THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Collection Care blog

111 posts categorized "Conservation"

24 September 2018

Textiles come in all shapes and sizes at the British Library

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As part of London Fashion Week Nabil Nayal hosted his presentation at the British Library on Tuesday 18 September. He is an advocate of ‘research in fashion education and practice’ and has used the collections at the British Library extensively. The image below shows how he used Elizabeth I’s famous Tilbury Speech as inspiration for one of his printed textiles.

Nabil Nayalwww.nabilnayal.com

The Library Collections are diverse and complex, representing many cultures and comprises of published, written and digital content together with letters photographs, paintings, newspapers, sound recordings, videos, objects and textiles.

Textiles are found in all curatorial divisions: Contemporary British; Western Heritage, European and American and most widely in the Asia and African collections. As textile conservator, I have chosen a few of the most beautiful and inspirational objects.

Royal MS 12C VIII 1Royal MS 12C VIII 1 – Chemise book jacket with the badge and motto of Prince Henry Frederick (1594-1612): red velvet, silver and gold metal thread and seed pearls. 

See the item online here

Or 1234Or 1234 – Manuscript with blue silk pages and red silk embroidery.

Qianlong's Ten Victories: chronicle of ten successful campaigns conducted by the Emperor in 1790. The author is the Emperor himself, and the manuscript contains the Emperor’s own handwriting embroidered on silk.

Explore and learn more about this item here.

MSS EUR G59MSS EUR G59 – Large ceremonial, silk brocade bag which housed an ‘Ornamental Letter of Credence, dated 27 Oct 1835, from `Louis Philippe Empereur des Francais' (1773-1850) to Maharaja Ranjit Singh (1780-1839), ruler of the Punjab 1792-1839’.

Explore and learn more about this item here.

Unfortunately, the above items are all restricted due to their fragile and rare status. Letters of introduction can be written to the curators to request permission to view restricted items.

LIZ ROSE, Textile conservator

10 September 2018

Rehousing two 12th century charters

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My name is Wanda Robins, and I am studying book conservation at Camberwell College of Arts, in London. A key component of the Camberwell program is to provide students with ample practical work experience in historical institutions to consolidate the theoretic knowledge gained at university. In addition to one-day per week placements throughout the school year, every student completes a four to six-week summer work placement between the first and second year, which is an opportunity to work on more complex projects and experience full time work in a conservation studio.

I was fortunate to have my placement at the British Library Conservation Centre (BLCC) and had an opportunity to work on an exciting project to rehouse two 12th century parchment charters that were gifted to the British Library from Abbey College, Ramsey.

Ramsey Abbey was a Benedictine abbey founded in AD 969 in what is now Cambridgeshire. The two charters bear the seals of Henry I (king from 1100 – 1135) and Henry II (king from 1154-1189) and grant the surrounding land to the Abbey.

The curators and the conservation team determined that the charters should be rehoused due to the acidic mount board and the frame was not well sealed. It was also apparent that the charters were pasted down to board, which constricts the natural movement of parchment, and would ultimately be detrimental to the charters.

Before Pictures:

Original frame and condition: frame has gaps and is sealed with tape on back.

Original frame and condition 

Sealed with tape Frame condition

Charter with Seal of Henry I, in original housing.

Charter with Seal of Henry I Board backing

Charter is fixed directly to board backing.

Original housing

Charter with Seal of Henry II, in original housing.

Backing Removal

Taking the charters out of the original housing proved to be a bit of a challenge – it turns out that someone took a great deal of time to engineer a safe way to mount the seals so they could be set safely within the mount. The seals were set within tubes with cotton pads and cotton wool.

Backing removal Seal tubes

Cotton wool protection

To lift the parchment off the backing board, we tested with an 80/20 solution of isopropanol to water, which proved effective.

Separating parchment from backing board

Once we had this worked out, I worked from the back and removed layer after layer of the backing board, moistening with a damp sponge. Once I reached the back of the parchment, I used the isopropanol/water solution to reactivate the animal glue so I could remove it with a micro-spatula.

Backing board removal 1 Backing board removal 2

Backing board removal 3 Backing board removal 4

Backing board removal detail

Tools used for backing removal.

