Handle With Care: The Conservation and Digitisation of the Phillipps Lectionary
Before British Library manuscripts reach your computer screens through the Digitised Manuscripts site, they are subjected to conservation assessments. These cover such matters as the angle at which the manuscript may be opened safely, the condition of the binding and the leaves, and any repairs that are required. The assessment for Add MS 82957 – the Phillipps Lectionary – was particularly detailed. The content and decoration of this manuscript, and the damage it sustained during its nine-hundred-and-fifty-odd-year life, have been covered in earlier blog posts. This latest instalment concerns the most recent chapter in its history: the repairs that were conducted to make it fit to be handled and photographed, and the digitisation process itself.
Details of the joints between the front (L) and rear (R) binding and the spine, showing small splits, from the Phillipps Lectionary, Add MS 82957
The first conservation task was to do minor repairs to the binding, as the joints were starting to split. A delicate balance had to be struck between doing as little as possible to an unusual binding, and making it strong enough to cope with the repeated opening and closing that the rest of the conservation process would involve.
Detail of repairs to rodent damage along the fore-edge of the manuscript, Add MS 82957, f. 65r
The objective was then to make the leaves safe enough to be handled for digitisation. The edges of the leaves had been weakened by mould and shredded by rodents – a grim combination! To repair these, fine Japanese tissues were used. They were pre-coated with a 2% isinglass solution and then reactivated with the same solution, in order to minimise the addition of moisture to the parchment. A benefit of isinglass is that it has immediate tack. With heavily cockled parchment, as here, this is very useful, as it means that the parchment does not have to be flattened first before repairs are made. Fleeces, which can conform to such uneven surfaces better than blotting paper, were used to dry the repairs.
Detail of repairs made to rodent damage and a tear, Add MS 82957, f. 12v
In very weak areas, tissues were pre-coated with Klucel G: a consolidant that can be reactivated with ethanol. This avoids any moisture at all being added to the parchment – but it must be used with great care, because ethanol can also damage the structure of the parchment.
Some areas were dry cleaned before repairs were placed, so long as it could be done safely, but the manuscript was not especially dirty overall. Detached fragments were reattached where their original location could be determined; a small number of other loose fragments are now stored separately with the manuscript.
A detached portion of a partial leaf, now reattached in its original position, Add MS 82957, f. 229r
Two leaves that had been cut in half and left loose were rejoined in their original positions.
The silk bookmark after its repair, Add MS 82957, f. 161r
The silk bookmark attached to the binding was also in two pieces, and was joined together using silk crepeline.
Once the manuscript had been conserved, it was possible for it to undergo digitisation. To protect against any further damage, our conservator and a member of the manuscripts team accompanied the manuscript throughout. A condition of digitisation was that a V-shaped cradle be used, in order best to support the manuscript. The photographer used an angled camera to shoot the manuscript. Two assistants were ‘on hand’ (literally!) to keep the leaves in place (a future blog post will look at the plastic ‘fingers’ that are being used). The photography took a full day to complete, with further image processing and quality checking taking some additional hours on top of that.
The fragility of the Phillipps Lectionary means that, for the sake of its conservation, access to the manuscript must be restricted. Digitisation – undertaken with proper preparation and the assistance of skilled conservators and photographers – means that it is still possible for researchers to consult the object in the digital realm, and arguably enjoy a closer look through high resolution images than would ever be possible with the naked eye. In cases such as this, where the book’s covers must remain closed, digitisation is opening them up again to the world, for all to see.
- James Freeman & Ann Tomalak