How do you prepare some of Harvard’s most precious historical scrolls and manuscripts to be browsed and examined online? The answer, of course, is very carefully.

Students taking “The Book,” a modular MOOC (massive open online course) developed through HarvardX, will get unprecedented digital access to Harvard’s archives of printed material from the Middle Ages and elsewhere.

But the course is more than just a miracle of preservation: It’s effectively a bridge between the modern and medieval worlds, using the newest reading technologies to unlock the secrets of the oldest.

Conceived by Jeffrey Hamburger, Kuno Francke Professor of German Art and Culture, the MOOC is structured as a series of subcourses, or modules. The first nine modules launched this fall with another series being developed.

“I came up with what at first blush seemed to be a crazy idea,” Hamburger explains. “I wanted to kill several birds with one stone. One was to develop a state-of-the-art page viewer. I wanted to find a vehicle that would allow libraries across the University to expose their extraordinary collections of rare books. And last but not least, I wanted to develop a showcase for Harvard’s faculty in the humanities.”

Meredith Quinn, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of History at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, points to a catchword in an Islamic manuscript. Courtesy of HarvardX

The page viewer, known as Mirador, is the technical breakthrough behind the course. As Hamburger explains, it digitally brings together the pieces of scattered and invaluable books. Say, for example, that you wanted to study “Codex Sinaiticus,” the oldest known iteration of the Bible. Parts of the book now reside in four places: the British Library, the National Library of Russia, St. Catherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai, Egypt, and the Leipzig University Library, in Leipzig, Germany.

You could, of course, travel around the world and perhaps somehow obtain access to each one. If the pages were digitized, you could log onto a different server from each library and see the separate sections. But what if you wanted to view the entire book on one browser, and see the pages in the order they first appeared? What if you wished to annotate the images and share those annotations with others, whether scholars or students? Such a viewer simply didn’t exist, until the MOOC, exploiting the Shared Canvas environment developed at Stanford University, which uses the International Image Interoperability Framework (IIIF for short), harnessed its capabilities and helped to drive its development.

Explaining the technology, HarvardX senior programmer Rashmi Singhal called up a manuscript written by the 13th-century author William de Rockwell. The author created three handwritten versions of the same manuscript, which today reside in Switzerland, Denmark, and Philadelphia. Using Mirador, one can lay the three versions side by side and compare each paragraph. To illustrate Harvard’s high-resolution imaging, Singhal called up a 15th-century scroll full of illustrations and intricate details. In the online version, multiple photos are stitched together seamlessly. Mirador makes it possible to read the scroll, not as a series of pages, as if it were a book, but from top to bottom in a way that preserves for the viewer a sense of the scroll as a material object with its own particular properties.

“This is a chronology of the world from Adam and Eve, who are up there on top. The scroll itself is 39 feet long, so you couldn’t see this amount of detail unless you had a microscope or a magnifying glass,” Singhal says. Indeed, the scroll can only be viewed under glass at the Houghton Library, where a close examination would be a challenge.

MOOCs on the move

“Rare book and manuscript libraries increasingly serve as centers for learning about the history of the book by providing faculty and students with tangible exemplars that inspire the mind, transmit knowledge through generations, and illustrate principles,” says Tom Hyry, Florence Fearrington Librarian at Houghton Library. “[The library] enjoyed the opportunity to partner with many of our faculty and with HarvardX in the development and production of ‘The Book,’ which extends the reach of the library and the collection beyond our walls.”

There are more exotic aspects to the MOOC as well. Some modules, such as “Book Sleuthing: What 19th-Century Books Can Tell Us About the Rise of the Reading Public,” are more concerned with the physical experience of using a book. Here, Leah Price, Francis Lee Higginson Professor of English, employs unusual methods to translate this approach to an online experience.

“I try to get us away from simply thinking about the book as a vehicle for the words it contains, and to restore a sense of the book as a material, three-dimensional object — which can be hard to do because the screen is flat,” says Price.

To introduce the course, she videotaped an exercise with students in class, who were asked to examine books while blindfolded.

“They felt the cover: Was it waterproof, and were the pages smooth or rough? What sound did the pages make when you ruffled through them? Through this, they assembled a set of clues about how each book was designed to be used — carried around, put on furniture, kept in one place — and they figured out that one book was a dictionary and one was a road atlas. This was an attempt to bring back the other senses, besides seeing and hearing, to the disembodied virtual medium.”

In Price’s module, students examine books for clues about what uses their owners — and by extension, larger society — made of them. At course’s end, the students are asked to upload a video of themselves and a favorite book.

“At a certain point in the 18th century, the book became something that you could carry around in your pocket, jot a note on, or personalize in some way. We found one where someone had pricked their name with a sewing needle. Not to push this too far, but one analogy might be the digital devices we now carry with us, which we personalize with colors and designs. In both cases, there’s a sense of intimacy; it’s not something you’d lend to someone else.”

Another module, Professor of History Daniel Smail’s “Monasteries, Schools, and Notaries, Part 1: Reading the Late Medieval Marseille Archive,” deals with the handwriting found in medieval texts. In this case, the technology is especially valuable. While Harvard students would be able to handle the original parchment texts, they wouldn’t be able to zoom in or pore over them for hours. And it takes time to gain a working familiarity with medieval handwriting, not to mention an understanding of Latin.

“The presentation isn’t much different from what I might do in a [traditional classroom] course,” Smail says. “In that case I might show the same visuals, through projections or a photocopy. But the fact that the documents are digitized makes it easier to read them. You can zoom in and out, change some of the contrast.” He also uses drag-and-drop technology to see if students can correctly match medieval letters to modern ones. “I like to think that if this course was being taken, say, by students at a small liberal arts college in the Midwest, it would expose them to a type of document they’ve never seen before. And through that they’d get a window to the experience of writing, as it was in the past.”

As “The Book” continues to evolve, it seems likely that Mirador will also take on a life of its own. It has already been adopted by libraries and archives in several European countries, and the Harvard Library, which has adopted the viewer to replace its aging Page Delivery Service, has entered into a collaboration with the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, Switzerland, a leading center for imaging technology, to develop and disseminate the viewer further. It might even become a valued tool for scientists.

“There’s been talk of using it for medical imaging,” Singhal says. “But as someone who loves the humanities, I think it’s great that it was invented for that reason. How often do you get [such a technological advancement] specifically because a group of medievalists wanted a better reading tool?”