Computers in Libraries
Vol. 22, No. 4 April 2002

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My Quest Across the Digital Divide to Save the Slavic Manuscripts
by Tatiana Nikolova-Houston

Here is a sampling of images that I managed to save on CDs.
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Like many of you, I am a librarian. While earning an M.S. and an M.L.I.S., I worked with special collections at the Society of Folk Dance Historians, Saint Elias Orthodox Church, the University Catholic Center, and the Austin (Texas) Graduate School of Theology. I created electronic catalogs for some and advised others on preservation. Seeing the needs of these institutions, I decided to pursue a Certificate of Specialization, and that led to the quest that I'll describe here.

What started this quest? While researching a homework assignment in 1999, I stumbled across the Summer School in Digital Preservation of Slavic Medieval Manuscripts in Sofia, Bulgaria. When I discovered those deeply hidden collections, rent and silently suffering the dust and mold, I decided to dedicate my life to salvaging them from the devastations of time. I attended the Summer School, which convinced me of the manuscripts' value and their need for help. Thus started my education in digital preservation and access, and my quest to save the treasured Slavic medieval manuscripts.

In the U.S., I spent more than 2 years fighting many battles, slaying the dragons of computer technology, preservation and conservation technology, and global ignorance of the importance of manuscripts. I saturated my mind and heart with digitization theory. Then appeared the dragons of anxiety over the complex technological issues, and my own lack of strength. Yet, where there is a will, there is a way!

I applied for and failed to receive grants to go back to Bulgaria, but the manuscripts could not wait. Back in November 2000, with my own money matched by funds raised from my church parish, I had donated a computer to the manuscript collection at the Historical and Archival Church Institute (HACI) in Bulgaria while I was there for a conference. This donation opened the portals to the collection and, a year later, HACI invited me to conduct research there through an academic practicum. So in September 2001, I armed myself with a laptop computer, a digital camera, a CD burner, and an inkjet printer, and I found myself again in Bulgaria, digitizing one of the great medieval manuscript collections. During the 3 months I spent at HACI this past winter, I created an electronic catalog of its holdings and conducted a digitization pilot project, producing CDs that contain images of its most endangered and most beautiful treasures. I found my grail.

Now I will share with you the story of my quest, starting with a bit of background on the nature of Slavic medieval manuscripts and the digital divide between East and West. Then I'll tell you how I approached the delicate digitization projects of this extraordinary special collection.

Bulgarian Manuscripts
Bulgaria, a nation for over 1,300 turbulent years, nurtured the Slavic literacy of Sts. Cyril and Methodius, and Bulgarian scribes documented and transmitted the remnants of classical Greek civilization throughout Eastern Europe. Yet the Renaissance came late to Bulgaria, and her Slavic works remain inaccessible and unknown to the Western world.

Although all special collections with holdings of medieval manuscripts follow similar guidelines and protocols for preservation and access, manuscript collections vary in their arrangement, quality of facilities, environmental control, staff, and levels of preservation and access. In Eastern Europe, foreign money and expertise have improved the condition of some holdings through specialists such as David Birnbaum from the University of Pittsburgh and Masudu and Kozhi Okamoto from Japan.

The HACI collection of 1,509 manuscripts and early printed books from the 10th to 19th centuries stands out as a research institution and repository of valuable manuscripts and archival documents. Among the early printed books, it holds incunabula, the first edition of the famous 1581 Bible, and other beautifully gold-illuminated manuscripts. Its miniatures with gold-plated frontispieces of the Evangelists rank amongthe most beautiful of the Bulgarian manuscript decorations created during the Turkish subjugation. Over the last 10 years, Slavic scholars from Macedonia, Russia, Greece, Germany, Italy, France, and Belgium, in a variety of fields such as linguistics, paleography and codicology, history, art history, theology, medieval studies and literature, and Byzantine musicology, have utilized the collection. Still, many foreign scholars do not know of its existence, and even I, diligently studying the field and fluent in Bulgarian, discovered it only by chance while doing the aforementioned homework assignment.

The State of Information Technology in Bulgaria
We talk about the "digital divide" as the gap between societally advantaged individuals who use computers and the Internet and the societally disadvantaged who do not. Well, this "digital divide" also exists between the economically advantaged nations and the disadvantaged world, including the former Soviet Bloc, and specifically, the country of my birth, Bulgaria. The divide deprives both sides of many treasures of human knowledge.

