Conservation for digitisation: recent experiences at the Wellcome Library

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By | From the Collections

Repairing torn pages with strips of Japanese tissue.

Beginning in July of this year, the Wellcome Library began to scan the first of some 15,000 early printed books in collaboration with the information provider ProQuest and the French data capture specialists Diadeis (a detailed outline of the project can be found here).

The reason that digitisation is being pursued at the Wellcome Library, and all over the world, is to enhance access to collections and provide new alternative research possibilities. Within reasonable limits, the conservation department is dedicated to ensuring that as many books as possible are digitised. The safety of the collection during these processes is paramount; it is critically important to establish safe working practices from the outset, particularly when using external contractors who are unfamiliar with the collection.

When conserving an object the intention is – as nearly as possible – to maintain for posterity the object’s original attributes. The suitability of each object for digitisation requires a pragmatic approach, taking the particular object’s condition into account.

Consider the following example: In the course of a survey of a batch of books (around 200 per month are surveyed) one was found to have loose covers hanging by a thread, and another a loose spine. Ordinarily both these books would be flagged for conservation and removed from circulation. However, even though it would be inappropriate for these books to reach a reader in their deteriorated condition, they were both included in the digitisation process, and sent on for careful scanning.

Why is this? Because even though the condition of a book may be degraded as a result of both physical (handling) and chemical (acidity) deterioration, paradoxically the deteriorated condition can in some cases actually facilitate the digitisation process. The opening of a book may be easier if the spine is detached; where covers once awkwardly hung by a thread and when handling in this state would cause further damage, the thread can be cut and the boards released to allow for easier imaging of the text block. Covers and spines can of course be repaired after imaging.


In summary, three key points may therefore be highlighted:

  • Prioritising throughput. With good planning, large collections can be safely digitised. As noted above, a pragmatic approach to the condition of the object and stabilizing it in accord with good conservation practice means that most objects can be included in the project. In the end, the online results from digitisation projects at the Wellcome Library have done much to showcase the large volume of work that the conservation department undertakes.
  • Withholding where necessary. While the emphasis has been on facilitating the scanning process where possible, some books may nevertheless need to be withheld. This is often for research reasons, when treatment or other preparation for digitisation will compromise the original attributes of the individual object and thus its research value.
  • Paying attention to possible deterioration during the actual process of digitisation. The Wellcome conservation team maintains a daily dialogue with our scanning contractors to clarify our expectations on book handling, and to learn from them about their equipment and workflow. We have also included training in the use of basic conservation tools and straightforward tasks that save everyone’s time, such as unfolding the corners of pages. With good training and communication, the scanners too can raise conservation concerns and communicate them back to the conservator.


1/ Repairing torn pages with strips of Japanese tissue.
2/ A book before and after conservation.
3/ Imaging a book using an Atiz Bookdrive.

Matt Brack

Matt Brack was Digitisation Project Manager at the Wellcome Library.

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