Tools

It took me several days to get the backing off and in the end, I couldn’t remove everything. There was a notable difference in the two charters, as the older one was much more degraded, so we decided that we would leave a skim of the paper backing and not risk damaging the parchment further.

Skim of paper backing

Once all the backing was removed we found additional writing on the verso of the charter.

Additional writing discovered

During the cleaning process, we noticed that the seal of the older charter, though likely wax, has a grainy texture, and was shedding bits and granules. One of the senior conservators recommended that we consolidate it with a synthetic adhesive, Paraloid B72.

Grainy texture on seal Consolidation

Finally, to work out a new mount and storage for the charters, we discussed various ways of tabbing the charters to fix them to a mount board. We planned the tabs first.

Planned tabs

Using a light Japanese tissue, we attached small splints to the verso to keep the various strips of parchment in place and protected.

Light Japanese tissue Tissue splints

We cut uniform sized tabs of Japanese tissue with a water pen and attached these to the verso with a light application of wheat starch paste. This can easily be removed in the future, if needed.

Uniform tabs Tab preparation

Example tab Example tab 2

Once the tabs were adhered to the verso of the charters, we cut slits into a sheet of Plastazote foam and pushed the tabs through the Plastazote so that they would not be visible from the recto.

Plastezote slits Plastezote slits 2

The effect was a bit like the charter is floating on top of the foam. The charters are secure and they cannot move around. The Plastazote could also accommodate a small indentation cut into it to support the wax seals

Within its new mount board:

Charter on foam New mount board

I was able to get both charters and the two descriptive labels all housed and ready for a new box. It was a really exciting and interesting project to learn about and get to experience. I am so grateful to the various staff that supported me and helped me through it.

During my month at the BLCC I was given the opportunity to share this project with three different public tours. This was really fun and also meant a lot to me as I as I had first become interested in conservation by attending a public tour of the BLCC in 2015.

09 August 2018

Handle Books with Care

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To celebrate #NationalBookLoversDay, I’ve decided to write a follow-up blog to my previous post, A Taste of Training. As discussed in my first blog post, one of the activities I am involved with as a Preventive Conservator here at the British Library is training. In this post, I’d like to share some of the information we deliver when providing book handling training sessions, focusing on various binding styles and the tools you can use to help prevent damage. A great way to show your love for books is to handle them with care!

Risks to books

Books may be vulnerable for a number of reasons. A book might be constructed from materials which are poor quality or the book may have been housed in less-than-ideal storage or environmental conditions. The format of the book itself can also cause damage, so it’s important to know how to handle different types of books and account for each format’s weaknesses.

Book supports and weights

Book supports are a great way to minimise damage when using a book. They restrict the opening angle of a book and provide support while the book is being used. This helps to prevent damage to the spine and boards.  Book supports commonly come in the form of foam wedges, but you can also find other styles, including cradles with cushions and cushions on their own.

Weights are another useful tool when using books. Books are, generally speaking, not made to open flat, which can result in pages that want to spring upwards. Rather than pressing down on the pages and potentially causing damage, it’s better to gently lay a weight on the page. Just take care not to place the weights directly on any areas with text or images—these areas may be fragile and susceptible to damage.

Foam Support  Cradle and Cushion  Cushion
From left to right: A book on foam supports, a cradle with a cushion, and a cushion, with snake weights preventing the pages from springing upwards.

Now let’s discuss specific binding styles.

Flexible tight back books

A flexible tight back is a book which has the covering material (often leather) adhered directly to the spine. This means that the covering material flexes as the book is opened and closed. This can cause cracking along the spine, and will worsen as the leather and paper degrade.   

FTB Damage  FTB Partial
Left: Vertical cracking along the spine of a rigid tight back book (please note that this image, along with all others, shows a sample book and not a collection item; books should not normally be placed on their foredge). Right: A partially bound flexible tight back with minimal lining between the text block and the leather covering.

When using a flexible tight back book, place the boards on foam wedges. You may also find it beneficial to use a spine support piece--a thin strip of foam placed in the centre to help support the fragile spine, as seen below. 

Flexible Tight Back

A flexible tight back book on foam book supports with spine support piece.

