MASTER: Manuscript Access through Standards for Electronic Records

This description of the MASTER project was written for the Centre for Technology and the Arts (the predecessor to the Centre for Textual Studies) in 1999 and expresses the project's central philosophy and purpose. To the left you will find links the key documents generated by the project, including a gentle introduction to the technical methods used, a description of the resources to be made, a descriptive list of the partner organizations in the project, a description of cataloguing rules used by the project, and a description of the various work-packages showing which partner is responsible for each.

The needs and opportunities

The great manuscript collections of European libraries are central to our common European heritage. Computer imaging of these manuscripts may make these manuscripts available, over networks, to many more people than ever before. However, before this can happen the manuscripts must all be catalogued into computer-readable form. At present, very few manuscripts are described this way. There is no agreed standard for computer-readable manuscript records. Many manuscript libraries lack the computer skills and support to develop manuscript cataloguing systems.

Project approach and technologies

MASTER will address all these issues. It will develop an agreed international standard, based on the Text Encoding Intitiative implementation of Standard Generalized Markup Language, for manuscript records. It will develop systems to help libraries make the records, so that even small libraries can make them. MASTER will create at least two thousand records using these methods, and make these and the standard available on the Internet, in a prototype publishing system. The standard will be designed to permit easy translation into other computer formats. The publishing demonstrator will be designed to be usable by people with little knowledge of manuscripts and will link to many manuscript images. Thus, it may bring the manuscripts to a much wider community.

MASTER is a consortium of libraries and archives, together holding several hundred thousand manuscripts, and of experts in text encoding and digital library systems. It is closely linked to the United States Mellon-funded Electronic Access to Medieval Manuscripts project (EAMMS), led by Columbia University, and to the joint US/EU funded Text Encoding Initiative project (TEI). The manuscript description developed by MASTER should achieve world-wide acceptance through the collaboration between MASTER, EAMMS and the TEI. The project will build on joint work already done by the partners during the EAMMS and TEI projects, and at a planning meeting in Oxford in 1996. This will allow effective work to begin immediately.

Impact and benefits

The availability of the standard and of the records made with the standard will have a considerable impact on the world of manuscript work. Further, the project will develop efficient methods for making records in the standard format, usable by less well-resourced libraries. The project will promote use of these methods and the associated standard through a series of seminars in its late stages. The project's outcomes should thereby come to influence a wider group of manuscript libraries.

Mounting of these records will also enable linking of the descriptions to digital images of the manuscripts themselves. Thus, the online catalogue could become the primary gateway for all access to the manuscripts. This ease of access will also enable a wider use of manuscripts.


In the project's final stages, the use made of the public demonstrator will be assessed and assessment made of charging systems, to enable it to become a sustainable service. The methods developed by the project may also be developed similarly, again with the object of developing a charging model to facilitate their maintenance and development for use by libraries across Europe and beyond.


  1. To establish a single interchange standard for both first-level (abbreviated) and full descriptions of manuscripts, through two phases of development
  2. To test the standard, refining it as needed, on descriptions of at least five thousand manuscripts, in different collections across Europe, by the end of the project
  3. To document fully the standard, which will be developed in partnership with the Text Encoding Initiative workgroup on manuscript description
  4. To develop software systems to permit libraries with relatively few resources to make simple descriptive records, and provide means for elaboration of these into fully-detailed records
  5. To publish at least five thousand manuscript descriptions on the Internet, with specialized search software and linked to some manuscript images and full text manuscript transcripts, in a prototype on-line manuscript union catalogue and advanced manuscript publication system, by the end of the project
  6. Through 5: to bring the manuscripts to many more people