Residency 2020: British Library, Qatar Foundation Project

On Tuesday afternoon, following the V&A visit we trundled off to the British Library where we were hosted by Matt (Lee) and his team manager Sotiris at the Qatar Foundation project. We were taken through the various stages of digitising books, maps, manuscripts and photographs amongst other things. Many of the items were administrative documents from the British Empire and the East India Company.


Each stage in the process is treated as a distinct process with its particular practitioners. The process begins with the retrieval of the item from the stores. The condition of each item is recorded before being passes onto the conservation department. Here Camille, a bookbinder, introduced us to the process, from passing the item as ready for the next stage to carrying out the minimum conservation intervention necessary to ensure the integrity of the document. There is a difference between conservation and restoration. The former attempts to halt any further degradation in the item. Restoration, on the other hand, is a process whereby the item is brought back to its original condition as far as possible.


We were shown a book that had some invasive, non-reversable conservation/restoration twenty years ago sealing manuscript pages between sheets of paper using heat. I was surprised they were doing any of this twenty years ago. The idea of conservation has been around for at least forty years. I remember the conservation courses at the Institute for Art and Restoration in Florence, a great deal of importance was put on making all interventions both reversable and visible. There was no attempt to hide the repair or make it look like new. The repair would be discreet but clearly visible.

Another thing that also surprised me was that no one used gloves to handle the material. I realise that a lot of the material is only of research value but the manuscripts themselves were handled with bare hands. Now as everyone knows, hands are greasy and perspiration is acidic, both enemies of perishable fibres. I imagine that the low level of handling is considered within a certain threshold and that very little harm can come to the papers, particularly in proportion to what they have already gone through. But nevertheless, this seems to me to go against all the principles of conservation.

An interesting things was the fact that Arabic bindings do not have a spine and are stitched so that they lay out flat. This may explain why the grain of the paper runs vertically rather than horizontally; in order to keep them rigid and flat rather than floppy. Western folios on the other hand have spines and the pages are laid in such a way that they open out more that they would otherwise. This has difference has a consequence both in the durability and conservation of Arabic pages that have been bound in Western-style with the grain lying horizontally. In short, they do not open easily or widely and are more prone to damage. Arabic books were often rebound in this way for aesthetic reasons rather than practical ones.


After the conservation comes foliation. This is the counting and marking of each leaf in a manuscript. This is different to pagination as it records each sheet, the verso and recto, as one. During foliation, any previous such record is added to the information retained on the item so that confusion does not arise when coming across variant foliations done by other workers.


Once this has been done the book, or what have you, is digitised using scanners, medium format cameras, and strobe flash. The images are captured and post-produced in Capture 1 software. The item is set up using modelling lights and the photograph is taken to a resolution of 400 dpi. Two formats are used: TIFF for archival up to around 90 MB and JPEG2000 for web use, obviously to save space and enhance web page loading times. When photographing, difficult pages are held back gently using clear acrylic ‘fingers’. The pages are opened as far as possible and not flattened physically or digitally. The result is that often the image of a page is curved. Sometimes some of the characters remain unseen near the guttering. It is acceptable to leave unreadable 3 or 4 characters.


When something has been photographed it is passed onto Quality Assurance. This person makes sure that the images are in focus and complete and that there are no fingers showing or any other imperfection. Each worker is expected to complete about 600 images per day and the overall quota for the month is around 25,000 items; books etc.


After the Digitisation stage the books are passed onto the SIPs (Submission Information Packages) specialists who collect all the metadata regarding the item, collected before and after digitisation and puts it into a data base ready for ingestion into the library’s Digital Library System (DLS). This also includes cataloguing the item.

Finally, when all has been done, the item is returned to the library stores by the same archive and retrieval personnel.


The security is tight and valuable manuscripts are stored in vaults. The air is maintained at around 21 degrees in the store room where books await to be processed.

During our visit, Gordi showed us a collateral part of the project which entails recording paper watermarks which under normal lighting remain hidden. This is done by photography the paper in different lights, using racking angles to catch the contours, and these are superimposed. This helps in identifying the provenance of the paper, and therefore also the age of the item.

Dan kindly offered to photograph our cyanotypes for us to compile a book which will subsequently be filed in the British Library collection. This raised the hope of setting up a residency or series of residencies in the future.