Volunteering with the Digitization Project Team

Kiana gazes at MS 13, Thomas Hobbes’ Behemoth, at the start of her week at the SJC library, with many more treasures to come!

By Kiana Rezakhanlou

“Down the centuries, vast, unquantifiable numbers of books have been destroyed because they were worn out, unwanted, superseded or otherwise surplus to requirements.”

David Pearson, Provenance Research in Book History (2019), pp11

“The physical preservation of collection items has always been one of the primary missions of archivists and librarians through history. (…) The challenges [of digitization] may also serve as opportunities to contribute with their intimate knowledge of books as objects, as, increasingly, users become aware of the untransferable qualities of books, and of their importance.”

Alberto Campagnolo, Book Conservation and Digitization (2020), pp48

“I have likewise sent you nine Manuscripts some Arabic some Greek for the better furnishing of your Library they all being mathematical.”[1]

William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury (1633-45) and graduate of, and significant donator to, SJC, Letter (1638)

I first discovered the Digitization Project at the St John’s College Library when Sian and Sophie (the Project’s Resource Description Librarian and Special Collections Photographer respectively) came to give a talk at my own college, Merton, as part of a seminar for the History of the Book Group which the college has been running over nearly two decades. Come the end of the pair’s brilliant exposition of their work and its purpose, I knew I wanted to get involved, somehow. My fascination started from an aesthetic standpoint with the treasures on digital display[2] (who isn’t won over by beautifully illuminated gold leaf?) but was quickly bolstered by the sheer range of manuscripts present with St John’s (both within the college’s general manuscript collection, and the more select number chosen for the Project itself) in terms of region, language, content, and date.

Though the collection is mainly comprised of Western medieval MSS (this section itself incredibly broad in scope), it only takes one look at its catalogues to be greeted with anything from a theological Syriac treatise (gnomically named ‘The Book of the Cause of All Causes,’ or ‘ktābā d’ellat koll ‘ellān’ in its original language)[3] to the Greek philosopher Theon of Smyrna’s ‘The Mathematics for Understanding Plato’ (a geometrical feast for the eyes, if a sore sight to the brain)[4] to something as modern-seeming as the letters and correspondence of A E Housman (a renowned classical scholar and matriculand of St John’s, see here) with H E Butler, his successor at UCL, where he waxes lyrical about textual conjectures surrounding the Lake in Propertius 4.1.124 in one letter, before descending into full gossip mode about his colleagues come the next[5]. I grew incredibly (well-meaningly) envious of Sian and Sophie and how their work allowed them to engage with such amazing texts on a daily basis. On a further note, I wanted to see how their more traditional educational training as (book) historians interacted with the technological requirements of the Digitisation Project: it seemed to me the perfect place to witness the balance of the Digital Humanities – of text and materiality with modern computing advancements – at play. Sian and Sophie were kind enough to listen to all my rambles and enquiries, and allowed me to shadow them during the vacation, an experience for which I am incredibly grateful.

With a little[6] palaeography experience under my belt (thanks to the Catullus manuscript paper offered as a – rogue but incredibly rewarding – Classics Finals paper), I came to St John’s in the tenth week incredibly excited but wholly unawares as to what I would see take place at the Project. I’d read the physical SJC manuscript catalogues[7], and looked around the fantastically accessible Digital Library Project website, sure, but as to what was done with these books, I was none the wiser. What would I be reading? Could I handle the books myself? How does the camera work? To what extent does the Digital Bodleian’s online collections intersect with college-specific ones?

I needed not have any fears: Sian and Sophie had artfully planned out my week with intricate detail such that I would be able to experience every conceivable part of their work, and the different building blocks which contribute to a full and proper digitization of each MS on their shortlist. There were parts I had previously expected to like, and did: book handling of the Special Collections, whilst initially nerve-wracking[8], was a transformative experience. We started off on the Monday with Hobbes’ Behemoth, written in the hand of his assistant, and with some corrections made by Hobbes himself. It was a joy to be able to experience the materiality of the text in full force – changes in ink colour and tone, attempts at crossings-out, section markers written and re-written – and my initial trepidation soon dissipated as I grew in confidence in my nimble, but purposeful, touch, suddenly becoming something more than a reader of each folio I lifted and turned. Having been allowed to consult the catalogues and select manuscripts of my own choosing which pertained more specifically to my academic interests, or even curiosities, my horizons only expanded as the week went on. This was such a treat, as each MS has to be brought out from a carefully modified and regulated room (for optimum book-preserving conditions. An intricate detail I adored was that each manuscript has its own specially-made box, correct to its unique proportions – a testament to the care the Special Collections demand, and which the Library and its staff happily offer.

