Timeline: History of the Preservation and Conservation of Books and Manuscripts

Image credit: Adam Woolfitt/Corbis

This timeline is by no means meant as an exhaustive history, but rather a sampling of events in the history of the preservation and conservation of books and manuscripts—from the earliest books handwritten on papyrus scrolls to the development of more durable book formats and materials, to the preservation efforts of libraries and private collectors alike over the centuries, to developments in digitization technology, to finally, in 2011, a return to collecting physical texts in a repository as a back-up to the digital versions. I looked at preservation as pertaining to both physical materials and the digital representations of those materials, as these two areas of preservation go hand-in-hand, but each present very different challenges.

Probably the most unusual information I uncovered was on the Crypt of Civilization, an underground time capsule designed to survive for at least 6,000 years (contents including the world’s classic texts on microfilm, microfilm readers and even a machine to teach the English language), which was sealed at a Georgia university in 1940. It’s comforting to know that if aliens ever discover a post-apocalyptic Earth, they could conceivably access the complete works of Shakespeare (as long as they know where to dig).

If you know of any interesting bits of history related to book and manuscript preservation, please share!

Fourth century BCE: Beginning of book production, selling and collecting
Ancient Greek authors wrote books on rolls of papyrus paper, and scribes created multiple copies which could be sold to the educated public. The book industry became an established trade and the idea of book collecting took form. Toward the end of the century Aristotle began amassing a personal library: “the first to have put together a collection of books and to have taught the kings in Egypt how to arrange a library” (Casson 29). Unfortunately, papyrus books were fragile; papyrus was better preserved in Egypt than in Greece because of Egypt’s dry climate and sand.

300 BCE: Library of Alexandria
In the Library of Alexandria, the greatest library in ancient history, some 490,000 rolls were collected and preserved, with a focus on classic literature. The aim was to create “a comprehensive repository of Greek writings as well as a tool for research” (Casson 35-6). The library staff included employees assigned to copying and restoring materials (38).

Second Century CE: Romans develop the codex, a more durable book format
The codex was made either with papyrus or parchment, which was stronger and more durable. The pages were folded or sewn together and bound between covers, usually wood, which helped protect the pages from damage. It wasn’t until after 400 A.D. that the codex completely supplanted the papyrus roll (Casson 129).

1345: Philobiblon
Richard de Bury, a monk, prominent scholar and bibliophile, wrote the Philobiblon, possibly the earliest treatise on the love of books. The treatise was first published in 1473 (Preservation). He praised the importance and value of books, of preserving manuscripts, and of collecting and building a library (Tolzmann et al. 49).

1494: De laude scriptorum Advocating Use of Parchment Over Paper
Tritheim, a Benedictine abbot, wrote De laude scriptorum to address the issue of the best format for the long-term preservation of written material. He believed that the tradition of copying medieval manuscripts by hand onto parchment should continue, because manuscripts on parchment had already survived for over 700 years at the time. By comparison, the technology of printing on paper was new and it was unknown how long paper could be preserved. Tritheim also advocated the importance of monks continuing to “copy and preserve obscure texts which might not be economically viable to print” (Preservation).

1568: Matthew Parker’s Collection of Antiquarian Books and Manuscripts
During the 16th century, Matthew Parker, Archbishop of Canterbury, amassed a collection of important manuscripts. Most of the manuscripts were salvaged from monastery libraries and cathedral priories and would likely have otherwise been destroyed or lost (Preservation).

1588–1631: Sir Robert Bruce Cotton’s Private Collection of Manuscripts
Sir Robert Bruce Cotton’s collection of 958 manuscripts, including the only surviving manuscript of Beowulf, is considered “the most important collection of manuscripts ever assembled in Britain by a private individual.” Cotton’s collection formed the basis of the collection at the British Museum and then the British Library, and Frederic Madden worked to restore many of the manuscripts which were damaged in a fire in 1731, including Beowulf(Preservation).

1800: Library of Congress Founded
The Library of Congress, founded in 1800, was destroyed in a fire in 1814. Thomas Jefferson then donated his personal library to Congress to serve as the basis for the new library (Tolzmann et al. 107). The Library of Congress would grow rapidly and would become part of “the greatest central repository of library materials in the world” (111).

