There has been a long history of creating photographic surrogates of collections at The John Rylands Library since its imaging service was established in 1911. The excitement at this new prospect, as detailed in the minutes of the library’s annual report for that year, seems as relevant to our current digital revolutions as they were to the analogue ones (Figure 1):

a photograph of the passage […] was at once more trustworthy and more acceptable than the best hand-made transcript could possibly be. In this way the value of the treasures of the library is greatly enhanced for purposes of research, since they are made much more readily accessible to scholars at a distance, and there can be little doubt that this new department is fraught with possibilities of world-wide benefit.

That same department has existed in one form or another for the past 105 years. In 2005, a new era of digital capture brought with it a change in momentum, change in scale and change in policy. As the department continues to develop, there is little doubt that it is once again “fraught with possibility”.

This chapter will discuss the uses, benefits and risks of DIY digitization by researchers in special collections reading rooms, in contrast with professional heritage imaging. Exploring the characteristics of these practices will enable us to understand the spaces that each practice inhabits, where the two practices overlap and opportunities for collaboration. A DIY approach is also adopted in the professional heritage imaging department in developing new techniques for research. This research spans the two spheres of developing photographic practice and scholarly research within Digital Humanities. One solution will not fit all in the burgeoning field of Digital Humanities; a broad understanding of both research questions and digital interrogation techniques will provide new opportunities for multi-disciplinary collaboration.

The uses and benefits of DIY digitization in reading rooms are broad. These new research practices are dynamic and will continue to change with the world around them. Policy change allowed cameras in to reading rooms and developments in technology have in turn influenced policy. Cameras are no longer always bulky items; they can nestle amongst a variety of other note taking devices, in mobile phones, tablets and laptops. These devices are already connected to the World Wide Web, so policy which does not allow these images to be shared is easily ignored and, perhaps, becomes void. As the policy changes so does the relationship between researcher, collection, institution and public. This is something to consider in more detail.

In what ways are researchers using photography in reading rooms and what are the new benefits to their research practice? Researchers create digital facsimiles; it is faster to photograph an item than it is to actually read it. With dwindling budgets researchers have less resources—time among them—to spend on research trips and must make the most of their opportunities to visit reading rooms. Many researchers have created huge personal digital image collections whilst in reading rooms and take the time to read from their collections later. Some items are easier to read on screen from a digital image than they are in physical form; small text can be enlarged and very large items, such as maps, can be reduced to digestible chunks. Photographs are visual notes: they may act as a map of a page reminding a reader about a placement of an illustration; they can demonstrate how a book was bound; a photograph of a watermark is evidence of when and where the paper was produced. Visual notes allow researchers to easily make comparisons between items they have seen in different institutions in different parts of the world. This practice enables researchers to share their findings easily with their peers, promoting access and resource discovery amongst specialist networks. Finally, although I am sure that there is a wealth of uses and practices that I have so far omitted, researchers may use photographs to communicate exactly what they need from professional heritage photographers in an imaging service.

It should be noted, however, that the benefits of DIY digitization do not come without risks. Firstly, there could be a risk to the condition of the collection. Reading rooms that allow photography must equip readers with the skills and support to safely handle all types of item in their collections. It is not only practical equipment, from support foams to book snakes, which readers require but also practical support in terms of advice and information. Diligent invigilation is key to ensure that readers feel comfortable and able to ask for support and advice but also to ensure that only suitable photographic practices are being undertaken. It must be noted that even with the right support, reading rooms conditions rarely present optimum spaces for photography, which can result in compromised images and so present unreliable research data. Secondly, there is a risk for researchers in producing high numbers of non-managed images. Non-managed images which do not contain metadata require supporting notes to identify the reference and page numbers and countless other details about the items that have been photographed. Unmanaged images have no quality assurance and so professional measures of scale, colour and resolution are non-existent. There is currently no managed repository for these images to be added to. The creation of such a repository would be fraught with difficulties if institutionally managed; the alternative is that the images remain closed-access, available only to individual researchers, or are shared informally within relatively small networks. Finally, ownership is a complex and multi-faceted issue with any digital surrogate produced. As reading rooms open up the possibility of sharing images produced using DIY digitization, the responsibility not to breach copyright, intellectual property rights and data protection falls to the individual. The issue becomes more complex if the results of DIY digitization are added to privately owned social media platforms.

