Medieval manuscripts blog

08 January 2015

Point The Finger

Many people assume conservators work directly on collection items all day long, repairing and treating them so as to keep them accessible to researchers. But Conservation’s wider role is to support other library activities, which can lead to some unusual tasks. 

Recently, since new photographers have joined the digitisation teams, extra equipment has had to be made for the Imaging Studios: cradles to support books during photography, straps to secure them and “fingers” – plastic strips that hold springy leaves flat. Although a variety of equipment is now available commercially (and is used in our high volume digitisation projects), none of it quite fits our requirements for the safe handling of old and fragile manuscripts. The first rule is always “do no damage”, so tools are adjusted to the needs of the individual manuscript, not the other way round. All materials used must be of conservation quality, and must also be soft and smooth, so there is no possibility of marking the manuscript, or of snagging and damaging fragile edges. 

Photo 1
A bound manuscript secured in the cradle.  The fixed camera is above it, looking down.

Ideally, once settled in the cradle, the folio being photographed will lie absolutely flat, but often it springs up. Occasionally, in photographs taken many years ago, a human fingertip can be seen resting on the edge of the leaf, but this means a second person (with clean, dry hands) must be present.  Historically, photographers used office equipment to hold leaves down – you may imagine the fuss the conservators made when they saw bulldog clips in images! Briefly, plastic paper clips were trialled, with the same response (for example, the Kerdeston Hawking Book, Add MS 82949, f.1v). Even now, when we spot these in digitised manuscripts, the Imaging Studio may get an email to check the photograph was not taken recently. Other institutions have different solutions: melinex strips, or even kebab sticks, but these days the British Library mainly uses shaped acrylic strips (aka “fingers”) which are clamped in a stand with a rotating joint, so they can be moved aside quickly. 

Photo 2
James Freeman, with hand-held fingers, facilitating the photography of parchment stubs in the gutter of the Catholicon Anglicum (Add MS 89074).

To make a pair of fingers, the conservator first makes a visit to Exhibitions, hunting for off-cuts of Plexiglas® 10-15mm wide, 5mm deep and at least 1m long. Back in the BLCC, the strip is halved, giving two identical 50cm lengths, and the shaping begins. This is best done by hand, as power tools heat the plastic too quickly. First, all the edges and corners are rounded off with a file. One end is reduced in thickness and shaped to a gently rounded point – making sure each pair is near-identical. 

Photo 3
A pair of roughly-shaped fingers. 

Then the sanding begins, working through every grade from P240 to P2500 wherever the file has touched, to remove all scratches and give a clear, smooth surface. The end of the finger should be translucent, so that it is scarcely seen in digital images, but it may have to be dulled slightly, to prevent flare. The whole process takes half a day.  

Photo 4
On the left, sanding has just begun; on the right it is almost finished. 

Mostly the fingers are fairly robust, but to facilitate the digitisation of the Brontë miniature books some tiny ones were fashioned from various diameters of acrylic rods. Even so, they look huge in the images. Making them was a challenge as the thin rods snapped if flexed too much during shaping. However, a 15cm length was sufficient as they were hand-held for imaging, not used in a clamp-stand. These books gave us another problem: no blank margins. The fingers were placed wherever they would not obscure text.  

Photo 5
A finger just visible at the foot of Blackwood’s Young Men’s Magazine, First Series, No. 6, f.6v 

Photo 6
And showing the size of the manuscript (Ashley MS 157).

Generally we try to show as little of the fingers as possible once the photographs are cropped, but they have a starring role in a couple of images of a Greek manuscript, Add MS 82957. Even with two people handling the manuscript for the photographer, we had a little trouble holding flat a damaged leaf and securing the scale – as can be seen here:

Photo 7
Add MS 82957, f.280r   

Not every book needs fingers but, for those that do, their unobtrusive presence in a digital photograph ensures the viewer gets a clear and focused image.

- Ann Tomalak


Dear people at BL,

This is such a magnificent work that you are doing. I am just a lay person but I admire your work.Quite accidentally, after my mastectomy, I discovered ancient manuscripts and they gave me hours of pleasant , quite, relaxing time.
Thanks you very much
Dana Sumar

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