THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Collection Care blog

48 posts categorized "Digitisation"

21 May 2020

Lotus Sutra Project: Conservation of a Scroll with Pre-11th Century Repairs. How Do We Avoid Disassociation?

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Marya Muzart, Digitisation Conservator International Dunhuang Project

The Lotus Sutra Manuscripts Digitisation Project at The British Library, is a multi-year project aiming to conserve and digitise almost 800 copies of the Lotus Sutra scrolls in Chinese, with a view to make images and information freely accessible on the International Dunhuang Project (IDP) website. These manuscripts come from a small cave in a Buddhist Cave complex near Dunhuang, in Northwest China, where tens of thousands of documents, paintings and artefacts dating from the late 4th to the beginning of the 11th centuries were discovered in 1900. 

Out of the 800 manuscripts included in this project, a large portion of them need conservation work. This blog post covers the treatment of Or.8210/S.3455, and introduces the approach taken when we come across a scroll with historical repairs which are causing damage, but which we do not want to permanently separate from the scroll.

A scroll with historical repairs which are causing damage. Recto before treatment.

Picture 1: Recto before treatment.

A scroll with historical repairs which are causing damage. Verso before treatment.
Picture 2: Verso before treatment.

Or.8210/S.3455 is an 8-metre-long scroll with many historical repairs (we know that these repairs predate or date back to the beginning of the 11th century due to the provenance of the items in this collection). Carrying out repairs on damaged scrolls was a common practice in Buddhist monasteries, so we frequently come across historical repairs in the form of paper patches not only in the Lotus Sutra Project, but the Stein collection as a whole.[1]

These repairs are present throughout the scroll in varying sizes, however the two large historical repairs on the 1st and 2nd panel were the most challenging ones in terms of treatment. As we can see from the images above, the historical repairs in combination with the adhesive used were causing extreme distortion. As a digitisation conservator my aim is to ensure the item can be safely handled during digitisation and to ensure the text is visible and accessible so that high quality images can be taken. Not only was the scroll incredibly vulnerable to any handling, but its condition would have also made it impossible to produce suitable images during digitisation. This is why treatment on this scroll was necessary. 

Examining the scroll before treatment, it was clear that the historical patches needed to be removed in order to flatten the scroll and carry out repairs. Because the scrolls are archaeological artefacts, separating the historical repairs not only runs the risk of disassociation from the original manuscript, but it also takes away from its rich history as an object. This is why we always aim to avoid the permanent separation of any historical repairs from scrolls and I took the decision to reattach the historical repairs as a final stage of treatment.

How detrimental a historical repair can be, is dependent on the paper and the adhesive used. Thick paper and thick adhesive will cause distortions, as we can see in the images above. However, there has been evidence of some historical repairs applied very finely. So each historical repair that we see during the project presents a unique situation and treatment approach.

Verso after removal of historical repairs. Excess adhesive can be seen, which required further removal. 

Picture 3: Verso after removal of historical repairs. Excess adhesive can be seen, which required further removal. 

The first stage of treatment was to remove the historical repairs. After surface cleaning using a cosmetic sponge, gentle humidification was applied. Patience is key here, as I had to work one small area at a time using a micro spatula to slowly lift the historical repairs. It was important to get enough humidification introduced to soften and swell the adhesive for easy removal, but not so much as the paper would become extremely wet. You can see from the image above, once the historical repairs were removed, the dark crusty areas show how thick the adhesive had been applied, which further helps us to understand the distortions and tensions caused by this. The excess adhesive was further removed using the same technique; gentle humidification and a micro spatula. Any adhesive which was removed was kept in small sample bags for possible future analysis.

Once the historical repairs and the majority of excess adhesive was removed, the panels were flattened under boards and weights. When flattening was complete conservation repairs on the scroll were carried out using toned Japanese paper and wheat starch paste. When the conservation on the scroll was completed, it was time to reattach the historical repairs. 

