions. Out of 107 parchment fragments, 16 were previously unknown, still another three had been lost in the 20th century. Out of 51 reconstructed parchment manuscripts, five were previously unknown, whereas a sixth has been added by splitting two fragments which were earlier thought to belong together. The new findings constitute a substantial material contribution to Slavonic studies, since the number of extant East Slavic parchment manuscripts is relatively limited.

The inventory stage of the project led to the discovery of an important series of rare, and probably partly unique, minor Russian civil-print items from the 18th century, now dispersed in the Extranea collection of the Swedish National Archives. Also, a relatively large group of Cyrillic early civil-print items were discovered in different Swedish repositories, but due to lack of time it has not been possible to describe them within the current project. It is to be hoped that all these prints will generate new research projects in the future.

In total, 293 watermarks (w/m) of 35 different types were analysed; c. 20 of these were previously undated, and the project resulted in the dating and publishing of 10 of these. Also, previously unknown ornamentation from 17th century Cyrillic printed editions was investigated and identified.

At the beginning of the project a special database “SVEKYR” was created for input of all descriptive data. Edited data from “SVEKYR” is the basis for the public database Cyrillic and Glagolitic Books and Manuscripts in Sweden (CGS), which contains descriptions of  manuscripts, manuscript fragments, copies of old prints and editions of old prints, c:a 100 illustrations of the most interesting manuscripts and manuscript fragments, information about collections, principles for descriptions, bibliography, lists of abbreviations, repositories, and watermarks, the principles for the analysis of watermarks. A preliminary version of the CGS database is currently placed at the University of Gothenburg server, and work is underway to find a more permanent placement.

One of the project spin-offs is that several of the described books have received new entries in the Swedish national library database LIBRIS. Some of the books included in the project have been, or are being, digitalised by the respective libraries in order for them to become available for national and international research. New shelf numbers were added for some books that previously lacked specific placement. During the course of the work, the importance of identifying and consulting so called digital surrogates of copies of the editions represented in Sweden become increasingly evident. The increasing availability of such surrogates, as well as catalogues and catalogue data on the internet, has been an invaluable aid in the description work and it has re-actualised the development within digitalisation of the cultural heritage: it is no longer sufficient to describe an actual printed book in a concrete repository as an isolated object; rather it has to be described as being part of a network, with links to other copies in other repositories.

In addition to the joint scholarly cooperation within the project, the four project participants’ contributions include the following:

Antoaneta Granberg has mainly described printed books, a total of 284 specimens of 225 editions, and two manuscripts; she has edited the presentation of uniform titles, the bibliography, the list of abbreviations, and she has edited the descriptions of watermarks. In her capacity as project leader Granberg has also been responsible for coordinating the work and administering the project.

On the part of Alexander Pereswetoff-Morath the project has resulted in: 99 descriptions of
archival units containing East Slavonic parchment fragments, which may be referred to 45 preliminarily reconstructed manuscripts; 7 descriptions of 18th-century prints and 8 short descriptions of 17th–18th-century prints and manuscripts.

Irina Lysén has described 92 manuscripts and 18 rolls and manuscript fragments; she has also drawn up principles for the representation of the inscriptions. Almost all watermarks in the manuscripts have been copied by hand by Lysén and they have been analysed by Mirja Varpio.
Watermark copies will be forwarded to the respective libraries for use in future book history studies.

Per Ambrosiani has mainly described printed books, in all c. 120 copies of c. 75 editions. He has also put considerable effort into the design and development of the working database used for the input of all data, which has demanded much structural thinking and understanding of the differences between text based and data based models of description.

The project has been discussed at two conferences/workshops:

  1. A workshop for discussion of theoretical and methodological issues as well as presenting the results of the inventory of Swedish repositories (Royal Library, Stockholm, January 20, 2011).
  2. An international conference “Cyrillic and Glagolitic Manuscripts and Early Prints in Sweden” for the dissemination and discussion of results (Norwegian University Center, St. Petersburg, February 13–14, 2014).

Unexpected technical and methodological problems

Some early prints have proved very difficult to identify, since they have been very rare and therefore not described in existing catalogues. Several consulted catalogues and descriptions have also been found to be afflicted with various shortcomings, which at times have complicated the description work.

The work with and the choice of terminology for the descriptions entailed serious difficulties since previous relevant research is written in a variety of languages, with distinctly divergent scholarly terminology: Bulgarian, Belarusian, Czech, English, French, German, Russian, Serbian, Swedish, Ukrainian, etc. The project follows Anglo-Saxon terminology since all descriptions of the material are in English.

The practical problems to do with work on fragments from a single reconstructed manuscript that are held in different repositories turned out to be more serious than expected, since physical comparison is made difficult and less final. These problems were underlined by the fact that the Royal Library does not allow scholars to photograph older materials. In addition, the methodological problems of using a database for the generation of unified descriptions of single manuscripts with parts in different archival units, held in different cities, were difficult to anticipate. Likewise, the effect on the timetable of working in archives, where manuscripts and fragments often do not constitute archival units but can only be identified by physically going through large amounts of potentially promising archival material, had not been quite anticipated.

Despite several attempts to get permission from the Royal Library for copying and investigating watermarks of importance for the dating of undated manuscripts and early prints, such permission was denied. Therefore, the descriptions of these books are incomplete and the database dating very approximate.

The time for the completion of the descriptions were undersized in relation to the materials and standardized template. The material grew in the course of the project as a result of important new findings in all categories. It should be added that several manuscripts are so voluminous as to require much time for an acceptable description.

New research questions generated by the project

The present project deals with older books, most of which were poorly described in earlier publications. Swedish experts in book history and in the description of older books only rarely possess the language skills necessary for adequate descriptions of the material in question. This has opened up for new ways of understanding the creation of the present collections, particularly from c. 1840 to 1930, but also during the 17th century. Future palaeographical work enabled by our project is bound to result in important additions and corrections to the emerging picture. Not only will investigations into these new questions add to our understanding of cultural processes in the 17th and 19th century but they may also allow us to identify further collections with unknown manuscripts and fragments.

The work with the materials has finally opened up for general questions within the research on book history, such as classification of language identity and writing systems within various bibliographic description models.

old book

Meetings and presentations

  • 23.01.2010, Stockholm
  • 25.02.2010, Gothenburg, presentation part 1, part 2
  • 16.04.2010, Uppsala University and Uppsala University Library Carolina Rediviva
  • 2.06.2010, Uppsala
  • 26-31.07.2010, The VIII World Congress of the International Council for Central and East European Studies, Stockholm, presentation/abstract
  • 18 – 22 augusti 2010, The 18th meeting of Nordic Slavists, Tammerfors, presentation/abstract
  • 20.01.2011, Workshop, The Royal Library in Stockholm

Reference group for the project

  • Ulla Birgegård, Uppsala University, em.
  • Per Arne Bodin, Stockholm University
  • Ralph Cleminson, University of Portsmouth
  • Elisabeth Löfstrand, Stockholm University
  • Ingrid Maier, Uppsala University
  • Anisava Miltenova, Bulgarian Academy of Sciences
  • Lars Steensland, Lund University, em.
  • Hans Åkerström, Gothenburg University Library, em.
  • Mirja Varpio, Lund University, em.