Yesterday we started digitizing our collection of Ethiopic scrolls. Last year these were sent to Conservation for rehousing. They had been rolled up tight and were difficult if not impossible to use. Conservation created large cores out of buffered corrugated board wrapped in buffered paper (photo left). The larger cores will help relax the tightly wound scrolls which should make them easier to use.
Now they are in the Digital Production Center (DPC) to be imaged. DPC is working closely with Conservation as these are pretty tricky to handle and to photograph. The scrolls are made of either vellum or leather which stretches and gets distorted when stored under less than ideal conditions (that would be prior to them coming to RBMSCL of course). That is a nice way of saying these things are not at all flat nor easy to photograph.
First, we had to create a mechanism to hold the scrolls in place under the camera while at the same time allowing us to unwind them from start to finish (photo left). We are using two corrugated cores, Ethafoam strips and magnets to hold everything in place. Since the scrolls are too long and distorted to image unrolled in one shot, we have to photograph a few inches at a time.
The process goes like this: the conservator unrolls about eight inches of scroll, the camera operator takes an image and makes sure the image is in focus or as close to it as a very wavy piece of vellum can be. If the image is a little blurry, he adjusts the camera and shoots another photograph. If that image passes quality control, the conservator unrolls another section and the process continues until the scroll is imaged from top to bottom. We can take between 8 and 15 images per scroll depending on the length and condition of the vellum.
Our first day went well and we learned a lot. It can be a slow, painstaking process because of the condition of the materials, luckily we know a little something about working efficiently under these conditions since we do it every day. We love challenging projects like this one because we get to work collaboratively, handle amazing materials and really put our skills to the test.