The historical repairs were not reattached fully onto the scroll. Completely pasting down the historical repairs would simply cause the same damage as before. Instead, they were re-attached using some small Japanese paper tabs and wheat starch paste, each tab measures no more than a few millimetres and these are placed at strategic points underneath the repairs to stop any tension and subsequent distortion from occurring. These can easily be removed in the future if necessary, by simply cutting the small Japanese paper tabs, or by introducing gentle moisture to soften the wheat starch paste. It is important to note that the scroll spends the majority of its life rolled up, so the historical repairs were reattached whilst the scroll was rolled up. If they had been re-attached whilst flat there would be much tension occurring once it is rolled up. 

As you can see from the after treatment images, the historical repairs now do not create any tensions or distortions. The scroll can be safely handled and digitised by trained internal staff. By re-attaching the historical repairs, we have successfully avoided the disassociation that would occur from permanently separating the historical repairs from the scroll, therefore losing a part of its history. All in all, the treatment was successful.  

The historical repairs now do not create any tensions or distortions. Recto after treatment.

Picture 4: Recto after treatment.

The historical repairs now do not create any tensions or distortions. Verso after treatment.

Picture 5: Verso after treatment.

[1]  Rong, X. (2013). Eighteen Lectures On Dunhuang. Translated by Galambos, I. Boston: Brill, p.123.

03 April 2020

Lotus Sutra Project: Conservation of a burnt scroll (Or. 8210/ S.2155)

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The Lotus Sutra Manuscript Digitisation Project at The British Library is a multi-year project which started in 2018. The project aims to digitise almost 800 copies of the Lotus Sutra scrolls in Chinese, with a view to make images and information freely accessible. Out of these 800 scrolls, a large portion of them need conservation work. Our conservators deal with a variety of lengths of scrolls on this project, ranging from 30 centimetre fragments to scrolls measuring up to 13 metres. This blog post covers the treatment of an item which I (Marya Muzart, IDP Digitisation Conservator) had the opportunity to work on. 

Falling under a treatment time estimate of 25 hours, the condition of this item before treatment was not ideal. As a digitisation conservator, my aim is to stabilise the object to:

a) Ensure the item can be safely handled during digitisation and quality control

b) Ensure the text is visible and accessible so that high quality images can be taken

Or 8210 before treatment shown laid out on a desk with visible burn marks and missing areas of text.

Picture 1: Or.8210/S.2155 before treatment

Before treatment neither safe handling or a high-quality image capture was possible. The damage left the scroll incredibly vulnerable. With every handling, small fragments of burnt paper were flaking off. In addition, the burns were making the paper curl at the edges. 

The scroll had been damaged by fire at some point during its lifetime. It is certain that the scroll acquired these burns whilst it was rolled up as the burn damage is throughout its entire length, in a repeated pattern. How the scroll came to be burned, we can only assume. This could have been due to candles, incense or oil lamps used at the time (6th- 11th Century).  It is most likely that while being handled in its rolled up state, it accidentally came in contact with an open flame or heat source. Whilst there may be some large losses, luckily much of the text is still present. 

As this scroll measures 10 metres, it was crucial to work in sections. To start off, I surface cleaned the scroll using some soft cosmetic sponges to remove any surface dirt. Next, humidification was applied to the scroll via a gentle mist, and then flattened under boards and weights. The whole length of the scroll had to be humidified for the paper to lie as flat as possible in order to enable repairs. The introduction of moisture also returned a little flexibility to the burnt areas. 

A toned Japanese paper was selected for the repairs, which has a sympathetic tone to the original paper. A common question we often get is: why do we use Japanese paper, such as kozo (made from the bark of the mulberry tree), when treating an object made of Chinese paper? The long fibres in kozo gives it mechanical strength, tear resistance and flexibility. On the other hand, fibre length in xuan paper (Chinese paper) is much shorter than kozo (and generally other Japanese papers) and consequently its tear strength is not as great. This makes Japanese papers ideal for repairs in paper conservation, it can be strong enough to act as a repair paper, whilst being flexible and light enough to not cause any damage to the original scroll.  

To apply the repairs, I used wheat starch paste. When working with scrolls, the paste has to be the correct consistency to enable enough flexibility for the rolled item. Each repair was then left under a weight for an appropriate amount of time.

Before treatment showing the scroll with burn damage along the full length.

Picture 2: Or.8210/S.2155 before treatment

After treatment showing the scroll with Japanese paper repairs.

