Collection Care blog

42 posts categorized "Digital preservation"

18 April 2016

Play your part in preserving our heritage

Every year we conserve approximately 2,200 items, taking hours of skilled work, but there are many more items in need of repair. As the Library’s collection continues to grow and age, so do the number of items that need our attention.

In this post, book conservator Zoe Miller describes the work carried out to conserve Sloane Manuscript 1006, Astronomical Scheme after Henricus Khunrath.

This unusual and unique late 17th century manuscript came to conservation in a very poor condition. It was thought to have been produced by Dr Heinrich Khunrath (1560-1605), a physician, hermetic philosopher and alchemist who travelled Europe working as a court physician. He met John Dee, one of several alchemists who heavily influenced his famous work Amphitheatrum Sapientiae Aeternae [The Amphitheatre of Eternal Wisdom].

The binding, with its covering of sprinkled calf skin with green paper had broken, much of the original leather and paper covering had worn away and the spine and sewing were split in many places. It was foxed (a form of age-related chemical degradation of paper which causes reddish-brown spots) with ingrained surface dirt and many folds and stresses to the contents through inappropriate handling.

Two images show the condition of the volume prior to conservation treatment. On the left, the book rests on a table, showing a generally degraded and dirty appearance. On the right is a close-up of the spine, showing cracked brown leather.

Much of the damage is a result of its physical uniqueness. The text block consists of heavy weight single folios sewn on cords, onto which are stitched 181 paper objects with hand drawn geometrical diagrams and deconstructions of an astronomical model.

A detail of a drawing: geometric shapes, mainly circled, overlap one another and are drawn in a dark ink.

These paper objects—often annotated in iron gall ink—have been carefully arranged on each folio and freely hang from the page as it is turned, posing a significant risk during handling and consultation.

Two images showing pages of the volume with geometric drawings. On the left a page has multiple drawings inserted in varying sizes, and on the right is a close-up of smaller drawings hanging from a page.

Very little detail was known about the provenance of this volume, its creator, or the scholarly importance of the curious contents. This posed a problem. With all objects I am responsible for conserving, I aim to build a detailed conservation treatment proposal from an understanding of the cultural, historical and intellectual context of an object and its past use and ownership. This is to ensure that important historical evidence is preserved and that its scholarly value is not inadvertently diminished.

Working together with collection specialists we arranged to meet a previous reader of this book, a university professor whose expertise could help us make informed decisions for treatment. As the conservator, I was able to add to the body of knowledge of this item through my physical examination of the materials and processes used to construct the book and by contributing my understanding of patterns of deterioration and damage.

As a result of this interesting discussion it was decided to digitise the manuscript in order to preserve the exact state and positioning of the contents for scholarly study. This also will allow us to restrict access to the original in order to preserve it.

In preparation for digitisation, the manuscript was cleaned and dis-bound, removing broken threads and degraded binding materials which were causing further vulnerability.

One page with a series of circles and a start in the middle which is in the middle of being surface cleaned--the bottom half of the image is dirtier than the top.
Surface cleaning showing before and after cleaning

The astronomical objects were then stabilised using repair techniques which respected delicate inks and pigments to enable high quality images to be taken.

Two images showing the spine being cleaned. On right left, three panels of Japanese tissue protect the degraded leather, and on the right, a poultice is used to remove adhesive from the spine using a metal spatula.

Following digitisation, the volume was returned to the Centre for Conservation to undergo further treatment. After recreating the original sewing structure the book boards were consolidated to prevent further loss of fragile materials and reattached to the text block.

The textblock of the book sits on a sewing frame with six sewing stations as the book is resewn.
Resewing the volume.

A flexible, low adhesive method was chosen to repair the spine using layers of Japanese tissue and wheat starch paste to recreate the original appearance of the binding as a tight-back (where the spine covering is adhered directly to the spine folds and sewing supports) while in reality creating a hollow-back, which serves to protect both the spine folds and the original spine labels which were adhered to the new covering leather.

Two images showing the spine being repaired. On the left, a lining of tissue is adhered to the spine, and on the right brown leather is added to the spine.

Finally the delicate remnants of gold finishing from the degraded leather spine, which had been carefully removed before treatment, were encapsulated, to be stored with the volume for future consultation. Wherever possible we will aim to keep valuable evidence of a previous binding if it cannot be re-used.

