By DANIEL DE SIMONE
During the past six years, the Library of Congress’ Rare Book and Special Collection Division and Digital Scan Lab have collaborated to apply the latest digital technologies to some of the rarest and most unique items in the Library’s collection. A program to create digitized images of 250 fine bookbindings from the Lessing J. Rosenwald Collection was undertaken in 2002. Building on the success of this and various other pilot projects, dozens of rare books have been digitized and placed on the Library’s Web site at www.loc.gov/rr/rarebook/digitalcoll.html.
In all of these cases, the goal of the Rare Book Division was to systematize the procedures for scanning rare materials and to familiarize members of the Scan Team with the care and handling of old bindings and rare printed books. Similarly, members of the Rare Book Division were educated in the limits of the digital equipment so they could better evaluate the potential uses of the technology for scanning rare, vulnerable printed materials.
The earliest book in the Rosenwald Collection is a 12th-century manuscript titled “Exposicio mistica super exodum.” Though this title identifies the manuscript as a discussion of the book of Exodus, in actuality it is a gloss or commentary on the book of Deuteronomy, written by scribes in what is now southern Germany around the year 1150. Bound in white doeskin, the manuscript is one of only 138 known examples of Romanesque period decorated leather bookbindings produced in Western Europe between the 11th and 13th centuries, and one of only seven now in the United States. Although the binding shows some wear and discoloration, is in remarkable condition. Recent research suggests that the manuscript was most likely bound near the scriptorium in Millstadt, Germany, where it is thought to have been written.
While research was being conducted on the Romanesque binding last year, the Rare Book Division received a visit from Pierre-Jean Raimond, curator of manuscripts at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. While looking through the Library’s catalog of medieval manuscripts, Raimond came across the “Exposicio mistica super exodum” and realized that the text of the manuscript was nearly identical to a manuscript he had just finished editing for his doctoral dissertation.
Fortunately for him, his dissertation had not yet been published, and he immediately arranged a return visit to the Library of Congress so he could compare the two medieval codices. Given the importance of the Rosenwald manuscript to his research, Raimond requested that the manuscript be digitized and mounted on the Library’s Web site so that he could access it abroad.
Raimond’s request sparked a series of conversations about whether it was possible to digitize the rare item without damaging it. Elizabeth Gettins, digital specialist in the Rare Book Division, worked with Raimond and with various other divisions of the Library to establish a new procedure for digitizing rare and vulnerable materials from the Rare Book and Special Collections Division.
Lynn Kidder, digital liaison from the Library’s Conservation Division, examined the manuscript and outlined the potential damage that could occur if it were not handled with extreme care. While the binding is in remarkable condition, over the years the boards have warped and the text block has partially separated from the binding covers at the book’s spine. Some of the sewing that secures the text block to the covers has deteriorated, and further damage to the sewing structure could occur if the binding were stressed or improperly opened.
Kidder requested information from the Scan Lab about the equipment that would be used to create the digital images. She inquired about how the binding would be opened during the scanning process and how much time each leaf would be exposed while the image was being made.
After consultation with Domenico Sergi in the Scan Lab, it was decided that the digital equipment needed to be reconfigured before digital capture could begin. Technicians in the Scan Lab changed the position of the camera so the lens could be set at a 45-degree angle to the book, thus reducing the size of the opening required to scan a page. A smaller opening would relieve the pressure on the spine of the book and greatly diminish the stress to the sewing. This camera also had the capacity to digitally capture each page in three to four seconds, which significantly reduced the amount of time the manuscript would be exposed to light and thereby prevented deterioration of the ink and vellum.
Prior to scanning, staff members in all three divisions met to determine how the book would be handled during the digitization process. Experiments with various cradle sizes and configurations were conducted until one was found that would secure the codex as members of the Scan Team worked their way through the text block. Due to the condition of the binding, the decision was made to use a bolster under each of the binding’s covers and readjust the book for each shot. In some cases, the vellum leaves would not lie flat, and a very small Plexiglas rod was used to press down the page during the short scanning process.
After some trial and error, it was also decided to scan all the right-hand (recto) leaves first, followed by the left-hand (verso) pages. This meant less handling of the binding but required the Scan Lab’s quality review team to collate the digital shots so recto and verso leaves would be organized according to the actual layout of the manuscript. Detailed images of the binding were also made to capture the condition of the binding, its particular sewing patterns and the embossed stamps that were used to decorate it. The entire procedure was conducted under curatorial and conservation supervision.
The project has had both short- and long-term benefits. It fulfilled the request by the Parisian scholar for digital images of materials available only from the collections of the Library of Congress. It demonstrated the collaboration of the Library’s curatorial, conservation and digital specialists to meet the demand for digital images of rare materials while ensuring their preservation. And finally, it advanced research on one of the most treasured items in the Rosenwald Collection.
Daniel De Simone is curator of the Lessing J. Rosenwald Collection in the Library’s Rare Book and Special Collection Division.