Going on a Stain Hunt

The imaging schedule for the #Stains Alive project has been set. PIs will soon be welcoming Mike Toth, multispectral imaging expert from R. B. Toth and Associates, to the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Wisconsin – Madison, and the University of Iowa. But before he arrives with his imaging equipment, the first task is to single out interesting-looking stains in our respective collections.


MS 257, f. 110r
University of Wisconsin, Special Collections, MS 257, f. 110r
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University of Pennsylvania, MS Codex 115.

In other words, we’re going on a stain hunt. For us, what makes a stain a possible candidate for imaging is its size, shape, placement on the page, color, and the genre of manuscript in which it appears. Stains found in alchemical texts or book of recipes may not be the same kind of stains that appear in a Bible or literary text. Indeed, a note on the book of remedies at right suggests that the stain is due to “a chemical spilled on the ms by an alchemist.”





IMG_2672Screen Shot 2017-10-18 at 12.36.06 PMInformation about the stains chosen for imaging is catalogued in a spreadsheet, starting with the call number and the folio on which the stain appears. Since a camera will be attached to a copy stand and sit above the manuscript, we also measure the x and y axis of the folio/manuscript, as well as the z axis, i.e. how far the folio comes up from its base. If the stain appears on the recto of a folio, the z axis is measured from the back cover (for those manuscripts written in European languages) up to the folio with the stain. If the stain appears on the verso of a folio, the z axis is measured from the front cover up to the folio. Changing the focus on the camera each time a new stain is placed underneath it takes time, so having an idea of how far the stain sits above the table facilitates streamlining the sequencing of images so that the workflow can be as effective as possible.


MS 170a, Box 1, no. 8
University of Wisconsin, Special Collections, MS 170a, Box 1, no. 8

In between the measuring and the cataloguing of these manuscripts, it’s always nice to step back from measuring and entering data, and momentarily travel back through time to be in the room in which there was the manuscript and the person who accidentally, or perhaps intentionally, left a stain –  a visible physical trace of human interaction that has endured through the centuries and can be studied today with technology like multispectral imaging.


Dirty Old Books

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Free Library Lewis 003, f. 18v.

At some point in your career as a reader of books, you may have accidentally spilled coffee or left a stain on a book you were reading, just like someone did with the book in the image at left. Stains in and on books are usually seen as inconveniences at best and tragedies at worst. The Library of Stains project proposes to focus on these oft-disparaged “dirty” old books and the stains found in them, using them as a tool for gathering scientific data that will provide clues to how previous generations used and stored their reading material.  This project examines a variety of stains found on parchment, paper, and bindings from medieval manuscripts.  The data will provide a new approach for learning about the history of the book, book conservation, the materiality of books, and will offer both scholars and the public an opportunity to engage in the intimate connection between readers and what they read.

The Library of Stains project is conceived broadly as a first foray into providing a fixed dataset for characterized stains that are commonly found on manuscripts, a sound methodology for the replication of gathering and analyzing the data, and a clear explanation for how to implement and use the database as a means to further the study of medieval manuscripts and their conservation. In so doing, the Library of Stains hopes to equip scholars with additional tools for analyzing their manuscripts vis à vis provenance, use, transmission, preservation and materiality.  The project also aims to engage both scholarly and public audiences with the intrigue of studying manuscripts traditionally pushed aside and dismissed due to their “dirty” or “stained” appearances. Contextual information will be provided concerning each manuscript studied in order to elicit public participation in the making and identifying of stains.  If not coffee stains, as humans we are probably all guilty of leaving some sort of stain, perhaps a tear on an old letter, or blood from an accidental cut on a recipe book.  This project will bring together a human audience in order to explore and study the human experience, be that a medieval person’s relationship to a manuscript or how that information relates to our interactions with books today.