Two close-up images of the spine before and after conservation. Before treatment, the spine's leather is cracked and degraded.
Before and after conservation.

Treatment of this unique object has not only stabilised it physically for future generations but through digitisation we have been able to make its contents available to scholars within this niche area of study. Conservation has enabled and contributed to a growing body of knowledge on this manuscript.

Zoe Miller

Every item that comes into the Centre for Conservation receives this kind of care and attention, because to us every item is a treasure in its own way. It’s our high standards and level of expertise that means conserving items is a timely process and we will not compromise on the quality of the work that we do.

Your can play your part in preserving our heritage by making sure we have the resource to play ours, together we can make it last for generations to come.

Donate online by visiting: www.support.bl.uk/conservation

25 February 2016

Call for Sound Heritage Conservation Consultant

Save Our Sounds” is the British Library’s ambitious programme to preserve the nation’s recorded sound heritage including; music, oral history, wildlife sounds, drama, dialect and urban sounds. We are looking for a consultant to research and write a Conservation Plan that will form part of our stage two HLF application.

The tendering document can be downloaded here (Click 'Save as' in Internet Explorer to save the .zip file, or download the document automatically in Google Chrome). The deadline for tenders is 14 March 2016. You can apply via our online e-tendering service by clicking on 'View current opportunities and notices.'

A man is retrieving a round card cylinder from a row of cylinders on a metal shelf. The cylinders are named as Edison Concert.

18 January 2016

Hidden figure in Leonardo da Vinci notebook revealed

Multi-spectral imaging at the British Library has revealed a figure, in previously unseen detail, on a folio of a notebook belonging to Leonardo da Vinci. Da Vinci expert Professor Martin Kemp believes the sketch may be part of a series of 'fugitive images' occasionally unearthed on da Vinci's work.

Two images of the same area of the Da Vinci page, one showing a erased area, the next showing a standing figure now visible under multi-spectral imaging.
A comparison of the erasure as seen by the naked eye (left) and the revealed figure (right) after multi-spectral imaging.

 

Leonardo da Vinci (1452 – 1519) was a prolific note-taker with over 7,000 pages of his thoughts surviving today. The British Library is custodian of a notebook known as Codex Arundel 263 after its English collector Thomas Howard, 14th Earl of Arundel. These notes and sketches come from different periods in da Vinci's life, though most date to 1508, and cover a range of topics including mechanics, astronomy, optics, architecture and the flight of birds.

Codex Arundel 263 was not originally a bound volume, but was put together after his death. The variation in folio type and size show how many of da Vinci's ideas, studies and inventions were observed outdoors as he went about his day. The notes are written in Italian showcasing his famous left-handed mirror writing. Folios 137v and 136r, housed together and currently on display in the British Library Treasures Gallery, were taken for multi-spectral imaging analysis to enhance and potentially reveal a hidden sketch in a small area of discolouration visible in the lower half of folio 137v.

Dr Christina Duffy standing to the right of an exhibition case showing two pages of the Da Vinci Arundel notebook. The pages are framed in mountboard with placards in front of them.
Imaging Scientist Dr Christina Duffy with Codex Arundel 263.

 

The smudge measures no more than 6 x 3 cm and has been suspected by scholars to contain an elusive sketch of a figure by da Vinci - possibly erased by himself.

Folio 136r and 137v shown as two ajoined pages opened out. The paper, of a brownish tint, contains designs and writings both vertically & horizontally, with the left-hand folio showing the darkened smudge containing the hidden figure at the lower right.
Codex Arundel 263 folio 136r and 137v showing notes, calculations and diagrams including a mechanical organ and timpani/drums.

 

The analysis took place at the British Library Centre for Conservation where high resolution images of the folios and region of interest were captured. Multi-spectral imaging is one of the many tools our Conservation Science team use to non-invasively and non-destructively increase the body of knowledge on collection items for scholars, curators and conservators. The da Vinci sketch was placed underneath the monochrome sensor camera and exposed to light of various wavelengths ranging from the ultraviolet at 365 nm to the near infrared at 1050 nm.

Multispectral Imaging machine. The room is filled with ultraviolet light, with a brighter light on the table where the image will be exposed, underneath the multi-spectral camera. Two reflective boards are tilted at an angle either side of the camera, while behind them are two lights on tall stands.
The Multi-spectral Imaging system is based in the British Library Centre for Conservation. 

