THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Collection Care blog

2 posts from February 2018

19 February 2018

Digitising books as objects: The invisible made visible

Book conservator Flavio Marzo explores how the experience for users of online library material surrogates could be easily improved by enhancing invisible physical features of books.

Working as a book conservator within digitisation projects has been my job for many years. I started in 2006, only one year after joining the British Library Conservation team here in London after leaving my country, Italy.

The subject of that digitisation project was the digitisation and virtual reunification of the Codex Sinaiticus, possibly one of the most known and valuable manuscripts in the Western world. The Codex was compiled in the IV century AD and is the oldest surviving and most complete version of the Old and New Testament. Many years have passed since that project and digitisation has become a common work stream within public institutions. This is especially evident within libraries which now compete in uploading material from their own collections to make them available for scholars, students and readers across the globe.

Technology has improved immensely since then and a lot of ‘ink’ has been spread across physical and virtual pages about the remit, the limitations and the advantages of what is offered to the public through the surrogates uploaded onto countless web portals. This piece is just another little drop into this ocean of ink to share some considerations built upon experience and from the perspective of a book conservator who sees, because of his professional background, the limitations of this, but also the exciting challenges to overcome them.

Books are physical objects and the pleasure of opening them, turning the pages, looking at (when decorated) the illuminations and their pigments, or at the accretions of the ink strokes, even smelling them, cannot be recreated on the screen of a home desktop. This does not mean that we cannot improve the experience and possibly further close the gap between the real object and the two-dimensional images.

I now work for the British Library/Qatar Foundation Digitisation Project and for the past 5 years, with a team of two conservators, I have been repairing documents (printed and hand written) and Scientific Arabic manuscripts for the team of scholars and photographers who are doing the real magic by gifting the world with the content now available on the Qatar Digital Library website (https://www.qdl.qa/en).

I have worked with books all my life since I was a 16 year old apprentice in a Benedictine Monastery. I have to admit that I am not an avid reader but I love books as objects and I get very excited about all the different little features and materials they are made from. How is it possible to please someone like me when offering online surrogates of complex items like books?

Books are recognised as 3D items and a lot of work has been done to migrate the content of those printed and manuscript texts into online, easy to access versions, but very little has been done to capture their physicality as objects.

Photographers, like any other professional, follow strict professional standards defined by general rules and specific project boundaries. Those standards are built to assure that the best possible result is achieved consistently and the meter to measure this result is the quality of the final product i.e. the image to be uploaded. Those images are supposed to reproduce as faithfully as possible the text and the carrier of the content of a book. Very rarely attention is given to the substrate or to the physical features of the object.

Lights for digitisation are carefully positioned to avoid shadows and they help to reduce surface irregularities and anomalies. This is all to the benefit of the written text and/or of the decorations, but with much loss for the lovers of the book as an object!

Here I want to describe some very practical ways to achieve different results and show some ‘behind the scenes’ of items I have been working on and how these very interesting results can be achieved with simple straight-forward techniques that do not require any high-tech equipment.

Raking light

I have mentioned the Codex Sinaiticus and I would like to start with it.

Normal light Raking light

Revelation, 2:7 - 3:5, British Library folio: 326. Left: Normal light. Right: Raking light.

All the available remaining pages of the Codex from the different geographical sites where they are presently held (The British library, The Library of the University of Leipzig, The National Library of Russia in Saint Petersburg, and the Holy Monastery of Saint Catherine’s) were digitised and uploaded onto the purposely created website (http://www.codexsinaiticus.org/en/). Contrary to common practice, all the pages were imaged both with normal and ‘raking light’. 

When imaging pages of books with normal light the attention is placed primarily to achieve the full readability of the text. Lights are placed and conditioned to radiate evenly over the surface of the page making sure no shadows are created and paying great attention to colours and tones to ensure they are as close as possible to the real appearance of the object reproduced.

What ‘raking light’ does is very different and the resulting image reveals a completely new landscape. Placing the source of light horizontally relative to the page results in an enhanced texture of the substrate which highlights and brings to life all the physical features present on the surface of the pages. These interesting and unique features can relate to the preparation of the writing surface or more generally to the specific material the substrate is made of e.g. papyrus, parchment or paper.

Here are some details of pages of the Codex Sinaiticus taken with raking light.

Codex Sinaiticus ruled Scraping of the surface
In the previous images the source of light is now helping us to appreciate this famous manuscript on a completely different level.

Horizontal and vertical lines, holes pierced through the page, and scratch marks now appear clearly. They are traced on the surface of the pages for a purpose; those are features related to the page preparation that happened before the text was traced onto it.

The ‘bounding lines’ (vertical) and the ‘writing lines’ (horizontal) are impressed with a blind (not too sharp) tool onto the parchment sheets. The holes, highlighted with red circles in the second image, are used as a reference. This is known as pricking holes for the ruling of the page to provide the scribes with a guide for writing.