Picture 3: Or.8210/S.2155 after treatment

After treatment, the scroll is now in a much better state. It can be safely handled and digitised by trained internal staff. Whilst the burnt edges no longer curl up and now lie flat, notes have been passed on to our trained photographers, to take extra precaution when handling this item. I am pleased with the result of this treatment, it was a great success! 

Scroll after treatment showing the scroll lying flat with repairs. The burnt edges are no longer curling up.

Picture 4: Or. 8210/ S.2155 after treatment

Marya Muzart, IDP Digitisation Conservator

06 September 2019

From Tackling Digitisation to Preserving Historic Photos - Autumn One Day Courses at British Library

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By West Dean College of Arts and Conservation

A woman inspects two historic photographs using a microscope.

British Library and West Dean College of Arts and Conservation collaborate to deliver Continued Professional Development for those involved with, or with responsibility for care of libraries, archives and collections, and for conservation students. Autumn 2019 courses include:

Writing and Using a Preservation Policy – 28 October 2019

A preservation policy provides the opportunity for your organisation to develop a framework for thinking about the role of collections management and care. This training day equips you with the insights, understanding and practical guidance to review or draft a policy for your organisation.

Tutor Jennifer Dinsmore has 40 years of experience working with heritage organisations to evaluate and develop conservation provision, strategies and policies in museums, libraries and archives.

Preserving Historic Photographs – 14 November 2019

The sensitivity of the photographic collections in libraries, archives and museums to environmental conditions and the speed with which images can deteriorate present special challenges. This one day course is led by Susie Clark, an accredited paper and photographic conservator, formerly responsible for a collection of 20 million photographs at the BBC Hulton Picture Library (now Getty Images).

Digitisation: Planning and Processes – 10 December 2019

Digitisation can increase access to collections, provide surrogates for vulnerable originals and enable virtual reunification of collections.  But do you know where to start?

This training day offers you guidance on image specification, file formats, condition assessments, choosing equipment and planning for online access. It focuses on the digitisation of library and archive materials, though the principles are transferable. The day is led by British Library’s team including the Digitisation Conservation Team Manager, Digital Curator for Collections and the Photographic Studio Manager.

Courses are £147 each and take place at British Library.

Book online

Enquiries +44 (0)1243 818300

29 November 2018

Dealing with computer viruses in digital collections

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Evanthia Samaras, PhD placement - Digital Preservation 

Malware, or ‘malicious software’ such as computer viruses are a significant digital collection care challenge. The British Library collects a large range of digital content, so it is important that we identify any malware that could potentially put the digital collections, or our users, at risk. We also need to properly consider the question: How should we deal with malware-infected materials in digital collections?

Cartoon image of a computer virus

How do we identify malware?

The Library has strict processes in place to check for malware in digital collections. For example:

  • As part of our Flashback disk imaging project, we have scanned over 16,000 floppy, CD and DVD discs from the 1980s to 2000s for malware using anti-virus software. Infected items are then moved to a designated ‘quarantine’ area.
  • For websites collected as part of the UK Web Archive, the Library scans every file collected (over several billion files each year!). Website files infected with malware are quarantined and ‘deactivated’ using an encryption tool so that the files cannot be read or opened (see this blog for more information).

Compared to other institutions around the world, we actually do more virus checking than many other libraries (especially for our web archives).

What are the options for dealing with malware?

The four main options for dealing with malware-infected material are:

  • Discard the malware.
  • Put aside and quarantine (then process at a later date).
  • Fix them (try to remove malware).
  • Try to get another clean version from publisher/donor.

There is also another option: Keeping the malware as a collection in its own right.

Should we collect malware?

Scholars such as Jonathan Farbowitz of New York University argue that we should be preserving malware. He suggests that:

Malware is a form of cultural heritage and an important part of the historical record… If malware were not preserved, a significant portion of contemporary computer users’ experiences as well as the “texture” of the internet and of computing itself would be lost (pp. 10, 12).

If the British Library were to start forming collections of malware, how could we ensure they are maintained safely over time?

Computer security and anti-virus software companies collect examples of malware for research and development (see the Anti-Malware Testing Standards Organization’s Real-Time Threat List). Therefore, it is indeed possible to keep malware in controlled environments over time to facilitate study.

