Collection Care blog

Behind the scenes with our conservators and scientists

3 posts from February 2015

23 February 2015

Preserving our digital heritage: how are we really doing?

Digital archiving has hit the headlines recently, as people begin to worry publicly about our society’s digital memory.

An image showing various books and papers which appear to be falling in 5 vertical strips along the image. Two of the strips are in the foreground, while the others are farther back. Surrounding these falling items are crisscrossing lines in blue.

Are they right to worry? As suggested by Google Boss Vint Cerf last week, it’s true that if you do nothing to manage and preserve your digital content, then it will inevitably fade away with time as the software and formats with which to read them become obsolete.

This is a particular concern for national institutions holding vast amounts of digital content, as we are charged with preserving digital assets in the very long term, for the next generations of future historians and researchers in centuries to come.

This endeavour, which we refer to as digital preservation, has been the subject of research in libraries and archives around the world for the past two decades and, reassuringly, there is much progress being made.

The British Library, like many national institutions, has a team dedicated to ensuring our collection of more than four million digital items is accessible indefinitely. The diversity of our digital collection makes this a huge challenge: we’ve got everything from web archives to eJournals and eBooks, digitised archives and manuscripts (including tens of thousands of emails), as well as datasets and huge collections of audio and video content. We don’t collect games, or mobile apps, and we leave archiving Twitter to the Library of Congress, but setting that aside, the collection is still incredibly diverse.

A compilation of various images. From the top left and circling inwards: Chapter 1 of a book with an illustration of a mother reading to a little girl; two wavy blue lines intersecting a neon purple swirly line; the title text for Hamlet; an email screensheet; a screenshot of the Electronic Theses Online Service logo; part of a map; and a section of The Manchester Guardian.

Our digital preservation team works closely with IT and curators on development of end-to end-preservation workflows for all of our digital collections. Our work is currently led by the strategic priorities laid out in our 2013-2016 Digital Preservation Strategy , underpinned by our twelve principles of digital preservation. We have a systematic approach to preserving our digital collections, because planning and preparation is essential to avoid being caught out as formats and technology disappear over time.

The digital collections are preserved in our purpose built Digital Library System, which replicates content across four storage nodes in different parts of the UK.

We have plans in place to make sure that these digital collections are not part of the ‘lost century’ that Vint is worried about; we’ll be monitoring format changes, assessing risks and establishing a technical registry and preservation watch system . This work is constant, because technology is changing all of the time.

At the same time, much of this content is being made available to researchers in the British Library’s Reading Rooms, and we’re investigating with academics how future historians will tackle this enormous resource, as well as how it might be curated.

We share expertise with other institutions in the UK through our work with the Digital Preservation Coalition, a non-profit membership organisation founded specifically to help institutions understand and address digital preservation challenges. We also take a leading role in the International Internet Preservation Consortium, which looks specifically at the challenges of web archiving, and which comprises over 50 members in 30 countries around the world.

Emulation and the use of ‘virtual machines’, which was one of the solutions proposed by Vint Cerf, may yet form part of our solution. Lots of work has been done in this area over the past decade, and our web archive technology already utilises an emulation solution within its Interject prototype for accessing resources in non-current formats.

At the end of the day though, preservation is much more than just a technical problem.
Preservation is about planning, it’s about management, it’s about process, it’s about permanence, and it’s about people. You need all of these things for preservation to happen. And that’s what we’re working on.

You might be wondering how this large-scale digital preservation work applies to your own personal digital content, like those collections of emails and photos we hold our desktops and hard drives. It’s early days, but it’s possible that in the future the expertise and solutions that we and others are developing will be adopted by commercial systems.

For now, just knowing which ones you want to keep, then keeping them accessible and backed up is a great start. More advice on this is available from the Library of Congress.

For further information about the work of the Library’s Digital Preservation team, visit the British Library website.

For more information about the Digital Preservation Coalition, visit their website at

Visit the British Library Living Knowledge webpage to learn more about making our intellectual heritage accessible to everyone, as we look ahead to 2023.

Maureen Pennock, Head of Digital Preservation

19 February 2015

Discovering textiles at the British Library

Meet Liz Rose, our newly appointed textile conservator!

I am Liz Rose and am the newly appointed textile conservator at the British Library. My role is to find and identify textiles within the diverse collections at the BL. I will build an asset register of textiles which will record the composition, size, condition and propose a treatment strategy or storage solution as well as compiling a glossary of terms to describe these objects.

In my first month I have been lucky enough to find a great many textiles within the collections. I have met with 16 specialist curators from the Asian and African; Contemporary British; Western Heritage and European and American collections. In total I have identified, condition checked, measured and photographed 53 culturally diverse objects. Here are some of the most memorable objects from January 2015:

  • From the Burmese Collections I was shown a 20th century silk, talismanic shirt and trousers (1) and a palm leaf manuscript dated 1856 which is wrapped in cotton (2).


