Image of a Sefer Torah at the Chester Beatty

Digitising the Chester Beatty’s Hebrew Collection

7 January, 2021

Digitising a collection as vast as that of the Chester Beatty’s can, sometimes, feel a little endless. Our efforts to digitise this outstanding collection of global cultural objects rarely follow a strict pattern. Priorities are usually driven by exhibitions, publications and external interests. Therefore, it was with a huge amount of satisfaction that I photographed the bottom cover of a particularly large Hebrew manuscript. This satisfaction stemmed from the fact that that image marked the completion of the digitisation of an entire Chester Beatty sub- collection: Hebrew and Samaritan manuscripts. 

Admittedly, the Hebrew collection is one of the smallest collections within our museum but that did not take away any of the satisfaction. It was a surprisingly tricky group of objectsThere was joy in having faced a number of challenges and found ways to solve each one. 

So, what were the challenges that made our Hebrew collection so satisfying? Luckily, the materials were quite easy to digitise from a technical perspective. Only one manuscript has reflective materials such as gold, and while parchment can be quite reflective, with good light management reflections can be avoided. 

Festival prayer book (Mahzor)
Italy, 14th or 15th century
CBL Heb 764

Text detail from CBL Heb 764

Image detail from CBL Heb 764

Scrolls are photographed in sections to keep the resolution of the final image high. Normally, this is not a problem but a scroll this size is surprisingly large, even rolled up, and ended up casting shadows on the unrolled sections of scroll. Normally, one would unroll larger sections of the scroll and raise the lights so that the shadows did not extend into the imaged area. Unfortunately for us, our digitising table was not large enough to allow us to unroll the scroll this far. Instead, we were forced to photograph smaller sections at a time. This, of course, meant that the scroll took a lot longer than expected to digitise 

Image of two Hebrew scrolls at the Chester Beatty
Size comparison - CBL Heb 770 (left) next to CBL Heb 773 (Right).
CBL Heb 773 is a Sefer Torah and measures over 27 metres long. This is considerably longer than CBL Heb 770, which contains the Book of Esther, which is just over 2 metres in length.

The second example of size being a challenge came in the form of particularly large parchment Samaritan PentateuchWhile this manuscript only contains 280 folios, when these folios are made of parchment they rapidly add up in size as it can be a lot thicker than paper. Added to this, after a recent rebinding this Pentateuch was housed between thick covers of cedar wood. All in all, the dimensions of the manuscript were: H: 32cm x W: 25cm x D: 15cm. This meant that it was impossible to fit onto our normal book cradle. In a way this was a relief because the weight of those cedar wood covers meant the manuscript needed extensive support as it passed through the stages of digitisation. Sometimes, depending on the size of the object, the cradle is not best suited to providing this support. 

Instead, we decided to use large foam wedges as these would allow for a greater range of movement and more precise control with a manuscript of this size. One of the big drawbacks when using foam wedges is a lack of support when strapping. When pages won’t sit flat it is necessary to strap them down with clear tape. This is more difficult with foam wedges because there is no solid frame, as with a cradle, to anchor the straps. This lack of structure means that the straps pull any light cover closed as there is no solid backing to use as support. Luckily, due to the weight of the cedar wood covers this was not an issue and even the springiest of pages could be held by the weight of the cover. Additionally, the covers are particularly fragrant and filled our studio with a beautiful perfume. 

Finally, I have a small confession to make. I exaggerated slightly at the beginning of this blog. We have not completed the digitisation of the Hebrew collection. There are still 4 scrolls outstanding. Once again, this comes down to the challenges of size but not because they are too largeThese scrolls are all very small. In fact, they appear more like a small piece of paper than a scroll. And it is because of their size that their digitisation needed to be delayed. 

These scrolls are accustomed to being rolled up and so want to return to this state once they are unrolled. With scrolls of a normal size this is not a problem as one can strap or otherwise restrain portions of the scroll outside of the imaged area. This is not an option with these scrolls. To solve this conundrum, we are going to have to work closely with our conservation department who will use small pins to hold down the scroll without damaging it. Unfortunately, thanks to Covid-19 and the ongoing need for social distancing, this work will have to wait. 

Despite these 4 unfinished scrolls I have still taken a great amount of satisfaction from this process. It is a great privilege to be able to work so closely with these objectsBeing able to digitise an entire collection allows one to see the similarities and the differences, sometimes subtle and sometimes vast, that make these collections so important and that makes this job so rewarding. 

Jon Riordan, Digital Photographer at the Chester Beatty

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