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Manuscripts Saved by the Dell

November 1, 1998

Judith Zwolak

The elaborate and colorful pictorial manuscripts of Mexico reveal elements of everyday life, religion and science in Pre-Columbian and colonial times found virtually nowhere else. They are the "painted equivalent of our books," says Elizabeth Boone, Martha and Donald Robertson Professor of Latin American Art, chair of the Newcomb Art Department and a specialist in Mexican pictorial manuscripts, also called codices.

Study of these codices, however, has often been limited to the few scholars who have access to university libraries with holdings of the fragile original manuscripts or their expensive printed facsimiles. Fortunately for the Tulane community, the Latin American Library in the Howard-Tilton Memorial Library has one of the most extensive holdings of Mesoamerican codices and facsimiles in the world, including a complete set of all facsimiles ever printed.

Even with access to these vast holdings, students are limited to examining the manuscripts in the Rare Books Room of the library, where they sit on reserve. Placing the facsimiles on a copier may damage the documents and is difficult due to their unusual size. Enter the Dell 6300 computer, photo software, a scanner and a color printer--all purchased with a grant from the provost's program to enhance technology in education--and the manuscripts become more accessible through digitization.

In a pilot program that will lead to digitizing all of the Mesoamerican manuscripts, members of the art department and the Latin American library have scanned and produced a CD-ROM of codices used in a graduate course on "Mesoamerican Divinatory Codices."

Teaching this class are Boone and Victoria Bricker, professor of anthropology and a specialist in Maya codices. "One of the reasons these manuscripts are not studied more is that people don't have access to them," Boone says. "We thought to use this grant from the provost to digitize the codices and we started with the divinatory ones because that is the focus of the class."

Divinatory codices are considered "guides to correct living and as reckonings of present and future events," according to Boone. "They can tell you things about the deities and about the way the Aztec and Maya viewed the world that aren't contained in any other manuscripts," she says. Studying the codices involves intense inspection of the figures, dots and lines that symbolize elements such as deities, periods of time and rituals.

Several Latin American art and anthropology courses draw on these and other codices, Boone says. All of the codices used in the course are now available on 15 CD-ROMs on a three-day reserve at the library. Students can view the codices on CD-ROM in the library, make color printouts of the codices or check out the discs for use on their own computers.

"The students have been very excited about this because the resolution is so good," Boone says. "They are printing out some of the sections and creating their own facsimiles."

Under the direction of Valerie Harel, information systems specialist in the art department, Lori Boornazian Diel, a graduate student in Latin American studies, and Andy Barnes, a graduate student in art history and archeology, spent two months scanning the 20 codices used in the course and compiling them on a CD-ROM.

Eventually, the library and the art department hope to digitize all 600 Mesoamerican pictorial manuscripts in the library and 4,800 slides of manuscripts in the art department. This project is also the first step in digitizing the library's extensive holdings of images relating to Latin America, including photographs of colonial architecture and archeological sites.

The pilot project for the divinatory manuscripts is "a great success," says Guillermo Naqez, director of the Latin American Library. "We don't have a reading room since we moved from the main library building," he says. "So this has solved a number of problems for us."

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