A folded silk textile. The silk is a cream colour. Near the top of the fold there are three animals resembling dogs with pointy ears. Near the bottom is a table with numerous symbols.
(1) OMS Or 15674


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A manuscript wrapped in cotton. There is a patterned yellow fabric covering the manuscript with a swirling, floral motif. Around that is a strip of white and red fabric.
(2) OMS Or 12645



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  • From the Thai, Lao and Cambodia Collection, I was shown a 19th century talismanic shirt (3) from Shan community in Burma. This is highly decorated in black ink with mantras, number and yantra designs.


The talismanic shirt is on a light brown fabric, with black ink depicting animals, charts, and figures.
 (3) OMS Or 15085


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  • I was shown an escape map of Berlin made from waterproofed silk (4) (on the reverse a map of Germany). These maps would have been folded and sewn into the linings of uniforms.
  • I also looked at a cotton ‘map of man’ (5) dated 1780 which displays ‘an allegorical map of human experience’, the border illustrating proverbs and instruction. It is quite large 732mm (w) x 685mm (h), printed in black and presumably engraved. Both these objects came from the Map Collections.
The map of Berlin, with land in white and outlines of read, and the North Sea at the top of the page.
(4) Maps CC 5a 151

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The Map of Man is on a tan fabric. It shows a circle at the centre with circles and other shapes emanating from that. Small text is written around all four edges.
(5) Maps CC 6 a 27

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  • In the Printed Heritage Collections of Western Heritage, I found handbills dating from 1849 in natural silk (6) and pink silk dating from 1862 and 1867 (7) advertising theatre in Exeter. Some of these handbills are extremely fragile and discoloured from adhesive deposits whilst others look reasonably robust and remarkably clear.
The playbill in a natural silk. It advertises a Second Grand Amateur performance at the Theatre Royal, Exeter of the show De Bazan.
(6) 74/L.R.412.e.4


The playbill in pink silk, advertising a Comedy and Burlesque Company show at the Theatre Royal called Mr. R. Barker.
(7) 74/L.R.412.e.4

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  • I also came across a pamphlet called ‘Uniform Rules and Regulations for the Cyclists’ Touring Club’. It contains illustrations of mens’ and womens’ cycling uniforms and two pages of textile samples: ‘Warranted Pure Wool’ (7) in three different weights for formal cycling wear and two weights of ‘Pure Sanitary Undyed Natural Wool for under-wear’.
Two pages of textile samples: small strips of dark-coloured wool are adhered three to a page with information about the textile typed below.
(7) C.194.a.1105

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  • In the Radford Archive there is an embroidery by Frieda Lawrence (8), designed by D. H. Lawrence as a gift to their friends Maitland and Muriel Radford.
A circular embroidery showing a man resting in a boat, with dolphins swimming around him and above him is a grape tree.
 (8) Add MS 89029/2/12

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  • From Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts I was shown an 18th century embroidered binding (9) for the Birch-Yorke Letters (Vol. III). This is a bound collection of letters to Thomas Birch from some members of the Yorke family.
  • I was also shown an illuminated manuscript, Yates, Thompson MS 31 (10), a large bound book in peach silk with lavish silver metal thread embroidery. This book dates from the last quarter of 14th century, the binding from 16th century and the embroidery from 18th century.
An intricately embroidered book cover. The cover is red, and the embroidery has a three-dimensional quality in mainly silver and gold threads. At the top of the book cover is am embroidered eye, with a cloud below. Twisting threads surround a sword which is held by two hands.
(9) Harley MS 4325

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An embroidered book cover on coral-coloured cloth. The embroidery has a three-dimensional quality. At the centre is a crest-like design, with swirling filigree around the edges. The book cover is protected with a plastic covering.
 (10) Yates, Thompson MS 31

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I have only just started my research into textiles at the BL and have been overwhelmed by the quantity, quality and diversity of the textile objects within the collections. It should be remembered that the BL is a reference library and many of these wonderful objects can be viewed in the library Reading Rooms. However, a few of the examples included in this blog have limited or supervised access.

Liz Rose, Textile Conservator

12 February 2015

Photographed by the Hand of a Sinner

Senior Imaging Technician Kristin A. Phelps takes us behind the scenes of the British Library’s Imaging Services where there are several ongoing digital projects at any given time. 

Click here for an Arabic translation of this article, as translated by the Thesaurus Islamicus Foundation and Dar Al Kutub Manuscript Project.

In the foreground is an open volume, cut off about halfway by the camera, with an illumination on the left page and text on the right. In the background is a computer screen showing the digitised illuminated page.This page shows a seated figure in blue and red robes writing on a piece of paper.

Prior to the 14th Century, Byzantine artists who painted icons preferred to shun hubris and leave their works unsigned. Their work would be placed in churches to be seen and revered by thousands of the faithful over the centuries. Occasionally, an artist would sign their work with the phrase “Painted by the hand of a sinner.” This allowed the sacred value of the icon to remain unfettered by human presence.

Fast-forward to the modern world and a secular context: millions of digital images are accessed every day on websites of museums, libraries, archives and other collections. These images are taken by unseen photographers and are unsigned. The anonymity of the process allows for ‘pure’ and non-distracted understanding of the object by a viewer. But, who are these modern day artists who make invaluable works of art, faith and history accessible to all of us? How does their particular art form impact what we are able to view on our computer screens, tablets and smart phones?

