CSNTM in Cambridge

Last Friday I met with Jeff Hargis of the Centre for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts.  The team were staying at Tyndale House in Cambridge.  Sadly I didn’t get the chance to meet Daniel B. Wallace, the director.

Jeff showed me the photographing setup that they were using.  The camera was a very expensive digital SLR, a Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III.  This has a 21megapixel chip, and costs around $10,000. 

The camera was on a tripod on the end of a horizontal pole, lens pointing down towards the book which was resting on the usual book rest.  The tripod which had little spirit levels inside it to ensure that the camera was level in at least one direction.   Since the pages of the book are at an angle sloping to the spine, this isn’t the end of the story, tho.  A large black bag full of books was tied onto the other end of the horizontal pole; this was merely a simple counterweight to stop the camera pulling the tripod over!

On the same desk was a laptop — a MacBook, as it happened.  This was running a piece of software (I think it was the bundled Digital Photo Professional) which interfaced to the camera through a bit of Canon supplied software.  The camera could be controlled totally from the laptop; focusing, F-stops, white balance, etc.  Most important was a preview moder, which just kept the lens open so that the team could see what the image would look like and move the book to get it square, etc. 

The software also had an automatic white balance feature.  They used a standard Kodak colour card, rested it on the page, pointed the camera at it, told the software which little colour square was white, and let it work out the rest.

Adjusting the book for each shot was a manual process, and needed two people; one to operate the laptop/camera, and one to adjust the book after each page was turned.  They tended to photograph all the rectos, then all the versos, as I have done, and so had the same problem that I’ve encountered where the room light changes during the process, making the alternate final images different shades.  They rechecked alignment etc after each shot, and usually would make a small manual adjustment.  This meant that they spent rather longer on each manuscript than I ever have.  The software gave them some grids on the screen to help with alignment, however.

They were not using a lighting rig, but relied on available light and the facilities of the camera to adjust the image.  This was mainly because most of the libraries in which they photographed forced them to do this.  Artificial light was preferred, simply because it didn’t change while shooting.  In extreme cases they had taped black curtains over the window with duct tape to keep the sunlight out.

I wondered what the cost per image was, once all costs were taken into account.  Jeff estimated around $3-4 per shot, averaged across the fairly large number of images taken. 

The outputs could be pretty large.  A TIF file of 60Mb per image, and a derived .JPG.  The team give the host institution a stack of DVD’s containing both types of images, as is only fair.

Not all institutions will allow material to go on the web.  CSNTM are comfortable with this, and no doubt this will change as libraries get less nervous of the web. 

One important consequence of the photographing process is that they perform an inventory of the holdings of the institution.  After all, they have to physically put their hands on the manuscripts.  Not infrequently this reveals that the inventory is out of date; manuscripts may be there, but not listed.  Worse, manuscripts that the host thinks they have may not!  This happened in Cambridge, where one of the colleges discovered two manuscripts were missing and could not be found! A determined search over a number of days eventually recovered the two.  Thus the CSNTM visit in fact helped ensure that the libraries had what they thought they did.

The process of obtaining access is one in which I was very interested, and I regretted that I could not talk to Dan Wallace, who handles this.  Building relationships with people in the Greek Orthodox church, writing letters in the right language every six months, and simply building a reputation are at the bottom of it.  I have done some of this myself, and it is tiring and dispiriting work.  I can only imagine the efforts that Dan Wallace has put into this.

Over lunch (for which he paid — thank you!) at a pub on the river, Jeff told me about their expeditions.  They’ve started to make progress in Cambridge, although as yet the University Library and Trinity College have refused to allow them to photograph their manuscripts.  Sadly these institutions would neither allow CSNTM to photograph, nor do it themselves; they would only photograph the mss themselves, and only if paid many times the real cost to do so.  To them I say: Gentlemen, that is not what we taxpayers expect of you in return for our money.  

But other colleges had been far more sensible.  A number of other colleges (I don’t recall which) had been happy to have their NT mss holdings professionally photographed for free, and mss guru Christopher de Hamel lent them parts of his private manuscript collection. 

The process of photographing is an iterative one, and no doubt they will be back in Cambridge again.  The team were on their way to Oxford when I left, to start the process of building relationships there.

Part of what Dan Wallace does is to do presentations to bodies such as churches in the US to help raise funds.  They also produce short films on DVD of their expeditions, and Jeff kindly gave me a copy of their DVD of the Patmos expedition.  As yet they have not been able to get onto US TV.  But in some ways this process of outreach is a valuable thing.  It helps to make the general public aware of the manuscript collections of the world, and their vulnerability, and their value.  As such this part of their work benefits every person working with mss.

My thanks to Jeff and Dan and CSNTM for a very interesting and enjoyable visit!

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