But it is less clear whether libraries should take custodianship of such material. Could it jeopardise the ongoing care of our digital collections?

Malware in the future

It is expected that the British Library will have to deal with malware for many years to come. Making sure our collections remain safe and usable for our readers is a priority for the Library. Yet it is also important that we consider what our readers may want to access in the future. Perhaps malware could be a collection in its own right? But for now, we will continue to tread with caution when dealing with malware in our digital collections.

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.

A photograph of an presentation held at the British Library. Two models, one seated in a white dress, and one standing behind her, who is wearing a gossamer-like material, which has text printed on it, in the form of a old letter from Elizabeth I. The Model, slightly side-on to camera, has flung her arm out, the image capturing the cape-like material around her arm billowing out to the side. The Kings library tower can be seen in the background.www.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.

A book jacket lying flat on a white plastazote, on a grey table. The Book jacket is red velvet, with gold thread edging. The front and verso of the jacket is the Prince of Wales crown of three Ostrich feathers, done in seed pearls, with some missing. The crowns are framed by a thick border of flowers  in silver thread.
Royal 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

A Large folio opened out, of blue pages with red Chinese calligraphy neatly running down both pages in silk. The pages are thinly bordered in white material.
Or 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.

A large square silk brocade bag, with twin thin golden twine handles, ending in gold oak leaf bunches. The silk bag is deocrated with a central flower in pink, green and white, surrounded in a vaguely circular patter by large curling leaves, which in themselves are superimposed by small bunches of flowers in purple and pink, with green leaves. The background colour of the bag is a olive green in horizontal lines.
MSS 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

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.

A picture of a book, lying open on two black foam supports, with white snake weights running down on the outer edge of the book pages.  The same book as in the previous image, now displayed on a black cushion, which in itself is supported by a cradle underneath. the snake weights are again running down either page on the outer edges.  The book, again lying open, now resting on a black cushion only, with the white snake weights holding the pages open.
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.   

A book, with green leather binding, displaying the damage done to it's spine, as evidenced by cracking running down the length of the spine.
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).

 

A book, displaying the spine facing up, showing a partially bound spine, displaying underneath the leather covering, with minimal space between the text block and the cover.
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. 

A book lying open, resting on two foam book supports. The spine of the book is also supported by a wedge of the same material.
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.   

A book in disrepair, showing a complete detachment of the boards (the hard cover of the book, while the spine has disappeared, exposing the text-block.
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.

 

A partially bound example book, showing the spine partially exposed. an area is highlighted in a white square, showing the bookboard between the leather cover and the textblock.
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. 

A Rigid Back Book lying open on Foam Supports. The spine of the book is snugly perched within the gap of the two 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.   

An image of a book with its cover open, with a hand lifting up the first page, showing how the page paper is attached directly to the textblock and the book case.
Showing the piece of paper adhering the textblock to the case.

 

An image of a book, displaying the damage caused by the text-block splitting away from the case, creating loose and detached pages.
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.      

A paperpack book, lying down, showing the detached text-block from the cover.  A book with its pages open, showing the detaching of pages from the text block and case.
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

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.

An image from the Codex Sinaiticus showing the page as viewed under normal light conditions.
Revelation, 2:7 - 3:5, British Library folio: 326. This image: Normal light.
The same image from the Codex Sinaiticus showing the page as viewed under raking light conditions, which shows as a much darker image..
Revelation, 2:7 - 3:5, British Library folio: 326. This image: 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.

A page of the Codex Sinaiticus cast with raking light. This light has revealed the ruling lines, both horizontally and vertically, used to keep the text in place. An image of the Codex Sinaiticus as viewed from the top of the page looking down, under raking light conditions. The light has revealed the scraping of the surface of the parchment. The image also shows pricking holes, circled in red, which was done as an aide for ruling the page as an aide for the scribes.
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.       

One of two images of a letter sent by the Emir of Baghdad to Lord Curzon in 1899. This image is taken under normal light conditions, with clear neat Arabic script contained in two borders, underneath a decorative image heading in red and gold.  The same letter from Emir to Lord Curzon as taken under raking light conditions. This image has revealed how the image was folded, and the number of folds that can now be seen, that were not visible under normal light conditions.
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’. 

