At Lehigh University, a visitor to the Linderman Library can plunge into the Middle Ages and study a 15th-century text that shows the Earth as the center of the universe.
Or touch the pages of an oversize religious songbook, adorned with gold leaf and painted in bright hues on calfskin, and held by monks hundreds of years ago as they lifted their voices in unison.
Or view a 20-foot scroll that painstakingly - and curiously - documents a line of British kings that reaches back all the way to Adam and Eve.
Soon, viewers won't have to travel to Bethlehem, Pa., to view Lehigh's varied medieval collection. Anyone anywhere in the world will be able to see the items with a click of a mouse.
Lehigh, the Free Library of Philadelphia, and the University of Pennsylvania are leading a project, called Bibliotheca Philadelphienis, that will digitalize the largest regional collection of medieval and early modern manuscripts in the country.
Nearly 160,000 pages, the bulk of them at the Free Library, will be converted over the next three years with a nearly $500,000 grant from the Council on Library and Information Resources, supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
"People all over the world will be able to look at these," said Lois Fischer Black, curator of special collections at Lehigh.
The collection will be housed on OPenn, Penn libraries' manuscript portal, which already offers digital versions of hundreds of its manuscripts. See: http://openn.library.upenn.edu.
And Penn will be responsible for a lot of the scanning and digitizing.
"This is a great opportunity to take all of the manuscripts from the Philadelphia area and make them available in this same way," said Dot Porter, curator of digital research services at Penn.
Seven other schools - Bryn Mawr, Franklin and Marshall, Haverford, Swarthmore, Temple, the University of Delaware, and Villanova - are contributing their works. The Chemical Heritage Foundation, the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, the Library Company of Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Rosenbach Museum and Library also are participating. They are part of the Philadelphia Area Consortium of Special Collections Libraries, which received the grant.
The vast collection spans science, philosophy, math, and religion.
Through the project, high-resolution images will become available for viewers to download, annotate, use in books - even print on towels if they're so inclined, Porter says.
Included will be the Free Library's extensive collection of medieval Bibles, now on display as part of the "Sacred Stories" exhibit. The library also has a 15th-century scroll that begins with Adam and Eve, standing on either side of the tree of life, and runs through King Edward IV, portrayed in full armor.
One recent afternoon, librarians retrieved the artifact from storage and rolled it out like a carpet in the manuscript viewing room. It is richly decorated in reds, blues, and yellows, with descriptions in Latin of earls, princes, dukes, and kings. Noah's Ark also is depicted.
"So much of this material, the general public really doesn't know about," said Lisa Fagin Davis, executive director of the Medieval Academy of America, based in Cambridge, Mass. "It's a really great gift to the world."
Much of the collection is in Latin. Translation, Porter explained, will require much more work. But Porter and the other library officials are hopeful that scholars and students will do their own translations and uncover new meaning.
"The sky's the limit," said Janine Pollock, who oversees special collections and rare books at the Free Library.
The library has 250 manuscripts, more than 100,000 pages to be digitized. Early leaders of the library included many prominent Philadelphians who were book collectors and contributed valuable works.
Penn's collection includes documents on the history of science in Arabic and a drawing of what has come to be known as "rocket cat." The 1584 piece by a German artillery master shows a cat with a lit sack strapped to its back, a castle rising in the background. Its author, in an accompanying note, fancied that the cat would burrow into a barn and ignite it.
A century and a half ago, Lehigh's board of trustees prioritized the collection of medieval manuscripts to document "the history of the book," Black said. It got the scroll of English kings from a 1920 alumnus.
Its oldest intact text dates to the 13th century. The paperback-size book of moral and didactic writings by Robert Holcot still had its original cover, earthy in color and full of wormholes.
Officials at all three lead libraries said they expect the demand for the digital documents to be strong. At Lehigh, faculty and students have been asking for the access, Black said. Researchers from Spain, graduate students from Belgium, and art historians worldwide also have expressed interest, she said.
At Penn, the texts have been heavily used by professors of English, classics, and religious studies, but even nursery schoolers have taken a look. Porter had the children read a modern book at school about a young girl from the Middle Ages who helps her ailing father finish a manuscript, telling how she got parchment paper and ink.
Then Porter showed the students some of the medieval books. "Here's the kind of books she was making," she told them.
The collection at the Free Library also draws visitors.
"Our collections are well-known," Pollock said. "But right now they are well-known by scholars. This project will bring them to the wider world."