 

These wavelengths reside on what is known as the Electromagnetic Spectrum - a wide spectrum encompassing radio and X-rays. The human eye can only detect light within the visible region of this spectrum limiting our ability to see potentially faded or invisible information. Multi-spectral imaging therefore enables the capture of detail which we cannot see with the naked eye.

The British Library imaging system acquired multiple images of the folio at several different wavelengths from the ultraviolet to the near-infrared.

Filters placed underneath the camera's lens were also used in combination with the lights to capture images of fluorescence resulting in the generation of vivid images highlighting the fugitive figure on folio 137v. The images raise fascinating questions about why the figure was drawn here, and why great efforts were made to erase it.

A Pseudocolor image of the Da Vinci pages, created using three different filters in Multi-spectral imaging. The page shows as mostly light blue, with yellow around the edge, centre and towards the top right in patches. The text and images show as black, while in the erased area, the figure can now be seen, also in black but less pronounced.
This pseudocolour image was generated by combining three monochrome multi-spectral images captured using ultraviolet light with a red, green and blue filter respectively.

 

Multi-spectral imaging is an incredibly exciting process and has revealed many secrets from our collections to date, including recovering once thought lost text from the 'Burnt Magna Carta' last year. It is an incredible privilege to work with some of the world's most valued treasures and subject experts. Everyday brings new discoveries to light (quite literally!) and the prospect of unlocking more secrets from the British Library's vast and varied collections is thrilling.

The entire Codex Arundel notebook has been digitised and is available to view online

Dr Christina Duffy (@DuffyChristina)

 

30 November 2015

Farewell to all that

Preparing for retirement, I inevitably revisited the exciting projects and beautiful objects I worked on during my time at the British Library. The conservator’s role has seen many changes, even in a decade. Limited resources are increasingly focused on preserving whole collections by reducing the risks of damage and deterioration, rather than treating single items. But to make those collections more available both in the Reading Rooms and digitally to users across the world, some repairs are essential so items can be handled safely. Minimal intervention helps to retain evidence of the item’s history and past use.

One page from the St Cuthbert Gospel, featuring text on parchment with a few holes in the parchment present.
 The St Cuthbert Gospel (Add Ms 89000) f.1r The damage records the ways the book was used and stored through the centuries and will be preserved.

My first project was the conservation of Alexander Fleming’s papers (Add Ms 56106-56225), including those relating to his discovery of penicillin – not perhaps the most suitable job as I am highly allergic to it. The repaired notebooks were housed in plastazote, laboriously cut to shape by hand. Eventually, I would learn to “drive” a Zünd cutter, which did the same job in minutes.

Beryl Bainbridge’s papers followed, and it was a surprise to discover that she had been to art school as a teenager and illustrated her early work. However, she used a poster paint with very little binder, so the surface was often powdery. The paintings were treated with a weak solution of JunFunori, misted on with a nebuliser repeatedly over a week or more.

A close-up of artwork which features two figures. They are both wearing black berets, are smoking, and one has a blue shirt while the other has a red shirt.
A double page image from a volume of fragments 1951-3 (Add Ms 83745 ff.5v-6).

 

Immediately after World War II writing paper was scarce, so Bainbridge often used poor quality scraps held together with pressure sensitive tape. This was all degrading and had to be removed with heat and solvents – very carefully, where there was text nearby. Modern inks can run in both water and solvents, making conservation more difficult.

Varying scraps of paper rest on top of one another, with poems written on them. The papers are in generally poor condition with Selloptape present and the top edges crushed and torn.
The same volume showing different papers and typical edge damage (Add Ms 83745 ff.33-41).

Edgar Mansfield’s working archive for his designer bindings gave me much delight, and more challenges. First seen packed tight in two box files, after conservation and proper housing they filled a shelf and a half. Early on we agreed to preserve evidence of how the design process developed, and how the final tooling patterns used folds and excisions to fix the paper to the book leather temporarily. Loose overlays needed careful hinging to secure them in precisely the right position. The British Library has two of Mansfield’s finished bindings.

Varying stages of the final design, which is an abstract representation of a figure dancing, are laid out on a table. This includes a tracing, a drawing in colour, and the final design on leather.
Valery’s Dance and the Soul bound by Mansfield (C130c6) with his final design and the tooling pattern used to transfer it to the leather cover.

