22 July 2013
Going Digital: Making manuscripts more accessible
Recently, a memoir and correspondence relating to a 20th century poet have come to Conservation to be prepared for digitisation. Some five years ago, we conserved another group of his letters. Superficially, the work was much the same for both: clean, repair and rehouse. But for the first batch the letters were carefully removed from an old guardbook and a new half-leather album made for them. Every item was cleaned, flattened where necessary, tears were repaired and losses infilled. Then each was hinged to a full support sheet, with compensation guards to accommodate the thickness and prevent the album from gaping. The work took 565 hours in all.
By contrast, treatment of the second batch of letters and the memoir was minimal: only essential dry cleaning and flattening plus some minor paper repairs, before they were rehoused as loose sheets in phase boxes; all completed within the estimated time of 20.5 hours.
What has changed? We are not cutting corners in conservation these days, but are responding to a digital revolution within the British Library, itself reflecting the needs and expectations of our users. Just five years ago, we accepted that famous poets were of great interest to our users. We knew their letters were, and (we thought) would continue to be, issued frequently in the Reading Room, and so we treated and rehoused them accordingly. The new guardbook provided greater protection and security, and the letters could be read with less handling.
The drive for digitisation had already begun, but we hadn’t then understood the implications for the use, and thus for the conservation, of collection items. Today, researchers (and the public in general) expect to have access to the collections via their laptops, tablets and smartphones, to share images and comments through social media and even to annotate our catalogues. The Library has long been willing to provide photographs or microfilm of collection items at a price; the demand now is for high quality digital images and free access. Digitisation projects are proliferating across the library.
Users of our digitised material find access easy from anywhere in the world and at any time of day or night. They also benefit from enhancements such as the ability to zoom in and discover details not visible to the naked eye. Frail material that is normally restricted - rarely issued in the Reading Rooms, and only viewed under supervision – is freely available on our website. So are treasures that can only be viewed as a single opening under low lighting levels in our exhibition galleries, some further enhanced by Turning the PagesTM technology. A digitised text is never unavailable because another reader is using it.
The collections benefit too. Items that get less physical handling are less likely to get damaged. They can stay in optimum storage conditions, rather than travelling to the Reading Rooms, and so deterioration is slowed. This is allowing us to rethink conservation requirements. Instead of heavy repairs to withstand frequent handling, we can now choose minimal intervention, just sufficient to allow material to be imaged safely. In some cases, we even send a conservator to help with the set-up and handling in imaging, as a less costly alternative to full conservation treatment.
The less we need to intervene, the more we can preserve original materials and structures – and this is becoming more important to researchers. Historically, rebinding was common to protect and preserve the text which was all-important, but now we understand that early binding techniques, indications of parchment or paper preparation, the composition of inks and pigments and much else are a reserve of material culture evidence, giving non-verbal insights into the past. If digitisation means items are issued much more rarely in future, there is less reason to replace weak original materials, or repair damage that is unlikely to get worse in storage; especially where, say, interesting binding structures can be glimpsed through losses in the covering. Rather than lavish six months’ conservation on a single item, we can apply our resources more intelligently, thinking more in terms of preservation and improving long-term storage conditions for whole collections. An example of this is the new low-oxygen newspaper storage facility at Boston Spa.
All in all, digitisation benefits us all; users, Collection Care and the collections themselves.