Digitisation and Inserts

Digitisation programmes can provide the rare opportunity to assess collection material item by item, page by page. Even readers and researchers, who may well consult a volume extensively, are unlikely to scrutinise every single page of a volume in its entirety. Working as the National Library of Scotland digitisation conservator allows me to condition assess and repair material to make sure it is ready for its close up. Turning every page to digitally capture each one requires great amounts of concentration and care by our digitisation teams. Sometimes things are discovered that you don’t expect to see which can provide some variety to the painstaking task in hand.

Loose inserted material appears with some regularity in library volumes and commonly includes newspaper clippings, manuscript letters and other ephemera including pressed flowers. These additions may relate to the content within the volume such as a scrap of annotation on the text, though often things were simply inserted as a convenient place to store them. The truth is we may never know exactly why these inserts are there but they are always preserved as they may provide key insights for future research.

Inserts and inclusions are treated by the collections care team by housing within inert polyester or Melinex sleeves and stored with the volume in an archival box to prevent loss. This provides protection to both book and insert and halts any cross-contamination of chemical or biological decay and degradation. Volumes with fold outs or inclusions as an integral part of the volume can provide handling issues for readers and certainly provide our digitisation teams with challenges in capturing a shot with the fold out in place. Risks are minimised through careful capture and bespoke cradles are used to support awkward bindings that fall outside our standard support systems. In some cases, a conservator will sit with the digitisation team and assist with the handling during the capture process.


Sometimes we stumble across something a little more unusual. A lock of hair was recently found in a volume during one of our mass digitisation projects. Tucked away in a volume titled ‘The Devil’s Playground’, this discovery is a spooky find and a reminder of the varied histories of our collections before their arrival at the Library.

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Also recently found was a volume with ‘interactive’ illustrations; images had been overlaid to give the Illusion of motion or distortion. The chapter was on optical illusions and images had been hinged over one another to allow turning to animate them like a flick book. Digitisation of these will require a capture of the page as it is, followed by a capture of the page with the illustration manipulated to bring it to life.

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Editorial inserts are not uncommon in volumes, particularly religious or political texts. Scraps of paper inserted or pasted over pages providing editorial comment or reader (dis)agreements with content can highlight historical opinions and provide an interesting insight into socio/political views through the ages. Recently found was this extensively defaced volume where manuscript slips have been inserted through cuts to pages in the text-block. The culprit had sliced uniform cuts in the first 20 pages of the text, threaded annotated slips through these cuts and notched corresponding tabs in the slips to prevent them from falling out. The reason for this approach is unclear and confusing as the slips appear to bear no relation to the text they are covering and even the manuscript text on the slips themselves is partially illegible and has been cut through. What these are for and why these are there remains a mystery, but the slips themselves of course pose a difficulty for easy digital capture. In this instance we will capture each page as it is, and then carefully remove each slip and capture the same page again unobscured.

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Perhaps it’s worth thinking next time you absentmindedly tuck a shopping list into your novel; you may inadvertently provide a conundrum for the future!