 

Eventually I moved into digitisation projects (Harley Scientific Manuscripts, Greek manuscripts and finally Hebraic manuscripts). As I gained experience, I also got the more difficult one-off jobs. The largest item, the Moutier-Grandval Bible (Add Ms 10546), more than half a metre high, needed a special cradle and team of people to handle it safely (read more here).

Three people stand around the large volume helping during the digitisation process.
Two people turn the leaves while a third adjusts the cradle.

For the Brontë miniature books I had to make tiny “fingers” to hold the leaves flat for imaging (more on that here.

A hand holds a tiny book.
Blackwood’s Young Men’s Magazine, First Series, No. 6, f.6v (Ashley Ms 157)

Through the years, a stream of running repairs have come my way; simple tasks for the most part, but letting me handle many beautiful items: the Theodore Psalter (Add Ms 19352), Cruciform Lectionary (Add Ms 39603), Chinese Qur’an (Or Ms 15256/1), Queen Mary Psalter (Royal Ms 2.B.VII), Macclesfield Alphabet Book (Add Ms 88887), Prayer Roll of Henry VIII (Add Ms 88929), Guthlac Roll (Harley Roll Y 6), charts of Cook’s voyages (Add Ms 31360), a suffragette prison diary (Add Ms 49976) and many hundred more, most recently the Leonardo Notebook (Arundel Ms 263). To increase efficiency, a mobile workstation took me out of the studio to work in the storage areas, eliminating the transportation of books to the Conservation Centre and the associated security and paperwork.

A close up of a drawn image which shows two men in a boat greeting two men on land.
Life of St Guthlac (Harley Roll Y 6) f.15r The spectacles and feather were added by an earlier owner.

I also did exhibition work, mostly condition reporting and checking loan items. But one job in Durham had the local newspaper asking “How many people does it take to turn a page and how long does it take them to do it?” Since the book was the Lindisfarne Gospels, it did take a while.

Visitors sometimes asked about my favourite collection item and most often I chose whatever I was currently working on and making discoveries about. But the book that lingers in my memory is Thomas Osborne’s Treatise on Arithmetic (Harley Ms 4924). If I had had such an attractive textbook as a child, I would have been a more eager student. It is now too frail to be issued in the Reading Room, but is available to everyone in digital form.

One page which shows multiplication tables surrounded by cherubs, a maritime scene, a classroom setting, and more which are all hand drawn.
Treatise on Arithmetic (Harley Ms 4924) f.6r Note the schoolroom scene in the lower left corner.

I plan to revisit the British Library eventually to research historic binding structures, but meanwhile I shall be following the blogs and keeping an eye on the latest uploads to Digitised Manuscripts.

Ann Tomalak

 

23 October 2015

Magna Carta Conservation Team at the ICON Awards

The British Library conservation team that worked on the Magna Carta project attended a glamorous awards ceremony at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers last night. The team were shortlisted for the Institute of Conservation (ICONAnna Plowden Trust Award for Research and Innovation, which went to Tate for their impressive Rothko Conservation Project. A huge congratulations to the Tate team and to the Imperial War Museum who were also in our category for their amazing space vacuums, air bazookas and duster drones project in the War Against Dust.

Four members of the Magna Carta conservation team stand to have their picture taken; they are standing in front of a dark wood wall.
Left to right: Cordelia Rogerson, Christina Duffy, Gavin Moorhead, Julian Harrison

The Magna Carta Project was a collaborative process of sophisticated research and innovation that enabled a pragmatic solution for rehousing and displaying an iconic document. Our biggest challenge was overcoming long held preconceptions and expectations that a high profile artefact required an expensive high-tech approach. You can read more about our work here.

Flyers for the Icon Conservation Awards rest on a table. They list information about the event such as date, time, and location.

It has been a great privilege to work with Magna Carta and the curatorial team in the build up to the British Library's most successful exhibition Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy.

Many thanks to all colleagues across the British Library and other institutions who helped progress the project into something we are all very proud of. Thanks to ICON and their sponsors Beko for organising a terrific night celebrating an incredible range of conservation work going on around the UK.

Congratulations to all the entrants, shortlistees and winners!