There is a pronounced contrast of DIY digitization to professional heritage imaging. This contrast presents itself in three key areas: managed collections, managed risk and research for new discoveries.

The successful provision of managed collections requires expertise from a mixed team of professionals with a wide gamut of skills. Strategy for digitization is written and informed by expertise from a broad range of library professionals, such as curators, conservators, reading room staff and academics to ensure it meets the needs of all audiences. Professional photographers and cataloguers create the data and upload it to managed systems, with crucial support and guidance from IT, systems and management staff. Finally, communications and engagement experts direct people towards the collections to promote wider access. This team works holistically to deliver a range of services which underpin large digital image collections.

The production of managed collections begins with a strategy for what should be digitized and why. This may be based upon regular physical use in the reading room, regular requests for remote access, or for teaching and research purposes. A strategy which contains a significant “on-demand” element ensures that collections are audience-focused and the data produced is actively used. Secondly, the images and metadata produced meet recognized professional standards, which provide not only a baseline for quality but also, crucially, facilitate access, discoverability and inter-operability. Image standards include consistently high resolution, capturing the best image quality possible at the time in order to safeguard the longevity and flexibility of of the data. Consistency in the use of file formats similarly supports digital preservation. This also helps to reduce repeated handling of the physical collections as images are flexible enough to meet a range of requirements. The inclusion of scale and colour controls aim to communicate accurate information about the physicality and materiality of the object. Additional details of image production such as focus, lighting, lens cast, quality control and file naming are built in to the workflow of a professional imaging service. International metadata standards provide consistency, leading to an improved search and discovery experience. Using recognized schemata for metadata ensures that it can be easily transferred, linked, and re-used. Finally, big data sets require management in an appropriate system or repository, which not only allows the data to be curated and updated but also permits managed access. Digital asset management systems allow institutions to ensure that they are able to grant access to their collections but also maintain custodial and legal terms and conditions in line with deposit and donation agreements, such as Copyright, Intellectual Property Rights and Data Protection. A managed system or set of collections, rather than an individual DIY approach, also offers many more opportunities for reuse and Open Access. As we move in to the second age of Digital Humanities, researchers are looking beyond making the physical digital and are devising new ways of interrogating digital and digitized collections. A managed approach also provides new opportunities for students and the general public to contribute to collections in a meaningful way, for example producing metadata for and transcriptions of digitized collections as part of coursework. It allows for further public engagement through crowd-sourcing and tagging.

Risk management is something which must be taken in to consideration in any digitization activity. Professional heritage photographers are trained in advanced handling techniques and work closely with conservators. An object-focused approach challenges photographers to think a little harder about how to successfully capture the image required, whilst mitigating possible risks to the object. As DIY digitization becomes more standard in reading rooms, the risk to the physical object is something which needs to be managed carefully. A joined-up approach to strategic collection management will ensure that high-use items are made accessible within constraints of individual preservation plans. It should also be noted that risk is also posed to digital collections without robust preservation plans. As already noted, large sets of data which contain no metadata can easily become redundant; file formats must remain current and storage for long-term preservation of digital files can become costly.