The scratches visible on the surface of the page are most likely the marks left by the pumice stone. The pumice stone was commonly used to prepare the surface of the abraded parchment sheet to make it more absorbent and therefore improve the grasp between the grease substrate and the writing ink.

Thanks to this lighting system it is also possible to see the direction of the indentation of those lines and holes. This information can help codicologists, even from the comfort of their homes, to understand from which side of the folio they were traced and pierced and so recreate the step by step process of the creation of an ancient manuscript.       

Letter from Emir Letter from Emir raking light
In this image we see the images of a letter sent by the Emir of Bagdad in 1899 to Lord Curzon when he was appointed Viceroy of India, first taken with normal and then with ‘raking light’. In the first image the letter is just a sheet of paper beautifully arranged and decorated with writing. In the second image the light tells us a completely different story; it shows us the use of this letter, the way it was folded and the number of folds it had.

How incredible that it is possible to see all these different insights by just slightly moving a lamp!

Transmitted light

Another technique to read paper from a different perspective is using ‘transmitted light’. 

Watermark

Simply by placing the same sheet of paper onto a light table (i.e. illuminating from below) it is possible to bring a completely new scenario to life. In this image for example we can clearly see the watermark impressed onto the sheet of paper of the previous letter, detail impossible to be seen only looking at the image taken under normal light.

Paper can be hand or machine made, and sheets can bear chain and wire lines or possess watermarks or not. These details can be of great interest to scholars and add valuable information to the understanding of documents in relation to their use and circulation.     

Laid and wove paper Transmitted light India Office Records

Here are some more examples of sheets of laid and wove paper taken from different files from the India Office Record material, some showing again the characteristic chain and wire lines (except the last one which is actually a sheet of machine made wove paper) and some very distinctive water marks highlighted and made visible thanks to the used of transmitted light. 

Visualization of the physical collation of manuscripts

Books are made of folios and pages and those folios are ‘bound’ together. How the bindings are made is one of the real wonders of books. The variances are numberless and the materials and details of execution not only delight nerds like myself, but more importantly they inform researchers about the history of those books, giving insights into the objects that open doors to sometime unexpected cultural landscapes through links between different craftsmanship and cultures.

To describe a book structure is a very delicate and laborious process, but one that conservators are trained to do and that they automatically do many times when conserving those books as they record the treatments being carried out.

A lot of work has been done during recent years to create tools able to easily make this complex information sharable with the wider audiences. One I wish to mention here is VisColl, developed by Dot Porter at the Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies at the University of Pennsylvania (https://github.com/leoba/VisColl) in collaboration with Alberto Campagnolo at the Library of Congress, a friend and colleague.

Book structure digitisation

In this image we have, additional to the images of the digitised pages, diagrams (on the left) of the structure of the section where those pages are located and, highlighted in white, the specific pages shown on the screen.

Those diagrams, surely more easily understandable than many wordy descriptions, can help researchers to step into a completely new level of understanding for the manuscript, providing vital information about the history of those items, the way they were put together and possibly evidences of late alterations or even forgeries which may have occurred throughout the centuries.

Digitisation has opened new ways to look and make use of books and, I believe, the improvement of understanding of physical features is the next step that should be consistently and widely taken to enhance the online user experience.

One of the issues digitisation has brought to the attention of conservators and professionals involved in the care and preservation of library material is the fact that by enhancing the ‘fame’ of objects we can cause an increase in how much those same objects are requested for access.

To justify restriction in handling objects, which for the most part are very fragile and extremely valuable, we need to improve the online metadata and the amount of information available with the surrogates. Those presented here are just some examples in how, quite easily, this can be done.

Obviously the smell will stay within the walls of the libraries, but those are pleasures to be experienced in situ, and alone (almost..!) at the table of the reading rooms. No surrogate can replace that for the lovers of books. 

13 February 2018

Conservation Internship in Digitisation (British Library, The National Archives, Bodleian Libraries)

Salary £21,000 pa
Full Time (36 hours per week over 5 days)
Fixed-Term 2-years (9 months British Library, 9 months The National Archives, 6 months Bodleian Libraries, Oxford)

The link to the vacancies website is here

This is a training internship designed to equip an emerging conservation professional with the skills necessary for developing a career in managing and supporting digitisation work. The internship will be co-hosted by The British Library, The National Archives and the Bodleian Libraries with each institution offering complementary but distinct experience over a 24 month period. It is intended that the internship will present the role of a Digitisation Conservator as a newly emerging discipline and will support a current skills gap in the sector. The internship is funded by the Clothworkers’ Foundation.

The British Library is the national library of the United Kingdom and one of the world’s leading research libraries. The National Archives are the official archive and publisher for the UK government and guardians of over 1,000 years of iconic national documents. Bodleian Libraries provide a world-leading library service to support the University of Oxford in research and education. All three institutions continually digitise collections to enable greater access and preservation for current and future users.