Christina Duffy

25 August 2015

Digitising Hebraic Scrolls

As part of the Hebraic Manuscript Digitisation Project (HMDP), we are currently imaging 74 scrolls. These range in size from one smaller than a little finger to another a whopping 52.41m long – three times the length of the conservation studio. The tallest is nearly a metre with its rollers.

The scroll and its case rest on a table. The case has a light-coloured wood handle, and a round case with a crown-like top hold the scroll. The case appears to be made from a cream-coloured material, possibly bone or ivory.
Esther scroll in decorative case (Add 11831)

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We did a brief survey last year and realised some of the scrolls were very damaged, so we have spent another two months assessing each one individually. Even this was not a simple task. Many of the larger scrolls are also very heavy, so two conservators have worked together to make sure they were handled safely, using lots of weights as stops to prevent them rolling off work-surfaces. The parchment scrolls have been tightly rolled for a very long time and even looking at them has been a challenge, as they try hard to re-roll themselves unless held down securely.

A closeup of a scroll showing pest damage.
Text was rewritten after surface delamination; plus insect damage and excreta (Or 4224)

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What are they? As well as some fine large Torah scrolls on parchment, made for synagogue use, we also have a number written on leather. The most important of this group is the Kaifeng Torah, made in central China in the 17th century. Read more about it here

There are also much smaller scrolls made for personal or family use. In particular, we have quite a few Esther scrolls, and some with the ritual texts for the Passover meal. Most copies of Hebraic scriptures are unadorned, to focus attention on the religious texts, but scrolls for family celebrations may have decorative margins or full coloured miniatures. The smallest scroll, adorned with silver, was almost certainly an amulet as the script is too tiny to be easily read.

The tip of a finger holds a scroll open. The finger is about one-third the width of the scroll, showcasing just how small the scroll is. The text is very tiny.
 The smallest scroll. The finger appears huge in comparison to the tiny script. (Or 4670)

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The survey showed that up to half of the scrolls needed some kind of conservation treatment. Many were quick tasks done during assessment (edge tears or broken sewing joining panels) to avoid having later to roll and re-roll the scroll yet again. However, a dozen of the scrolls needed a good deal of repair simply to get them through the digitisation processes safely, and were sent to the main conservation studio.

Another close up showing the tight sewing on the left hand side, and a cracked surface in the middle.
Sewing is too tight and the holes too close together. The leather surface is also crazed and inflexible in part. (Or 1462)

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Many of the scrolls have integral rollers. We thought it safer not to repair these if broken, lest it give a false sense of security, though we never lift scrolls by the roller handles anyway, since so many are now frail. Even more fragile are the few scrolls that roll back into cases as the mechanisms now tend to stick. Thankfully, once digitised, these will be handled rarely.

Two pieces of parchment are held together with sewing. In this image, along the left hand side, the sewing has broken and a large tear has developed in the scroll.
Common damage: the sewing has broken and a tear has developed across the text. This must be repaired before imaging as handling will make it worse. (Or 4224)

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The scrolls are made of rectangular panels of parchment or leather (often called membranes) joined end to end. We were surprised to find that the majority were linked only by long, crude running stitches of linen thread, but these joins had mostly remained intact. We understood this better when we found a pair of scrolls with joins of fine oversewing (possibly done by a seamstress, not a leather worker), where the thread had torn through the leather; the frequent holes essentially acting as a perforation strip.

A closeup showing text on the scroll which is partially covered by wax which has dripped.
Evidence of use is carefully preserved; here molten wax has dripped onto the scroll. (Or 1463)

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A few of the scrolls have protective silk panels stitched to the verso at the outer end and we also found four mantles. Our textile conservator, Liz Rose, is cleaning and repairing these to make them safe to handle and image. They will be boxed separately and available for display in the future. As part of the project, many of the scrolls will also be rehoused in custom-made boxes.

A close up of the mantle, which has a floral design on a cream background. There are a number of tears in the silk.
An extremely damaged mantle; the silk lining is also split in many places (Or 13027)

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Although our imaging technicians are well used to digitising oriental scrolls, as well as other rolled materials such as maps, we think this is the first time anyone has digitised such a large group of Hebraic scrolls. Conservators were involved early in the process of selecting suitable equipment. Although no Hebraic manuscript books have been scanned, we concluded that it would be safer and more efficient to scan some of the scrolls – though using the equipment unconventionally, without the glass sheet to flatten them. There was a full risk assessment before imaging began, and the imaging technicians received specialist handling training, including a requirement to work in pairs.