In addition to the benefits of a managed provision of digital collections, collaboration between researcher and specialists in imaging can provide fruitful results and, in some cases, the development of new techniques. The journey to developing new digitization techniques at The John Rylands Library began when a collection of uncatalogued glass plate negatives was discovered in its cellars. The plates provided no means to identify the collection or what they related to and it was not possible to read the images themselves as they exist only in negative form. The photographers set about designing a way to realize a positive, digital version of the images. This was done by adapting a floating glass support method of digitising glass-mounted papyri (Figure 2) along with the use of conservation foams to block out unwanted light. This DIY method protects the delicate photo emulsion from overexposure to the heat and light that it would be exposed to on a conventional flatbed scanner. Once digitized, the collection was subsequently identified using evidence of the provenance of the collection found in the positive digital images; it can now be identified as the Langford Brooke Photography Collection (Figure 3).

Further technical investigations were driven by researchers discussing inadequate digitization practice, such as lighting techniques which did not pick up gold reflections on manuscript pages. The dull, brown-yellow colour produced by flat copy lighting techniques could easily result in gold detailing being overlooked. Experiments were carried out in the photography studio which resulted in recommended standard lighting set-ups for capturing gold detailing whilst still providing an acceptable colour representation of the rest of the page (Figure 4). During the investigations into lighting techniques, some interesting results were captured including details of pigment degradation not visually realized before using standard high-resolution photography. Areas of pigment cracking and pigment loss became immediately noticeable as detailed areas of white highlighting that seemed to appear and disappear depending up on the lighting technique applied (Figure 5). These applications and results have been documented and can now be used to assist conservators carrying out pigment consolidation in manuscripts, reducing the time that the manuscript—and conservators’ eyes—must be subjected to study with the microscope.

These techniques were not only useful for gold on flat manuscript pages, but could also be applied to luxurious, sculptural gold and ivory bindings such as the Rylands Trier Binding 17 (Figure 6 and 7). These DIY lighting techniques, using only standard photographic lighting equipment, not only create more visually appealing images but also demonstrate the characteristics of the materials that they are made from in a more sophisticated manner. Furthermore, techniques have been fostered to investigate and identify early examples of printing with gold in a collaboration with the British Museum by Elizabeth Savage and the Rylands Heritage Imaging team.[1] In this example photomacrographs and gold lighting techniques were employed to prove a theory developed by observation under microscope. The resulting photographs produce vital evidence to successfully identify some of the earliest known examples of gold printing.

Development of DIY digitization techniques has gone beyond standard high-resolution photography and in 2012 we entered the realms of imaging science. The development of multispectral imaging using LED panels in the heritage sector began with the Archimedes Palimpsest Project.[2] The team used a specially designed and built multispectral imaging camera to capture high-resolution digital images at different points along the electromagnetic spectrum, guided by the wavelength-specific LED lights, from ultraviolet to near infrared.[3] This technology, combined with image processing software and techniques borrowed from medical imaging practices, allowed scientists to recover erased texts in palimpsest manuscripts using non-invasive methods. The Heritage Imaging Team at The John Rylands Library were keen to acquire this new technology, in order to trial the methods in a photography studio environment rather than an imaging laboratory.

The Heritage Imaging team were successful in securing funding for the LED light panels. Rather than investing an even larger sum in the additional multispectral imaging camera, however, the photographers were keen to see if it was possible to convert one of their existing digital camera backs. Further research and risk assessments ensued and the team trialled this DIY approach on a decommissioned digital back, a Phase One p45+, by removing the infrared cut-off filter (Figure 8). This was a measured approach to risk, providing the opportunity to test the possibilities of this technology for our collections and measure the benefits to researchers before investing heavily in the system financially. The experiment was successful and with some additional clever software fixes, the photography studio became a fully functioning multispectral imaging unit, fraught with possibilities for worldwide benefit.

As with all things technological, systems and software continue to develop and the multispectral imaging unit at The John Rylands Library has become more sophisticated over the past four years. The transatlantic collaboration with R.B. Toth Associates of the Archimedes Palimpsest Project has continued with frequent training and knowledge exchange sessions to develop the photographers’ skills and to facilitate practical software developments.[4] Following success with the Phase One system, R.B. Toth Associates have negotiated with the camera manufacturers to cooperate in developing software to produce a truly integrated system.

