Digitising Medieval Manuscripts: Common challenges in the studio and insights into using the conservation book cradle

Greetings everyone! I am the Project Photographer for the Manuscripts for Medieval Studies project. My role within this project is to use my photography expertise to create digital surrogates of 16 medieval manuscripts selected from the Manuscripts and Archives Research collections within the Library of Trinity College Dublin. The photographic process for the Medieval Digitisation Project may be quite unfamiliar to most, especially the unique and large equipment we use. This blog will provide a brief introduction into our digitisation process for medieval manuscripts as well as some of the challenges encountered and give an insight into the most unique piece of equipment we use within our studios, a motorised book cradle.

Each manuscript being digitised for the project is incredibly unique in character, format, and structure and each has their own set of challenges to work with when imaging. One of the most familiar challenges a photographer needs to solve when digitising medieval manuscripts is text running into or right next to the gutter of the manuscript as seen with an early 13th-century copy of William of Malmesbury’s The History of the English Bishops and other works (now TCD MS 602). This manuscript is small in scale (170 x 125 mm) and bound in a 19th-century college binding. Medieval manuscripts of this size can be exceedingly difficult to capture, especially if the binding is tight and the book has been rebound several times like this manuscript.

Opening folio of William of Malmesbury’s History of the English Bishops (TCD MS 602, f. 2r)

The Grazer Motorised Conservation Book Cradle

Upon seeing the metal structure in person, one may think the motorised Grazer conservation book cradle has a steam punk look about it. However, despite its abrupt appearance the cradle provides one of the safest mechanisms for positioning and stabilising each medieval manuscript for image capture by minimising the need to move the object when framing each image. This is because the camera can be moved horizontally and vertically using an actuator, whilst the cradle itself can also be moved up and down to position the subject. The motorised cradle also provides adjustable spinal support to avoid splitting or tearing of the binding with the adjustable cradle boards. Overall, this cradle is our cradle of choice to use when we are digitising medieval manuscripts and fragile bound material.

When using a standard parallel copy stand setup it is possible to use a manual cradle or a conservation grade cushion to position a manuscript in an angle. By then adjusting the angle of the camera on the copy stand the text running into the book binding can be made more visible for image capture. However, the conservation book cradle provides a less hands on way to see hidden texts too close to the gutter considering the camera and subject plane are already at a 35-degree angle. The cradle has a vacuum bar which is angled at 35 degrees and is connected to an external vacuum unit, the page of the manuscript rests on the vacuum bar so it is at the same plane as the camera. Having the subject plane and camera plane on a 35-degree angle reduces the need to tightly strap back a manuscript to make any text running into the gutter more visible. Although, for some cases strapping is still needed and implemented by clipping a thick piece of mylar tape to one side of the cradles metal frame before securing the tape across the pages already digitised, and then firmly but delicately securing the tape to the other side of the cradle to hold the manuscript back.

Photographing Gold Illuminations

Bible (now TCD MS 35) an exceptionally large manuscript (400 x 255 mm) featuring 72 gold illuminated folios. To add to the unique and challenging characteristics this manuscript contains, the Bible also has very fragile crinkled pages due to historic water damage and a tight 19th-century binding. These issues have left the book with uneven page surfaces, making it even more difficult to accurately photograph the gold illustrations as the crinkled parts of the page caused the gold to reflect in all different directions even under controlled lighting. The vacuum bar which is covered by a piece of black conservation grade cloth, specifically works by resting the very edge of each page on top of the vacuum bar before image capture. The vacuum suction is activated to a low setting on the vacuum bar which keeps each page in position and helps to keep managed reflections in the right position.

A gold historiated initial now digitised online (TCD MS 35, f. 130v detail)

A downside to using the motorised cradle is that setting a page up on the vacuum bar generally takes slightly more time to set up than using a more manual alternative. The controls used to position the camera and manuscript can be quite fiddley and it is slightly more difficult to achieve even lighting from the outer edge of the page across to the inner edge due to the angle and height of the back cradle board. This inconsistency in lighting can be reduced by placing the light sources on the same angle as the page and camera plane and using a bigger light source in comparison to the subject size.

This is a brief insight into some of the common challenges faced during the digitisation process of the medieval manuscripts, and a general insight into the motorised conservation book cradle and how this piece of equipment can help to alleviate our common challenges. Please stay tuned for more blogs on our digitisation process within the Digital Collections Department at the Library of Trinity College and visit our Medieval Manuscripts collection online Medieval Latin Manuscripts // Digital Collections (tcd.ie).

Caroline Harding

Senior Digital Photographer