Rigid tight back

A rigid tight back book has more material covering the spine, which makes the spine rigid and more robust. This rigid spine causes the book to have a restricted opening, and the pages of the book will spring upward when opened. The rigid spine can also cause a weakness in the joint--the area where the book boards meet the spine--and may lead to the boards detaching.   

Loose Boards  Rigid Tight Back Detail
Left: Whilst not a rigid tight back, this image does show a book with its boards detached—this type of damage is common with rigid tight back books. Right: A partially bound rigid tight back showing a more built up spine: book board is present between the text block and leather, highlighted in the white square.

Rigid tight back books do not need a spine support piece. Instead, the focus should be on supporting the boards with wedges and leaving space in the centre for the spine. 

Rigid Back Book on Foam Supports

A rigid tight back book on foam book supports; note the pages springing up rather than lying flat.

Case bindings

Now let’s get into a couple of the more common types of bindings, which everyone is likely to have on their bookshelf. A case binding, or hardback book, features a textblock which is adhered to the case (or boards) by pasting a piece of paper to the textblock and the case. Over time, the case can split away from the textblock, causing pages and/or the textblock to come loose, and possibly detach completely. To prevent damage to your hardbacks, we recommend restricting the opening angle so as to not cause too much strain to that single piece of paper holding the textblock to the case.   

Case Binding 1  Case Binding 2
Left: Showing the piece of paper adhering the textblock to the case. Right: The text block has split from the case, causing some pages to detach and the textblock as a whole to be loose.

Perfect bindings

Perfect bindings, or paperback books, are made by glueing the textblock directly to the cover. They are not made to be long-lasting, and as a result, are often made from poor quality materials. As the adhesive fails, pages will detach and come loose. Paperback books are also not very flexible, so they won’t open well. To keep your paperbacks in the best condition possible, restrict the opening angle so you’re not causing a stress point where the adhesive can fail easily.      

Perfect Binding 1_Edited  Case Binding 2
Left and right: The pages have detached from the cover of this book.

Safe handling

Finally, I’d like to share some general best practice tips to help you safely handle your books:

  • Ensure your hands are clean and dry when handling books
  • Be aware of long jewellery or loose clothing which can catch
  • Lift books instead of sliding or dragging them
  • Don’t carry too many books at one time
  • Handle your books with care and be sure to take your time

If you’re using our reading rooms and do not see any book supports or weights around, simply ask Reading Room staff and they will provide them for you. The more time you take to ensure you’re using best practice when handling books, the longer your favourite books will survive!

Happy #NationalBookLoversDay!

Nicole Monjeau

12 July 2018

Deaf Tours at the British Library Centre for Conservation

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The British Library Centre for Conservation offers four deaf tours a year with a sign language interpreter. The next tour is on Wednesday 05 September at 2.00 pm. 

Six free tickets have been reserved for the 05 September tour and are available by emailing Conservation Tours: conservationvisits-tours@bl.uk using the reference Free ticket BLCC 05 09. Tickets will be offered on a first come first served basis. 

Ticket information: Full Price: £10.00; Member: £8.00; Under 18: £8.00 and other concessions may be available.

All tours leave from the main information desk at 2.00 pm. Please be aware that there is a considerable amount of walking and standing as the tour lasts for approximately 60 minutes. 

Signed BLCC tours

Roger, Book and Paper Conservator and Wayne, Sign Language Interpreter. Image © British Library Board

Please remember that:

  • Bags and coats cannot be taken into the BLCC but can be left in the Conservation Manager’s secure office
  • Unfortunately the tour is not suitable for children under 12 
  • There is also a tour on Wednesday 06 December at 2.00 pm – information will be available on https://www.bl.uk/events/conservation-studios-guided-tour 

05 July 2018

Summer workshop: Twined end-bands in the bookbinding traditions of the Eastern Mediterranean

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British Library Centre for Conservation (BLCC) Summer workshops

Endbandscourse

'Twined end-bands in the bookbinding traditions of the Eastern Mediterranean’

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Dates: Monday 23rd to Friday 27th July 2018
Times: 9.30–17.30
Full price: £400, no concessions
Location: Foyle Conference Centre British Library Centre for Conservation (BLCC)
Class size: Maximum 12 participants
Level: Our workshop is designed for conservators and bookbinders with good understanding and hands on experience in making/sewing book end-bands.