Developments in technology are all well and good but only really useful, in this context, if they are working to answer pertinent research questions. In 2013, the John Rylands Research Institute was established to take research into new and uncharted territories. The Arts Lab is a unique partnership between the University of Manchester Library and the Faculty of Humanities to conduct new research into the University of Manchester’s Special Collections.[5] The mission of the institute is to reveal hidden ideas and knowledge of the Special Collections and share their meaning with the world. Multispectral imaging, among other imaging techniques, plays a key role in this mission.

A papyrus manuscript charm, acquired by the John Rylands Library in 1901, was identified in 2014 as the first known “reference to the Last Supper and use magic in the Christian context” by Dr. Roberta Mazza, the first Fellow of the John Rylands Research Institute, using a combined application of methods.[6] Mazza used a combination of papyrological and scientific methods (carbon dating and multispectral imaging) to decipher and interpret the text. One side of the papyrus contained a legible Christian amulet but the other side was illegible to the naked eye (Figure 9). Through multispectral imaging (Figure 10) the text was recovered and this led to the discovery of the original provenance of the manuscript.

In the Arts Lab, combined application of practice is the basis for successful new research in many areas. Collaborations take place not only between established academics and librarians but also—in this example—undergraduate MA Physics students and photographers. Rylands Greek 465 was identified as a palimpsest and multispectral images were captured by photographers. MA Physics students from the Photon Institute then worked with the data to reveal the hidden text (Figure 11), as part of their coursework.[7] The resulting texts have been shared amongst our academic networks, with a Coptic specialist in Australia, who is working on deciphering the under-text.

Multispectral imaging has many applications beyond text recovery including revealing under-paintings, watermarks and forgeries. Multispectral imaging data can be used to create spectral profiles, which can scientifically measure and identify pigments, inks, fading and degradation. This provides new avenues of research but also provides opportunity for in-depth preservation plans for at-risk collections. Most excitingly of all, these developments suggest that there may be further potential applications for these techniques which we are yet to devise. Each researcher will bring with them new questions; we will continue to collaborate to develop new ways to answer them.

Collaboration is at the heart of any successful Digital Humanities practice; not all methods will be sustainable or successful as DIY projects. As libraries build their digital collections and resources, it becomes clear that opportunities for collaboration appear at many levels. We have already discussed the issues around access to individuals’ personal digital collections, rather than managed public collections. The same principles apply with restrictive platforms and interfaces used to deliver these public digital collections; whilst publicly accessible, resources often exist locked-in to the platform in which they are delivered. Initiatives such as the International Image Interoperability Framework (IIIF) seek to develop and promote joined-up technologies and frameworks for image delivery. This will allow researchers to view, compare, manipulate and annotate images from different institutions within one platform. Other initiatives, such as OPenn from the Univeristy of Pennsylvania, seek to create collaborative image collections of Open Access data (both metadata and images) from a range of contributing institutions. One of the challenges which face libraries is the development of user-focused, dynamic viewing platforms which are capable of displaying the range of data available to the researcher within this context; this becomes even more complex when scientific data is taken in to consideration.

It has become clear that there can be great value in a “Do It Yourself” approach, whether carried out by researchers in reading rooms or photographers in a studio. DIY allows new methods to be tested, theories formed and occasionally errors to be made and learned from. Whilst the benefits of DIY work remain relatively local, however, a collaborative approach provides the opportunity for much farther reaching success and pushes the boundaries of new discovery. In the example of the John Rylands Research Institute Arts Lab, the exchange between researcher and photographer is key. The researcher’s question cannot be answered without the photographer’s solution; the photographer cannot develop a solution without a question.

In a changing world, institutions must make space for new research questions and new research methods but also build upon the firm foundations of expertise and skills. Regular re-evaluation of the relationship between policy, technology, research and preservation needs will not only provide the space for development of new working methods but also garner those crucial new discoveries.


