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Techniques for recovering lost texts

Research Fellow Renate Smithuis and Research Associate Stefania Silvestri, are working on a Catalogue of Codices, Scrolls, and Other Texts in Hebrew Script in The University of Manchester Library.

The Library holds one of the most important smaller collections of Hebrew manuscripts in Europe and this project will create a full, online catalogue compliant with current cataloguing and metadata standards. To support the production of the catalogue, digitisation of a number of manuscripts is being undertaken. All images, included fully digitised volumes, are added to the Hebraica Collection in the John Rylands Library Image Collections, LUNA.

A substantial portion of the Rylands Gaster manuscript collection have already been selected for digitisation, including a number of manuscripts that suffered water damage during the Second World War. The level of water damage varies, some texts are still legible but faint, others have whole sections of pages rendered illegible.

The Heritage Imaging Team have been investigating the best way to recover the text in these volumes, unsurprisingly, we have found that a single solution does not fit all. The aim of this blog post is to demonstrate the different processing options available to researchers. We are researcher-led in the work that we do with Multispectral Imaging of our collections, so if you come across a text you cannot read, please get in touch to discuss your needs in more detail (email: uml.chicc@manchester.ac.uk).

I should note at this point that these examples are not exhaustive and we are always in the process of developing new techniques.

Trials in image processing have been run on pages from Gaster Hebrew MS 1832. The first step of carrying out any specialist techniques is to produce a high resolution ‘standard’ light photographs. These are the images that you can access in high resolution in our online image collections. Often, close inspection at high resolution enables a reader to decipher more than they can read with the ‘naked eye’.

In this example, the first image shows page 1 recto of Gaster Hebrew MS 1832 in ‘standard’ light. You are able to see that there is some faded text on the page but it is extremely faded in some areas:

Gaster Hebrew MS 1832

Gaster Hebrew MS 1832 1 recto standard image

The second image shows a standard high resolution image which has undergone additional image processing in Photoshop. The image has been inverted to help the text show through in certain areas of the page.

Gaster Hebrew MS 1832

Gaster Hebrew MS 1832 1 recto standard image with processing

The third image shows page 1 recto again, a standard high resolution image which has undergone processing in Photoshop to bring out the most faded central areas of the text.

Gaster Hebrew MS 1832

Gaster Hebrew MS 1832 1 recto standard image with additional processing

Here is a detail from each file type for comparison:

The benefit of this approach is that these results can be achieved without any additional imaging of the manuscript and standard photo manipulation software can be used. In addition, once results have been achieved, these can be batch applied to a set of images for an entire manuscript. The results may not be 100% consistent depending upon the range of damage to each page, but if the results are ‘good enough’ it will save many hours of image processing time.


Our next example shows firstly, page 2 recto of Gaster Hebrew MS 1832 in ‘standard’ light, plus an example of the same image which has been processed in Photoshop:

However, with this example we took several further steps to recover the lost text. In this instance, the manuscript has also been imaged using Multispectral Imaging. We now use a Phase One Achromatic IQ260 digital back, iXr camera body and standard lens combined with Megavision LED lighting panels and a filter wheel to capture 17 images at different points along the electromagnetic spectrum. I have included 2 images here, take at 370nm (UV) with a long pass violet filter, and at 448nm (Deep blue) as these single images give the best results. In the infrared wavelength, the text on this manuscript disappeared completely, which suggests that it is an iron gall based ink.


Using multispectral imaging we are able to take our image processing and textual recovery even further. Using ImageJ software I have combined several of the individual wavelengths to create a ‘pseudocolour’ image. This applies false colours to areas of difference across the page. Note the two images below in colour.

The colour results are not attractive to every eye, especially to the colour blind so can be converted in to greyscale. In the examples here, I have added an additional filter using the Channel Mixer in Photoshop to increase the contrast of the text even further.

Here you can see details of all 8 examples described above, click on the image to flick through each detail.