1843: Early Research on Leather Binding Decay
Michael Faraday was a bookbinder before he became a chemist and physicist at the Royal Institution of Great Britain. In a study on the decay of leather used in book bindings, published as Light and Ventilation, Faraday identified heat and sulfur fumes from gas as contributing factors to decay in bookbindings (Preservation).

1851–1852: Microphotography for Book Preservation
James Glaisher, meteorologist and aeronaut, proposed that microphotography, producing images greatly reduced in size (for example, microfilm), could be used to preserve documents. The idea of saving space was echoed by Robert Goldschmidt in 1907, who saw the stability, durability and space-saving properties of microfiche as an advantage and proposed the codex be replaced with the microphotographic book (Preservation).

1867: Sulfite Pulping Process for Papermaking
The process of making paper from wood pulp using calcium bisulfate was developed by Benjamin Chew Tilghman, who patented the process in 1867. The production of paper from wood pulp greatly increased during the 19th century due to the scarcity of linen rags, which had previously served as the primary papermaking material. This was bad news for book preservation, because the use of sulfuric acid and the sulfite pulping process produced paper that would become extremely brittle and would deteriorate much more quickly than linen paper. This problem was by John Russell Young, Librarian of Congress, in his 1898 annual report. (Preservation).

1896–1897: World’s Largest Collection of Medieval Manuscripts 
Solomon Schechter assembled an enormous collection of early Hebrew manuscripts and brought them to Egypt; they “outline a 1,000-year continuum of Middle Eastern history and comprise the largest and most diverse collection of medieval manuscripts in the world.” Some 140,000 of these manuscripts are now held at the Cambridge University Library, while others have been preserved in other libraries and universities worldwide. The Friedberg Genizah Project has undertaken the work of digitizing the manuscripts (Preservation).

1940: Crypt of Civilization Sealed
The idea for the Crypt of Civilization, a time capsule unparalleled in scope and meant to preserve records for at least six thousand years, was developed in the 1930s by Dr. Thornwell Jacobs of Oglethorpe University, “to preserve consciously for the first time in history a thorough record of civilization.” A large underground chamber was constructed, twenty by ten by ten feet in size, with a seven foot thick roof and safeguards against moisture, then filled with “sealed stainless steel receptacles” and “inert gas of nitrogen” to prevent oxidation or aging of the contents. The contents of the crypt include the world’s classic texts on microfilm, microreaders and projectors, a windmill to provide power in the event that electricity is unavailable, and a “machine to teach the English language” (Hudson).

1966: Florence Floods
Massive flooding in Florence, Italy caused damage to and destruction of countless rare books, manuscripts, and other library and archival holdings. The aftermath of this destruction led to a greater focus on preservation planning and conservation treatments to protect and restore invaluable, original printed works.

1970: Library of Congress creates Preservation Research Laboratory
The Library of Congress created a Preservation Research Laboratory in 1970 to ensure long-term access to intellectual content, through preservation and conservation efforts such as re-binding, re-formatting, mass de-acidification and training opportunities (Conaway 154, Library of Congress). They have conducted research studies into many areas of preservation and conservation, such as longevity of paper and other media formats, de-acidification and storage conditions.

1970′s: Microfilming Boom
In the 1970′s, following several reports of brittle books in library collections, there was a big push, led by the Library of Congress and other major libraries, to reformat materials onto microfilm.

1971: Electronic Books Developed and Project Gutenberg Founded
Michael Hart, the first person to produce free eBooks, founded Project Gutenberg with the goal of increasing accessibility to eBooks. Project Gutenberg is entirely run by volunteers, who digitize books, record audio books, and make eBooks available for download online. More than 39,000 eBooks are available for free, all of which are in the public domain.

1992: Memory of the World Program Established
The Memory of the World Program was created by UNESCO in 1992 to support preservation and access to cultural heritage materials internationally, such as through projects to migrate culturally significant materials to digital formats (Memory). Books, manuscripts and other cultural artifacts are damaged, destroyed or lost due to reasons varying from war, looting and illegal trading to lack of funding and natural disasters. UNESCO has provided grants to support preservation and digitization projects worldwide.

1993: The Electronic Beowulf
Beginning in 1993, the British Library undertook a project to make available a full-color digital Beowulf, in enormous, high-resolution image scans of a unique copy of Beowulf from the Sir Robert Cotton manuscript collection. Because the manuscript was damaged in a fire in 1731, digitization required use of a special digital camera that could actually improve legibility of the manuscript, so that the digital version reveals more than what someone could observe by looking at the physical manuscript.

