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Rare Medieval Manuscripts Examined Via the Internet

by Kathleen Scalise, Public Affairs
posted November 4, 1998

In an experiment using the latest methods in technology and distance learning, scholars on opposite coasts -- at Berkeley and Columbia University in New York -- are team-teaching a Medieval Studies 205 class via the Internet.

On Oct. 23 the class examined rare medieval manuscripts too valuable and fragile to be handled regularly, and learned how fraudulent manuscripts can be detected.

Both universities are famous for their extensive and rare medieval manuscript collections, dating from the 8th century through the 15th century.

The distance learning class introduces students to the Middle Ages through these valuable primary source materials.

"It is clear that no university in the country has the resources to teach everything," said Charles Faulhaber, director of the Bancroft Library, who organized the course and planned the team-teaching assignments. "Together, however, we can do just that. This course is an experiment to see whether it will be possible for very different institutions to teach collaboratively, sharing faculty and library resources through the medium of the web and distance learning technologies."

Almost every session of the course is taught by a different professor. The Oct. 23 class was taught by Robert Brentano, chair of the Academic Senate and a professor of history, and Anthony Bliss, Berkeley's curator of rare books and manuscripts.

The manuscripts seen via computer were digitized through the Digital Scriptorium project, a web database of 10,000 images of important research materials based mainly on medieval documents from Berkeley and Columbia. The project is housed on a Berkeley web site ( and is funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Columbia's manuscripts, also in the Berkeley database, are among the images viewed online by the class. Some sessions of the class will be taught by Columbia instructors from their New York distance learning facility, and others from campus. The class syllabus and list of instructors can be viewed at

On Nov. 6, the tables turn and Berkeley students will be the ones instructed from far away. They will learn about gothic architecture with Columbia professor Steven Murray.

Two huge computer screens measuring five feet across diagonally are used in the class. At Berkeley, one screen shows Columbia students in their classroom and the other screen displays the fragile documents being examined. Students at Columbia can see the Berkeley class and instructor, as well as the manuscript images. The large video screens and complex audio technology involved allow students at distant campuses to see and hear each other, ask questions and work together as if they were in a traditional seminar course.


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