There are obvious benefits of taking every possible step of image processing to recover as much text as possible. However, there are also drawbacks. The manuscript must be subjected to a second round of digitisation using the Multispectral Imaging system, this is not only time consuming, but for fragile items it also increases the possible risk of damage to the physical item. There is additional time required for the photographer to process the images and store the additional data. Metadata must be produced to accompany the new images and to detail the processing work that has been carried out on the images.

Finally depending upon the nature of the damage to the page, a reader may need to consult a combination of 2 or 3 final processed images in order to read the entire page. Additionally, there must be a flow of communication between the reader/researcher and the person processing the images in order to process the ‘best’ results.

Specialists are currently working on software solutions to allow us to present the data to readers which will allow the reader themselves to combine and ‘play’ with images to suit their needs. We will report on developments in this area when they are available. Until then, we will continue to take a ‘triage’ approach to image recovery, assessing each item against the needs of the researcher to take the right steps to uncover lost texts.


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Spectral Imaging testing at The National Library of Scotland

Combe MS 7382 page 6 in visible light (left) and in UV light (right)

Combe MS 7382 page 6 in visible light (left) and at 365nm UV light with image inverted (right)

On 2nd July the CHICC photographers travelled to Edinburgh for some Multispectral Imaging testing on some George Combe letterbooks at the National Library of Scotland. Francine Millard of the NLS writes:

George Combe (1788-1858) was an Edinburgh lawyer who was among the first converts to phrenology. This was a science which believed that people’s characters could be read from the bumps in their skulls.

The National Library of Scotland holds a remarkable collection of George Combe’s papers from 1804 to 1872. The collection begins with his apprenticeship as a clerk to Writers to the Signet and charts his promotion of phrenology which included co-founding the Edinburgh Phrenological Society in 1820 and the works Elements of Phrenology (1824) and The Constitution of Man (1828). Combe’s outgoing and incoming correspondence document his efforts to spread the causes of phrenology, secular education, and criminal and prison reform.


Combe’s letterbooks contain a large proportion of his replies to his brother, Andrew Combe, who was also a fervent supporter of phrenology, and to those seeking his help and advice both in Britain and America. Combe’s replies were copied by wet letter press copying (or wet-transfer) and some pages in these books have now faded to the point of invisibility.


The National Library of Scotland teamed up with CHICC in July to see if multi-spectral imaging would be able to render Combe’s words visible. These tests would inform the Library on what approach to take to preserve the Combe papers through digitisation.

To find out more, watch this short film of the work in action:

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Digitising Latin MS 113

CHICC recently digitised a beautiful 15th century chronicle roll here at the Rylands.

We decided to make a quick video of us working, showing how we tackle imaging a 20ft parchment roll.

Have a look at the video below, the images can be found on LUNA here.

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Blackburn’s ‘Worthy Citizen’: The Philanthropic Legacy of R.E.Hart

A few weeks ago, CHICC traveled over to the Blackburn Museum to digitise some wonderful manuscripts from the R.E. Hart collection.

The work forms part of a much larger AHRC funded project for an exhibition of parts of the collection at the Senate House Library in London.

Hart 20966, f. 106v, Venetian Book of Hours, c. 1470-80

Hart 20966, f. 106v, Venetian Book of Hours, c. 1470-80

From the project blog:

“On the 1st of May, James Robinson, head photographer of the John Rylands Heritage Imaging group, worked on-site at the Blackburn Museum. The session had been arranged by our team member, Tony Harris, and the specifications for our display needs were agreed between James and Tony. The beauty of the John Rylands expertise, is that all the photography took place at  the Blackburn Museum itself. The manuscripts and incunabulae were therefore spared transportation, and our project was spared that expense. Jamie managed to take sixty photographs over the course of the day, assisted by Vinai Solanki, the curator of the Museum , and myself. The kit which Jamie had with him enabled us to photograph items of great variety in size and shape, from a palm -sized English Book of Hours, to a fold-out fifteenth-century map of Jerusalem that extended to five feet in length. The images will be used on a display screen at the exhibition, to enable the viewers to see more of the manuscripts themselves, and to illustrate our catalogue for the show. Vinai will also use the images to raise the profile of the Hart Collection in the community itself.”