1995: National Digital Library Program
In 1995, the Library of Congress began work on the National Digital Library Program for preservation of our country’s cultural heritage, “a digital library of reproductions of primary source materials to support the study of the history and culture of the United States,” including digitized books and manuscripts as well as audio and video. The program was planned to consist of a managed repository of digital content and user interfaces that include a searchable database.

1996: Turning the Pages Software Developed
Turning the Pages is an innovative software that allows users to interact with books in a virtual, realistic, three-dimensional environment, with additional features such as being able to add personal notes. The software is used by organizations such as the British Library and the Natural History Museum, allowing people to experience and manipulate rare books online in an unprecedented way, while also preserving the books in a digital format and allowing the books to be viewed without repeatedly handling the physical materials, which are often fragile.

2002: Google Books Launched
Google Books officially began in 2002 as a small group of Google employees exploring digitization projects. Working to increase access to digital books, Google partnered with major libraries and publishers, debuting “Google Print” in 2004, re-named “Google Books” in 2005. Google Books continues to grow all the time, adding to their digital collection and features for users.

2004: First Automatic Book Scanner Developed
Kirtas Technology was recognized for developing the APT BookScan 1200, the first truly automatic book scanner, automating and speeding up the book digitization process with a machine that turns a book’s pages automatically and can handle fragile materials. The system is designed to maintain the integrity of the book, produce high-quality images, metadata, and high-accuracy OCR (Kirtas).

2005: Matthew Parker Library Digitized
Matthew Parker, a prominent figure in the English Reformation, was also a book collector and salvaged illuminated medieval manuscripts that might otherwise have been destroyed, amassing a huge library of manuscripts and early printed books during the 16th century. His library has been preserved at Corpus Christi College and this important collection is now available in high-resolution digital format online, and is being managed and preserved in a digital repository (Parker Library).

2005: World Digital Library Planned
The Library of Congress began work on the World Digital Library, an enormous, publicly accessible online collection of culturally significant books, manuscripts and other materials from libraries worldwide. This represents a landmark initiative for a global, cooperative digital library to preserve our international cultural heritage (Vise).

2007: Federal Agencies Digitization Guidelines Initiative
This initiative began in 2007 to “define common guidelines, methods and practices for digitizing historical content” in a way that will be sustainable long-term, encompassing still images such as books and manuscripts as well as audio-visual materials (Federal). Cooperation among agencies to come up with common standards should enhance digital preservation practices.

2008: HathiTrust Digital Library Founded
The HathiTrust Digital Library, founded in 2008, is a partnership of major libraries and institutions dedicated to long-term preservation of the cultural record, including providing access to digitized books and journals. So far, HathiTrust has digitized over ten million volumes, over five million of which are books, totaling 467 terabytes of data. Thirty percent of the digitized material is in the public domain (HathiTrust).

2008: “Preservation in the Age of Large-Scale Digitization”
“Preservation in the Age of Large-Scale Digitization,” a white paper by Oya Y. Rieger, a librarian at Cornell University, discusses the many large-scale digitization initiatives that have been undertaken in recent years, from university initiatives to those of commercial entities like Google. Rieger compiles information on preservation practices from a survey completed by 14 institutions. She calls for a new set of digitization standards based on current technology, which take into account factors such as new archival file formats (JPEG 2000 and PDF/A) and preservation metadata (Rieger 33-4).

2009: “Sniff Test” to Measure Degradation of Paper
The journal Analytical Chemistry reported a study, headed by researcher Matija Strlic from the University College London’s Centre for Sustainable Heritage, describing a “sniff test” that can be used to identify degradation in aging books (Gill). Most people are familiar with the smell of old books. The researchers developed a method to measure the organic compounds that degrade as paper ages, creating a “chemical fingerprint” that can help institutions with preservation and conservation (Gill).

2009: X-Ray CT Scanning System Used to View Ancient Papyrus Scrolls
In 79 CE, the eruption of Mount Vesuvius buried Pompeii and Herculaneum in ash and debris, but more than one thousand ancient papyrus scrolls were preserved beneath the ash and debris. The scrolls were previously too fragile to unroll, but Brent Seales at the University of Kentucky computer science department planned to use x-ray CT scanning technology to digitally image the writing on the scrolls. This technology could be used to view fragile manuscripts of all kinds while preventing damage (Warren).

