Conservation for Digitization at the Bodleian

The Bodleian's Book Team have been carrying out repairs in support of the Polonsky digitisation project. Although the resources of the team cannot stretch to repairing more than a tiny fraction of the books that are to be digitised, some volumes require treatment to enable safe handling, to prevent further damage, or to ensure that as much of the text as possible will be captured in the shot. Several of the highest-profile books on the list required repair before they could be safely photographed. Here you can see before and after images of the repair on MS. Laud Gr. 35, the Laudian Acts of the Apostles, which is Oxford’s most important Biblical manuscript.


MS. Laud Gr. 35: before


The first leaf was almost completely detached, and the leaf was distorted and had pleats and creases that obscured the text. We relaxed the creases and straightened the leaf using a 50% mixture of isopropanol and water. While the water served to soften the crease, the isopropanol helped to evaporate it as quickly as possible, as parchment is very sensitive to moisture.


Once the leaf had been straightened, it was time to repair and reattach it. The Bodleian follows the conservation principle of like-for-like, repairing skin-based materials with protein-based adhesive and skin repair patches, and repairing damaged paper with paper patches and starch-based adhesive. Because the leaves in this manuscript are made of parchment, we repaired the torn leaf using tiny tabs of calfskin parchment adhered with a gelatine solution.


MS. Laud Gr. 35: after


With the repair completed, the hidden text is revealed and the leaf is restored, enabling safe photography. As this book is a Library treasure, it is likely to be in demand for consultation, display, and exhibition in the future, so it was easy to justify its repair at this time.



Another book on the launch list is Douce 244, an early printed Italian Bible in a beautiful 19th-century gold-tooled binding that had a detached board.


Douce 244: before


Traditional methods for reattaching boards involve lifting the leather of the boards and spine using a lifting knife and then gluing a new piece of leather underneath to repair the joint. This technique works well with thick leathers and coverings, but with thin, polished, or decorated leather the process of lifting and the insertion of new leather underneath breaks up the surface and disfigures the decoration. For this repair, we used an alternative process called board-slotting, in which a milling machine is used to cut a slot along the length of the edge of the board. A piece of colour-toned linen is then inserted into the slot, which also forms the spine repair, without lifting the leather of the pastedown. This repair is strong yet almost invisible.


Douce 244: spine


As you can see, the board has been reattached without disturbing the covering leather or the decorative turn-ins.


Douce 244: after


This repair took about a day to complete. 


There are many books with loose or detached boards in the digitisation project, and we certainly cannot repair them all. But where books are suitable to be put through existing streams of repair, such as our board-slotting programme (which processes about 92 books a year, mostly from the Bodleian's printed pamphlets programme), we can make a cost-effective treatment with a significant impact on the welfare of the collections.