Be sure to follow the blog for progress on the project, and look out for the exhibition opening in November.

Image courtesy of Blackburn Museum

Image courtesy of Blackburn Museum

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CHICC Digitising the Archive of John Henry Cardinal Newman



CHICC are pleased to announce we have begun the digitisation of John Henry Cardinal Newman’s vast archive. The project is a collaboration between ourselves, The National Institute for Newman Studies, in Pittsburgh and Birmingham Oratory where the archive is kept.

A new blog is now live, following the progress of the digitisation project make sure to follow for regular updates!

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Spectral Imaging @CHICC

CLICK for animated gif showing the sequence of the light panels across the spectrum. from UV, through visible to infrared.

Recently at CHICC we have finally begun our tests with our new MegaVision spectral lighting panels. Micheal Toth who has worked on the spectral imaging of the Archimedes palimpsest and other cultural imaging projects joined us for a 2 day workshop. Michael also gave a great presentation to staff about his recent work on the Galen Palimpsest digitisation project, and the importance of creating an online repository for the data. Michael has also been working on an incredible spectral project within St Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai desert, a wonderful in depth article can be found here.

The light panels work through the electromagnetic spectrum, emitting light from 12 different wavelengths, starting off in UV and working through visible into infrared. We removed the IR filter from our Phase One P45+ back to be able to pick up the invisible light. By photographing objects under this lighting system, we are able to see what is essentially hidden, either text under text, water marks, text on pasted down pages and text obscured by damage.

The 12 wavelengths captured; 365nm UV, 455nm Royal Blue, 470nm, Long Blue, 505nm Cyan,535nm Green, 570nm Amber, 625nm Red700nm IR,735nm IR, 780nm IR, 870nm IR, 940nm IR. This is a Coptic palimpsest fragment, which also has burn damage. Even without processing with ImageJ, we are getting visible results.

The 12 images captured  are then processed through open source software ImageJ. This is the more difficult part of the process. The software is incredibly powerful, but it takes time to process the images and create results. We are currently working with image scientist Bill Christens-Barry in the US who will guide us through imageJ, and work on the images we have collected so far.

We tested the system on a variety of different objects from our collections, to test how the lights can help us with different problems. The famous St. Christopher woodcut, to try and bring out the watermark on the pasted down page. The above Coptic Palimpsest fragment, inscriptions in the Gutenberg Bible that have faded, and most effective without processing, carbonised Greek papyrus fragments, that are barely legible, completely when photographed under normal conditions. The below image shows the difference between normal and infrared. Even without processing the images through ImageJ, you can see the text is now clear.

Carbonised Greek Fragment 222 folio 2.

We will be sending our captured images over to Bill who will guide us through the processing. We will have some more conclusive results soon.

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Rehousing Greek Papyri

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Greek 19 & 20 are 2nd and 1st century respectively papyri fragments which had been rendered illegible by surface salt ‘bloom’. The items were required for study by Dr Roberta Mazza, Lecturer in Ancient History in The School of Arts Histories and Cultures. Roberta asked us what could be done to enable study of the pieces (Greek 20 is in 3 parts).

Advice about the reasons behind the salt bloom and apparent high moisture content (moisture droplets were visible on the inside of the glass) was sought from Bridget Leach papyrus conservator at the British Museum.

After consultation a treatment plan was proposed by Collection Care to re-house the fragments.

Prior to the re-housing work taking place, the Imaging Team were approached to see if they could capture images of the moisture and also to see if there was any way the text could be made more legible using digital technology.

The papyri fragments were digitised using the IQ180 and 120mm macro lens to obtain the highest quality images. Using careful focus control, it was possible to clearly see the water droplets as soon as the images appeared on the computer screen. We experimented with the levels and contrast settings and were able to very quickly render the text legible (however it must be noted that these adjustments produce inaccurate colour information).