This image of the same letter from the Emir of Baghdad to the Lord Curzon, is now revealed under transmitted light, another technique of reading paper, to have a watermark, with a Lion holding a flag bearing the word 'Reliance' within a circular sigil entitled around the inner edge as 'The Lion Brand, Croxley number 693, London. some watermark text is obscured by the overwriting Arabic script.

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.     

A page manufactured using laid and wove paper, which is revealed distinctively by transmitted light, showing the chain and wire lines on the paper. On the page itself can be seen a large central watermark of a Sphinx like creature with a crown between it's wings. On the left hand side of the page is arabic script in red, with text in black handwriting on the right hand side of the page.   a comparison to the left hand image of  laid and wove paper, this image of a machine-wove page from the India Office Records, shows the difference in paper, with no chain and wire lines and a clearer paper. The Page itself has again, a large watermark underneath the text, of the words 'Government of India'. Superimposed is flowing cursive handwriting in black ink.

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.

A image capture of a page from the University of Pensylvania, of a program called VisColl. The image, with a muted blue background, shows four images of a digitised manuscript, with a section on the left hand side showing the structure of the book and the pages digitised, in white.

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. 

13 February 2018

Conservation Internship in Digitisation (British Library, The National Archives, Bodleian Libraries)

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Salary £21,000 pa
Full Time (36 hours per week over 5 days)
Fixed-Term 2-years (9 months British Library, 9 months The National Archives, 6 months Bodleian Libraries, Oxford)

The link to the vacancies website is here

This is a training internship designed to equip an emerging conservation professional with the skills necessary for developing a career in managing and supporting digitisation work. The internship will be co-hosted by The British Library, The National Archives and the Bodleian Libraries with each institution offering complementary but distinct experience over a 24 month period. It is intended that the internship will present the role of a Digitisation Conservator as a newly emerging discipline and will support a current skills gap in the sector. The internship is funded by the Clothworkers’ Foundation.

The British Library is the national library of the United Kingdom and one of the world’s leading research libraries. The National Archives are the official archive and publisher for the UK government and guardians of over 1,000 years of iconic national documents. Bodleian Libraries provide a world-leading library service to support the University of Oxford in research and education. All three institutions continually digitise collections to enable greater access and preservation for current and future users.

Whilst digitisation involves creating a digital image of an object using a camera or scanner- this is but one element of a complex work flow. Specialist conservation support is also an integral component of the procedure. Condition assessments and surveys, conservation treatment that enables image capture, project planning involving numerous stakeholders and development of methods and equipment to digitise complex and non-standard items all fall into the remit of a Digitisation Conservator.

The internship is available to conservators who have graduated in the last 2 years, have limited work experience in conservation, and who wish to develop their career in supporting digitisation. The successful candidates will have a book or paper conservation qualification(s) (an MA in conservation would be desirable).

At the end of the internship you will be required give a presentation of your work and learning to the internship host institutions.

The internship has a bursary that will be paid on a monthly basis and is subject to tax, and is open to those who have the right to live and work in the UK.

The Job Role

You will work as part of existing teams of Digitisation Conservators, Imaging specialists, Project Managers, Curatorial and subject specialist staff to plan and undertake digitisation of collection items at the British library, The National Archives, Bodleian Libraries.

The projects will vary in size, from individual items to thousands of items and will cover a range of formats from books, archives, manuscripts and objects. Projects may be commercially funded, philanthropically funded or funded by the institution. You will work to agreed miles stones and deadlines for the projects.

Main Tasks

To complete, under supervision, treatments on books, manuscripts and paper based items from the Collections at the host institutions selected for digitisation. This will include:

  • Assessment of items to determine their suitability for digitisation.
  • Developing and undertaking treatment to ensure the improved condition, longevity and accessibility of collection items to enable digitisation.
  • Making decisions about appropriate procedures to use on each item, and therefore self-management to plan and organise work effectively in order to meet wider project timescales and workflows.

Update project documentation, including databases and spreadsheets.

Order collection items from storage areas to the imaging studio for assessment, preparation and digitisation, liaising with library assistants for delivery.

