The Walters Ex Libris



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The Walters Art Museum holds a world-renowned Rare Books and Manuscripts Collection that includes almost 900 beautifully illuminated manuscripts (hand written and decorated texts), about 1,300 incunabula (the first printed books made before 1500), and around 2,000 rare books (printed after 1500). The collection contains codices from around the world and spans over 1,000 years, from the 9th to the 20th century.

The Walters Ex Libris website currently displays 433 Manuscripts, 8176 Illuminated Folios, and 136610 Folios.

Highlights of the collection include Ethiopian and Byzantine Gospel books, French and Flemish Books of Hours, and masterpieces from the Safavid, Mughal, and Ottoman Empires. Intricate bindings crafted by Louis Comfort Tiffany, a diary kept by Napoleon Bonaparte, and first printed editions of ancient texts by Aristotle and Euclid are just a few of many intriguing books found within the collection. Because digitization is an ongoing process, some of these exceptional works have yet to be published on this site. The Walters has digitized over half of its manuscripts and looks forward to continuing this work. Some codices are unable to be imaged due to extreme fragility, inordinately large or small sizes, or a combination of both.


The Walters began digitizing its collection of manuscripts in 2008 when it won a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). Along with digitizing the manuscripts, this grant provided funding for the purchase of specialized equipment made by Stokes Imaging and laid the groundwork for our digitization process. From then until April 2015, creation of the images and cataloging metadata on this site were largely supported by grants awarded to the Walters by the NEH. The first grant, Islamic Manuscripts of the Walters Art Museum: A Digital Resource (2008-2011), focused on the museum's collection of 128 illuminated Islamic manuscripts and single leaves. Parchment to Pixel: Creating a Digital Resource of Medieval Manuscripts (2010-2013) funded the digitization of 105 German, Russian, Armenian, Byzantine, Ethiopian, Dutch, English, and Spanish manuscripts. Imaging the Hours: Creating a Digital Resource of Flemish Books of Hours (2013-2015) included the digitization of 112 Flemish manuscripts, many of which are elaborately illuminated Books of Hours, dating from 1200 to 1600. Additional funding was provided by an anonymous donor. Beginning in April 2015, the museum was able to absorb the cost of ongoing digitization into its regular operating budget which has broadened the scope to encompass incunabula and rare books.

Why digitize?

The mission of the Walters Art Museum is to bring art and people together for enjoyment, discovery, and learning. In support of this mission, the Walters was an early adopter of an open-access approach to its collection and remains committed to innovative sharing of collection information.

Books pose uniquely complex challenges within the museum, which makes them ideal candidates for digitization. Parchment, paper, and other materials that make up these objects are particularly sensitive to light and humidity. This means that at the Walters, these objects cannot be exhibited more than once a year, and when they are, it is for a maximum of three months. Individual pages can only be exhibited once every five years, and a single manuscript might contain over a thousand pages. Digitization ensures that these fragile objects are able to be studied closely while being handled as little as possible.

How do we do it?

The first stop in a book's journey through digitization is the conservation lab, where it's closely inspected to assess its condition and stabilized as necessary. Once it's cleared through conservation, initial cataloging can begin. The book then goes to the digitization lab for imaging. The entire book is fully digitized, including blank pages, bindings, and bookmarks. The images are then delivered to the Digital Walters, the museum's online image repository for this collection. In-depth cataloging is then published to the Digital Walters by the curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts, thus completing the book's journey. The images and cataloging information together become the book's digital surrogate, which is released under a CC0 license. All digital surrogates are made machine-readable by utilizing the XML format TEI. This open-access format enables the book's digital life to continue and grow in a myriad of ways.

Walters Ex Libris is one example of how the Digital Walters provides the raw materials that makes exciting features possible. Here users can perform dynamic searches and explore the collection in engaging ways. A page turning application makes it easy to explore a manuscript from cover to cover and accompanying cataloging information can be referenced for the entire book as well as individual pages as you browse.

Contact Us

Please email with any questions or comments.

We're on Flickr. Thousands of digitized illuminated folios have been annotated and uploaded to the Walters Art Museum Illuminated Manuscripts photostream.

Follow us on Twitter @MedievalMSS for fun facts and highlights.


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