Course description
Although beautiful to look at and interesting to reproduce end-bands have much more to tell about their provenance, their evolution, their purpose and their relation with other crafts.

Twined end-bands often also called woven end-bands represent a distinct category of rather elaborate compound end-bands commonly found in one variation or the other in virtually all the bookbinding traditions of the Eastern Mediterranean.

The aim of this 5-day practical course is to demonstrate and clarify the characteristics of these end-bands and explain their basic technical and decorative variations. Over the curse of the week participants will be able to make at least five different twined end-bands –a Coptic, an Islamic, a Syriac, a Byzantine, an Armenian, and a tablet woven end-band to be taken away at the end of the course.

An introductory lecture will explain their evolution in time and place, their classification and terminology, their structural and decorative features as well as their relation to fabric-making techniques. Working materials, a hand out with explanatory drawings and some reading material will be also provided.

Tutor
Our workshop is led by
Dr. Georgios Boudalis, Head of Book and Paper Conservation at the Museum of Byzantine Culture in Thessaloniki, Greece.

Day 1
Tea, coffee and registration
Theoretical and technical introduction.

Morning session: Introductory lecture on end-bands, their history and function within the
evolution of historical book structure, with special focus on twined end-bands.
Afternoon session: Hands-on exploring the basic technique of twining and its structural and
decorative variations.

Day 2
The day is dedicated to a very simple Coptic and an Islamic twined end-band, the later representing probably the type of twined end-band most people are familiar with.

Morning session: Coptic split-twined end-band.
Afternoon session: Islamic twined end-band.

Day 3
As participants are becoming more familiar with twining they work on more complicated types of twined end-bands found on closely related binding traditions. Although these end-bands are structurally identical they greatly differ in decorative patterns.

Morning session: Syriac twined end-band.
Afternoon session: Byzantine twined end-band

Day 4
The day is dedicated to what is possibly the most complicated and time consuming twined endband - that found in Armenian bindings.

Morning session: Armenian end-band
Afternoon session: continue

Day 5
The final day is dedicated to the use of the ancient technique of tablet weaving to make a twined end band. This type of end-band, identified only recently and found in 15th-16th-century Russian and Byzantine bindings, is a good example how fabric-making techniques were adapted for making the end-bands in books.

Morning session: The tablet-woven end-band
Afternoon session: continue

Tutor’s biography
Georgios Boudalis is the head of the book and paper conservation laboratory at the Museum of Byzantine Culture in Thessaloniki/Greece. He has worked in various manuscript collections primarily in monasteries such as those of Mount Athos and Sinai. He has completed his PhD in 2005 on the evolution of Byzantine and post-Byzantine bookbinding and has published on issues of bookbinding history and manuscript conservation. His main interests are the evolution of bookbinding techniques in the Eastern Mediterranean and since 2006 he has been teaching courses on the history of Byzantine and related bookbinding both on a historical and practical basis. He is the curator of the exhibition ‘The Codex and Crafts in late Antiquity’ held in Bard Graduate centre, N.Y. between February and June 2018 and has written a monograph with the same title to accompany this exhibition, published by Bard Graduate Centre.

Previous skills, knowledge or experience
The course is addresses to both book conservators and bookbinders, it is meant to be intensive and therefore participants are required to have previous practical experience of the subject.

Equipment and Wi-Fi
All materials and tools will be provided.

Certificate
Certificate of attendance signed by British Library’s representative and course tutor will be issued at the end of the five day workshop.

Facilities and refreshments
The British Library offers a variety of options for tea/coffee and food available on site and it is conveniently located within London with easy reach to other facilities.
Food can also be taken into the British Library from home and consumed at the premises.

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02 July 2018

Unravelling an archaeological silk bundle

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MPhil student Clara Low is studying Textile Conservation at the University of Glasgow. As part of her course she is completing a placement for six weeks between her first and second year, here at the British Library.

The following images were taken by Clara whilst she worked on the unfolding of a silk bundle. The Tangut silk fragment was excavated in Kharakhoto (western Gobi desert) in 1914 by Aurel Stein. Clara used controlled humidification to enable this process. She worked with Vania Assis, paper conservator for the International Dunhuang Project and Liz Rose, textile conservator. See the amazing results below.