Special librarianship in Bulgaria poses special challenges because of the economic crisis in the country and the fragility of the objects, juxtaposed against the fantastic intellectual and intrinsic wealth of the collections. Although Bulgaria has a National Program for the Preservation of Library Collections, it extends only to microphotography. 1 Only two National Library manuscripts had been digitized when I embarked on my project, and thosecame from the UNESCO "Memory of the World" project. A few digital photography studios have appeared in the capital, Sofia, but digital cameras remain outside the reach of ordinary citizens and research institutions.

You might think that Bulgaria ignores the digital revolution. Not so! Slavic linguists have approached the issue of preservation and access from a unique angle, starting from groundbreaking computer processing of manuscripts into SGML text encoded for the Web. The Bulgarian Academy of Science­Institute of Bulgarian Literature has worked since 1994 on the project "Repertory of Medieval Bulgarian Literature and Letters," applying information technology to the study of medieval Slavic manuscripts by encoding them to include the practices of modern archaeology, paleography, codicology, and textology to create an electronic union catalog. 2 Digital images, however, have lagged behind the coding and cataloging efforts.

"Access" implies different things to different people. For us, the library professionals, access implies an electronic catalog, perhaps with online capabilities for remote users. One such example is the union catalog published by Hilandar Research Center, 3 providing bibliographical access to some 2,300 Slavic medieval manuscripts stored on microfilm and derived from 33 collections worldwide. This MARC-based union catalog provides useful descriptive summaries of the contents of those collections and multiple access points to the collection. For others, however, access implies the ability to actually see and read the object or an image of the object.

Stuart Lee asked "Is digitization worth it?" in his article for the May 2001 issue of Computers in Libraries, echoing other voices in the wilderness of digitization projects. His book, Digital Imaging: A Practical Handbook, 4 helped me to understand the entire process of digitization, holistically and strategically. For me, the answer blazed forth in letters of fire: Digitize! My Web quests of 2000 had revealed no digitized South Slavic medieval manuscripts, compared with multitudinous sites dedicated to the treasures of the Latin West. 5 I decided to make visible to the rest of the world this significant facet of human heritage, this missing link in the evolution of Western civilization, these medieval treasures.

Going to Bulgaria and Beginning the Real Work
Six days before the tragic events of September 11, my lively 6-year-old daughter and I packed several bags with electronic equipment and set out on our trip. The flights were difficult and problems accompanied us along the way. For instance, we missed connections due to a storm in New York; destinations changed; luggage vanished. But finally we arrived in Bulgaria, somehow only an hour late in the scheduled 13-hour trip. After parental embraces, we headed home for a much-needed rest.

A week later, I began the long weekends at HACI in Sofia, and worked on the database and digital images at home. I would remain there until November 25.

Organizing the Collection via Electronic Catalogs
HACI had been working on a descriptive catalog for several years with no projected date of completion. The staff of academic historians lacked a true archivist or librarian. I knew, as you know, that electronic catalogs provide incredible search capabilities and facilitate all sorts of research and conservation measures, and I resolved first to build their electronic catalog. Building the catalog (I used Microsoft Access) helped me to understand the collection as a whole and as individual items, and to collect statistical information about its physical condition. I examined the existing inventory of books and all existing descriptive catalogs of the collection and verified each datum against the other sources.

I chose my database field labels based on several works: the 10-year-old "collection condition and inventory" book, two basic published descriptive catalogs of the Greek and Slavic collections, and by individually examining items. I extracted 13 types of essential information that would identify each manuscript and describe its physical condition:

1. Inventory number
2. Title
3. Date (century or year)
4. Material (parchment, bombycine, or paper)
5. Medium (manuscript or printed)
6. Ethnic origin (Slavic, Bulgarian, Greek, Russian, Serbian, Jewish, Armenian)
7. Pagination and size
8. Presence of preservation (non-acidic) folder
9. Damages to the binding
10. Overall condition of the binding (excellent, good, satisfactory, bad)
11. Damages to the text block
12. Overall condition of the text block
13. Additional notes about emergency cases for restoration of manuscripts
This catalog, although very concise, still supplied the staff and the users with an increased degree of order and logical sequence, authentication, identification, standardization of language, authority control, searchability, and ability to create classification and systematization schemes.