A close up of the margin of one scroll showing illustrations of three animals: an elephant, a hippopotamus, and another elephant.
Marginal decoration of an Esther scroll (Or 1047)

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A close up of a handpainted printed image. The image is likely Mary and baby Jesus. Jesus stands below Mary, and Mary squirts breastmilk into his mouth from above.
Image printed on parchment and hand coloured. The printing block was probably generic, used to decorate many different texts, but is unusual for a Hebraic manuscript. (Or 13028)

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Conservation’s role in the digitisation of the scrolls is now finished, but there is still several months’ work to be done on processing and stitching the images before everything is uploaded to our website. Meanwhile, you can view many of the books digitised during the project here: using “Hebrew” as the keyword.

Ann Tomalak, HMDP Phase 1 Project Conservator

06 July 2015

Under the Microscope with Magna Carta

We recently held a very successful public event sharing our conservation work in preparation for the British Library Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy exhibition. The exhibition marks 800 glorious years of Magna Carta since it was granted by King John of England in 1215. The conservation project involved removing six manuscripts from their frames and rehousing them for display. While they were out of their frames, the manuscripts were examined using various scientific techniques. High-resolution digital microscopy enabled incredible magnification of the iron gall ink and parchment which make up the charters. Here is a selection of the images captured of Cotton MS Augustus ii.106, one of the British Library’s two original Magna Cartas dating to 15 June 1215. Enjoy!

The Magna Carta rests on a platform with a microscope above it which Christina Duffy looks through.
Imaging Scientist Christina Duffy
A full view of Magna Carta 1215. It is a rectangular pieces of parchment with small text.
Magna Carta 1215

Magna Carta 1215 (Cotton MS Augustus ii.106) – one of four surviving original 1215 copies.

Iron gall ink

Iron gall ink has been used since the middle-ages and is found on many of our most treasured collections including the Lindisfarne Gospels, Beowulf and Magna Carta. The main ingredients of iron gall ink include iron sulphate, tannins from oak galls and water. Overall the ink is in very good condition on this charter allowing us to appreciate the beauty in the detail of some of the intials.

A close up of the bottom left of Magna Carta 1215.
Magna Carta 1215 detail

 

20X magnification showing an uppercase letter which looks like an O that has been half filled in, with dotted lines going down the centre.
Iron gall ink at 20x
An even closer image of the O - some cracks are visible.
Iron gall ink at 30x
An even closer shot, showing loss of ink on the parchment surface.
Iron gall ink at 150x

At high magnification we can see that some areas have experienced ink loss, but the Great Charter is still legible due to the remaining ink shadow left behind. Find out more about iron gall ink in a previous post here.

A closeup of the text along the right hand side of the Magna Carta. Text runs in horizontal lines across the image.
Magnca Carta 1215 detail right

 

A close up of some of the text, showing a variety of letters, including ones which look like an uppercase T and O. Some loss of ink is visible.
Ink loss at 30x
An even closer look at the O shape, with cracking and link loss very visible.
Ink loss at 100x
Yet a closer look at the ink loss. At this level of magnification, the ink which is left looks like rocks or ground coffee beans.
Ink loss at 200x

Parchment

The parchment on which Magna Carta has been written is thought to be sheepskin. Parchment is an animal pelt which has had the hairs removed by liming or enzymatic action. It is then stretched and dried under tension creating a perfect writing surface with a thin opaque membrane. Below are some images showing damage to the  upper dermal layers of the parchment. Find out more about parchment here.

A close up of text in the centre of the Magna Carta.
Magna Carta 1215 detail centre

 

An even closer look at the text. There is a what looks like a hole--damage to the skin--in a oval-like shape. The right side of the oval is curved as normal but the left side is shaped like the edge of a triangle.
Damage at 30x
An even closer view of this oval-shaped damage. There is a ring of black around this hole.
Damage at 50x
An even closer look of this damage, showing that the skin is quite textured.
Damage at 150x

CC by You can find out more about this charter on the British Library Magna Carta resource page.

Christina Duffy (@DuffyChristina)

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 www.dpconline.org

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

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.

