A Virtual Medieval Studies Reading Room at UIUC

WESS Newsletter

Fall 2007, Vol. 31, No. 1


In late 2001 the University of Illinois Library at Urbana-Champaign came up with an innovative way to approximate a Medieval Studies Reading Room without an actual room. Using web-based technology, the library launched the Medieval Studies Program Library Resources (MSPLR) Website, an interdisciplinary site devoted to all areas of the Middle Ages. This virtual room is an excellent example of the creative possibilities of web-based technologies to meet the growing demand for interdisciplinary library resources that can serve unique academic populations, such as faulty and students in Medieval Studies. Moreover it demonstrates the power of cooperation between librarians, library administrators and teaching faculty.

Medieval Studies at UIUC
The origins of the web site can be traced back to the late 1990s when faculty at UIUC came together to develop the Medieval Studies Program. A number of American and Canadian universities have long had such programs (Stanford, Notre Dame, University of Wisconsin, and University of Toronto, to name a few). The mission of UIUC’s Program is “to foster the interdisciplinary and cross-cultural study of the history, literature, art, sociology, religion, philosophy, archeology and languages of the European continent, Scandinavia, the Near East and the Mediterranean region in the period from approximately the 4th to the 15th centuries.” Moreover, the Program seeks to bring together scholars and students at the UIUC as well as from other U.S. and European institutions. To achieve these goals the Program provides Team-taught interdisciplinary courses as well as sponsors seminars, colloquia, and conferences. For instance The State of Medieval Studies conference held in spring 2003 brought a number of prominent international medievalists, such as Miri Rubin, Aldo Scaglione, and Michel Zink. For interested graduate students the Program offers a Certificate in Medieval Studies.

One of the Program’s first initiatives was to ask the Library for a reading room for housing major reference tools and holding formal and informal meetings. Several reasons lay behind the request, one being the research process of medievalists. Most medievalists require extensive textual sources to carry out their investigations. For example, a scholar working on a twelfth-century English Latin text will most likely need–and often at the same time–a number of specialized materials such as manuscript facsimiles, editions, translations, dictionaries, lexicons, and paleographic tools. In 2001, most library resources for medieval studies were either in the Main Stacks or scattered throughout unit libraries across campus and many formed part of non-circulating reference sections, making simultaneous consultation practically impossible. A second argument for the room was social: faculty and students wanted a physical space where they could gather to exchange ideas, host talks, and work collectively.

The Library’s response
Karen Schmidt, then Assistant Librarian for Collections, readily responded to the medievalists’ needs and implemented a committee of interested teaching and library faculty, known as the Medieval Studies Bibliographic Committee, to investigate developing a room of this type. After a number of meetings, it became clear that several obstacles would prevent the creation of such a space for the immediate future. The greatest was the lack of adequate housing. Like most research libraries in the U.S., all feasible space at the UIUC Library is in use at present and there are no plans to extend it. Another barrier was the reluctance of departmental librarians to part with key resources. Some forty (the number changes annually) departmental libraries make up the UIUC system. Nine libraries (all in the Arts and Humanities Division plus the Main Stacks and Reference Library) purchase and house materials relating to medieval studies. De-accessioning major reference and circulating items would leave gaps in collections and as a result diminish the unit libraries’ abilities to serve their users effectively. A third stumbling block was the lack of funding for new materials or a librarian or staff member to guard the collection and/or answer reference queries.

Refusing to be constrained by physical space, the committee under the guidance of Tom Kilton, then Head of Modern Languages and Linguistics Library (ML&L Library), proposed a virtual medieval studies reading room in the form of a website. He also offered to host it. ML&L Library was already home to the successful Jewish Studies Web Site. So why not a comparable site for the medieval studies? Kilton asked me to work on the design and maintenance of the site. (At that time I was a recent Ph.D. in medieval art history and Graduate Assistant at ML&L Library). This gave me the opportunity to put together several sketches with different organizations and graphics and the presented them to the committee for approval. A subject-based structure with additional pages for Internet links and online resources was deemed best. The main subject areas chosen were: art, drama, history, literature, music, philosophy, religion, and manuscript studies. Teaching and library faculty provided lists of resources in their subject areas.

MSPLR website today
The MSPLRW website has undergone significant changes since its inception. Major additions have been: increased number of Internet resources (gateways and subject-based sites); a section devoted solely to Dante studies, an important subject on campus; and the development of pages dedicated to the visual arts, such as extensive lists of the Library’s many facsimiles by type of book and online image databases featuring medieval art from around the world. Multiple titles for medieval manuscripts often make finding facsimiles of them in the Library’s online catalog difficult. Thus the MSPLR’s list serves as an important finding aid. With regard to appearance, the site received a new face in 2003 with new layout and graphics that feature images from a manuscript housed at the Library’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

Other initiatives
As the MSPLR website was developing, Bruce Swann, Librarian for Classics, responded to faculty need by offering to place in the Classics Library a number of items housed in the Library’s Main Stack as well as full runs of important works long divided between the Classics Library and the Main Stacks. These materials greatly enhance the Classics Library’s already rich collection of reference materials for medieval studies and make scholarship on medieval Latin much easier. To determine the selection of items, Swann used the shelflist of Notre Dame’s Medieval Studies room, which teaching faculty generously provided.

Advantages of the website
There are a number of advantages to the MSPLR website. For the library, the site does not take up precious physical space (just server space). The purchase of second-copies is avoided, which in these tough budget times is important. Additionally, older, out-of-print resources need not be pulled from unit libraries, which would in turn result in diminished collections. Moreover, the site needs little staffing and for this reason is cost effective. One of my current tasks is to host the site with the help of teaching faculty and subject librarians, who send updates. As an Internet resource, the site promotes the Library’s rich holdings as well as makes them available worldwide (except for access to subscription-based databases). For teaching faculty and students, the site reflects their interests and needs, is available 24/7 from anywhere, and does not privilege them over another group on campus.

To visit the site, go to http://www.library.uiuc.edu/mdx/medstud/medstudies.htm

Paula Mae Carns
Spanish, Italian and Portuguese Specialist and Assistant Professor of Library Administration
University of Illinois Library at Urbana-Champaign