Figure 1: extract from minutes of the annual report of The John Rylands Library (1911). Photo by University of Manchester. © University of Manchester.

Figure 2: image of digitization set-up for glass plate negatives (2014). Photo by University of Manchester. © University of Manchester.

Figure 3: image from Langford Brooke Photography Collection (c. 1912). Photo by University of Manchester. © University of Manchester.



Figure 4: Rylands Persian MS 6 with gold lighting technique, revealing shiny gold. Photo by University of Manchester. © University of Manchester.


Figure 5: Rylands Persian MS 6 with bounced raking lighting technique, revealing cracked pigments. Photo by University of Manchester. © University of Manchester.



Figure 6: showing “good” high-resolution photograph of Rylands Trier Binding 17 (s.x–xiii). Photo by University of Manchester. © University of Manchester.

Figure 7: showing “better” high-resolution photograph, captured using gold lighting techniques, of Rylands Trier Binding 17. Photo by University of Manchester. © University of Manchester.


Figure 8: photographer James Robinson removing infrared filter from p45+ Phase One digital back. Photo by University of Manchester. © University of Manchester.


Figure 9: Rylands Greek Add 1166 verso, standard lighting image showing faded text. Photo by University of Manchester. © University of Manchester.

Figure 10: Rylands Greek Add 1166 verso, multispectral image showing recovered faded text. Photo by University of Manchester. © University of Manchester.



Figure 11: Rylands Greek 465 verso, standard lighting image; multispectral image showing both over-text and under-text in UV light at 365nm; multispectral image showing both over-text only in infrared light at 940nm; multispectral image showing clearly visible only the under-text. Photos by University of Manchester. © University of Manchester.




Christian, George, Applications of multispectral imaging and reflection spectroscopy in the field of palaeography (University of Manchester, 12 May 2014); available at [last accessed 1/08/2016].

Mazza, Roberta, ‘P.Ryl.Greek Add. 1166: Christian Prayer Amulet with a Tax Receipt on the Back’, Zeitschrift fur Papyrologie und Epigraphik 197 (2016), 73–84.

Netz, Reviel, et. al., The Archimedes Palimpsest (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011).

Pormann, Peter, ‘Interdisciplinarity: Inside Manchester’s ‘arts lab’’, Nature 525 (17 September 2015), 318–319; available at [last accessed 1/08/2016].

R.B. Toth Associates, Applying New Technologies to Cultural Studies; available at [last accessed 1/082016].

Savage, Elizabeth, ‘Jost de Negker’s Woodcut Charles V (1519): An Undescribed Example of Gold Printing’, Art in Print 5.2 (2015); available at [last accessed 1/08/2016].

[1] Elizabeth Savage, ‘Jost de Negker’s Woodcut Charles V (1519): An Undescribed Example of Gold Printing’, Art in Print 5.2 (2015); available at [last accessed 1/08/2016].

[2] Reviel Netz, et. al., The Archimedes Palimpsest (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011).

[3] Multi-Spectral Imaging of the Archimedes Pailimpsest; available at [last accessed 1/08/2016].

[4] R.B. Toth Associates, Applying New Technologies to Cultural Studies; available at [last accessed 1/082016].

[5] Peter Pormann, ‘Interdisciplinarity: Inside Manchester’s ‘arts lab’’, Nature 525 (17 September 2015), 318–319; available at [last accessed 1/08/2016].

[6] Roberta Mazza, ‘P.Ryl.Greek Add. 1166: Christian Prayer Amulet with a Tax Receipt on the Back’, Zeitschrift fur Papyrologie und Epigraphik 197 (2016), 73–84.

[7] George Christian, Applications of multispectral imaging and reflection spectroscopy in the field of palaeography (University of Manchester, 12 May 2014); available at [last accessed 1/08/2016].