A UI team uses medical technology to reveal secrets along the spine
“It was a goose bumps moment,” says Eric Ensley, curator of rare books and maps in Special Collections and Archives at the University of Iowa Libraries.
An interdisciplinary group of UI researchers had just found new layers of history beneath the surface of 16th-century books using medical CT scanning technology. The find: recycled medieval binding fragments, called “binder’s waste,” that came from a Latin Bible dating to the 11th or 12th century.
Now, the group is sharing its discoveries, which confirm that the method is a cost- and time-effective means to recover fragments hidden beneath bindings without damaging a valuable book. The full academic article, “Using computed tomography to recover hidden medieval fragments beneath early modern bindings, first results,” is available in Heritage Science.
The UI Libraries is part of the Iowa Initiative for Scientific Imaging and Conservation of Cultural Artifacts (IISICCA). The group, composed of faculty and staff representing a range of disciplines, has been working since 2021 to learn more about the fragments found in the collections at Special Collections and Archives and the John Martin Rare Book Room in the Hardin Library for the Health Sciences.
The IISICCA’s book spines and fragments project seeks to find new methods to help uncover hidden collections in the UI Libraries and others around the country and the world. Other methods of scanning medieval books face limitations, so the team of UI researchers decided to try CT scanning to see the fragments concealed within their bindings.
The group utilized CT technologies at the University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics and experimented using Special Collections’ copy of Conrad Gessner’s five-volume Historia Animalium. They chose this book, an early printed attempt at a holistic encyclopedia of the world’s animal kingdom, because its binding had already come undone and revealed evidence of binder’s waste.
Ensley; Giselle Simón, university conservator; Susan Walsh, technical director of the Small Animal Imaging Core (SAIC); and Katherine H. Tachau, professor emerita of history at the UI, reflected on their involvement with the project and the impact it has on the field of librarianship and beyond.
Q: What is your role in IISICCA?
Ensley: I’m one of the current co-directors of IISICCA and one of the project leads on the book spines and fragments project. While we often hear it said about some libraries that they “don’t have medieval manuscripts” in their collections, this is often not the case—the manuscripts typically are just hiding. Though other projects around the world have made these types of texts visible, we’re excited that this project makes it cheaper and more easily available for many institutions that lack the ability to purchase expensive equipment.
Simón: As university conservator, my role is to ensure that our collection materials are safe and cared for during the imaging process. It is all about preserving our collections. These materials are greatly affected by temperature and humidity, so when they get transported to a different location, I need to be aware of those factors. I’m also responsible for packing things for transport, making sure that transport is safe and items are insured, and overseeing their use during the imaging process.
Q: What value do you think these IISICCA projects have to your field and beyond?
Ensley: I think they offer a variety of positive impacts. From my perspective as a curator interested in the Middle Ages, our project is among the first that offers a solution to some of the expenses associated with working to recover fragments. I think the second important point is that this sort of work shows what can happen when humanities, sciences, and information professionals work together—we each bring different expertise to the table and think about problems in new ways.
Simón: Conservators are interested in using imaging techniques to inform treatment decisions. If we know chemical makeup, we can make better decisions about what materials we need to use in repairing an item. Imaging techniques also help conservators understand exactly what is causing damage or to determine the best long-term storage needs of an object, whether it be a book or a painting. It’s about knowing the facts about an object’s physicality to help make decisions. I’ll never be an expert in CT scanning, so collaboration with our science colleagues is critical.
Tachau: People have been writing and reading books for three or four thousand years, and most of the time we readers tend to think of a book’s text when we think of the information that the book contains. As material objects made by individual human beings, however, books give us much more knowledge. We were thrilled to see that technology, in this case CT scanning, is revealing there is a lot more information to be learned from the books themselves than merely what is written between its covers. Even if fragments found in books are not lost texts, they still offer glimpses of early forms of writing, clues to where the book was bound or who did the binding, and even hints of ownership.
Walsh: Having non-biological samples to image allows a bit of creativity to be included within the scientific method. This creative step can span answering a simple question as to how to coordinate transportation of the materials with the curator’s oversight to securing the sample while imaging and applying data analysis techniques to the images. Anytime the circle of collaboration is increased, the depth of understanding one’s own field of research deepens.
Q: What have you learned from your on-campus collaborators while working in IISICCA?
Ensley: The number one thing I’ve learned is that we should be asking each other for help more often. Not only do we all have different technical expertise, but we often think about things differently. For example, it may come as a surprise, but when fragments are wrapped around a spine, they’re not flat. So how do we read a fragment that’s not flat? Luckily, one of our researchers immediately compared this to CT scanning a human eyeball—there the CT needs to read the surface of the eye, which is, of course, curved. Our team used software used to help CTs read these curved surfaces to help read our curved fragments.
Simón: It’s great to understand, even just a little, the vastness of types of research that go on here at the UI. I have loved learning about what my colleagues from across campus are doing and what they are passionate about.
Tachau: It’s exciting to learn what technologies are available to bring to light evidence for historians to use that we could not otherwise discover; this evidence allows us to ask (and try to answer) new questions about the past.
Walsh: I remember the day we were using the human-sized CT scanner to scan the three manuscripts. Everyone was crowded around the control console of the CT scanner watching in real time as the data from the bindings was processed. The moment the first letter was visible to the eye and my IISICCA colleagues were able to see their hypothesis become reality was quite special.
Q: What is next?
Ensley: We’ll be continuing to work together. I think this research is a good example of how libraries have a central role to play in “crossing the river” between the humanities and the sciences. In many ways, librarians sit at the center, with some background in scientific inquiry and some background in humanistic inquiry. Here, our collections and knowledge helped inflect the project and create research that will help other libraries across the world better understand their collections and what lies just below the surface.
Simón: The potential for further research of our artifacts using noninvasive techniques is at the core of how it could be of value going forward. As a conservator, this idea speaks to me. Scholars continue to dig deeper, so to speak, to understand the material culture of the book, and the need to investigate the physical object will always be somewhat of a conundrum for preservation. In a library, the book is meant to be used. How can we accommodate that use and also find hidden elements in more investigative ways without doing harm? I think we are on the right track.
Walsh: Taking the long view, having this collaboration provides many avenues of study for students. As this approach to understanding library materials is gaining ground worldwide, it will be a benefit for UI students spanning departments, which is invaluable.
- The IISICCA brings together UI faculty, staff, and researchers from the UI Libraries; Center for the Book; College of Engineering; departments of Art History, Classics, History, Religious Studies; Iowa Institute for Biomedical Imaging; Small Animal Imaging Core; the Iowa Initiative for Artificial Intelligence; and the Stanley Museum of Art.
- Iowa has hosted two international conferences on closely related topics regarding manuscripts: the 2016-18 Mellon-Sawyer seminar and the 2020 “More Than Meets the Eye” Conference.