To answer these questions we are going behind the scenes of the British Library’s Imaging Services where there are several ongoing digital projects at any given time. One project in particular, the Greek Manuscript Digitisation Project (GMDP), is working to digitise centuries old Greek manuscripts, some of which include illuminated portraits of the Evangelists executed by anonymous hands. The British Library’s third phase of the GMDP began in April 2014 and is scheduled to be completed March 2015 with a target of digitizing over 300 manuscripts, which is roughly equivalent to 120,000 images. The project has been funded by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, the A.G. Leventis Foundation, Sam Goff, the Sylvia Iannou Foundation, the Thriplow Charitable Trust and the Friends of the British Library, among others.

Three images in a row. On the left is a camera mounted to a photo stand. The centre image is a wider shot of the photo stand showing the camera mounted above a book which is being photographed. On the right there is another book being photographed. The books are held at a 90 degree angle, so the page being imaged is flat, and the other side of the book is strapped to a soft cradle.

A series of 8 photos in two columns showing Imaging Services staff. Many of them look into a camera's viewfinder or at the set up of the photo stand.

The British Library’s Imaging Services currently employs eight full time photographers, or Senior Imaging Technicians, who represent approximately 110 years combined of photographic experience at the Library. While two of these photographers have been tasked with working on the GMDP, all of the photographers will work on the project at one point or another. 

The eight photographers come from a variety of backgrounds including more traditional photographic backgrounds as well as artists, a former school teacher, a former 3D graphic designer with a specialty in computer gaming and a former archaeologist.

Once a book is delivered to the Imaging Studio, the physical digitisation process can begin. Every manuscript is unique and its physical condition can vary widely. For this reason, a conservation assessment is being performed for each manuscript to be imaged for any of the digitisation projects. This written report guides the photographer responsible for the book to ensure that manuscript is returned in the same condition it was received.

 Once the assessment has been read and understood, the manuscript is set up for capture on a cradle. Many manuscripts can be photographed using an L-shaped cradle, designed by the Conservation Department, to allow photography without damage to the material. When the manuscript has been appropriately set up, it can be photographed in RAW format page by page utilising Phase One cameras with digital backs.

A book rests strapped into its cradle. Above this the camera has caught a human hand in motion--it looks as if someone has perhaps just finished strapping the book in and you get a blur of their hand moving away. Senior Imaging Technician Neil McCowlen looks at his computer monitor.Once the images are captured, they are reviewed and edited in Capture One (minor adjustments only including cropping, straightening and exposure adjustments).  

Finally, the RAW files are processed into both Tiff and Jpeg files before being passed back to the various digital project teams for online publication.

Does this process sound simple and straightforward? It rarely is. Often times, a manuscript needs to be carefully propped up to become level, or has a page which is not flat. The photographer is then responsible for manipulating the manuscript with a very gentle and cautious manner to make the resulting image provide the best view of a page. In addition, items may be housed in glass which cannot be removed for imaging. Senior Imaging Technician Tony Grant gets a book set up in its cradle prior to digitisation.Or, objects may be large and unwieldy or extremely small. Lighting conditions may need to be changed if the manuscript contains significant amounts of gold leaf decoration. And, of course, there are always physical adjustments of the camera position and settings as well as employing a variety of lenses. Throughout the process the photographers have to use their judgment and experience in order to “do no harm” and yield images that represent faithfully the original material. After observing everything which must be considered to photograph a manuscript, the question arises: are these professionals artists or technicians? The Library photographers themselves are split when it comes to answering this question. Half of them consider their particular type of photography an art form whilst the rest view it as form of scientific imaging.

No matter what the answer to this question is, one thing is certain. These photographers deliver an impactful and important volume of work to the digital masses. Scholars from across the world have advanced their research without the need to physically visit the British Library. Thousands of people are able to connect with global cultural and religious heritage with a click of a button.

Of course, the GMDP project is just one example of a common wider trend of museums, libraries and archives digitising their holdings for online publication. In Europe alone as of 2014, 87% of cultural heritage institutions had digital collections. ENUMERATE’s 2014 survey found that the most important perceived reason for digital collections was academic research, which points to the growing field of Digital Humanities. With all the new material available online, a visual revolution of the democratisation of knowledge is happening. Now a scholar is no longer hindered by the inability to travel afar to libraries and museums to see objects; instant access to manuscripts and 3D objects is only a click away. Scholarship is becoming more diverse because open access to online collections allows those who wish to see something to be able to do just that. In fact, in its still young life, the third phase of the GMDP has already been the focus of scholarly research as well as being used and shared by a number of New Testament and Patristic blogs.

Of course, none of this would be possible without the diligent and specialised work of the photographers at institutions like the British Library. But if you asked one of the British Library Imaging Services’ photographers about their role in the process you receive humble responses, not dissimilar to what you would have expected from the original “sinners.”

Kristin A. Phelps, Senior Imaging Technician

A black and white image of Senior Imaging Technician Laurence Pordes standing before the photography set up.