For the first time in a large-scale digitization project at the Bodleian, we will be photographing the bindings of our manuscripts in their entirety; providing images of the spine, fore-edge, and upper and lower edges in addition to the upper and lower boards. By capturing these additional images, our aim is to produce a truly complete digital facsimile of every volume digitized for this project.
Up to this point in the project there hasn’t been a great variation in the bindings which have been photographed. The majority of the volumes from the Laud collection were rebound in the 1630s and for the most part, these bindings remain in reasonably good condition. During the assessment of many of the Hamilton volumes due to be digitized, curator Matthew Holford and I discovered a much broader range of bindings, some with medieval originals and others with beautiful tooled decoration. Images of these wonderful bindings will be added to this resource over the coming weeks.
It is not uncommon to encounter volumes with missing spines, detached boards, or boards which are attached by a single cord among the Bodleian’s manuscript collections. Naturally, these will need special attention and the approval of a curator or conservator prior to photography. My colleagues in the studio have years and in some cases decades of experience in handling special collections material and the utmost care is taken when digitizing these often fragile manuscripts.
The technique for photographing the binding of a volume in good condition is fairly simple. Upper and lower boards are photographed from a camera mounted on a wall-mounted copy-stand with a narrow white card used as a reflector and placed near to the spine to provide a small amount of fill-in illumination. In addition to the traditionally positioned lighting, as was the case for the Laud volumes, a small amount of direct light was used to bring out the gold from the coat of arms which decorates both the upper and lower boards of each volume.
The spine, fore-edge and the upper and lower edges of the smaller volumes are likewise photographed with a copy-stand, with the volumes being supported by large plastizote wedges covered with black velvet. Lighting is positioned in-line with the spine or fore-edge. This prevents overexposure of parts of the often shiny leather corners of the spine while also ensuring shadow-free illumination of the page edges when photographing the fore-edge. Large, heavy volumes, or volumes with detached or vulnerable boards are photographed horizontally, with the camera mounted on a tripod and the lighting reconfigured accordingly.
The inside of the upper and lower boards are typically captured on the Grazer cradle during the process of photographing the pages, the setup needing to be adjusted to account for the additional depth of the board.
In cases where volumes have metal clasps, the fore-edge will be captured with these closed if it is safe to do so. During the photography of the pages on the cradle, these will be carefully strapped back. Several of the volumes photographed so far for this project have beautiful green or blue ties, and these too have been captured and look wonderful when viewed at 100% magnification.
In order to best record the relief of a tooled binding it may be necessary to deviate from the lighting methods typically used for reprographic photography. In this case a single light or unequal lighting is likely to yield a better result. Positioning the lighting less directly so that the light rakes the surface of the boards will enhance the relief further. By simply rotating the volume horizontally and taking multiple images, the result can often appear very different, with the sides of raised areas either being illuminated or in shadow. Additional conventionally-lit images may also be captured so that the binding is captured with even illumination.
The bindings from the Bodleian’s collections can often be as intriguing and varied as the pages found inside them, so it is a real treat to be able to capture and share them.
John Barrett is a photographer in Bodleian Imaging Services. He haas written previously about manuscript and rare book photography for our Polonsky Foundation Digitization Project blog.