Collection Care blog

13 December 2013

Digitisation as a preservation tool; some considerations

Digitisation projects are today more and more a common and established reality in many big and small public institutions. The expectation from the public for online access has placed great pressure on public institutions which hold collections of historical and artistic value to provide it as soon as possible. Large investment in digitisation projects has had a major impact on the work pattern of many institutions, and on the collections involved in the processes related to the digitisation workflows.

I am a book conservator currently managing the conservation studio that has been created for the British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership programme. Phase 1 runs until December 2014 and aims to digitise and make available online 500,000 images for scholars and the general public. These images will be taken from various British Library Arabic materials and it is our duty as conservators to support the digitisation process ensuring that no damage is caused to the library items processed through the digitisation workflow.

Phase box
Image of custom made phase box on a green table, the back of the box is grey and in inside is white. resting on the centre of the box is the heavily damaged manuscript which has a detached board.

CC by An example of a custom-made phase box for this heavily damaged manuscript

I want to present in this post some considerations about what conservation could potentially gain from these types of projects and how I think the long term preservation of historical items and their features can be improved through mass digitisation projects. The previous sentences make quite provocative statements. It is not a secret that conservators tend to look at digitisation projects, and in general at projects involving multiple processes, with caution if not suspicion. In general conservators are often against the “mass” approach and digitisation processes are primarily focused on targets that are sometimes strained under tight deadlines and budgets. This can be an unsuitable environment for the normal conservation requirements.

Conservation means attention to detail and much of the work involves time-consuming treatments carried out by skilled professionals at their benches. These treatments are often present to help public institutions achieve their aims and fulfil their strategic priorities. Enabling access to library collections is one of the more important principles of sustainable stewardship. Conservation at the British Library has in the last few years adopted the “fit for purpose” approach. With re-treatability and minimal intervention approaches clearly in mind, we know that today we have to plan our work in a more efficient and effective way. Planning is a fundamental step in our daily and long term work and to do so we need to know which specific goal we want to achieve.

In the present case for the British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership programme, digital surrogates are the aim; good quality reproduction of items capable of providing online customers (scholars, readers and the general public) with the information they require. There are many steps between the shelves of the British Library storage areas and the cameras in the photographic studio. Conservators need to be present throughout each stage of this flow to support and to enable successful digitisation.

This can be difficult to achieve as full time conservators are expensive. Work needs to be customised but this certainly doesn’t mean compromising on the quality of the work carried out on collection items. In the context of the British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership programme, a document about policies and procedures was produced by the conservation studio at the very beginning of the project. In this document we state that due to the scope and the nature of the project, we cannot treat items that are in need of conservation work that would take more than five hours. This means that generally we are not “fully” repairing the items we are processing through the workflow, but instead we are treating the items to a condition that enables digitisation.

After assessing the condition of the items brought into the project we decide if they are fit for handling, and if so they can proceed along the work flow. Quite often items with minor damage can still be digitised because the imaging and cataloguing processes (even if very intense from a handling point of view) are carried out in a highly monitored environment where we provide training for each member involved in handling library items, and constant support where needed.

We have also devised a colour “traffic” light system that we use to communicate through our tracking system on an online shared drive with the other strands of the project. A colour orange dot, for example, placed next to other information on the shared drive highlights that an item is in need of careful handling due to its fragile or damaged state.

A screenshot of the SharePoint window. Showing how an item is tracked through conservation. The SharePoint lists the shelfmark, batch, format, title, workflow stage, conservation indicator, its status, and assigned group. The items are pink or turquoise with a orange (in need of careful handling) or green (fit for handling) dot.

CC by Screenshot of the SharePoint window with information about items processed. Coloured dots highlight the conservation status of these items: orange: in need of careful handling/support from conservation, green: fit for handling

By doing this we ensure that all risks relating to possible damage occurring to items during handling and use are mitigated. At the same time we make possible the creation of surrogates from items that would otherwise not be available to readers in the reading rooms due to their condition, if not only after extensive conservation work. By providing surrogates to readers we should be able to preserve the original physical item from further handling, and this can only be achieved if an item’s access is subsequently reduced.