Whilst digitisation involves creating a digital image of an object using a camera or scanner- this is but one element of a complex work flow. Specialist conservation support is also an integral component of the procedure. Condition assessments and surveys, conservation treatment that enables image capture, project planning involving numerous stakeholders and development of methods and equipment to digitise complex and non-standard items all fall into the remit of a Digitisation Conservator.

The internship is available to conservators who have graduated in the last 2 years, have limited work experience in conservation, and who wish to develop their career in supporting digitisation. The successful candidates will have a book or paper conservation qualification(s) (an MA in conservation would be desirable).

At the end of the internship you will be required give a presentation of your work and learning to the internship host institutions.

The internship has a bursary that will be paid on a monthly basis and is subject to tax, and is open to those who have the right to live and work in the UK.

The Job Role

You will work as part of existing teams of Digitisation Conservators, Imaging specialists, Project Managers, Curatorial and subject specialist staff to plan and undertake digitisation of collection items at the British library, The National Archives, Bodleian Libraries.

The projects will vary in size, from individual items to thousands of items and will cover a range of formats from books, archives, manuscripts and objects. Projects may be commercially funded, philanthropically funded or funded by the institution. You will work to agreed miles stones and deadlines for the projects.

Main Tasks

To complete, under supervision, treatments on books, manuscripts and paper based items from the Collections at the host institutions selected for digitisation. This will include:

  • Assessment of items to determine their suitability for digitisation.
  • Developing and undertaking treatment to ensure the improved condition, longevity and accessibility of collection items to enable digitisation.
  • Making decisions about appropriate procedures to use on each item, and therefore self-management to plan and organise work effectively in order to meet wider project timescales and workflows.

Update project documentation, including databases and spreadsheets.

Order collection items from storage areas to the imaging studio for assessment, preparation and digitisation, liaising with library assistants for delivery.

Assist imaging colleagues with queries regarding the collection care aspects of digitising collection items. Assist imaging colleagues when scanning or photographing fragile material.

To role model collection security at all times and ensures collection items are stored securely.

Liaise with the project managers and conservation managers to give regular updates on project progress and highlight any issues.

To take responsibility for own continuous professional development and monitor own learning against an agreed learning plan.

To keep accurate written records detailing treatments undertaken on each individual job, time spent, recording methodology, techniques and results of treatments.

Assist in administrative work as/when required. Attend project meetings when required.

The post holder will be required to participate in Conservation and project related public programmes, talking to members of the public and to represent the work of their studio or area, when required.

Ensure that they have knowledge of and observe the appropriate COSHH (Control of Substances Hazardous to Health) regulations, and follow the recommendations for the safe handling and use of chemicals, materials and equipment and general health & safety controls in all areas of their work and to participate in/co-operate with the risk assessment process.

Expected to demonstrate a willingness to take on a range of tasks and to develop new skills, as appropriate, in own or other departments/directorates to support the delivery of the institutions services as required by line management.

Essential Criteria for the Internship

Must have graduated in the last 2 years with a degree in book conservation or in paper conservation. Be able to demonstrate relevant conservation skills, including diagnostic, remedial and research skills.

Be able to demonstrate the benefits of the internship to their professional development and interest in conservation for supporting digitisation.

Good written and verbal communication skills, including the ability to communicate preferred treatment options and implications of these options, ability to write reports and to produce clear documentation.

Good time management skills in order to prioritise workloads and meet tight project deadlines.

An understanding of, and ability to apply the professional code of ethics to practical conservation projects.

Able to work in a team with other professional staff within communal studio space, contributing to the maintenance and management of shared equipment and space.

The right to work in the UK.

Good computer skills in Microsoft Word, PowerPoint and Excel.

Additional Information

The time spent in each institution will be divided as follows and in this order:
British Library – 9 months
The National Archives - 9 months
Bodleian Libraries – 6 months

A mentor who is involved with digitisation conservation projects and is experienced in the subject will be assigned to the intern in each institution, working closely with the intern and to monitor and evaluate progress. The intern will have regular 1:1 sessions with the mentor. An overall plan of work and major learning objectives will be agreed with the intern and 3 mentors at the outset but with detail of exact projects per institution to be decided more locally.

The intern will be expected to use any annual leave due to them during their time at that particular institution and cannot carry it over.

Candidates should note that the internship is for the period specified and does not lead to a permanent position at any of the host institutions.

How to Apply

Please email cordelia.rogerson@bl.uk attaching the following:

1. A letter of interest, which should include how the internship will benefit you and what skills and experience that you will bring to the British Library reflecting the list of criteria for the internship as stated in the Internship Profile.

2. An up to date CV.

3. Two or three examples from your portfolio for items you have worked on.

4. Name and contact details of two referees.

5. A statement indicating that you are able to work in the UK. Official documentation will be required if you are short listed for interview.

The closing date for applications is midnight on Sunday 4th March 2018.

Dr Cordelia Rogerson

Head of Collection Management South

If your application is short-listed, you will be invited for interview to take place around Mid-March 2018.