Delving into Russia – Conservation for Digitisation

The Library is currently working with scholars from the Saint-Petersburg State University in Russia, on the production of a facsimile of our seventeenth century manuscript of The Life of Alexander Nevskij (CBL W 151).

The manuscript contains the Russian version of the mythical exploits of Alexander the Great written in Russian Church Slavonic. It is illuminated with 73 drawings in pen outline and colours. Alexander appears clean-shaven and is often seen riding a unicorn. On the pages, he battles fearsome creatures like the medusa, centaurs, hybrid dog-headed men and other fantastic beasts in far off lands. Another part of the manuscript, containing a copy of the Tale of the Rout of Mamai, is housed at the British Library in London (Yates Thompson ms 51).

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CBL W 151, f.39v-40r after conservation

The text and miniatures will be published as a volume in the series, “Written artifacts of Russian History and Culture, stored in foreign libraries and archives.”

To facilitate this work the complete manuscript has recently been digitised, but before that could happen, the manuscript required conservation.

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The manuscript’s 20th century binding; f.12-13 before conservation showing the restricted opening characteristics.

The manuscript is bound in a modern brown calf binding, most likely added at the beginning of the 20th century. The binding was very tight and prevented the book from being opened fully, causing the folios to curve steeply, and leaving areas of each page obscured at the spine-edge.

In order to increase the opening of the manuscript, whilst still retaining its most recent binding, the book was gently eased open. This simple but careful treatment required the book to be opened slowly page-by-page from front to back. This was done three times to ease the binding sufficiently to facilitate digitisation of the inner most spine-edge margin.

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Dorothea gently working through the manuscript to ease it open.

In addition some edge repair of the folios was necessary to make the digitisation process easier and safer. The paper textblock is very soft and many pages had tears along the edges. The manuscript had been extensively repaired in the past, with Western and Japanese paper. In some places these older repairs had partly detached, especially where close to the spine-edge.

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f.117-118 before (left) and after conservation (right)

A decision was made to leave these old repairs in place and they were reattached where they were at risk of being lost entirely, especially along the spine fold. Edge repair was then carried out with acrylic-toned Japanese Kozo paper and wheat starch paste.

With the binding eased, and the textblock stabilised, the manuscript could be digitised. The book was put onto a cradle with an angle of approximately 110° and the camera lens was positioned parallel to the pages of the book.

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Positioning the manuscript in the digitisation cradle. The folios are carefully leveled to align with the camera.

To further reduce handling, the book was digitised in two stages; firstly the recto pages were photographed, and then the verso. The pages of the book were held in place with polythene tape as necessary. When first assessed it was thought to be unlikely that the manuscript could be successfully digitised without extensive and interventive treatment. It was rewarding to see that the simple easing of the binding permitted the digitisation of the inner most spine-edge margin. The edge repairs prevented any further tears to the paper and safe handling by the photographic services team enabled us to digitise and eventually share this remarkable text. Slide5.JPG

Dorothea MüllerHeritage Council Intern in Conservation

Wishing everyone a very happy St Patrick’s Day from all at the Chester Beatty Library.

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