Staff Q&A with Lynn Ransom


The Schoenberg Database of Manuscripts, housed in the Penn Libraries’ Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies, is the world’s largest freely available repository of data on manuscripts produced before 1600. The growing collection of more than 225,000 records on approximately 90,000 manuscripts has been compiled from thousands of auction and sales catalogs, inventories, and catalogs from institutional and private collections.

And, as Lynn Ransom explains, it all started in one Microsoft Excel file.

Ransom, a curator at the Schoenberg Institute [SIMS] who oversees the Database, says that the impressive collection of records had its beginnings in 1997, when Penn alumnus Larry Schoenberg purchased manuscript data from art collector John Feldman because he was curious about the location of the world’s manuscripts published before 1600.

“[Schoenberg] started adding to this database and it became an obsession for him, and he built it and started hiring researchers in Europe to go searching for catalogues,” says Ransom. “In 2007, Larry wanted to give it to Penn to manage and so they entered an agreement with Penn to host the database and funded a five-year position for someone to manage the database—and that’s how I came here.”

Ransom is an art historian by trade, and received her Ph.D. in medieval art history with an emphasis on manuscript illumination from the University of Texas at Austin. She began her professional life at the Index of Christian Art at Princeton University, and from there, went to the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, and to the Free Library of Philadelphia on a grant-funded digitization project.

Here at Penn, Ransom is steering the redevelopment of the Database with the help of a National Endowment for the Humanities grant. Along with her team—Benjamin Heller, project programmer; Doug Emery, special collections digital content programmer; and project assistants Matija Budisin and Emma Cawlfield—Ransom is opening up access to individuals so they may contribute to the Database. The user-driven, collaborative site will be fully online by June of this year.

“I went from being an art historian to being more of a manuscript generalist and moving away from the art historical questions to questions just about the book itself and the history of the manuscript book,” she explains.

The Current sat down with Ransom to talk about what it’s like to track down the location of manuscripts, any resistance to the project, and the importance of open access to data.

What are the challenges of database work?

One of the purposes of the Schoenberg Database now is to help scholars find where the books are. I pitch it as a cultural heritage preservation tool because everybody has some idea of what’s in the major institutions, but there are manuscripts that move around the world—they’re bought and sold, they’re lost, they’re destroyed. Its intention is to help us find those manuscripts that haven’t been found yet and to leave a record. From an art historian or manuscript historian’s point-of-view, the challenge is, how do you do that when all you have is a catalog description or someone’s observation? You have a Sotheby’s catalog and a manuscript has been sold and in most cases you don’t know who bought it. But someone else might know. How do you capture this information? In the new Database, it’s being opened up so that our user community has the opportunity to contribute their knowledge in real time.

Is the idea to have people voluntarily contribute information?

One of the things that the Schoenberg Database does is to try to link those references so you can follow the ownership history of a book, a manuscript, across time.
If we can give people the ability to go in and make changes to help us edit our data, to help contribute new data to help us make these connections, we’re going to have a much stronger database.
There’s a volunteer aspect to it, but what we’re trying to do is make it so that when you come to the Database to do your research, it’s easy for you to make changes and links and contribute as part of your research process. If we can make it a good research space and capture their research as we’re doing it, I think we’ve succeeded.

What is in the Database?

People now expect digital images. They expect the data in the Schoenberg Database refers to manuscripts that are at Penn—and it’s not. The data comes from auction and sale catalogs, institutional catalogs and scholarly articles, and personal observations. We aggregate data on manuscripts and these manuscripts may exist, we may know where they exist, or they may not exist, they may have been burned, stolen, destroyed, taken apart—but what we’re capturing is someone’s observation, a record, that this book existed at a point in time. It’s raw data.  
One of the things that we have to tell people is our data might be wrong—and it might be wrong because we mis-entered it. It might be wrong because the catalog got the information wrong. We make no claims about the truth of the data. We try to provide our users with the ability to say, ‘This is wrong,’ and if it’s wrong because we mistyped something, we can fix it. If they disagree with a catalog entry that says, ‘This is a ninth century manuscript,’ the user can say, ‘No, it’s a 10th century.’ They create a personal observation and those two are linked and the next person can come along and say, ‘It’s ninth century.’ We’re allowing people to make these observations and link them together. I think this is kind of a novel approach.

Can you talk specifically about items in the Database?

Two of our advisory committee members are working together on the collection of Sir Alfred Chester Beatty, who was an American manuscript collector but gave his collection to the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin [Ireland]. Beatty was not quite a dealer, but his collection was fluid. They’re trying to piece together all the manuscripts that he ever owned and find where they are now. 
Toby Burrows, who’s at the University of Western Australia, is doing a similar thing with the collection of Sir Thomas Phillipps, who was one of the greatest collectors and sellers of manuscripts of all time. He amassed over 20,000 manuscripts in his lifetime and upon his death, his collections were sold off in various sales. Because he left a Phillipps number, he wrote ID numbers in his manuscripts. Toby is working on a project to try and identify all the Phillipps manuscripts in the world.

Is the goal to collect information about as many manuscripts as possible?

The ideal is we create a finding aid [and] every manuscript that exists now is recorded in the Schoenberg Database. This is not going to happen because there are private collections who aren’t going to tell you what manuscripts they have; you’re never going to find out everything, not every library is going to have their manuscripts cataloged in such a way that you can take their data. It’s an ideal. The process itself is part of the contribution.

Talk about the importance of open access and what that could mean for scholars, collectors, for curious people.

By making it more accessible, you’re able to capture so much more information than if you have a closed system with very strict standards for data entry. Anybody in the world has the ability to identify a manuscript book. This book is here, I don’t know what it is, but it looks like this, it has this many pages, it has this many miniatures, here’s the first line, the title of the book, and it’s here on this date. ... How do you make a medieval manuscript relevant in today’s world? Well, if you keep your books closed, away from people, they won’t be relevant, but if you open up this other world of knowledge and information, then you make the knowledge that’s contained in these artifacts available to everybody

Has there been any resistance to this?

I haven’t heard resistance from collectors. If they’re not going to share their information, they’re just not going to do it. We get our data from catalogs, but because the manuscript data is always attributed to a source, there aren’t any copyright restrictions. When I’ve talked about it to library professionals and conservators, the big area of resistance is the fact that we don’t make claims about the truth of our data. We have medievalists, we have people who have published catalogs, and they’ve done all the research in this way. Everyone knows while there’s definitely a need for that kind of work and analysis, no catalog is ever 100 percent correct. Someone’s always going to disagree with something that you said about a book.
One of the things that the database provides is the ability to do a quick inventory of a collection so you can go into a library that’s under threat and say these manuscripts are here today, because they may not be there tomorrow.

What do you enjoy about your work?

The [Database] team is manuscript scholars and programmers, and the conversations that we have on a weekly basis can be so profound in some ways. It’s fascinating to think about how you’re going to structure information and make it available to the widest possible audience.
We’re as interested in the large idea as we are in the minutia and the relationship between the detail and the big picture, and it’s exciting to be a part of this. It’s like being in a start-up and we’re busy and have too much to do, but we have the freedom to learn from our failures and explore.