The papyri were successfully re-housed using techniques used during a separate Arabic papyrus re-housing project.

When the two sheets of old glass were carefully separated the salt bloom remained on the surface of the glass. Samples of the bloom have been taken which will be sent for scientific analysis. We expect it to be sodium chloride. We suspect the high moisture content in the original glazing was probably due to “wet” paste used to adhere the leather strips which were used to seal the edges of the glass.

The fragments were then placed onto a sheet of UV filtered conservation grade glass, the edges of which are lined with 10mm wide acid-free paper of similar thickness to the fragments. This will ensure the glass is not pressing directly onto the fragments.

2mm wide strips of Japanese tissue are used to ‘tag’ the fragments onto the glass using a reversible adhesive.

The sandwich is then sealed around the edges using Tyvek tape and new identifying labels are adhered to the outside of the glass.

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The Teeniest book in the library, is now not the teeniest book in the library….

After last weeks post about the tiny Lords Prayer we have in the library, our head of printed books had to out do that, and buy the tiniest mechanically printed book, in the world!

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The leather bound book takes the art of printing and bookbinding to an entirely new dimension of precision.  Renowned German typographer Joshua Reichert especially created a colourful alphabet for this tiny ABC-picture book, exclusively produced in the traditional book city of Leipzig where the idea was originally born.

Measuring 2.4 x 2.9 mm and presented in a wooden box including a magnifying glass, this is the world’s smallest book in a published edition.

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New ebooktreasures release: The Kelmscott Chaucer

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The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, which took four years to complete, is a masterpiece of book design and is acknowledged widely as the zenith of 19th-century book production. It contains 87 wood-engraved illustrations by the Pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones (1833-98). Burne-Jones worked on the Chaucer designs only on Sundays when Morris, his life-long friend, would visit to talk as he drew. In addition to the Chaucer typeface – a smaller version of the Troy type – Morris himself designed for the book the woodcut title, 14 large borders, 18 different frames and 26 initial words. The text of The Canterbury Tales is based on the Ellesmere manuscript, and the remaining text on Professor Walter William Skeat’s (1835-1912) edition of Chaucer for the OUP.
The Kelmscott Chaucer was completed in June 1896, just months before Morris’s death. This copy –  one of 425 copies  printed on paper – was purchased by Mrs Enriqueta Augustina Rylands (1843-1908), the founder of The John Rylands Library, for her personal collection. The Library also holds one of the 13 copies printed on vellum.
The Kelmscott Press, set-up in 1891 by the designer and craftsman William Morris (1834-96), was the most famous and influential British private press. Inspired by the hand presses of the 15th century, Morris supervised all details of production, including the choice of ink and paper, the design of the type and the use of ornaments and illustration.

An eBookTreasures facsimile edition can now be downloaded from iTunes here.

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The problem with Colour.

Colour is the biggest problem we face when digitising an item. How can an item have true colour representation universally? Not everyone’s monitor is the same, and certainly not everyone’s monitor is calibrated. There are many different ways an image can be altered and corrected to gain true colours. Search for a painting on Google images. How many examples of the same painting appear, but have totally different colours? how about Van Gogh’s sunflowers? Or The Lily Pond by Monet?

Rylands Latin MS 159, Evangelia Metz, a Gospel book from 12th Century Germany. Pictured is St. Matthew

Above is an example of the problems we are coming across when people are ordering images from us. The image on the above right is already in Luna, and was photographed back in 2002 on transparency film. The image on the left, was taken today, using the phase one IQ180, Profoto D1 flash heads, and colour calibrarted in Capture One using an X-Rite Digital SG colour checker. As you can see, there is a dramatic difference in colour.

One of the many advantages of using digital to capture the images, is that we can see on screen, instantly what the image is going to look like. In this case, we were able to hold up the actual manuscript next to the digital image and compare the output.

The old image which is on Luna currently, will be replaced very soon. Any instance of someone ordering an image which has been photographed using transparency will also be replaced.

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