19 July 2014

Secret underdrawings & cover-ups in the Mewar Ramayana

The Ramayana – “Rama’s journey” – is one of India’s oldest stories having first being written some two and a half thousand years ago. It follows the hero Rama from his birth and childhood in Ayodhya to his exile in the forest where his wife Sita is kidnapped by the wicked (and ten-headed!) demon king Ravana. With his valorous brother Lakshmana and helped by an army of monkeys and bears he leads the search for Sita, finally rescuing her from Ravana’s stronghold in Lanka. It is an epic story embodying the Hindu idea of dharma (duty). There are several thousand known surviving manuscripts and many different versions of the story across Asia. The Mewar Ramayana is one of the finest copies of the work, lavishly illustrated with over 450 paintings in large format. Recent digitisation by the British Library in partnership with leading Indian institutions has reunited the long-separated text and it can be viewed online featuring an introduction including links to contextual documents and high resolution images in ‘Turning the Pages’ with descriptive text and audio.

Multispectral imaging

We recently examined two paintings from the Mewar Ramayana using multispectral imaging to investigate the methods and workflow of the artist. Images are captured over fourteen spectral bands from the ultraviolet (UV: 365 nm) to the infrared (IR: 1050 nm) revealing information about underdrawings and techniques that can’t be seen under normal light. The two full page paintings are illustrations from Book 6 (Yuddhakanda, Book of war) of the Mewar Ramayana manuscript.

Book 6 fol. 27r (Add. MS 15297(1), f.27r)


Book 6 fol. 27r depicting the siege of Lanka in colour, ultraviolet, infrared, and blue light with an orange filter. Rama’s army of monkeys takes control of the four gates of the city as the ten-headed Ravana leads the defence after consulting his ministers.

Book 6 fol. 27r: Rama’s army of monkeys and bears hurl stones at their enemies. White pigment, possibly added as a later touch up, is observed under ultraviolet light on the elbows, arms and tails of the attacking monkeys.

Book 6 fol. 27r: Colour, ultraviolet, infrared sequence. In front of the gates to Lanka, a man struggles with a monkey. Under ultraviolet light the rough application of paint is evident on the man's hand where no attempt is made to stay within the lines. In the infrared image, the guidelines used to initially draw the figure (chest, back, elbow) are observed.

Book 6 fol. 27r: An archer fends off the monkey army. Incorporating high levels of detail in these paintings often led to a change in design layout. In the painting the archer is shown to be sitting cross-legged on the cart, but in the infrared image he is standing. The late addition of the cart is evident by the over painting of the wheel in order to indicate its attachment to the main frame of the cart. Other alterations were made such as the size of the soldier's orange foot in the top left, and the painting over of an isolated monkey tail on the horse's body in the bottom left.

Book 6 fol. 142r (Add. MS 15297(1), f.142r)

As the battle escalates Rama’s brother Lakshmana is seriously wounded by a spear. Hanuman the monkeys’ army general is sent to the Himalayas to pick up medicinal herbs.

Book 6 fol. 142r: Colour, ultraviolet, infrared, and blue light with an orange filter sequence of the painting.

Book 6 fol. 142r: Colour, ultraviolet, infrared sequence. Rama’s loyal brother Lakshmana is seriously wounded by a spear. In the ultraviolet image we can see touch-ups on the hands, arms and legs of the two monkeys trying to take the spear off Lakshmana. Under infrared light we can see underdrawings of the far left monkey who was originally positioned higher up.

Book 6 fol. 142r: Colour, ultraviolet, infrared sequence. In the ultraviolet image alterations to Rama’s clothing and the direction of arrows is observed. Under infrared light, the boat at the top of the painting with the three figures is shown to have been altered. It may have started out as a representation of deities in the sky similar to those seen in Mughal Mahabharata (Razmnamah) Or. 12076 f.76r. Other arrow positions have also changed.

Book 6 fol. 142r: In the infrared image, a different position for the ten-headed Ravana is shown to the right, where a single face in profile is revealed adjacent to a vertical line. This is completely obscured by the green pigment which we now see.

Multispectral imaging has proven a wonderful technology in allowing us to study collection items in new and exciting ways. These are just some of the observations made and we hope to share more in the future.

Christina Duffy (Imaging Scientist) and Pasquale Manzo (Curator Sanskrit)

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