Assist imaging colleagues with queries regarding the collection care aspects of digitising collection items. Assist imaging colleagues when scanning or photographing fragile material.

To role model collection security at all times and ensures collection items are stored securely.

Liaise with the project managers and conservation managers to give regular updates on project progress and highlight any issues.

To take responsibility for own continuous professional development and monitor own learning against an agreed learning plan.

To keep accurate written records detailing treatments undertaken on each individual job, time spent, recording methodology, techniques and results of treatments.

Assist in administrative work as/when required. Attend project meetings when required.

The post holder will be required to participate in Conservation and project related public programmes, talking to members of the public and to represent the work of their studio or area, when required.

Ensure that they have knowledge of and observe the appropriate COSHH (Control of Substances Hazardous to Health) regulations, and follow the recommendations for the safe handling and use of chemicals, materials and equipment and general health & safety controls in all areas of their work and to participate in/co-operate with the risk assessment process.

Expected to demonstrate a willingness to take on a range of tasks and to develop new skills, as appropriate, in own or other departments/directorates to support the delivery of the institutions services as required by line management.

Essential Criteria for the Internship

Must have graduated in the last 2 years with a degree in book conservation or in paper conservation. Be able to demonstrate relevant conservation skills, including diagnostic, remedial and research skills.

Be able to demonstrate the benefits of the internship to their professional development and interest in conservation for supporting digitisation.

Good written and verbal communication skills, including the ability to communicate preferred treatment options and implications of these options, ability to write reports and to produce clear documentation.

Good time management skills in order to prioritise workloads and meet tight project deadlines.

An understanding of, and ability to apply the professional code of ethics to practical conservation projects.

Able to work in a team with other professional staff within communal studio space, contributing to the maintenance and management of shared equipment and space.

The right to work in the UK.

Good computer skills in Microsoft Word, PowerPoint and Excel.

Additional Information

The time spent in each institution will be divided as follows and in this order:
British Library – 9 months
The National Archives - 9 months
Bodleian Libraries – 6 months

A mentor who is involved with digitisation conservation projects and is experienced in the subject will be assigned to the intern in each institution, working closely with the intern and to monitor and evaluate progress. The intern will have regular 1:1 sessions with the mentor. An overall plan of work and major learning objectives will be agreed with the intern and 3 mentors at the outset but with detail of exact projects per institution to be decided more locally.

The intern will be expected to use any annual leave due to them during their time at that particular institution and cannot carry it over.

Candidates should note that the internship is for the period specified and does not lead to a permanent position at any of the host institutions.

How to Apply

Please email cordelia.rogerson@bl.uk attaching the following:

1. A letter of interest, which should include how the internship will benefit you and what skills and experience that you will bring to the British Library reflecting the list of criteria for the internship as stated in the Internship Profile.

2. An up to date CV.

3. Two or three examples from your portfolio for items you have worked on.

4. Name and contact details of two referees.

5. A statement indicating that you are able to work in the UK. Official documentation will be required if you are short listed for interview.

The closing date for applications is midnight on Sunday 4th March 2018.

Dr Cordelia Rogerson

Head of Collection Management South

If your application is short-listed, you will be invited for interview to take place around Mid-March 2018.

18 January 2018

Job Opportunity: Conservator, Gulf History and Arabic Science

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Description: Part time (0.6 FTE / 21.6 hours per week), fixed term contract to 31 December 2018

The full job description and application process can be found here.

Caring for the world’s knowledge

A book in the process of being bound, is held in place in a wooden vice on a desk.

The British Library leads and collaborates in growing the world’s knowledge base. We have signed a major partnership to make thousands of digitised historic documents and ancient manuscripts – relating to centuries of history of the Gulf – available online to researchers, scholars and the general public across the Gulf region and around the world. The Collection Care department, which comprises some 40 people, is responsible for the care of one of the largest, richest and most diverse research collections in the world.

This is an opportunity for an experienced conservator to work in a small, busy team. You will be carrying out conservation and preparation treatments on a wide range of collection items relating to the Gulf region that are being digitised as part of this project. You’ll operate with minimal supervision and have the skills and knowledge to plan, manage and track your work to ensure that deadlines are met. You must be able to communicate effectively with people at all levels, and be able to keep clear, consistent and accurate records of all treatments undertaken.