2011: Vatican Library Scanning Manuscripts into FITS Document Format
Archivists have undertaken a project to digitize 1,800 year-old manuscripts in the Vatican Library. To best preserve these manuscripts, they have chosen the flexible image transport system (FITS) document format developed in part by NASA in the 1970s, an open-source format which is backwards compatible and will be accessible long into the future (NASA).

2011: Repository of One Copy of Every Book
Brewster Kahle, founder of the Internet Archive, which has digitized more than two million books so far, realized that there was enduring value in the books being digitized. Rather than discard books after digitization, in 2011 Kahle began archiving the physical texts in a repository in California, with the goal of collecting one copy of every book (Streitfeld).

Works Cited/Consulted

“About Google Books.” Google. 2011. <http://books.google.com/googlebooks/history.html&gt;.

“About Matthew Parker & The Parker Library.” Parker Library on the Web.

Casson, Lionel. Libraries in the Ancient World. Yale University Press: 2001.

Conaway, James. America’s Library: The Story of the Library of Congress, 1800-2000. Yale University Press: 2000.

Federal Agencies Digitization Guidelines Initiative. <http://www.digitizationguidelines.gov/about/&gt;.

“Free eBooks by Project Gutenberg.” <http://www.gutenberg.org/wiki/Gutenberg:About&gt;.

Gill, Victoria. “Sniff Test to Preserve Old Books.” BBC News. 12 Nov. 2009.

HathiTrust Digital Library. <http://www.hathitrust.org/about&gt;.

Hudson, Dr. Paul Steven. “History of the Crypt of Civilization.” Oglethorpe University.

“Library of Congress Preservation Directorate.” Library of Congress.

“Kirtas Technologies Automatic Book Digitization.” Kirtas. 2010.

“Memory of the World.” United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. <http://www.unesco.org/new/en/communication-and-information/flagship-project-activities/memory-of-the-world/homepage/&gt;.

“NASA Tech Helping Preserve Vatican Holdings.” CBS News. 21 Dec. 2011.

“National Digital Library Program.” Library of Congress. <http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/dli2/html/lcndlp.html&gt;.

“Preservation & Conservation of Information Timeline Outline.” Jeremy Norman’s From Cave Paintings to the Internet. <http://www.historyofinformation.com/index.php?category=Preservation+%26+Conservation+of+Information&gt;.

Rieger, Oya Y. “Preservation in the Age of Large-Scale Digitization.” Council on Library and Information Resources. February 2008.

Streitfeld, David. “In a Flood Tide of Digital Data, an Ark Full of Books.” 3 Mar. 2012. New York Times. Web.
<http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/04/technology/internet-archives-repository-collects- thousands-of-books.html?pagewanted=all>.

“The Electronic Beowulf.” <http://www.uky.edu/~kiernan/welcome/1993.htm&gt;.

Tolzmann, Don Heinrich, Alfred Hessel and Reuben Peiss. The Memory of Mankind: The Story of Libraries Since the Dawn of History. Oak Knoll Press: 2001.

“Turning the Pages 2.0.” <http://www.turningthepages.com/&gt;.

Vise, David A. “World Digital Library Planned.” 22 Nov. 2005. The Washington Post.
<http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/11/21/ AR2005112101428.html>.

Warren, Jim. “UK to “Unroll” Papyrus Scrolls Buried by Vesuvius.” Kentucky.com. 19 May 2009. <http://www.kentucky.com/2009/05/19/800210/uk-to-unroll-papyrus-scrolls-buried.html&gt;.

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8 thoughts on “Timeline: History of the Preservation and Conservation of Books and Manuscripts

  1. Diane L. Fowlkes says:

    Thank you for all your work on this compendium! Kudos!

  2. Reblogged this on Shelf Fulfillment and commented:
    Fascinating from a number of different perspectives:

  3. That is a marvellous bit of blogging!

  4. interesting piece, but a glaring omission is the impact of the 1966 florence flood on modern book conservation

  5. Ditto about leaving off the Florence Floods. Also, why not include the massive push for microfilming in the 70′s-90′s, the predecessor of digitization?

  6. I definitely agree that this is pretty impressive bu digitization should not be overlooked

  7. Ana says:

    Article, meet my Bookmarks folder.
    Bookmarks folder, meet article.

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