My eye immediately gravitated to Cicero’s De Oratore and Orator ad M. Brutum (MS 81), and MS 192 which combines the entirety of Juvenal’s Satires and Horace’s Ars Poetica in one book. The former MS is written in a fantastic Gothic hand, the semi-quadrata to be precise, meaning that its minims (the short, vertical stroke making up letters) had quadrangles at the top, but their feet end in round slopes instead. At the end of each ‘page’ (recto/verso) are long, exaggerated ‘anglicana’ descending lines. Ruled tightly in black or brown ink, the result is two columns of packed text for each folio’s side, whose imperfections on the vellum’s hair side (like large, gaping holes) are written around. Marginal comments range from glossing referents (Cato or Crassus, usually) to alternative readings.

MS 192 was formerly owned by Ben Johnson, a fact made very clear by the provenance marking in the upper margin of the first folio: “Sum Ben Jonsonij ex dono D Jo Radcliffe equ Aurati”. The book is historically water-stained on top and its leading edges, but thankfully no damage reached the text itself, which is presented in a beautiful Italian humanistic bookhand. The hand becomes more and more cursive as the book progresses, such that to the untrained eye, such as mine, the text of Horace (in the last ten folio) might seem to be from a completely different person to the Juvenal writer, though Hanna’s catalogue assures us of the single hand of the manuscript.

Determined not to stick solely to my classicist roots, the input from Sophie and Sian on their favourite MSS and what they were currently working on was greatly welcome: highlights of these included Aelfric of Eynsham’s Grammar of Latin in Old English (MS 154), which combined Latin and Old English, and colloquy and glosses, for a feast for the tongue and eyes in insular square minuscule; MS 23, a genealogy of the Kings of England was fantastical in its ability to express royal relations and correspondences visually, leading to highly-decorated, colour-alternating legible folio, a true marriage of art and history; Augustine’s Psalms[9] (MS 19) stood out to me for the traces of human use its pages revealed, in folds, stiches, and the harshness of its parchment at times – a staunch reminder of its animal source.

An example of MS 81, with a hole in the vellum, revealing the recto underneath. Look at those anglicana descenders!

A photo of MS 23 fol. 8r, kindly provided by Sian

MS 19’s stitches! Book surgery at play, it seems

As for the aspects of the Digitization Project I was less mentally prepared to encounter, there was the imaging side of taking the literal photographs, and the conversion of the metadata found in printed catalogues into a form friendly to online publication (both branches written about brilliantly here, and here). I am pleased to say I was pleasantly surprised by both: not only was it intriguing to see the technological advancements at work, but it was also incredibly humanising to see the full digitization of any MS come into fruition with the knowledge that behind the whirlingly noisy computer-machinery which enabled the actual photography and encoding, there was an awe-inspiring team of amazing academics who put the book, its physical stability, and its future accessibility first in the process. My day in the studio with Sophie, photographing the versos of MS 181 (a 17th-century English part-book of hymns with musical notation) was spent on our feet, flitting between computer and cradle, negotiating with the folio ‘til the gutter stopped showing so prominently in the photographs, gently caressing the verso to lay it flat and straight next to the measuring ruler. It was a moment of pure joy when Sophie figured out how to capture the captivating spine of the MS without the studio’s camera going out of focus, after some significant time of trial and error. Likewise initially perplexing, Sian’s work on metadata terrified me at first with its seemingly impenetrable encoding. But I soon learnt its ways, and could not have been happier to see the finished product on sites like MMOL, which I unknowingly had used many times before by myself.

If the enthusiasm and fondness with which I look onto my week at the St John’s Library and its Digitization Project has not come through already, then the blame is all in my writing. I would like it to be on record how amazing I found my experience: Sian and Sophie made me feel so welcome in their office and at their work, taught me countless things not confined to digitisation (transcription, manuscripts, history, academia, handling, the list could go on), and were a pleasure to see in their element. The fact that they gave me the intellectual freedom to explore some of the Special Collections by my own choosing, with their guidance as pertains to physical handling, is something I will carry with me for years to come! Thank you!

[1] ‘Mathematical’ in Laud’s time also included music and astronomy texts (Sosower (2007), pp3). The spelling of this quote has been modernished.

[2] To see the feast for the eyes yourselves, browsing through the Digital Library is a pastime like no other!

[3] MS 70, 16th c.

[4] MS 146, 16th c.

[5] MS 305, 20th c.

[6] I stress the amateurish-ness of my abilities.

[7] R Hanna on Western Medieval Manuscripts, E Savage-Smith on the Oriental Manuscripts, M Sosower on the Greek.

[8] Reader, not once did it cross my mind that these books have been leafed through, with far more careless hands than mine, for centuries, and my caution (though justified – this stuff is old! and frail!) need not be debilitating to feeling the MS where appropriate.

[9] Technically, psalms 80 to 118 only.

Please note: This was a one-off opportunity the Digitization Project team were able to offer following a talk given at Merton College regarding the project.

If you’re interested in reading more about the St John’s digitization project, please explore the Digital Library, read our blog posts, and follow #DigiLibSJOL on Twitter!

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: