Unbinding the Codex Alexandrinus to photograph it

A marvellous post at the British Library manuscripts blog.  It begins with the encouraging statement:

The British Library is committed to making available online as many of its medieval manuscripts as possible.

And then it goes on to discuss how the ancient Codex Alexandrinus of the bible, currently bound in 4 volumes, had to be taken apart to be photographed.  Nor is this surprising, as anyone who has handled the British Library’s manuscripts will know.  The bindings are frequently like iron.

In the case of Codex Alexandrinus, the opening of the manuscript was heavily compromised by the last re-binding, which jeopardised our ability to photograph properly each page in its entirety. Bound books are very complex structures: they are made of many different materials and the interaction between the writing support and the mechanics of the sewing structure is vital to their survival. Unfortunately, it had been the practice in recent centuries to attach too-heavy spine linings (made of layers of stiff paper and weak fabric) to the back of book blocks, which in many cases has only served to compromise their opening. This was found to be the case when Codex Alexandrinus was examined prior to digitisation.

The first requirement was to reach the back of the book block, which entailed removal of the cover. Next, the parchment book block was gently cleaned by removing the different layers of unsuitable materials, releasing the pressure on the folds of individual sections, and improving considerably the opening of the manuscript. A new reinforcement made of archival suitable materials was then placed onto the spine to support the opening of the book, and to increase the strength of the connection between the book block and the cover. Finally, the cover was re-adhered to this volume of Codex Alexandrinus. By doing this, the manuscript could be opened sufficiently to image its pages.

What is encouraging is that the library had the wisdom to do this.  In ancient times manuscript bindings were detachable.  If the modern bindings are unserviceable, and not of historical importance, then there is no reason not to adjust them.

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