Christ Church and the Wonderland of Digitisation

The importance and benefits of digitisation to teaching, research and conservation have become increasingly obvious, especially now, with collections more and more difficult to visit directly.  In this context, the ability to access material, 24 hours a day, via a rapidly growing Digital Library, is essential. For close to 10 years, Christ Church has been engaged in a concerted effort to make its vast and extraordinary collections available to users all around the world. In the last few months we have digitised quite a few exciting items.

Among the manuscripts recently made available on Digital Bodleian and Christ Church Digital Library are: MS 114, MS 131, MS 133, MS 150, MS 153, MS 346, 156, MS Allestree M.3.1 and the Donors Book-LR 1, in the Western Manuscripts Collection. MS 185, MS 186, MS 191, MS 192 and MS 194, in the Hebrew Manuscripts Collection. Mus 16, Mus 49, Mus 1034A and 1034B, in the Music Collection. And from among the rare or unique Early Printed Books, Hyp D.64/2, f.4.54, OR.1.4 and Z.307/7 have also been digitised.  

However, the best news in so far as this brief report is concerned, is that much more is in the pipeline. 20 more manuscripts are currently at the Bodleian to be migrated on to the online viewer.

Providing this level of access to readers does not come without its costs. The expertise we are fortunate to benefit from and the equipment in use for this particular project are world-class. For a glimpse into what the digitisation process entails, see the piece below, written by the in-house photographic specialist, my colleague Alina Nachescu.

From Alice to the Wonderland of Digitisation

When the Victorian mathematician and author Charles Dodgson photographed Alice Liddell, he captured a moment in the life of a little girl who inspired him to put to paper a story that would make them both well-known all around the world. A portrait that would seize her image in time, keeping her forever a child in the collective imagination of the readers of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, and its sequel Through the Looking-Glass.

One and a half centuries later, in Christ Church Library, the very place where Dodgson would oversee the Deanery Garden where Alice was playing with her sisters from the window of his office, a totally different kind of photography is being carried out. Second only to the Bodleian Library in terms of the quality of the equipment used and number of images produced, Christ Church Library’s photographic studio is nowadays digitising priceless treasures. The studio and process of digitisation were initiated thanks to the College's assistance and due to the vision and support of a generous benefactor and friend of the Library to whom we are immensely grateful. It is not hard to imagine then the reason I consider myself one of the luckiest people in the world to work here.

The process is time-consuming and expensive. The “Grazer cradle”, a highly complex system, is “holding” the book to be photographed. “Hosting” might be a better way to define the way volumes are held in place on this rather spectacular looking “conservation book support” made in Graz, Austria. Constructed specifically to enable us to protect manuscripts and rare books when digitising them, the cradle is made up of mobile parts that can move up and down, allowing the book to be opened just as much as the spine permits it. A vacuum bar keeps the edge of the page in place, with minimal strain. The focus of the Phase One Camera is achieved by using a laser beam. The Capture One image software is very complex, enabling us to process the very high quality raw images taken with the camera. Once processed and saved both as TIFF and JPEG files, the images are then sent to the Bodleian Library to be migrated on the Digital.Bodleian platform. And from that moment on, a new journey begins for each and every document. They are all offered free of charge so that scholars and the general public alike can see and study them in great detail.

Thus, like the Victorian image of Alice which immortalised a glimpse in a girl's life, digitised books and manuscripts will continue to open doors to moments in time, bringing back to life rich layers of cultural and historical heritage, disseminating them all over the world at a click of a button.

Alina Nachescu
Photographic and Special Collections Assistant

* For other news related to Special Collections, please go the library Exhibitions and Events.
* To see the library holdings digitised so far, please go to Christ Church Digital Library.
* For details regarding the Digitisation project at Christ Church, please contact Dr Cristina Neagu, Keeper of Special Collections.