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Conserving the UCL Islamic Treasures: Masnavi-I Akbar Sultan: MS Pers/1

Angela Warren-Thomas29 May 2020

UCL’s Special Collections contains UCL’s collection of historical, academic and culturally significant works.  It is one of the foremost university collections of manuscripts, archives and rare books in the UK. Included in its holdings is a collection of Islamıc manuscripts, Masnavi-i Akbar Sultan (“Romance of the Sultan Akbar”), (MS PERS/1), is one of the manuscripts in this collection.

The conservation of this manuscript was carried out by Fatma Aslanoglu, Project conservator 

Figure 1 UCL Special Collections The Masnavi-i Akbar Sultan

The Masnavi-i Akbar Sultan by Mír shams al-Dín Faqír Dihlavi originally written by Jalal al-Din Muhammad Rumi (1207-1273), is a copy of part of the Mesnevi poem collection.  Written in Persian using carbon ink and Ta’liq calligraphy, the manuscript contains a poem written for Sultan Akbar in 1749.  Bound in an Islamic style using the Lacquer technique, the book came to the conservation department because the binding was very tight, causing restricted opening and making access and handling for any purpose unsafe.

 

Figure 2 Opening limit due to tight binding

A preliminary examination of the manuscript determined that it had undergone previous repairs, the binding was now too tight compressing the textblock preventing free opening, causing distress and damage. It was decided to rebind the manuscript thus alleviating these problems, and ensure safe access to this important collection item. It appeared that during previous repairs, the original covers were reused but the leather on the spine had been replaced. Figure 2 shows the extent to which the manuscript opened without undue force.  In addition to the problems created by the spine repair, superficial dust, separation of the text block and cover, tears, and stains were noted, along with fragility of the end leaves due to the acidity present in their paper, these conditions contributed to different but significant deteriorations in the manuscript.

The first step was removing the cover from the text block.  The leather covering of the spine consisted of two pieces of leather, one attached to the left board and one attached to the right board. This is a typical characteristic of Islamic bindings and made it easier to separate the covers from the text block.  The spine leather removal was carried out using Methylcellulose to hydrate the adhesive, allowing easy mechanical removal.

Figure 3 Removing the cover and spine from the textblock

It became obvious as the removal of the binding progressed that the manuscript had not been fully disbound during the old repair. The original leather spine covering was still present under the new leather added during the repair. The sewing appeared untouched but the original primary endband sewing and endbands had been renewed.

Figure 4 Original spine residue (left) old repair primary endband thread (right)

The original leather and adhesive – probably ciris, a traditional paste made with the root of a yellow asphodel -were still preventing the manuscript from opening fully.  Using Methylcellulose, the spine was hydrated, and the residue removed.  The original spine lining, a typical characteristic of Islamic bindings, and adhesive was then removed from the text block.  After removing all the original leather adhesives and lining from the spine, the text block started to open fully.  This allowed the original sewing of the text block to be preserved.

Figure 5 Spine leather residue (left) textile lining (mid-left) residue cleaning process (mid-right) spine diagram (right)

Figure 6 Spine after residue clean

With spine cleaning complete, the tie-down sewing and endbands added during the repair were removed.  The text block had three sewing stations, in some of the gatherings; some threads were detached or broken.  New thread was attached to the existing thread and the sewing repaired using the original sewing holes.

Figure 7 textblock sewing consolidation

During the old repairs, new end papers were attached; the paper used for these is now known to be highly acidic therefore, a decision was taken to remove them from the textblock.  Fabriano paper was used to create new end leaf papers.

The original textile spine lining was not strong or wide enough to hold the text block because its width had been trimmed during the old repair.  A new textile lining was adhered to the text block with excess left along the front and back joints, for later reattachment of the boards.

Following the repair and stabilisation of the textblock spine, it was now possible to proceed with the dry cleaning of the textblock using a soft hake brush.

Paper repairs were carried out using re-moistenable Japanese tissue paper (Japico 0.02/3.8g – Using 4% (w,v) Methylcellulose).  These two processes were completed after the spine-lining repair because the spine and sewing were so sensitive to opening and closing.

