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Chinese book conservation

Chinese book conservation

Over the past year at the Bodleian I have been working with a small number of Chinese books requiring a variety of conservation treatments. I’m benefitting greatly from the expertise of my colleagues here and have learnt a lot about the materials and structure of Chinese books over the last year. Just up on the Bodleian’s website is a case study I’ve written about this work, complete with diagrams to elucidate some of the key features of such bindings. Please follow the link to read the article! Chinese book conservation

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The role of computer technology in analysing art

Whilst working at the Chester Beatty Library with the astonishing Ruzbihan Qur’an, I spent some time wondering whether there were ways in which computers could assist with our analysis of the manuscript. Some things I wanted to find out seemed almost within reach, and certainly could be done manually, such as checking to see whether the jadval (frame lines) were all exactly the same dimensions on each page. A minor thing, but it might help us to understand whether the same mistara (ruling device – see here for some very clear examples) was used throughout. Equally, I wanted to compare other divisions of the layout on each page – the size of the onvan heading panels, and the size and position of the decorative side panels. Any anomalies might help us to understand if different quires were worked on by different people, or using different tools, or maybe just at different times. However, I’m limited by my own knowledge and skills when it comes to this kind of analysis – I can manually take measurements of each page but the book is over 800 pages long, so it would certainly be laborious, and then I would have to pick out of the measurements those which matched and those which differed. I’m fairly competent in Excel so could find a way to do this, but I felt sure there must be easier ways…

…And of course there are, and already some exciting methods are being exploited to interesting ends in the fields of art history, bibliography, and codicology. Since I began thinking about this many examples have crossed my path, including a paper given at TIMA last year by PhD student Alex Brey, who used the statistical programming language R to look for variations within certain elements of a Seljuk Qur’an: for example, to find differences between the verse markers, which may help to identify the presence of different hands. His research aims to find out exactly the things which most intrigue me about Islamic manuscript workshops – how many people may have been involved with producing a manuscript; how tasks were divided up within the studio; and how (or, indeed whether) a consistent design aesthetic was achieved when undoubtedly more than one artist was involved. Alex’s blog also delves into other areas where technology interacts with art history. This post is a very interesting discussion on whether computer vision algorithms can effectively look for compositional similarities in paintings (and indeed, what benefits exist from training computers to do this).

Image matching software is another area of interest for art historians and scholars, and already has some very exciting applications.  This Ukiyo-e Search website looks for similar prints across multiple online collections, meaning that comparing impressions, colours (and fading) and so on of the same print is exceptionally fast and easy. You can also upload your own photo of a print, and search to find matches. The Broadside Ballads Online from the Bodleian Libraries has a similar function called ‘Image Search’- you can clip an area from one of the digitised ballads, and search to see where else it appears. As woodblocks for these ballads were used over and over again, by gathering together all the similar images we can also start to see how the woodblocks age as wormholes and cracks appear as white gaps in the printed image. There are a couple of very good images of this in this blog post: Of ballads and worms.  The degradation of woodblocks can be instrumental when it comes to dating and analysing print impressions: here is an excellent poster from the University of Oxford Department of Engineering Science’s Visual Geometry Group which demonstrates this, and the role computer aided image-match technology can play in understanding the order in which prints were made. In fact, if you don’t follow any of the other links in this post I would still recommend you look at this one!

Voyeuristic book-making

An author friend of mine Viccy Adams recently prevailed upon me to assist with a creative project at Hack the Barbican. The brief was to use (or ‘hack’) the Barbican’s spaces and facilities to create an installation, so our project book / jacket focused on ‘stealing’ overheard conversations and cctv-style snapshot images (both collected on site), which we then immediately printed out and sewed into little booklets. We hoped the books would be pocketed and slipped into coats and bags, and discovered again later, as a kind of voyeuristic record of a visit to the Barbican.

We wanted to make the booklets appealing and covetable, as well as maintaining an ad-hoc aesthetic in order to reflect their origins as collated material rather than created material. Using a Japanese-style stab sewn binding allowed us to produce these booklets quickly on-site with minimum equipment, whilst having creative input in choosing thread colours and different sewing patterns so each one could be unique. I think this made a really nice contrast between the impersonal ‘found’ images and text inside and the hand-sewn, crafted nature of the sewing. Viccy has written a post about the project too, which includes a very nice slideshow with all the images and text so I recommend having a look.  We were also interviewed by Laura Davidson, who has explained in more detail Viccy’s inspiration and aims for the project.

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Old books in the News

Over the last few months a couple of interesting book-related articles in the Guardian’s pages have caught my eye. A new book about love letters has been published by a curator from the British Library, and there is a wonderful image gallery featuring some of them:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/gallery/2012/feb/14/valentines-day-best-love-letters

My favourite is the one from Henry VIII to Anne Boleyn, which takes the form of a note written in her Book of Hours. The French text reads:  “If you remember my love in your prayers as strongly as I adore you, I shall scarcely be forgotten, for I am yours. Henry Rex forever”. I think this appeals because finding marginalia, doodles and amendments is always interesting and exciting, but seldom do you come across a note of such historical importance.

Henry VIII's love note in Anne Boleyn's Book of Hours

Photograph: British Library Board

However, at the other end of the spectrum I would like to point out that coming across a rude or ridiculous anonymous student comment in a text book after many hours in a silent University Library was always guaranteed to cheer me up no end.

Another photo gallery published by the Guardian features staff and books from Sarajevo’s Gazi Husrav Beg Library. Heritage can play a huge part in rebuilding the culture of a war-torn country by maintaining a sense of identity, history, and offering hope. I am an awe of people who risk their lives to preserve collections for future generations.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/gallery/2012/feb/20/library-sarajevo-in-pictures?INTCMP=SRCH#/?picture=386118087&index=0