This catalog of information enabled me to understand the history of Bulgarian book production and to identify patterns and trends. The history of manuscript production parallels historical events to trace paths of distribution and to find milestones such as changes of medium: parchment to paper, manuscript to printed format. Finally, this catalog enabled me to gather accurate statistical information about the collection that I can use on applications for support from sponsoring agencies. I spent about 70 hours in creating that electronic catalog of 1,509 items, but the results were tremendous. Later I delivered that catalog to interested research institutions in Bulgaria and in North America for their reference.

Discussing Digitization
After creating the catalog, but before considering digitization as a viable option for access, I talked at length with the director, the staff, and the scholar-users of this collection. My survey revealed that the majority of the scholars would not object to using an electronic copy of a manuscript, yet a great many of them implied that they would always like to consult the original. We agreed at this stage to digitize for access purposes rather than for high-resolution archival purposes, to create CD-ROMs for local use of scholars and for other institutions, and later to create a Web site dedicated to Slavic Medieval Manuscripts for remote users. We decided to create images for access because of the large digital storage requirements of high-resolution, archival images. (However, for the next stage of digitization, we will use archival-quality digital imaging and special conservation treatment for the most endangered manuscripts.)

This selection process required the most time and effort. Again, I consulted with the HACI staff and users, and I also examined the usage log for the institution, which listed manuscripts requested for study from 1990 to 2001. This thorough analysis produced patterns of manuscript usage and scholars' preferences for certain genres, titles, and periods of production. In the end, parchment manuscripts, the "Greek Collection," items in the worst physical state, and items most used headed our list. Our fundamental criteria came from Hazen, Horrell, and Merrill-Oldham's criteria for selection. 6

Some technical experts try to scare us with too-high standards. Yet, a sense of sobriety always comes to me from the pioneering experience of the National Library of the Czech Republic Manuscript Digitization Projects. They relied on their users, the researchers, rather than on technical experts, to define standards for image quality. My experience paralleled theirs. I surveyed the HACI users and found that they valued the information, i.e., the text, the marginal notes, or the ornamentation. They wanted the image rather than the object, per se. They appreciated the availability of the access tool, the CD-ROM. True, researchers of primary materials sometimes need to touch the object to identify with it, and these users were no different. Yet the eyes of ancient scribes resemble the eyes of contemporary scholars, according to Stanislav Psohlavec, director and one of the digitization experts at the Czech National Library, 7 justifying research from images rather than from objects.

We decided that the most endangered manuscripts deserved special treatment first. By digitizing them, we could provide examples of the desperate physical condition to show to resource-granting agencies. Then, we chose superb specimens of artistic and intellectual endeavor to represent Slavic manuscript heritage on the Web.

To discover the limits of digitization, we experimented with national church history photographs from the 19th century, and to establish time requirements, I digitized a special 1771 copy of a Bulgarian chronicle, Istoria Slavyanobolgarskaya, 240 pages, in about 90 minutes.

The Equipment I Used
I purchased a 3.3 megapixel Toshiba PDR-M70 digital camera, able to achieve high-quality and high-resolution images of up to 2048 x 1536 pixels. The camera proved to be easy to learn, use, and carry. The images, stored in its Smart Media card, downloaded to the computer easily. Writing to CD-ROM presented no problems, although I must study multimedia presentation to make future images more appealing and useful. I took a Hewlett-Packard 840C color printer to share the images with HACI, and it too presented no problems, producing stunning color photos of the manuscripts.

The Works That I've Saved
Seven CD-ROMs emerged from this project:

1. "Endangered Manuscripts from HACI," containing the most harmed manuscripts. This should be useful for fundraising.

2. "The Treasures from HACI," containing superlative aesthetic images, also useful for fundraising

3. "Istoria Slavyanobolgarskaya," the chronicle mentioned above

4. "Bulgarian Church History of the 19th Century," the national church history thematic photograph collection

Subsequently, I visited Rilski monastery in southwest Bulgaria, one of the major medieval scriptoria and libraries of the 12th to 15th century Balkans, where I created a fifth CD-ROM: "The Treasures of Rilski Monastery."

