Reviewed August 2019
Nicholas Dease, Digital Learning Librarian
Medieval England and France, 700–1200 is an online digitized collection of 800 medieval illuminated manuscripts from the collections of the British Library and Bibliothèque nationale de France. Supported by the Polonsky Foundation, the project features two primary access points, a curated site hosted by the British Library and the full collection, which is accessible through the Bibliotheque nationale de France. According to the project’s description, the collection covers a diverse range of medieval subjects from the 8th through 12th centuries.
Novice researchers will find much to appreciate on the curated site. Content found here is designed to teach the history, themes, and craft of illuminated manuscripts. Users learn through articles, videos, and a thorough glossary of terms. The video are particularly notable as they feature high quality interviews with experts. In addition to these educational resources, a small selection of notable manuscripts is discoverable under “collection items.” The bright visuals and card-like page structure provide an excellent primer for the full collection, which is aimed more directly at advanced users.
To access the complete collection, users must navigate to the dedicated website, France et Angleterre: manuscrits médiévaux entre 700 et 1200. Here, all 800 manuscripts may be browsed, viewed, and annotated in their entirety. In addition to the standard suite of search tools, the collection may be browsed by theme, author, place, and century. This is a welcome feature that allows for quick and easy discovery. As expected, the user interface includes a search bar front and center at the top of the landing page. It allows for traditional keyword searching as well as a handful of advanced search options.
Viewing search results is akin to most modern online catalogs. There is a small array of facets to narrow down the results on the left sidebar. By default, search results include a thumbnail image of the material, a brief description of the item, and the full item metadata hidden by a dropdown tool-tip. Generally, the user interface is clean and intuitive when viewed on desktop and mobile. Sincere efforts have been made to ensure that content is fully responsive on all device sizes. However, the interface appears to lack a strong sense of visual hierarchy. This is alleviated somewhat by the stark blue backgrounds surrounding facet headings and results.
The real test of this resource comes down to the user experience when navigating digitized manuscripts. The collection’s image viewer is powered by Mirador, an open source image viewing platform. The implementation here is serviceable. Manuscripts may be navigated by using the large UI arrow handles or by clicking on thumbnails at the bottom of the image viewer. Pages appear in glorious high resolution and may be panned over and zoomed using the mouse buttons and scroll-bar respectively. Tools for cropping, image manipulation, annotation, and sharing are located on the left. Tools for downloading, adjusting view, and accessing metadata appear at the top. The user interface works wonderfully on desktop. However, individual UI elements are shockingly small on mobile interfaces and may prove difficult for some users to activate. By comparison, the icons are marginally bigger in landscape view, though mileage will vary by device. Overall, the image viewer is clunky but effective.
Ultimately, this resource is invaluable to scholars that have hitherto been unable to access these specific materials. While there are certainly user experience concerns with the full collection interface, dedicated researchers will endure these misgivings in order to access this never before seen content. Novice users may be confused by the full collection interface, but the curated site provides a pleasant introduction to these works. Together, the full package appeals to the full range of audiences that would be interested in these materials.