Another form of paper repair undertaken was the removal of paper layers adhered to the folios from the adjacent pages.  The delaminated pieces were removed mechanically with local humidification and a spatula.  They were then reattached to their original places using 4% Methylcellulose.

Figure 8 Paper repair

The new spine lining was trimmed at the head and tail of the textblock.  An additional traditional leather core was added to the head and tail of the spine to further stabilise the structure.  The primary endbands were sewn through the spine lining.  It was decided to not re-use the endband created during the old repair.  An endband with a chevron pattern was added.

Figure 9 Primary endband (left) chevron patterned endband (right)

A barrier between the spine and the text block, using the hollow back method, was created using Japanese tissue and pasted with wheat starch paste (1:6).  This technique ensured that the manuscript would be able to open comfortably and therefore prevent any further damage to the gilded decorations present on all the pages.

 

After the textblock treatments, the boards were reattached to the text block.  The spine lining extensions were positioned within the original board layers using wheat starch paste.

Figure 11 Reattaching covers to the textblock

The spine leather was then pasted onto the hollow back present on the spine with wheat starch paste. Japanese tissue appropriately toned using Schmincke acrylics was added to the inner joint, the final process carried out to complete the conservation.

Figure 12 Attaching leather to spine (left) adding inner join with coloured Japanese tissue (right)

Working on The Masnavi-i Akbar Sultan manuscripts was a rare occasion to work on non-Western binding structures and a first-hand learning experience under the expert guidance of Fatma, for the conservators at the Conservation Department.

For more information about this manuscript please visit the UCL Special Collections page.  (https://ucldigitalpress.co.uk/Book/Article/2/9/48/)

NOTE: Due to the COVID-19 outbreak, we are unfortunately unable to provide an image of the final state of conservation.  We will update this article with a photograph as soon as possible.

 

Call for Papers for ‘Paper Trails’ a new open access publication with UCL Press

Nazlin Bhimani23 August 2019

Often there is more than research inside the books we read. Bookmarks, train tickets, receipts, and menus tucked into pages offer clues about the life of the book itself.

Yet the lives of our research material often go unmarked, lost between the gaps in disciplinary boundaries and narrow definitions. The biographies of books and documents can illuminate their contexts, as printed matter that is sold, passed down or abandoned. What happens when we consider the three moments of production, transmission, and reception together with our own research stories? Documents, like people, have births, lives, and even deaths, so what does it mean to investigate the biographies of texts, objects, and archival records? Beyond the formal roles of cataloguing and archiving, what part do researchers play in shaping the emergent archive?

This is not strictly an intellectual history, nor even a material book history, but something more like a social history of ideas, inspired by work such as Antoinette Burton’s discussions of Archive Stories (Duke University Press, 2005), Arlette Farge’s reflection on the Allure of the Archives (Yale University Press, 2013), Lisa Jardine’s discussion of Temptation in the Archives (UCL Press, 2015), and Ann Laura Stoler’s call to read Along the Archival Grain (Princeton University Press, 2009)Indeed, the stories of our research material evolve significantly over their life cycles, as Arjun Appadurai outlined in The Social Life of Things (Cambridge University Press, 1986). Beyond commodities and value, however, this new publication seeks to consider our affective relationship with research material, juxtaposing critical histories with reflections on practice.

The editorial board invite contributors to submit papers to be published in a BOOC (Book as Open Online Content), a fully open access platform with UCL Press described as “a living book”. We are interested in a broad geographical and chronological scope and actively welcome a diverse range of topics and authors.

We will look to publish material in four streams, which will allow us to set fully REF compliant academic work alongside work produced by practitioners for their professional development:

  • Research Stories (8-10,000 words): We are encouraging a focus on research stories to invite a more reflective methodology, offering a more inclusive and engaged commentary on the work involved in researching, ordering, and preserving the past. This section will consist of double-blind peer-reviewed academic articles.
  • Co-Production (flexible word count): Outputs from projects in which non-academic, undergraduate and taught postgraduate audiences collaborate with others (collection professions, academics, members of the public etc) to create new work that is based on research collections.
  • Collection Profiles (500 words): This stream consists of shorter, descriptive or even narrative pieces, that highlights items or collections of interest. This may be a prelude to a piece of in-depth research, but it does not necessarily need to be.
  • Engagement (2,000 words): Reflective pieces that focus on a broad range of engagement activities, from the professional’s perspective. These can be case studies, or ‘think pieces’ on particular skills or techniques.  They should inform professional practice.

