This month Conservation & Exhibition Services completed a year-long project to conserve six important manuscripts from a collection of North African Jewish texts and documents. The collection, housed in the Yale University Library’s Manuscripts and Archives Department, was acquired by Nanette Stahl, the Joseph and Ceil Mazer Librarian for Judaic Studies. The collection contains over 1800 manuscripts related to legal, rabbinic, business, personal, and professional matters created by the Jewish communities in and around Morocco. The collection spans the period of 1714 to 2000, with the heaviest concentration of documents created between 1800 and 1950.
With the help of the Arcadia Foundation, the entire collection was described and organized in 2013. Scholars from around the world immediately began working with the manuscripts in workshops organized on Yale’s campus. As a result of these seminars, the Library was asked to digitize a number of titles from the collection. Based on an initial condition review of the selected manuscripts and anticipating that digitization requests will grow, YUL’s Chief Conservator, Christine McCarthy, and Stahl designed a project to carry out the needed treatments and digitization of the requested manuscripts and undertake an assessment of the entire collection. Surveying the whole collection would provide to a clearer idea of the condition issues that might need to be address to facilitate further imaging and continued access to the original materials.
Again, the Arcadia Foundation generously provided the necessary funds for conservation of a small group of manuscripts and an item-by-item condition survey of the collection. Yale’s Program in Judaic Studies stepped in to assist with the costs of imaging. With Arcadia, the Program and the Library’s support, McCarthy and Stahl worked with the Center for the Conservation of Art and Historic Artifacts (CCAHA) to execute their project. Over the course of a year, six manuscripts with severe condition issues were treated and imaged by CCAHA’s conservators and photographers.
Conservators from CCAHA also spent a week on-site surveying the whole collection, collecting data, and writing a report. The Arcadia funding allowed the Library to carry out a comprehensive approach that serves as a model for best practices for digitization of special collections. In this case, imaging served as the catalyst to conserve the original materials and to lay a foundation for conservation and imaging of the collection in the future. Data from the survey will also inform handling decisions as the collection is used for research and teaching. With a complete picture of the collection’s condition, the Library can create a long-term plan for conservation and digitization and accurately estimate the time and resources needed to do the work.
Examples of the Completed Conservation Treatments:
The binding of this manuscript was in poor condition and the sewing of the textblock was broken leaving the leaves at risk of being detached, The iron gall ink used in the manuscript showed a range of stages of deterioration, which if untreated could result in text loss. Conservators washed the pages and treated the iron gall ink to halt or slow the deterioration. The digitization occurred while the manuscript was disbound for washing, which helped to reduce the risk of further text loss. Iron gall ink was used extensively as a writing medium for many, many years. The deterioration seen in this manuscript is quite typical of this ink. See our Traveling Scriptorium blog to understand the chemistry of the ink, how it was made, and how ages and breaks down over time.For the manuscript shown above, we opted to replace the binding with a new conservation binding. The old binding was a bit too deteriorated to repair and would not offer sufficient protection to the manuscript text. The original will be kept alongside the rebound text as artifactual evidence and made available to anyone who studies the text. We prefer to conserve what is there, but sometimes must exercise another option to facilitate long-term preservation and access. As is demonstrated by the two treatment examples shown, decisions are made on a case-by-case basis weighing the anticipated benefits of treatment against the risks, always with the understanding that any cultural object may contain multiple layers of meaning.
As unique artifacts, the manuscripts presented a range of condition issues and interesting physical features. Increasingly, technical examinations of the material aspects of objects can offer clues about where, when, and how manuscripts like these were created and used. For treatments such as these, conservation documentation records – condition reports, treatment reports, and before and after treatment documentation – become part of the provenance of the objects. These files are maintained in Conservation & Exhibitions Services and are made available for study along with the objects and digital images.
YUL’s Conservation & Exhibitions Services is participating in the development of ConservationSpace – an enterprise level system for creating, managing and accessing digital documentation records. It is exciting to imagine that in the very near future the records from this project will be accessible on a conservator’s desktop in one tool that is searchable, and can be shared easily with other conservators and researchers around the world. And any new records and data from future conservation or scientific testing would be associated with the existing reports to provide a complete object history online.