Music blog

21 September 2016

Digitisation: Delving Deeper

In July 2016, we announced the exciting news that we'd completed a three-year project to digitise our Handel autograph manuscripts. But how did this come about? And what exactly was involved? In this blog post, we delve deeper into the digitisation process to provide an insight into the practicalities of this fascinating and growing area of our work.

With just over one hundred volumes, British Library Music Collections holds the single largest autograph collection of Handel’s works in the world. The vast majority of these volumes form part of the Royal Music Library and are easily recognisable by their ‘R.M.’ shelfmarks, the most famous being Messiah (R.M.20.f.2).  Aside from Messiah, which had been made available via the British Library’s popular Turning the Pages web pages back in 2008, no autograph Handel manuscripts had been made accessible digitally prior to the outset of the project. 

Image 1 - Messiah on Turning the Pages

Opening of the ‘Halleluja Chorus’ from Handel’s Messiah (British Library, R.M.20.f.2), as displayed on Turning the Pages

The content was released in phases over the three years of the project, and the digitisation was generously supported by the Derek Butler Trust. Preservation of the originals and the resulting digital surrogates was a key consideration. The British Library has digitisation studios at both its London and Yorkshire sites. However, in order to minimise the risks associated with transportation, the manuscripts were digitised in London, where they are housed.

Image 2 - British Library Imaging Studio London

Digitisation studio at the British Library, London.

Prior to photography, each volume was assessed by a conservator.  Professional photographers then photographed each manuscript cover-to-cover, using the equipment and book supports recommended by the conservator. Following image capture, the photographer deposited a set of master images for each manuscript in both TIFF and JPEG formats on one of the Library’s secure servers. Staff in the Music Department then used image-processing software to convert the TIFFs into tiny tiled images, thereby facilitating zooming. 

  Image 3 - Zadok on Digitised Manuscripts

Digitised version of Handel’s ‘Zadok the Priest’ (British Library R.M.20.h.5) on the British Library Digitised Manuscripts website (

All of the British Library’s autograph Handel manuscripts are categorised as ‘restricted’. For visitors to the British Library’s Rare Books and Music Reading Room, this means that access to the originals is granted only with curatorial permission. The availability of the Handel manuscripts on the British Library Digitised Manuscripts website makes inconvenient microfilm a thing of the past. It also opens up a wealth of valuable primary source material to a much larger audience, free of charge, and from the comfort of a home or office PC.