A virtual National Library is a dream or should we say an ideal that the BnF has been pursuing since its opening in 1998. What place is there for manuscripts and precisely modern - i. e. non medieval -ones in such a development ?
There are roughly two sides to the problem :
First there is a museographic point of view, aiming at the widest public : the virtual exhibitions presented on the BnF site provide, among other treasuries, a selection of images of manuscripts. Such is the case for the Proust, Hugo and Zola exhibitions. Initiated in 1997, the GALLICA project – soon to be replaced by GALLICA 2 –presents, besides a virtual library in the making, an anthology of the best pieces in our collections, among them some remarkable manuscripts.
The image library, available on the net, offers a wide selection of pages of interest from modern manuscripts.
Then comes the more traditional research library aspect. The BnF wishes to enable the researcher to work from his desk on some, if not all, of its manuscripts, having at his disposal not only the corpus but the transcriptions, the codicological and bibliographical descriptions, plus notes and hyperlinks. This is not an easy task as it requires the joint efforts of different specialists such as curators, academics and informaticians. The computerization of our catalogues is in progress : the printed catalogues are being digitized (with optical recognition of characters). Bibliographical descriptions written on Word files are retroconverted in XML/EAD, while cataloguing is now done exclusively in EAD. This new catalogue « BnF archives et manuscrits » has been on line since september 2007.
GALLICA, though focused on printed documents, nevertheless presents some very important manuscripts, by Marcel Proust and Emile Zola for instance, digitized by the BNF and fully commentated and analysed by teams of experts.
In 2006, the Manuscript department took a new step with the IDA project (Interchange of Data between administrations) with the partnership of ITEM (Institut des textes et manuscrits modernes) and INRIA (Institut national de Recherche en Informatique et Automatique). The digitized manuscripts were Flaubert’s Trois contes, a diary by Proust and another one by Paul Valery.
OPTIMA, initiated in 2007, continues and enlarges the experimental IDA project with the same authors but a much wider corpus. Last but not least a collaboration between the BnF, the Municipal Library of Bordeaux, the Ecole Normale Supérieure of Lyon and the University of Caen is at work to digitize the manuscripts of Montesquieu, beginning with Esprit des Lois, providing as well the metadatas and hyperlinks.
Besides, we are currently digitizing important collections or items recently entered such as the Georges Clémenceau papers or Marie and Irène Curie’s letters.
If, for the moment, only a percentage of modern manuscripts is catalogued and available on the net, this situation is about to change. In the years to come, the Manuscript department will drop microfilming to use digitization as a standard way of preservation. We hope to be able to digitize our microfilms as well, in order to build a large digital manuscripts library reachable both through our catalogue and through Gallica. And some future projects are in view, all including a rewarding cooperation between different types of institutions, national as well as international ones.