2 minutes to read Posted on Monday October 26, 2020

Bringing the past back to life with the Estense Digital Library

The ‘Biblioteca Estense’ in Modena has its roots in the book and manuscript collection of the House of Este. The library, together with four other heritage sites, belongs to the 'Gallerie Estensi’, a museum centered around the vast collections of this prestigious Italian dynasty. The library has embraced digital solutions to share its collections online, and in this post, Martina Bagnoli, the director of the ‘Gallerie Estensi’, presents the newly launched ‘Estense Digital Library’.

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Title: Carta del Cantino
Date: 1502
Institution: Biblioteca Estense Universitaria
Country: Italy

The Biblioteca Estense Universitaria has recently launched a new digital platform which brings the institution’s rich and varied collections to the fingertips of students, teachers, scholars and whoever takes an interest in them. The platform, called the Estense Digital Library (EDL for short), contains the library’s entire collection of maps and musical documents, as well as the archives of Ludovico Antonio Muratori (1672 - 1750), an eminent Italian scholar who was archivist and librarian at the Estense Court in the first half of the 18th century.  In total, about 8,453 documents are now available on EDL, and we plan to add a thousand more in the coming year. Users will be able to leaf through these precious and fragile documents through 750,000 high-resolution images.  

Bringing together records in an interoperable platform

The platform uses the International Image Interoperability Framework (IIIF), as a set of standards which allow users to annotate and share documents with each other, and more importantly, compare works published on other digital repositories using the same protocol. The growing number of libraries adhering to the IIIF consortium means that EDL benefits  from an ever-expanding universe of digital resources. Currently, EDL allows users to browse through not only the Biblioteca Estense’s own resources but also those of other libraries that use the same protocol, and so EDL allows access to over one million historical documents related to the Estense collection. This trove of information is gathered together by MediaLibraryOnline (MLOL), a platform utilized by 6,500 Italian libraries which manages  the front end of the EDL portal.  

One of EDL’s greatest accomplishments has been to bring together the records from different historical inventories and library catalogues into an online, unified register. Up until now, patrons of the library had to rely on a wide array of different sources to search through the collections, most of which were not available online. That was true also for the collections of maps, musical documents and the archives of Ludovico Antonio Muratori. Data about these holdings comes from over eleven different sources. In this respect, EDL is not  the end of a cataloguing project but stands as a starting point for the reassessment and investigation of the Estense collections. By publishing what we know about our documents, we want to bring attention to them, especially the lesser-known and studied holdings. 

Title: Detail from ' Trattenimento musicale sopra il violoncello a solo'
Creator: Domenico Galli
Date: 17th century
Institution: Biblioteca Estense Universitaria
Country: Italy

Tools for exploring the collections

The ease with which images and data can be accessed and shared on EDL makes the portal a resource for anyone who is interested in browsing through archival material but is not necessarily an expert. The portal also offers scholars and researchers an array of new tools to facilitate the sharing of information as well as the study and analysis of documents.  Watch a video about the platform (in Italian).

The annotation tool allows people to share details of pages, images and music directly onto the user’s social platform of choice, while also using the Mirador image viewing platform to select and annotate them. Images can be annotated and every annotation recorded on lists that can be either private or public. The story tool is also particularly relevant for teaching and presenting and we hope it will be used widely. Entire volumes, single pages or even minute details can be selected to appear with commentaries in digital presentation, the so-called Stories, which again can be kept private or made public.

Future plans

The work on EDL has just begun. The platform will continue to grow as more resources are digitised and added to the portal. This autumn, we are starting the digitisation of precious illustrated manuscripts dating back to the Italian Renaissance. We aim to share our collections through Europeana in the near future.

The project has been supported by Fondazione Modena in the context of AGO Modena Fabbriche Culturali. To research and catalogue the collection, the library has collaborated with the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia. The companies that worked on the projects are MLOL, Hyperborea, Mida, Franco Cosimo Panini. More information about these partners is available here. To continue growing, the project started a crowdfunding campaign - for those interested in contributing, more information is available here. If you are aware of any data that needs updating, please contact ga-esten@beniculturali.it.