Our last few blog posts covered the rationale behind digitisation at the Chester Beatty, and how we went about setting up the photography studio. Now, let’s take a look at what we do to prepare the objects for digitisation.
As soon as anything from the collection is flagged as requiring new photography, either because it will be going on display, is required for a loan or because it has been requested as part of an image order, it enters our digitisation work-flow. However, before any objects can be scheduled for photography, we need to have an understanding of their condition. We need to know if they are in fact stable enough for the movement involved in digitising, if any conservation treatments are required and also if there are particular things to look out for when handling.
Once a week, I have the wonderful job of joining the conservation team, to look at a selection of objects which have been requested for digitisation (you can read more about their work in the Conservation Blog here). The Conservation Intern assesses the condition of the objects, noting if they are suitable for digitisation or if they require treatment before handling. A large majority of the manuscripts will be deemed stable enough for the handling involved in digitisation, but some will require minor repairs while others are in need of more interventive treatments and are moved to the long-term treatment list.
These checks also provide the perfect opportunity to make any specific handling notes and guidelines for the photographers. Many of the manuscripts may have restricted opening due to delicate historic bindings, meaning they can be opened no more than 90 degrees. Others may have loose folios, or metal clasps, or just be particularly large and heavy. All of these points are worth noting, and give the team a better understanding of what needs to be prepared in advance of digitisation.
Using foam blocks to support a Thai folding book during folio checks
CBL Thi 1301
Taking manuscripts out of their historic housing also requires careful handling
CBL Per 155
Apart from assessing the physical condition, these pre-digitisation checks are also used for gathering a variety of other types of information on the objects. For instance, at this stage I measure the objects and the dimensions are added to our collections database, Adlib. I also note the orientation of manuscripts, stating if they open from left, right, top or bottom. Although the direction of opening seems like a simple and obvious thing, with collections from all over the world that vary greatly in every way, it is often more difficult to discern than expected. Although many of the Western collection manuscripts open left to right, and the Islamic are right to left, this is not a blanket-rule. Where clarification is needed, the curators of the relevant collections are always on hand to check and confirm – they already expect my regular calls.
One of the most important, and time consuming, parts of these assessments are the foliation checks. As with the majority of manuscript libraries, we aim to add physical numbering to the pages of all our manuscripts. This is partly for security reasons, noting each page and confirming its presence within the manuscript; it is also to check the actual number of pages, to confirm the length of each manuscript. Knowing the definite amount of pages helps the photographers ensure they have not missed any shots and also gives us a more accurate estimate on the time required to digitise the full object.
Taking the dimensions of a Persian manuscript using our special book measure
CBL Per 237
Previous incorrect foliation has been marked out and the correct folio number written beside it
CBL Per 155
Many of the manuscripts were numbered in the early days of the museum, but still require confirmation as human-error occasionally caused pages to be skipped, or numbers to be repeated. Some manuscripts were only numbered at intervals, whilst others still have not been numbered at all. The manuscripts are generally foliated, rather than paginated, meaning they are marked on the recto (front) only, with no numbers written on the verso (back); each leaf has a number, rather than each side.
My role involves taking a final count of folios, distinguishing between flyleaves and main content, and checking that the existing numbering is correct. Where necessary, corrections are made or new numbering is added, using a conservation-approved B or HB pencil, which is soft, safe and removable. Errors are rectified by drawing a line through the incorrect numbering, and adding the accurate folio number alongside; it is important that any existing markings, and all changes, remain visible and trackable.
Where a manuscript also has a collection of detached folios, the foliation must take this into account, skipping the number of the removed leaf. Objects such as folding books, are generally marked by opening and there are always additional exceptions that need to be confirmed with the curators, registrar and digital curator before anything can go ahead.
The final part of these checks is to observe and report. Everything that has been noted, questioned, changed or added is recorded in the collections database. This ensures that everything is trackable and makes the information accessible to everyone in the wider digital and collections teams.
Jenny Greiner, Digital Services Assistant at the Chester Beatty