The IEG and our DH Lab is involved in ReIReS, a joint project building infrastructure on religious studies, about which my colleague Jaap Geraerts already wrote here. In February 2020 I had a chance to visit a ReIReS-school on the “Use and Study of Special Documents”, organized by Mathijs Lamberigts (Professor at the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies) and Isaak Deman at KU Leuven (Katholieke Universiteit Leuven). The aim of the school was to introduce the scholars to the collections of the libraries and archives of the University related to theology and religious studies.
I want to share some topics that I found interesting from a perspective of a digital humanist. I also want to share my experience, since in the time of the pandemic the organisation of “train-the-trainer” (like this or this) sessions are currently problematic.
The future of libraries in the Digital Age
The library of KU Leuven began in the 17th century, some 200 years after the foundation of the university itself. In 1968 the University was split into two: a Flemish-language university Katholieke Universiteit Leuven (KU Leuven), and the Université catholique de Louvain, which moved to Louvain-la-Neuve in the French-speaking part of Belgium.
The fate of the collection of a French paleographer and a manuscript specialist named Henri Omont illustrates the historical development of the archive and the modern solutions. Henri Omont worked at the beginning of the twentieth century and possessed numerous incunabula and the most important reference work of that time. His collection was purchased by the KU Leuven and later divided between the “sister” universities. Though this division of the collection could be considered fair on a symbolic level, it was a challenge for researchers to work with “divided” manuscripts. This issue could be resolved some 50 years later, through the digitization of the collection. The separated documents could be preserved physically in the same places, while being fully available online. (The presentation of An Smets, a leading librarian and a curator of the project).
The decision to digitize the collection seems to be a logical step. After all, the requests for physical consultations of the books had been declining in the past years, explained Ward de Pril, a librarian of the Maurits Sabbe Library, since scholars and students prefer to work online. He also demonstrated that the digital collections at the Maurits Sabbe Library as well as in other libraries of the KU Leuven were growing significantly faster than printed collections and that scholars and students use the indexes of the library primarily to consult the catalog and order specific books rather than for discovery.
Although a digital copy preserves the original and provides (open) access, is it always the most inexpensive and efficient way to preserve archival materials?
To give an answer to this question Bruno Vandermeulen, the head of the Digitisation and Document Delivery of the KU Leuven, took the participants through the whole process of digitization of a collection: from planning to the final documentation of the process. Before the start of digitisation, it is important to clarify the following, said Bruno Vandermeulen: “What you do need is a clear idea of what content you have, what you want your product to be, and who it is going to serve”. After the physical process of digitisation is finished, there still is much to do: enriching the data (OCR, RDF) and metadata, ingesting the data in a repository, etc. The final phase is the image preservation – ensuring the data will be readable in the future – and a proper documentation, which are crucial for the sustainability of the project. You can have a look at detailed description of steps and challenges here.
Answering the question above, one could say that the process of digitisation is long and resource-consuming, but rewarding in terms of digital preservation and access, if the maintenance work will continue to be financed even after the project is closed.
Further, we had a chance to visit a Book Heritage Lab – an innovative expertise lab for research and conservation of manuscripts, early printed books and documentary heritage at KU Leuven. The head of the lab Lieve Watteeuw demonstrated technical opportunities of restoration on the example of Codex Eyckensis, the most ancient (eighth century) Gospel Book in Belgium.The precious book was “restored” by Karl Sievers in 1958 by adding a polyvinyl chloride (PVC) foil on the manuscript, which slowly damaged the manuscript. The pages had to be carefully delaminated in 1989 and since then a series of different restoration techniques have been applied. In 2016-7 the restoration was successfully finished with the help of a “Portable Mini Dome”, a portable Photometric Stereo Imaging tool (developed and constructed at KU Leuven) to explore and document the materiality of (documentary) heritage as an art‐technical source. More on the process of restoration and on the “Portable Mini Dome” can be found in the presentation of Lieve Watteeuw.
Databases and online sources
The aim of the school was also to introduce the participants to the main digital sources of the library and archive of KU Leuven related to Bible studies, church history, religious studies and cultural history. Eddy Louchez held a talk about Index Religiosus – a main Belgian database related to religious studies. The access to Index Religiosus is available for a fee, but there is a free trial of 30 days. (More on the databases of Brepols Publishers you may find here)
Peter Heyrman and Joris Colla talked about ODIS – Online Database for Intermediary Structures – an initiative of four cultural archives in Flanders to collect information on political movements and parties, social organisations, art and culture, churches and religion organisations. It’s worth to register and check the ODIS-database if your research question leads you to Flanders (biographical information, search of political or any other kind of organizations, etc). The content is available for free after registration.
Another helpful reference work is “Dictionnaire d’Histoire et de Géographie Ecclésiastiques”. It was initiated by the rector of the Institut Catholique de Paris and future cardinal Alfred Baudrillart (1859-1942) in 1912 in Paris. The encyclopedia gives an overview about saints, ecclesiastical ministers, theological, philosophical and historical writers and teachers, religious orders, dioceses, monasteries, places of pilgrimage, etc primarily for the French speaking regions. The ongoing digitization (started 2009) and management of the database is performed by Brepols Publishers. The articles are available only for subscribers, the index though is freely availabl.
Jesuitica collection is a part of Maurits Sabbe Library of the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies and consists of some 100,000 books. The collection was started by professor Maurits Sabbe, who brought to Leuven collections of the Flemish Jesuits at Heverlee and the collection of the Major Seminary at Malines. These two collections contained the bulk of the items in the current Jesuitica collection. The library makes regular purchases not only of ancient books but also of the most recent books and articles. The entire (not searchable) catalogue of the Jesuitica can be found here. The digital collection can be browsed on the “limo-site”.
Katholieke Universiteit Leuven is without doubt one of the leading universities on Catholic church history and theology and religious studies. It possesses an impressive ecosystem which allows it to exploit its own or buy new archival material, restore and digitize it. The University has several research units dealing with theology and religious studies: Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies and it’s Research Units: Biblical Studies, Systematic Theology and the Study of Religions, Theological and Comparative Ethics, History of Church and Theology, and Pastoral and Empirical Theology. Being a place of active scholar exchange and a very vivid student town, Leuven is a great place to discuss and present own research on the topics of theology and church history.