Silk bundle

Or 12380/3665 before conservation. 

Silk bundle unravelled

Or 12380/3665 during conservation – revealing a printed design.

Fragment

Or 12380/3665 - Clara working on the fragment.

Silk bundle after conservation

Or 12380/3665 after conservation – reverse showing characters, (bottom left), seams and stitching.

Silk bundle after conservation obverse

Or 12380/3665 after conservation – obverse showing characters and printed stars (bottom right).

Silk character detail

Or 12380/3665 after conservation – detail of characters.

Can anyone tell us what it says?

 

Update: many thanks to Andrew West for a speedy solution:

AndrewWest

Bird design

26 June 2018

Preventive Conservation Work Placement

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My name is Elena Verticchio and I have just completed a 3-month voluntary work placement with the Preventive Conservation team of the British Library. As a recent graduate in Science and Technology for the Conservation of Cultural Heritage at La Sapienza University of Rome, my particular interest lies in preventive conservation, which employs scientific knowledge to minimise the deterioration of collections. The importance of this multi-disciplinary approach to conservation is ever increasing and good expertise in the issues related to preventive activities is an integral part of most of the job specifications in the field.

Feeling that there was limited access to formal preventive conservation training, I was looking for internships to enrich my expertise as well as allowing me to become familiar with a new working environment. I was able to reach my goal thanks to an Italian Call for Proposals supported by EU funds1, which financed my project aimed at defining the role of preventive conservator in libraries and archives.

During my work placement here, I was given the opportunity to work closely with the professionals of one of the most prestigious cultural institutions in the world. The office is based at the BLCC (British Library Conservation Centre), but the Preventive Conservation team carries out varied activities throughout many areas of the main building as well as working with colleagues at the Boston Spa site in West Yorkshire.

Environmental monitor  It's a trap

Shadowing conservators, I have been delivering handling awareness training, environmental monitoring and pest management, as well as practising the craft of bookbinding in the conservation studio. In the science laboratory, I had a taste of the analytical equipment and tools used in the analysis and tests on a range of materials, such as the Oddy testing technique, the A-D strips to detect acetate film deterioration and the use of infrared spectroscopy and portable XRF.

In February, I took part in voluntary activities to engage visitors in the Library at the Harry Potter: A history of Magic family day, where I helped engage children in the crafting of their own little spell books. 

Family day

My tasks included collaborating to keep environmental records updated, collecting thermo-hygrometric sensors for calibration and in the regular substitution of the blunder sticky traps used to monitor pests. Also, I was involved in weekly departmental meetings as well as in team meetings to draft the Work Programme for the year 2018-2019, where I could have a wider insight into the variety of activities carried out and I could learn a lot about planning, time management and how to ensure the workflow as part of the role of a preventive conservator.

More recently, I participated in the installation of the upcoming James Cook: The Voyages exhibition and I got involved in the salvage exercise aimed to alert salvage team members to priority items on display. 

Salvage team plans

Salvage preparation. Left to right: Eszter Matyas, Elena Verticchio and Lorraine Holmes.

As an emerging professional, I was seeking to gain a thorough insight into the job and confidence for my future employability. My experience here at the British Library has proved to be hugely beneficial to me, giving me the opportunity to bridge the gap between my academic studies and my professional career. Once back in Italy, I will begin a new internship at the Institute of Restoration and Conservation of Library and Archival heritage based in Rome (IC-RCPAL). I thoroughly enjoyed this experience and I am really looking forward to using the skills I have learned to share the knowledge of the best practices in preventive conservation. 

This blog post is to thank all the conservators who shared their time and experience with me to make me grow as an emerging professional. A special mention goes to the amazing Preventive Conservation team: Sarah Hamlyn (Lead Preventive Conservator), Karen Bradford (Collection Care Monitoring Conservator), Nicole Monjeau (Preventive Conservator) and Paul Garside (Conservation Scientist). Should you have any questions, you can contact me by email at elenaverticchio21@gmail.com.

