In 1997 University of Pennsylvania alumnus and member of the Penn Libraries Board of Overseers, Lawrence J. Schoenberg (C’53, WG’57) set out to build a database that would enable researchers to track and identify the world's manuscript books produced before 1600. He acquired a data set from John Feldman, an historian who was himself interested in the movement of books of hours in the book trade.
A manuscript collector and amateur research scholar, Larry began his database as a personal project to track the historic and current locations of the world’s manuscript books, as well as their value, across time and place. He began with a Microsoft Excel file, eventually converting that to a Microsoft Access database in 1999. In addition to tracking current sales from his home in Longboat Key, Florida, Larry would make a point of visiting libraries during his travels throughout Europe to pore over their catalog holdings. He was even able to convince his favorite and constant travel companion, his wife Barbara Brizdle Schoenberg, to join in. Foregoing the traditional sightseeing that one typically does in Europe, Larry and Barbara would instead knock on the doors of such libraries as the Bodleian Library at Oxford, which housed the papers and catalogs of A. L. Munby, and the Château de Chantilly, home of the collection that houses the famed Très Riches Heures of Jean, Duc de Berry, the great 15th-century French bibliophile, in the search for more data. Larry also became a fixture in the library at the Grolier Club in New York, where he had been a member since 2004. He could frequently be found seated at a small desk in the stacks, where he had direct access to the catalogs that would satisfy his voracious appetite for more manuscript data.
As the database grew, so did its user-base among manuscript scholars and aficionados who worked from copies supplied to them by Larry himself. Its increasing reputation as a research aid in manuscript studies necessitated a move to make it more easily accessible to a wider audience. As a dedicated Penn alumnus, Larry looked toward his alma mater and specifically to Penn Libraries where he had previously funded the the trendsetting digital laboratory Schoenberg Center for Electronic Text and Image (SCETI). In 2005, SCETI began hosting the database, and thanks to the work of David McKnight and Dennis Mullen, it was made freely available online. In 2007 Larry and Barbara entered into a partnership with Penn Libraries that enabled SCETI to hire new staff to manage, edit, and contribute new records to the database. In addition to their financial support, both Larry and Barbara continued to be involved in all of its operations, from oversight to data entry and research. Penn Libraries and SCETI provided professional expertise in the areas of information management, bibliographic standards, and web technologies. In 2013, the database became the cornerstone project of the newly founded Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies, created by Penn Libraries in response to Larry and Barbara’s donation of their important collection of manuscripts. It remains under the stewardship of the Schoenberg Institute to this day.
Throughout the lifetime of the SDBM, Larry and Barbara have been assisted by a number of researchers. These included Elisabeth Sinnott at the Grolier Club, Anthony Ossa-Richardson in London, Berthold Kress in Cambridge, and Saskia van Bergen in Amsterdam. In Florida assisting Larry directly, were Emma Cawlfield, Sarah Tew, Matt Anderson, and Melinda Thackrah. At Penn, Tekla Bude, Matija Budisin, Megan Cook, Alexander Devine, Jen Jahner, Joseph Malcomson put in many hours away from dissertations and other scholarly pursuits to advance the SDBM cause. We are grateful to all of these researchers for their time and effort.
Seeking to grow the SDBM, Larry and the SDBM staff also sought collaborations with other similar projects with which he could share data. In 2007 the SDBM incorporated the data from the Jordanus Database of Scientific Manuscripts, begun by Menso Folkerts of Institut für Geschichte der Naturwissenschaften at the University of Munich, raising the number of records to over 125,000. In 2010 the Houghton Library of Harvard University contributed the MARC records for its manuscript collection to be ingested into the SDBM. In another collaboration, the SDBM created the Seymour de Ricci Bibliotheca Britannica Manuscripta Digitized Archive, in partnership with the Senate House Library at the University of London where the archive is housed. The De Ricci Digitized Archive contains over 65,000 scanned note cards from the bibliographer’s unfinished project to produce a census of manuscripts in Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The archive is a treasure trove of provenance data that complements and enhances the work of the SDBM.
When Larry and Barbara entered into a partnership with Penn Libraries in 2005, their goal was to transform the Schoenberg Database of Manuscripts into a comprehensive, online electronic resource for the study, identification, ownership, and transmission of medieval and early Renaissance manuscripts. They also sought to expand the scope of the database so that it could serve as a "union catalog" of medieval and early modern manuscripts through collaboration and partnerships with other institutions, initiatives, and individuals.
Sadly, Larry passed away on May 7, 2014. Despite this great loss, the SDBM staff, together with his wife Barbara, continue the work that Larry started nearly 20 years ago. Shortly before his death, the SDBM received a $300,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to support a three-year project to develop the SDBM into an online, user-built, community driven collaborative tool for researching the historic and current locations of the world's pre-modern manuscripts (). In the first year of the grant, Jeffrey Chiu built the new data model and functionality that forms the foundation of the New SDBM. In the second year, Benjamin Heller refined the functionality and developed interface solutions to facilitate and enhance users’ experience. These new features will allow institutions, librarians, scholars, curators, students, and citizen scholars to contribute information about these books and their movements through time and space. By June 2017, thanks to the efforts of the many people mentioned above and the , the New SDBM will have taken the first necessary steps toward realizing Larry’s vision of a robust, interactive tool for finding, indexing, and researching the world's manuscripts.
-- Lynn Ransom, Project Director, The New SDBM