William Noel, the founding director of the Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies at Van Pelt Library, inclines himself over a thirteenth-century Bible and unhooks the clasps that hold the pages together. He leafs through, uncovering neat little columns of blackletter writing meticulously inscribed by a monk some eight centuries ago.
Noel, a plucky Brit who still recognizes the importance of a clean shirt and tie, arrived at Penn in September from the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore. Before that, he spent 12 years at Cambridge University, where he received his doctorate in art history in 1993. Noel grew up “sailing on the Essex marshes” and developed a love for medieval history early on when his father gave him “A Nursery History of England.” He recalled the stories of “Canute the Great and King Alfred and the cakes” — apparently a historical king of England who let cakes burn at some time or another.
Noel has brought his ideas about the democratization of information to his new job as director of the Special Collections Center at Penn, which has already been in the process of digitizing manuscripts through the Schoenberg Center for Electronic Text and Image since 1996.
What Penn is doing, Noel said, is “rather radical — in my world.”
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