Please send in proposals for publications in these streams, along with a brief biographical presentation.

Deadline for submissions is 31st January 2020. For further information, please contact the lead editor, Dr Andrew WM Smith (University of Chichester) –  a.smith@chi.ac.uk

Bridging the Digital Gap (Part II)

isabelle.reynolds-logue.1318 July 2019

In my last post I explained what I have been up to for the last 9 months as the Bridging the Digital Gap trainee at UCL. Now, I will show you some of my favourite digitisation projects so far…

The UCL College Collection

The UCL College Collection contains, among other things, photographs of the exterior and interior of UCL buildings.

This photograph looking towards Gordon Street (Gordon Square is signified by the trees in the background) features some graffiti from the mid-twentieth century: ‘Merry Xmas. Love peace anarchy.’

Technicians seen posing on the ruins of the Great Hall at UCL in the 1950s.

The issue desk at the Main Library post-1951.

Bomb damage to the Main Library after the Second World War.

The Little Magazines Collection

The Little Magazines Collection was set up in 1964 to gather together little magazines from the UK, North America, Commonwealth and Europe. We have defined Little Magazines as “those which publish creative, often innovative work, with little or no regard for commercial gain.” You can learn more about the collection here.

Cover of ‘Gargoyle’ Number Two, 1921.

A page from ‘The Owl: A Miscellany’ 1919.

Jewish Pamphlets

I worked on a joint project with Dr. Maria Kiladi to digitise the Jewish Pamphlets Collection.

One challenge with these was that some pamphlets were read from right to left, when in Hebrew, as opposed to ones written in English. Another challenge was that I am unable to read Hebrew, so with pages entirely in Hebrew it was not easy to know which way round they were supposed to be. Additionally, the pages containing Hebrew characters were automatically rotated by the OCR software when generating PDFs, so I had to manually go through these and change them individually.

The entire collection can be found in our digital collections repository.

The cover of one of the pamphlets.

Library Exhibition

Again working alongside Maria, we digitised material that was going to be on display for the exhibition, ‘From Small Library Beginnings: a brief history of UCL Library Services.’ The photographs are online but were also printed in the exhibition catalogue. You can see more items from the exhibition online.

1935 Block Plan of University College London.

Dante’s Divine Comedy

This copy of Dante’s Divine Comedy features illustrations that go across a double page spread. This is not straightforward to capture with one camera pointing down towards the item, as the print is not flat, and cannot be made flat. There was also a problem of shadow appearing in the centre along the gutter. In order to capture the print as best I could, I ended up taking two separate images, on of each side of the book so that there is even illumination, and merging them in Photoshop.

You can read more about this item here.

Slade Archive Reader

Finally, the Slade Archive Reader is now available as four fully digitised, searchable PDFs, which you can view here.

My first thought was, why, if this is a printed, word processed document, do we not have a digital copy already? Unfortunately this is often the case with older word processed material. So, we have the task of re-digitising something that was already digital! Once we began looking at the volumes, it was clear that digitising the Slade Archive Reader would not be without its fair share of challenges. Primarily, the four volumes are bound quite tightly, which made it hard for me to keep the pages flat when photographing them. This curvature of the pages leads to a distortion of the text, which in turn makes it difficult for the OCR software to pick up.

You can browse all of our digital collections online here.

UCL Special Collections is committed to making digitised content available online. Although every effort has been made to identify and contact rights holders, we recognise that sometimes material published online may be in breach of copyright laws, contain sensitive personal data, or include content that may be regarded as obscene or defamatory.

If you are a rights holder and are concerned that you have found material on our Digital Collections repository for which you have not given permission, or that is not covered by a limitation or exception in national law, please contact us at spec.coll@ucl.ac.uk

Bridging the Digital Gap (Part I)

isabelle.reynolds-logue.1316 July 2019

I joined UCL in October 2018 as the Bridging the Digital Gap trainee from The National Archives. I have been learning about all things digital in relation to archives, working with UCL’s Special Collections and the Institute of Education archives. In order for me to produce meaningful work with the material, I first needed to understand a bit more about archive repositories and what they contain. As part of my training, The National Archives runs a Moodle course where I have learned about archives, records and repositories, as well as about a key problem facing holders of archives today: digital preservation.

