(By Sophie Bacchus-Waterman, Special Collections Photographer, St John’s College)
As Special Collections Photographer for the Digitization Project at St John’s College, I photograph the manuscripts and early printed books from our Special Collections. Given that we have over 20,000 early printed books and over 300 manuscripts, and it would be impossible for one person to digitize them all, we have devised a shortlist of items which will be made available online during this project. These might be manuscripts with significant cultural or historic value, interesting provenance, unique texts, or items that are regularly requested by researchers. Several items have already been made available on Digital Bodleian, and more are being added regularly.
Books being photographed are placed onto the Grazer Conservation Cradle. The cradle is set to a 120° opening angle. If a book is not able to be opened at that angle, it is supported with foam wedges. Along the side of the cradle is a vacuum bar, on which the page being photographed is placed. Each page of the book being photographed is placed onto the vacuum bar, which, when switched on, acts like a vacuum and gently pulls the page into place. Along the vacuum bar is a ruler, which allows anyone viewing the book on Digital Bodleian to see its size. The colour swatch lets me keep the lighting and colour accurate from page to page.
Images are taken with a PhaseOne camera, which is directly parallel to the page being photographed. The camera can be moved closer or further away using a control panel on the side of the cradle. If I’m working with a smaller book, for instance, the camera might need to be closer to the cradle than if I’m working with a larger book. The cradle can also be adjusted with the control panel, and moved up or down as necessary, or left and right with a small dial. As I move through a book, the cradle might need be adjusted accordingly.
Besides photographing the internals of our books, I also photograph the externals, using a flatbed and a wall-mounted Canon camera, in the setup seen in the photograph below.
The book is placed on the flatbed, and I photograph its front and back covers. It is also placed on its fore edge and spine, carefully supported with small towers of foam blocks on either side, which are covered with black cloth. I also include a ruler and colour swatch in photos of the externals, for the same reason as they are included in the internal shots.
Photographing MS 61
MS 61 was always high on our priority list for items to be digitized. A 13th century bestiary made in York, richly illuminated, MS 61 is one of the jewels of our Special Collections. If you would like to read more about it, you can see its catalogue description on Medieval Manuscripts in Oxford Libraries, encoded by my colleague, Sian Witherden.
I knew that MS 61 would initially pose challenges, due to its extensive use of gold leaf. Each illumination is backed with a thick ground of gold leaf, which reflects light when photographed. Given the amount of gold on certain folios, the light reflected in such a way that the gold looked white, an effect known as “specular highlights”, as seen in the below left photograph. In order to photograph a manuscript with extensive gold leaf, the lamps in the Photography Studio must be pointed upwards, away from the cradle. The light then bounces off the ceiling and onto the gold leaf, as seen in the below right photograph.
Once the issue of lighting the gold leaf was resolved, MS 61 was a dream to work with. For an 800-year-old manuscript, it was incredibly easy to handle. Written on high quality vellum, it was sturdy, its pages turned easily, and its modern binding meant that it was happy to open to the 120° angle of the cradle. As with the other books I’ve worked with so far, MS 61 was placed onto the cradle – it opened easily, and was handled with the usual care I handle the Special Collections items, but it didn’t need any extra support while out.
As I moved through the manuscript, I was struck by the incredible illuminations throughout it. Even after centuries, it is in a stunning condition, almost as if it had been made yesterday. In order to accommodate the manuscript, I moved the cradle left and right, and up and down, as needed, so that it was resting comfortably on the cradle. Above everything else, the preservation of whatever book I am working with is paramount to the project. Luckily, MS 61 didn’t require any extra support, or prove difficult at all.
The social media response to MS 61 being digitized was astounding, but also hardly surprising. MS 61 is one of the most beautiful and treasured items in our collection, and a lot of people have been excited to see it online. Not only is it a privilege to work with such stunning and rare books in my role, but knowing that the Digitization Project is facilitating research and introducing people to our collection online makes it all the more rewarding.
If you would like to see more of our collection, please visit our Digital Library, where you can read more about our collection, and see what has already been made available to view online. If you would like to read more about MS 61, take a look at this Book of the Month blog post here.