And the journey begins

20171106_113058 (1).jpgLast week we all convened in sunny Philadelphia to begin imaging stains from the Chemical Heritage Foundation and Penn Libraries manuscript collections.

With the generous help of Mike Toth from R.B. Toth Associates and Sarah Reidell, Margy E. Meyerson Head of Conservation of the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts, the multispectral imaging system was set-up in a small windowless–i.e. perfect for imaging!–room within the Conservation Studio.

System setup
System setup
setting up a manuscript for imaging
Alberto Campagnolo and Sarah Reidell carefully setting up a manuscript for imaging
Heather Wacha, Erin Connelly, and Alberto Campagnolo setting up a manuscript

Over the course of two intense days we imaged stains from the pages and covers of fourteen manuscripts ranging from the 13th to the 16th century, thus beginning to build our dataset of stains. The manuscripts include nine alchemy texts from the Othmer collection, Chemical Heritage Foundation (Othmer MS 1 pictured below) and five medical texts from the Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies and Penn Libraries collection.

We used a Phase One IQ260 Achromatic camera, a 60 megapixel 16-bit monochrome digital back with 8964 x 6716 pixel CCD array at 6.0 micron pixel size, with an iXR body and 80mm lens producing 675 ppi resolution images. The special illumination necessary for multi-spectral imaging was provided by a third-generation LED light system designed by Dr. William (Bill) Christens-Barry of Equipoise Imaging that produces very specific and narrow bands of illumination, ranging from ultraviolet light (370nm) to the near infrared (940nm).1 Because of the nature of the project, we also utilized long-pass green and red filters to detect fluorescence energy: the filters remove the illumination wavelength, but let through longer fluorescence emission that can be recorded in the captured image, thus allowing the characteristic spectra of substrate, colourant, or contaminant substances to be more completely determined and analyzed.
The camera-light-filter system is integrated within a software that simplifies the operation and records unified metadata at each step.

The result of the imaging is a sequence of photographs, one for each  different illumination and filter setting, as it can be seen below.

Image stack
Example of image stack for Left cover of Othmer 1, CHF
2017-11-16_16h56_46 (
Animation of image stack for Left cover of Othmer 1, CHF

Different materials react differently to each wavelength, and details that are not visible in natural light begin to appear and be clearly noticeable. Notice, for example, how the stain in the cover above appears and disappears, depending on the illumination.
One detail of particular interest is a writing in the upper part of the cover that was almost invisible to the naked eye, but that becomes immediately distinguishable and readable under infrared light (see detail images below).

Writing on Left cover of Othmer 1 (CHF)
Detail of writing on Left cover of Othmer 1 (CHF)

Capturing the photographs (and managing the metadata) is only the first step. For a deeper understanding of the data recorded and the variety of material responses to the different wavelengths, one needs to process the stack of images and analyze the data through statistical algorithms capable of simplifying it and of finding patterns in it.
This kind of analysis, thanks to colour reference cards positioned in the scene, can also reconstruct colour images, despite the fact that the camera is achromatic, i.e. agnostic to colour information (see below).

Reconstructed colour photograph of Othmer 1 (CHF)
Reconstructed colour photograph of Othmer 1 (CHF)

One output than can prove particularly useful in distinguishing different components — i.e. materials reacting in different ways under the different lights — is a false colour image, where different components are assigned an arbitrary colour to help discerning similar and dissimilar light responses.

False colour detail of Othmer 1 (CHF)
False colour detail of Othmer 1 (CHF)

It is through this kind of data analysis that we’ll try to distinguish and characterize stains in the coming months.

We thank Mike Toth, Bill Christens-Barry, James (Jim) Voelkel, William (Will) Noel, Doug Emery, and Sarah Reidell and everyone else involved with our imaging session at the University of Pennsylvania for their help and support.
We thank CLIR for their constant assistance (above and beyond financial support) and encouragement.

The team
The team: (from the top left) Erin Connelly, Mike Toth, Bill Christens-Barry, Heather Wacha, Alberto Campagnolo

1. We imaged at: 370nm (UV); 448nm (deep blue); 476nm (blue); 499nm (cyan); 519nm (green); 598nm (amber); 636nm (red); 740nm (IR1); 850nm (IR2); 940nm (IR3). UV in italics, visible light in roman characters, and infrared frequencies in bold.


‘A Boke of Practyk:’ Stains of Medicine and Alchemy

Chemical Heritage Foundation, Othmer MS 2, fol. 41r

Many of the most interesting manuscript stains are found in the bindings and folios of soiled, heavily-used medical and alchemical texts. The Middle English quote in the title of this post comes from the introduction of a stained fifteenth-century medical text, Lylye of Medicynes (Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Ashmole 1505, fol. 4r). This self-described ‘boke of practyk’ reflects the scientific content of these texts and their subsequent use for practical purposes by medical practitioners or alchemists. Signs of this practical use may be obvious, such as burn marks from furnaces, but innocuous-looking stains (e.g. appearing to be water damage) may contain hidden information about medicinal or chemical solutions, or even heavy metal contamination, which is not evident by sight alone. This is the kind of data we will be looking for through multi-spectral imaging of these stains.

Recipes to kill parasitic worms added to the treatise 'De coloribus urinae,' UPenn MS. Codex 133, 16th c.
Recipes to kill parasitic worms, ‘De coloribus urinae,’ University of Pennsylvania, MS Codex 133


The majority of manuscripts identified as potential candidates for stain analysis in this project have never been accessible in either print or digitized formats. This is especially true of medical and alchemical texts, which are often less well-known than medieval literary works and less ‘beautiful’ than the illuminated and decorated texts commonly regarded as world treasures. The analysis of these manuscripts will provide truly novel data particular to the specific object, but also foundational to the examination of similar manuscripts in the future.

Soiled alchemical text, Chemical Heritage Foundation, Othmer MS 2, fol. 63r

We will be examining a range of scientific manuscripts across our partner institutions. Specifically, we are fortunate to be partnering with The Othmer Library of Chemical History at the Chemical Heritage Foundation, which houses over 140,000 objects relevant to chemical history, including an invaluable collection of medieval alchemy manuscripts. Until recently (through the work of the Bibliotheca Philadelphiensis project, 2016 – 2019), these manuscripts were undigitized and many have never had a printed edition.

Alchemy texts in particular are often known as ‘books of secrets’ both in medieval and modern language. The novel data contained in the stains of these alchemical texts will not only reveal interesting information about the history of the book and its practical use, but it will help researchers who will be touching and interacting with the physical object. We envision that scholarly audiences will use our data and methodology to advance knowledge into the provenance of manuscripts, their uses within a historical context, their working environment, their transmission, and their circulation. For conservators and librarians new information will help determine proper storage conditions, as well as health and safety issues, in particular the identification of heavy metal or chemical contamination in alchemical manuscripts.