Researchers use stains to explore the history of centuries-old UI manuscripts

Colleen Theisen, outreach & engagement librarian for UI Special Collections, shows one of the texts that was selected for imaging at the University of Iowa Main Library. Friday, Dec. 15, 2017. — photo by Zak Neumann

With the aid of a high-definition camera and specialized lighting and software, the University of Iowa Main Library is delving into the history of centuries-old manuscripts by examining stains left behind over the years.

The effort is part of the Library of Stains Project, which will visit three other collections across the country to gather data through special multispectral imaging equipment, which will help researchers, conservators, librarians and others understand how the manuscripts were made and used.

“Between the Center for the Book and the university special collections, there is really a rich collection especially of 15th century materials. It is really a global resource here in Iowa City. To be able to support research here is a privilege,” said Michael B. Toth, president of R.B. Toth Associates, which was conducting the imaging.

Michael B. Toth and Alberto Campagnolo demonstrate the camera system used to document books for the Library of Stains Project. Friday, Dec. 15, 2017. — photo by Zak Neumann

On Friday, the researchers were set up in the One Button Studio in the Main Library photographing a copy of Lucan’s Pharsalia, which was written and annotated by 13-year-old Tomas Baldinoctis in 1465. The first leaf of the book is part of the original bindings and was previously written on and then erased. Although the naked eye can see the faint traces of writing, researchers hope that more can be learned from the images produced through the stains project.

“Single leaves and pieces of single leaves wrapped around old texts, they are able to tell us more and more,” said Colleen Theisen, outreach and engagement librarian for UI Special Collections.

Manuscripts with these erased texts are called palimpsests. Because the parchment was so valuable, it was common to scrape or wash off text so the page could be reused. By recovering the erased texts, researchers have sometimes revealed previously lost works.

Through the multispectral imaging process, different colored lights are used to illuminate the pages. Those images are then captured with the camera and processed. The same method used on the books in the UI archive has also been used on the Declaration of Independence and drafts of the Gettysburg Address at the Library of Congress and on manuscripts in St. Catherine’s Monastery in Egypt, the oldest continuously operating library.

Michael B. Toth (R) and Alberto Campagnolo view one of the layered images of an erased Latin text. Friday, Dec. 15, 2017. — photo by Zak Neumann

Toth said that the data gathered will include a variety of different images, some in greyscale, others showing a rainbow of splotches. The different images can be used for different purposes, to answer different questions.

“We really are empowering the researcher because everyone has their own interests,” Toth said. “They may be interested in the stains or the folds rather than the text itself.”

Theisen said that in selecting the manuscripts, Heather Wacha, a researcher with the stains project who received her Ph.D. in medieval history from the UI in 2016, was “looking for dramatic examples of stains, ones that looked like splotches of candlewax or unexplained bits of dirt.” They also snuck in the manuscript with the erased page.

“They are getting all the information they need for the stains project, but meanwhile we get to figure out some mysteries that have intrigued us,” she said.

The data from the stains will take more time to process, but in the meantime, researchers can take a look at the text from the erased page.


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“It used to be that the only thing we knew about some of these works was, for example, that it was a sermon from the 14th century,” Theisen said. “But once a little bit of that work is done and you learn a little more, people get excited and you start learning a little more and a little more more, and suddenly all of this information is brought to light — literally.”

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