Revealing the invisible and inaudible in UCL Special Collections

Adam Gibson, Tabitha Tuckett, Katy Makin, Cerys Jones, Jieran Sun, Melissa Terras

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

Abstract / Description of output

Rare books, manuscripts and archives housed in libraries and institutions are often perceived as invisible to all but a privileged few. Whether this perception is accurate or not, it has begun to be challenged over the last few decades by the powerful combination of digital photography and the internet, which together enable images of some of the most fragile and carefully preserved material to be easily viewed and disseminated. However, the increased visibility of collections is now balanced by a range of advanced imaging techniques addressing what has so far remained invisible in standard digitisation and to the naked eye. This chapter surveys some of these techniques, and how we have used them to attempt to picture otherwise invisible text and materiality in medieval manuscripts and early printed books.
Many libraries and archives now routinely digitise as much of their special collections as resources permit, and copyright and data restrictions allow. One of the reasons they do this is to improve access for readers, who indeed often expect historic material to be accessible digitally. Digitisation allows researchers to access collections without the need to travel, it facilitates linking data so that objects in different collections may be studied together, it offers access for less well-funded researchers, and it can open up collections to new opportunities for outreach and crowdsourcing, including through social media (Terras 2015, 63). Most major collections in the UK now have well-developed digitisation strategies and programmes that are addressing the complex issues of copyright, ownership, metadata, storage, access, increased visitor numbers (resulting from increased online presence), and the impact of photography on the physical originals.
However, advanced imaging and computational techniques that use scientific approaches to reveal further details about objects and artefacts not visible to the naked eye and come under activities now known as Heritage Science, are not yet routinely deployed in this sector, despite these approaches being able to recover otherwise illegible text, detect underwriting or inform conservation practices. This is partly due to limited access to expertise and the high cost: they often require expensive equipment and intensive image processing. It may perhaps also be due to an assumption that the appeal of imaging special collections lies only in transmitting text rather than examining its materiality – an assumption that pervades our language across digital contexts, where we describe the written word and its referent as ‘content’, ‘information’ and ‘data’ rather than using the range of language associated with physical books or manuscripts.
The slow adoption of advanced imaging in Heritage Science is also partly because it is relatively unusual to have the opportunity to carry out sustained, joint approaches to imaging library and archive materials, involving colleagues both from special collections and the growing field of heritage science. Advanced imaging is usually undertaken as part of a multidisciplinary team of imaging scientists and computer scientists, librarians, curators and conservators, and historians and other Humanities scholars (Dillon et al. 2014). The expense, time and broad range of skills required means that it is frequently outside the scope of most libraries and archives.
In this chapter, we describe such a collaboration that brought together imaging scientists based in the UCL Digitisation Suite with staff from UCL Special Collections. The UCL Digitisation Suite is co-located with UCL Special Collections, allowing the close working relationship to develop that is necessary for such projects. The Suite is supported by both UCL Faculty of Engineering and UCL Faculty of Arts and Humanities as well as UCL Library Services and aims to provide a space in which people can learn, research, and experiment with digitisation and Heritage Science technologies.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationPicturing the Invisible
Subtitle of host publicationExploring interdisciplinary synergies from the arts and the sciences
EditorsPaul Coldwell, Ruth M. Morgan
PublisherUCL Press
ISBN (Electronic)9781800081031, 9781800081062 , 9781800081079
ISBN (Print)9781800081055, 9781800081048
Publication statusPublished - 17 Jan 2022


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