This is already quite an achievement - when it works, but even in such a customised capacity we can do more than that and the magic word here is “housing”. Good functional housing can be provided by creating customised, and not necessarily expensive, enclosures. If correctly used, phase boxes, folders, and Melinex enclosures provide very effective solutions to prolong the existence of fragile and endangered items.

We also provide supportive treatments such as repairs to major tears and weak areas. These are carried out only to minimise the risk of further damage during handling. This does not mean that as conservators we are sacrificing our knowledge and experience, but it means that we are shifting our expertise towards a wider and more comprehensive approach regarding what we can do for the preservation of our collection.

Conservation, as the word itself says, is the profession aimed to “conserve” items and all their historical features. Looking at the few examples below it is very clear that quite often full treatments have resulted in the complete transformation of the physical nature of the treated item. New sewing, heavy repairs applied to the supports, and new arrangements of items (loose leaves to a bound format) have completely jeopardised the understanding of the physical history of those items.

The left side of the image shows volume flat on a green desk, the volume is in poor condition and has a red label on the front which states 'not to be issued refer reader to'. On the right side of the image there are two brown volumes in a slip case, spine out with darker brown labels with gold tooling.

CC by Two originally “similar” items have, after restoration, lost most of their original physical appearance and therefore invaluable information related to their history

I love books and I love the feeling of handling items that are as they were meant to appear when they were produced. Physical features are an integral part of the history of an object, and too often paper based items are considered only for their content.

Nothing of importance!
Leather bound volume with skinned leather and a large white label on the front with reads, in red ink, 'Nothing of importance' there are also some annotations above this in black ink but they are not legible.

CC by Unfortunately, many bindings and other physical features have been discarded as “Nothing of importance”!

In the following image it is possible to see how good intentions translated into over-restoration. This practice has caused a lot of losses of original features and therefore vital information about the item.

Guard book
Yellow guard book of rebound documents, book is open on green desk showing annotated pages. Behind the volume is an another guard book and a slip case which both of the guard books nestle in.

CC by Guard book of documents that were originally bound together. The paper is laminated and then “hooked” with paper hinges to be bound in the present format

It gives great personal and professional satisfaction to see my input valued and to enable others to enjoy items I am conserving in their original state. It is not always possible or even advisable to completely stop to do full treatments to damaged items, but it is important to remember that we take on a great responsibility by doing it. It is a natural and understandable expectation that we want to see things “as new”, but that is not the aim of conservation.

I like to say that conservation is not about preserving what we can see, but is to be able to leave things as they are as much as possible; it is what we cannot see that really matters.

Heavily damaged manuscript
Heavily damage manuscript with brown cover. There are three images of the manuscript, the top image shows the front of the volume which has a white label adhered with black writing which cannot be read from this image; and a red sticker which reads 'not to be issued refer to' printed in black ink. The left image on the bottom left shows the gutter of the manuscript when open and the image on the bottom right shows the inside top right corner of the board when the book is open.

CC by This heavily damaged manuscript has been digitised and re-housed in a box. By doing this we have been able to preserve all the original features of its contemporary binding, remnants of the sewing threads and materials used in the making of the cover. These details provide clues about specific crafts employed, as well as shedding new light on issues like provenance of the object. They may even inspire new approaches for the interpretation of its content

Mass processing workflows such as those employed in digitisation projects offer conservators a great opportunity to gain understanding about entire collections and not just about single items. By processing a great number of items the conservator acquires knowledge of a whole group of items leading to a wider understanding of the collections and the issues relating to them.

It is a great challenge for conservators to make the best use of this newly acquired knowledge. We have to be able to share what we learn with other strands of our institutions, and also more broadly with interested outside audiences. Information dissemination has never been easier with blogs and Twitter feeds allowing us to share our knowledge quickly and efficiently. It is an opportunity for better communication that we should embrace.

Flavio Marzo

Gulf History Arabic Science Project Conservator


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