Rumors among scholars in Sofia hinted at treasures in Gabrovo, my hometown. I returned to Gabrovo and discovered two neglected manuscripts that became the subjects of two final CD-ROMs: "The Life and Service of St. Onuphrius," a manuscript from the Mount Athos monastery concerning the life of St. Onuphrius of Gabrovo; and "Chronicle of Hieromonk Spiridon," the only extant copy of this famous document, housed in the Gabrovo Historical Archive. All of these images have proved of great interest to the scholarly community.

How good are the images? They do not compare with those of digitization experts who use tripods, copy stands, archival-quality resolution, and special lighting. Field conditions cannot compare with studio work, and the wise curator does not allow objects to leave the storage facility. Yet, with limited experience and funds and under field conditions, I achieved my goals, producing images that amazed and pleased the scholars who used them.

What I've Done So Far; What I Have Yet to Do
In sum, I spent 200 hours, $1,100 on equipment, and $1,000 on travel to create the electronic catalog and the seven CDs. Nothing lasts forever, but the images of manuscripts that I digitized should continue to benefit scholars for years to come and also help to preserve the manuscripts from excessive handling. Yes, one person can make a difference.

I again have applied for grants to help provide digital access and preservation to the HACI collection and to other collections. Soon, I will construct a Web site featuring the manuscripts with historical context, and someday I hope to expand the site into a virtual reunification of all existing Slavic manuscripts. Next year, I would like to help the Bulgarian library community to create a National Digitization Program and Strategic Policy in Digital Preservation. Will my quest result in the deeds actually being done? I don't know. Will the deeds occur without the quest? Definitely not.

I hope that we in the West will appreciate more what we already have, and that this article will inspire and guide you to make your special collection more accessible even if you have only limited resources at hand. 

Would You Like to Help Save the Manuscripts?

Like most other Eastern European cultural institutions, HACI became an orphan in 1990 with the fall of the Soviet empire, without financial resources and in a devastated state of preservation. The HACI collection receives no money at all for any activity, and therefore depends entirely on the kindness of friends and strangers. If you would like to help, please contact me at or 512/478-9676. All funds received, every cent, will be spent on equipment and supplies for digitization of medieval manuscripts, books, and related historical documents.

Please understand the situation, and please help us to build the global library community that will bridge the "digital divide" between us and our Eastern European colleagues. We will enrich our understanding of the development of Western civilization, and will enhance our collections with access to a new world of information and resources.


1. National Program for the Preservation of Library Collections. Sofia, 1997, p. 26.

2. Miltenova, Anisava and Birnbaum, David. Medieval Slavic Manuscripts and SGML: Problems and Perspectives. Sofia, Bulgaria: Marin Drinov Publishing House, 2000, p. 6.

3. Matejic, Predrag and Thomas, Hannah. Catalog: Manuscripts on Microform of the Hilandar Research Library. Columbus, Ohio: Resource Center for Medieval Studies, 1992, p. VII.

4. Lee, Stuart. Digital Imaging: A Practical Handbook. Published in the U.K. by Library Association Publishing, October 2000; and in the U.S. by Neal-Schuman Publishers, Inc., 2001.

5. Nikolova-Houston, Tatiana. "The Internet and the Virtual Scriptorium of Slavic Medieval Manuscripts: Preservation and Access," proceedings of the international conference Libraries in the Age of the Internet. Sofia, Bulgaria, November 8­10, 2001.

6. Hazen, Dan; Horrell, Jeffrey; and Merrill-Oldham, Jan. Selecting Research Collections for Digitization. Commission on Preservation and Access, CLIR, August, 1998.

7. Psohlavec, Stanislav. "Digitization of Manuscripts in the National Library of the Czech Republic" in Microfilm and Imaging Review: vol. 27, no.1, Winter 1998, p. 22.

Tatiana Nikolova-Houston is the librarian at the University Catholic Center in Austin, Texas, and at other special collections, including the Society of Folk Dance Historians. Among other graduate degrees, she holds an M.L.I.S. from the University ofTexas­Austin. She continues to focus on medieval manuscripts and on preservation administration. She has presented a paper at the Libraries in the Age of the Internet conference in Sofia, Bulgaria, in November, 2000; completed coursework at the Summer Slavic Medieval Institute at the Hilandar Research Center at Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio, in 2001; and completed a practicum at the HACI in Sofia, Bulgaria, in fall 2001. Her e-mail address is
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