My work so far has ranged from cataloguing to digitising material. A key part of my work at UCL has been digitisation. I photograph or scan original items so that they can be put online and be made more accessible to a wider audience. In addition to accessibility, digitisation aids in preservation. The copies of the original items generated through digitisation are archived so that we have a digital version in case anything happens to the original, or if, for example, it becomes too fragile for readers to view in person.

A digitised photograph of the Wilkins portico from the UCL College Collection c1900s.

Most of the time I use a Canon EOS5D camera alongside a Kaiser RS1 copy stand and lights for digitisation. For some material I use an Epson12000XL flatbed scanner. Some items cannot be completely flattened for scanning, for example rare books, as this would cause severe damage to the item. In these cases, I will always use the camera and copy stand. In digitisation, we aim to get the most true to life image of the item whilst handling and moving the item as little as possible, in order to cause the least damage or deterioration to it. As digitisation requires handling and placing items in particular ways, we must liaise with the conservation team prior to digitisation, to make sure the item is in a suitable condition to be used. If an item is badly torn, falling apart, or very dirty, for example, it would have to be conserved before digitisation.

Once all of this is sorted out, I capture the photographs in RAW before editing them in Adobe Photoshop and saving them as high quality TIFF files for archiving, and JP2 files for use online. For some items with text, it is possible to use OCR software such as Nuance to generate searchable PDFs. However, some text proves too tricky for the software to pick up, for example unusual fonts or handwriting, so we don’t use it every time. However, we have begun to work with the OCR for handwriting software, Transkribus, so watch this space!

Now that you have an overview of what I have been up to, stay tuned for the next post where I will show you some of my favourite projects so far…

Social Media Rants from the Past

Erika Delbecque5 July 2019

This blog post was written by Patricia Jager, an MA student at the Institute of Archaeology who is currently volunteering with UCL Special Collections. She is compiling a list of our 1914-18 collection, with the aim of making this uncatalogued material available for teaching, events and research.

Today we have become used to annoyed social media posts popping up on our feeds from friends, family and random people we once met on holiday. They cover a wide range of political issues and pet peeves that can be funny, inspiring or infuriating depending on which side of the issue you are on. From the perspective of future archaeologists and cultural heritage managers, the internet offers an unprecedented window into current issues on a global level.

However, venting one’s frustration on media platforms does not seem to be an entirely contemporary concept. While listing ‘The British campaign in France and Flanders 1914’ by Arthur Conan Doyle from the 1914-18 collection at UCL Special Collections, I stumbled across a newspaper cut-out from January 5th, 1931 that one of the previous owners must have left behind. While this excerpt was doubtlessly chosen for the main article, it accidentally helped some letters to the editor survive.

They caught my eye because one of them regarded Central London traffic, which apparently was already horrible more than 80 years ago. When comparing the original letter to most of the digital commentary I encounter on social media every day, I was struck by its polite tone that is definitely a thing of the past. If one would use such a comparison to infer the difference between past and current populations, one would believe that our manners had progressively deteriorated over time.

The actual difference between past and modern, however, might be the result of biases. The internet allows us all to act simultaneously as authors and publishers of our written work. Letters to the editor, on the other hand, are selected by the newspaper agency and must abide by certain standards. Anyone, no matter their background, social status or level of education can leave commentary on social media platforms meaning a true variety of opinions are represented and available to future historians. However, how all this data could be archived, catalogued and studied is a question that cannot yet be fully answered, and I doubt that most of us consider what researchers might think about the opinions we share online in a hundred years’ time.

Probably, Charles J. Adams, the author of the letter I found by sheer accident would never have imagined his work published in a completely new medium nearly a hundred years later, especially because it seems like no politician ever read or implemented his sensible proposal. Consequently, letters to the editor and social media rants have at least one thing in common: they are being perpetually ignored by those in charge.