Conserving the Harley manuscripts
Earlier this year we announced the Harley Science Project, which will make available images and descriptions of 150 medieval and early modern manuscripts in the British Library's Harley collection. The digitisation of the Harley science manuscripts has been generously funded by William and Judith Bollinger.
The digitisation phase of this project is approaching completion, the cataloguing is underway, and we hope to publish the first group of scientific manuscripts on Digitised Manuscripts in the near-future. But a huge amount of preparation and highly-skilled work underpins projects such as these. This report by our conservator describes part of that process.
Iron-gall ink corrosion has caused paper losses. Old repairs are visible and new areas of damage required support before imaging. Thomas Osborne's Treatise on Arithmetic, England, 17th century. London, British Library, MS Harley 4924, f. 56r.
Conservators play a vital role in the digitisation process. Each manuscript is assessed before imaging to ensure that this can be done without damage. The binding is checked to be certain the book opens widely enough, especially if text is close into the gutter. The condition of the paper or parchment is noted, and the ink, gold and pigments are inspected for signs of damage or deterioration. The photographer receives a copy of the assessment with the conservator’s comments and recommendations, and after imaging the manuscript is checked again to be sure it is unharmed.
The majority of our manuscripts have been fit for imaging immediately, but occasionally they have required remedial treatment: a loose endband might need securing, a tear repairing, or pigment consolidating, while historic bindings are boxed for added protection. Damage that is unlikely to get worse, such as a detached board, can safely be left until after digitisation.
Our photographers are extremely experienced and careful, but they can call on the conservator for advice on handling oversized or unusual items. The conservator also monitors temperature and humidity in the photographic studio, to maintain optimum conditions. Old and damaged parchment, in particular, responds badly to swift changes and needs to acclimatise slowly.
Thousand-year-old parchment. The dark areas are evidence of an earlier binding, now lost. Anglo-Saxon miscellany including medical remedies, 11th century. London, British Library, MS Harley 55, f. 13v.
No digitisation project is without its complications, but it is the conservator’s job to anticipate likely difficulties, mitigate the risks and ensure a steady flow of books to the photographic studio, assessed and ready for imaging.