You need to have either a degree in conservation or equivalent knowledge and skills sets, and practical hands-on experience in conservation of library materials for digitisation and/or large-scale conservation projects; a broad knowledge of available conservation treatments within the field of book conservation together with the ability to diagnose conservation problems and to develop and evaluate options for solutions. You should also have a high level of manual dexterity and the ability to treat fragile and delicate materials, together with knowledge of materials chemistry and the properties, behaviours and interaction of a wide range of organic and inorganic materials. A good knowledge of preventive conservation issues is also required with the ability to deliver training on the handling of library material to support and implement best practices within the British Library/Qatar Foundation partnership project and collaboration with the colleagues in the main British Library Conservation Studio (BLCC).

For an informal discussion about the role, please contact Flavio Marzo, Gulf History Arabic Science Project Conservator on 0207 412 7740.


Closing Date: 11 February 2018

Interview Date: 22 or 23 February 2018

24 July 2017

Do more together than we can ourselves: The unique partnership between curator and conservator

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Zoë Miller and Peter Toth

curator, n. Traditionally, a curator or keeper of a cultural heritage institution (e.g. gallery, museum, library, or archive) is a content specialist charged with an institution's collections and involved with the interpretation of heritage material.

conservator, n. A person employed in the conservation of artefacts or sites of archaeological, historical, or cultural significance. Cf. conservation n. 1f.

The British Library is the custodian of thousands of manuscript treasures and it is a shared duty of its curators and conservators to care for and interpret them. I’m inviting you to share this meeting of minds and how it brings our collection to life through the rediscovery of a unique fourteenth century manuscript; Egerton MS 2516.

Once part of the library of bibliophile friar Leonardo Mansueti of Perugia (d.1480), this fragile selection of writings from Cicero and the famous African magician and philosopher Apuleius was brought to our conservation studio by curator Peter Toth for assessment and treatment advice.  

A portion of Parchment showing writing done in two lines in red gothic script. Underneath the red writing is a thinner black handwriting, and underneath that is two separate decorative twined borders, one in red and the other in black. The parchment itself is patchy in color, and the black dots are the hair follicles from the animal skin.
Ownership note by Leonardo Mansueti in Egerton MS 2516, f. 162r.

 

The volume had been rebound in the nineteenth century in a style and design typical of the collection of Francis Henry Egerton. The very small script was written in iron gall ink on thin parchment to save money, and decoration was kept to a minimum. This book was destined to be a scholarly study text and it is an early and important manuscript of the works of the second-century Apuleius.

A hand opening the cover of the manuscript, bound in brown leather, with a thin gold border. The manuscript is resting on a green cutting board.

The maunscript resting opened, showing the tight nature of its binding preventing the pages from lying flat on one side. A white snake weight is utilised on the right hand side of the manuscript, to keep the pages from folding back and closing. The book itself is resting on dark gray plastazote book supports, on a light grey table.
The tight opening of Egerton MS 2516.

 

Peter is able to read and interpret the ancient text and marginalia and to provide this crucial contextual and historical narrative. When he presented us with this book we could immediately see the problem. Its materials had aged so much that it couldn’t be opened beyond forty five degrees! It was so tight that we could not see the text in the gutter. The pages were fragmented, mutilated and corroded by the chemical action typical of this ink. Like leaf skeletons they were incredibly fragile and impossible to turn.

A section of the parchment leaves of the manuscript, showing the two blocks of gothic style text in black ink, running down the page in two neat parallel columns. The damage to the parchment can be seen in the staining of the parchment, including over the text, while there are tears and missing sections around the lower end of the pages.
Damaged folios and cut marks in Egerton MS 2516.
Two large cut marks in the manuscript pages, on opposing sides of the parchment leaves as the book is opened.
Cut marks in Egerton MS 2516.

 

As conservators, our first sight and handling of an object can play like a movie of its life. We experience the ageing character and material signs of use and damage known so well of leather, parchment, threads and paper. Even the smells and stains, the cuts, marks and tears of a hundred scholars thumbing the pages are brought to life as we hold it in our hands. There were mysterious cuts to the tail of many folios, which suggested a purposeful extraction. Could this have been to remove mould, mistakes or secret text? Perhaps the parchment was stolen for love notes by a fifteenth century student? 

