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Digitisation of the Roman and Hellenic Societies’ Manuscript Collection

Written by Aaron Fordwoh |

Aaron Fordwoh writes about the processes and discoveries of the digitisation project underway at the Hellenic and Roman Library, funded by the AG Leventis Foundation

I joined the library in June 2019 to undertake the task of digitising a part of the library’s fascinating manuscript collection. Previously these volumes have only been available to view on site and in person, with the manuscripts being housed safely in the library’s rare books room.

The digitisation project encompasses several collections here at the library; most notably the Wood Collection, the Bent Collection and the Societies Tract volumes.

Firstly, the Wood Collection, which contains the diaries, notebooks, sketchbooks and published works of Robert Wood and his colleagues, who journeyed through the eastern Mediterranean in the mid-18th century. Secondly, the Bent Collection, which contains the travel diaries of Mabel and Theodore Bent, who travelled in Greece and the Middle East in the late 19th century. Finally, the Societies Tract Volumes, a collection of tracts and pamphlets bound into volumes.

Before joining the ICS library I had previously held positons completing a mass conservation audit at Sir John Soane’s Museum’s Drawings and Books department, as well as a 6 month placement assisting at The Warburg Institute’s archive department. Both stood me in good stead for the nature of the job as well as the historic area around Russell Square and Bloomsbury.


Image 1


For the vast majority of the time I am using a Bookeye 4 Kiosk book scanner to capture the image data and BCS-2 imaging software to process and format the images once they have been transferred from the scanner. The capabilities of the scanner and image processing software can most easily be seen when looking at the digital image files of Giovanni Battista Borra’s sketchbooks (Volume 13) undertaken with Robert Wood throughout their tour (image 1).


Volcano details
Image 2


Here we can see the amount of detail the scanner can capture. When digitising a volume each page is saved and formatted as a single 600DPI TIFF file, all these files are then collated and converted into a single, readable book format PDF. This particular image comes from a page in Borra’s sketchbook which contains several beautiful pen and ink drawings of Vesuvius. When looking at the higher resolution TIFF file (image 2) we can notice the intricacy of the lines, details in the hatching technique and discern individual washes of ink.


Image 3


Some of the idiosyncrasies of the manuscript collection can also be noticed. One of these can be found in the diaries of James Dawkins (Volume 5) as transcribed by Robert Wood’s daughter (image 3). A method of pagination is used for writing on the recto side for the whole volume then flipping over and writing the other half on the verso side – usually with the script on the verso side becoming smaller and more cramped as it becomes apparent to the transcriber that they are running out of space in each volume. This can pose something of a mind mangling challenge when it comes time to order the pagination in the metadata!


Details from journal
Image 4


Another example of these peculiarities are the small illustrations that appear from time to time in the travel diaries of Mabel Bent (Image 4). It would appear that once she noticed something particularly worth mentioning she would accompany her descriptions with small drawings. These include; a sketch of a maid in the Balkans with a “paraffin can for a mop bucket and bare legs” while staying in a “hideous hotel” (Volume 4), a sketch of a mule with carrying apparatus (Volume 8) and an illustration of a unique method of shaving the hair on one’s head (Volume 8).


Unintended palimpsest
Image 5


Lastly we have an example of an ‘accidental palimpsest’ effect (image 5), whereby it appears some scribble or doodle of a flower has occurred over the top of the final pages of Robert Wood’s notebook containing copies of inscriptions from the tour (Volume 13). Whether this was done by a contemporary of Wood or by an overzealous archival assistant remains unknown.

It has been a real pleasure working with the volumes in these collections, I feel very privileged to be able to work so closely with the material on a day to day basis. I feel even more privileged knowing that this work will be made available for the public to see and pore over the pages as thoroughly as I have. So far the Wood collection has been uploaded and made available on SAS-Space, SAS’s online library, with the Bent and Tract collection following soon. Lastly let me thank the AG Leventis Foundation for their generous funding and the Classical Association for enabling us to extend the project since returning back to Senate House.