A love for historic artifacts and their stories is something that draws many people to the cultural heritage professions, and we at Simpson Library’s Special Collections and University Archives department are no different. When the opportunity arose to work with our local Masonic Lodge (Fredericksburg Lodge No. 4) to digitize one of their rare books, we were excited to be a partner on this important task. Not only was this a rare book, but it also happened to be the 1668 Bible that George Washington and countless other Masons had taken their oaths on hundreds of years ago!
Working with rare books and archival materials is never something we take lightly, whether it is a famous volume or local papers collection. Materials are always assessed by our team to determine if they are suitable for digitization, and that the scanning process will not harm the item. Our first meeting with the Masons included this same assessment, where we took a look at the condition of the Bible and made sure our equipment would be a good match for it. Our initial appraisal determined the Bible was in remarkably good condition for its age and would be a great candidate for digitization.
The process of digitizing the Bible included many steps and the following outline represents a broad overview of the project from beginning to end:
- Project plan. I’ve mentioned the importance of project planning in other posts, so I couldn’t leave it out here! Before we got started with the Bible, we developed a plan as to the file names and file types we would create, image storage, tools we might need, and even where we would store the Bible while it was undergoing digitization.
- Pre-scan photoshoot. We first photographed the Bible with our DSLR to document its pre-scan condition. With these photographs, we could check to see if there were any changes in the state of the Bible as we scanned.
- Scanning. We used our Cobra Rare Book Scanner to gently scan each page. The V-shaped cradle and glass on the Cobra held the book open just enough to capture an image of each page, while also reducing the amount of strain on the binding. The Bible is in great shape, but occasionally tools like a bone folder were needed to help turn delicate pages. The images created were 600 pixels-per-inch TIFF files and they will remain the preservation master files for this project.
- Photoshoot. Following the Cobra scanning, more photographs were taken using the Digital Archiving Lab’s DSLR to capture the Bible as an object, including the covers and binding. Scanning and photographing the four hundred pages of the Bible took about eleven hours distributed over several days.
- Review. At this stage, we browsed through the images to make sure we didn’t skip any pages or have an image in need of re-scan.
- Image processing. While the original TIFF files from the scanning process will remain the unedited, preservation master files, our Digital Archiving Lab Student Aide, Mary Novitsky, created copies and edited all of the scanned images to make sure they were straight and cropped for future facsimile prints. This detail-oriented process doubled the time spent working on this project.
- Batch file renaming. During the digitization process, we often take more than one capture of a page to get the best final product. The extra images are deleted during the editing phase, but this leaves gaps in the file naming structure. Luckily, Mary was able to discover a way to do this efficiently with Adobe Bridge, a digital asset management software application. The process involved selecting the folder of final images and directing the software to save them to a new location with a specified sequential filename.
- Final review. Our last step was a final review of the images. We were so pleased with the way they turned out!
One of the most exciting aspects of digitizing historic books is not knowing what to expect as each page is turned. This Bible proved no exception, as different pages showed early signatures, fold-out maps, and marbled papers as well as torn, stained pages in the midst of clean, whole sections. While we may never know the stories behind the curiosities on these pages, their mysteries inspire us to discover more about the past. Though digital surrogates will never replace an original, they provide an opportunity for more access and insight into historic artifacts. The Special Collections staff were excited to be a part of this successful community digitization project and look forward to our next historic adventure.
Please feel free to get in touch with us at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have questions about this project, or a project of your own!