The existing book boards with a gold crest and inscriptions are part of the unique provenance of this object, and yet the re-binding destroyed evidence of the manuscript’s original shape and sewing. Peter explained that its hard work as an academic ‘set text’ contributed to the patterns of deterioration we see today. We therefore tailored our treatments to preserve evidence of this damage and limit our repairs and intervention to safeguard the narrative. We created a new binding from calfskin replicating the Egerton tradition to respect this significant part of its history.

A hand with a metal conservation flat spatula tool, is gently removing the sewing from the manuscript, showing as a white thread. The manuscript is lying open on its supports. The damage to the parchment can be seen in the many tears and creasesm as well as ink stains obscuring some text.
Removing sewing from Egerton MS 2516.

 

The old leather, glues and overcast sewing threads were painstakingly removed by parchment specialist intern Camille Thuet. Once the delicate folios had been released, medieval manuscript cataloguer Laure Miolo was able to access and identify hidden marginal notes. She found fifteenth and sixteenth century comments and a Greek quotation from Euripides which had been added by early readers of the text and reveal how it was used and interpreted. 

Formerly hidden areas of parchment have now been exposed during treatment. This section shows a portion of the latin text, in black, with a bold red capital. Underneath the text box is a partial handwritten notation in Greek, in now faded black ink.
Quotation from Euripides in the lower margin of Egerton MS 2516, f. 123v.

 

With the help of conservation imaging scientist Christina Duffy, Camille analysed dark stains across areas of script which were speculated to be early attempts at revealing hidden text. Multi-spectral imaging was also useful in enhancing faded marginalia.

Chemical damage to the manuscript on its lower left page. The damage appears as a shiny brown stain coating the lower lines of text. Underneath can be seen the acidity of the Iron Gall ink having eaten through the parchment in places.
Historical chemical damage on Egerton MS 2516 f. 4r in an attempt to improve legibility of corroded iron gall ink.

 

Three images of the same page of parchment, undergoing Multi-spectral analysis. The first image appears normal, while the middle image has a multi-hued purple sheen, while the right hand image is in more greyscale.
Multi-spectral imaging of Egerton MS 2516, f. 116r.

 

The treatment proposal had two clear aims: 

Enabling access and digitisation through repair of the delicate and damaged folios to ensure they continue to exist for future generations

Preserving and protecting historical evidence so that as much of the past is accessible to the future reader.

A new guard book structure means that the original parchment text block is protected from adhesive and the necessary mechanics of the binding’s spine. This allows every part of it to be viewed, and no part to be constricted. Parchment likes to breathe!

A new guard structure inserted into the spine of the book, with a green backing onto the spine's leather cover. This has enabled the parchment to lie flatter on either side of the opened book.
New guard structure.

 

After treatment, the manuscript in this image is shown to lie much more flatter, and the pages much more easily opened. The new guard structure can be seen running up the spine and gutters of the parchment pages, helping the parchment lie flat.
New flat opening.

 

The new binding of the manuscript in a tan leather. As yet there is no text on the binding, though the spine shows five double lined decorative cords.
New binding.

 

The manuscript with its new gold leaf text and decoration added. The Book is lying nestled in a wooden vice, while the author of the book, Cicero, can be seen atop the title. The cords have been embellished in gold leaf as well. Next to the manuscript and vice is a cushion containing the remnants of the gold leaf, with the handle of the gold knife used to collect the gold leaf is just visible on the right.
Gold finishing on Egerton MS 2516.

 

The books in our rich collection inspire both for the intellectual information they carry and as artefacts of craft. We were able to make complex conservation decisions to preserve this manuscript through collaboration with curators. We must together protect what our collection will represent in the future where respect for such treasured objects only grows in this changing digital age.

Thanks to Camille Thuet for her observant eye and parchment knowledge, and to Peter Toth, Andrea Clarke, and Laure Miolo for their historical expertise. The manuscript has now been restored and completely digitised and is available at the Library’s Digitised Manuscripts site here.