Elena Verticchio

1I participated in a Call for Proposals for the Programme of initiatives “TORNO SUBITO 2017” aimed at university students or graduates. The grants are comprised of two phases: the first outside the Lazio region at host locations to carry out training or work experience and the second within the Lazio region at host locations (public or private). My project aimed at defining the role of preventive conservator in libraries and archives, gaining experience in major institutions in the field. The first phase included a shared internship between the British Library and the London Metropolitan Archives; the latter, back in Italy, will be hosted in the Institute of Restoration and Conservation of Library and Archival heritage based in Rome (IC-RCPAL).  

16 April 2018

A Taste of Training

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My name is Nicole Monjeau, and I am a Preventive Conservator here at the British Library. I am new to both preventive conservation and the Library, and I thought I would write my first blog post about one of my favourite aspects of my new role—training.

I come from a paper conservation background, and one of the things I enjoyed most about my previous roles was outreach. I loved sharing information about conservation with the public and with colleagues, and found it fulfilling to have such engaged and interested listeners. Collection care awareness is one of the things which drew me to this role, and I was excited to dive right in.

Nicole Monjeau
Cheesing it up in front of our display table.

One of my first tasks upon starting at the Library was to help carry out handling training during Doctoral Open Days for PhD students. These sessions introduce PhD students to the range of research materials available in the British Library and specialist curators and other postgraduate students from across the UK.

During these events, myself and my colleagues spoke with PhD students about the best ways to handle books and other collection items whilst carrying out research at the Library. We showed some tools which can be utilised to make handling easier, such as foam supports to properly support books and snake weights to help hold book pages down gently. The final PhD Open Day in late February provided even more opportunity for outreach. In addition to handling training, we were able to show off some of the conservation tools and techniques we use when treating collection items. This proved to be quite popular, with the PhD students enjoying the opportunity to learn about tear repairs and bookbinding in addition to handling.

These PhD Open Days were a nice introduction to collection care awareness, and a nice way to ease into the training that the Preventive Conservation team does. The Preventive team are now preparing to deliver a series of collection care training sessions to a variety of staff members across the Library, and my experience at the Doctoral Open Days will prove helpful. It’s allowed me to become familiar with our training material and has also helped me to gain confidence in conducting a training session.

Table display
Our table at one of the PhD Open Days.

Carrying out training has also meant that I’ve been involved in a variety of training-related activities. I have been working on creating a poster and pamphlets which can be used during training sessions. The pamphlets will hopefully be a helpful guide which people can use to remind themselves of how best to support and handle collection materials, and the poster will be a nice visual aid during training sessions.

PhD Open Day
Taking new photographs for our training material.

Poster Design

Sketching out the poster design.

It’s also been a pleasure to work with a wide variety of colleagues in the British Library Centre for Conservation. It’s great fun to work with people from different backgrounds, and this only helps our training sessions to be more informative and useful. A big thank you to everyone who has helped the Preventive Team carry out training!

11 April 2018

Textile Discovery in the Rare Books Reading Room

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Textiles at the British Library come in many guises. This remarkable book was discovered by a reader in the Rare Books Reading Room last week and was shown to a member of staff. 

The shelfmark is C.70.g.6. and the textile additions are described in the notes field below:

  • Title: [A series of engravings of subjects from the Life of Jesus Christ. Designed by M. de V. Engraved by J. C. Weigel.]
  • Author: Marten de VOS
  • Contributor: Johann Christoph WEIGEL
  • Publication Details: [Nuremberg?, 1725?]
  • Identifier: System number 003817622
  • Notes: The draperies, etc. are cut out, and supplied by pieces of cloth and silk pasted at the back of the engravings.
  • Physical Description: 4º.
  • Shelfmark(s): General Reference Collection C.70.g.6.
  • UIN: BLL01003817622

Rare books textile

Engraving coloured from the reverse with pieces of textile showing through cut-out holes.

Engraving detail

Engraving detail showing texture of textiles.

Reverse detail

Reverse detail showing overlapping textile patches stuck to the page.

Our textile conservator Liz Rose is often overwhelmed by the quantity, quality and diversity of the textile objects within the collections. It should be remembered that the British Library is a reference library and many of these wonderful objects can be viewed in the library reading rooms. 

19 February 2018

Digitising books as objects: The invisible made visible

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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.