The Bodleian Libraries of the University of Oxford and the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana (Vatican Library) have joined efforts in a landmark digitization project with the aim of opening up their repositories of ancient texts. Over the course of the next four years, 1.5 million pages from their remarkable collections will be made freely available online to researchers and to the general public.
The initiative has been made possible by a £2 million award from the Polonsky Foundation. Dr Leonard Polonsky, who is committed to democratizing access to information, sees the increase of digital access to these two library collections - among the greatest in the world - as a significant step in sharing intellectual resources on a global scale.
The digitization project will focus on three main groups of texts: Hebrew manuscripts, Greek manuscripts, and incunabula, or 15th-century printed books. These groups have been chosen for their scholarly importance and for the strength of their collections in both libraries, and they will include both religious and secular texts.
Part of the work of the Conservation and Collection Care team is to assess and minimize the risk of future damage. Even minor existing damages can be exacerbated by the handling involved in digitization, necessitating a more expensive and invasive repair before the book is returned to the shelves. As illustrated by the examples below, in cases where they have deemed this likely, the Book Conservation Team have sought to eliminate the risk by carrying out pre-emptive repairs. Several of the highest-profile books on the list required repair before they could be safely photographed. Another reason to carry out this type of work is to ensure that as much of the text as possible will be captured in the shot.
MS. Laud Gr. 45
MS. Laud Gr. 45, the Laudian Acts (Acts of the Apostles), is Oxford's most important Biblical manuscript. The first leaf was almost completely detached, and the leaf was distorted and had pleats and creases that obscured the text. We relaxed the creases and straightened the leaf using a 50% mixture of isopropanol and water. While the water served to soften the crease, the isopropanol helped to evaporate it as quickly as possible, as parchment is very sensitive to moisture.
Once the leaf had been straightened, it was time to repair and reattach it. The Bodleian Libraries follow the conservation principle of like-for-like, repairing skin-based materials with protein-based adhesive and skin repair patches, and repairing damaged paper with paper patches and starch-based adhesive. Because the leaves in this manuscript are made of parchment, we repaired the torn leaf using tiny tabs of calfskin parchment adhered with a gelatine solution.
With the repair completed, the hidden text is revealed and the leaf is restored, enabling safe photography. As this book is a Bodleian Library treasure, it is likely to be in demand for consultation, display, and exhibition in the future, so it was easy to justify its repair at this time.
MS. Barocci 74
MS. Barocci 74 is an item from the Barocci collection of Greek manuscripts, which the Bodleian Libraries will be digitizing in full. The Barocci collection contains a significant number of Greek-style bindings, which have distinctive raised endbands extending onto and sewn into the wooden boards. The text-blocks are cut flush with the board edges, which are often decorated with grooves. One of MS. Barocci 74's boards was split along its whole length, meaning that the broken half was held together only by the blind-stamped leather covering it. With further handling, the leather would very soon have given way and torn along the board, making repair more difficult, risking the loss of board and leather fragments, and leaving the text-block vulnerable to damage. The book would also have been extremely awkward to set up and handle in the studio.
To improve ease of handling and prevent further damage, the break in the wood was glued back together using rabbit-skin glue, a traditional wood adhesive that is often used by violin-makers. Once the board had been glued, it was clamped in place until the glue was dry. Then, the split was bridged with small parchment patches to prevent a further breakage along the weak point. The book is now safe to photograph, and also safer and easier for readers to handle.