Behind the scenes Long read

Photographing the Simon Papers

My first project at the JRRIL, photographing a complex bound archive, and detailing the specific techniques and equipment needed for this particular work.

I’m Jo Castle, Project Photographer at the John Rylands Research Institute and Library. I joined the Imaging Team at the end of 2019, tasked with photographing a collected archive, known as the Simon Papers, comprising eight bound volumes along with several boxes of letters and other items.

While this was not my first job in historical/archival photography, it was the first with a focus on text-based material in general, bound volumes in particular. Usually, when photographing bound volumes, the main issue is ensuring that each page is on a flat plane facing the camera lens to ensure every part of the page is in focus. However, this collected archive proved more complex and interesting than most, requiring us to modify the techniques we would normally use.

The Project:

Heinrich Simon was a German-Jewish lawyer, civil servant, politician and revolutionary, who was not only one of the leaders of the 1848 German Revolution, but was also uncle to Manchester Industrialist Henry Simon. The Simon family were highly influential in the development of Manchester as it is today, being a family full of engineers and social reformers, and the Simon name can still be found on buildings and engineering sites around the city. The aim of the project was to digitise the archive so that the images could be used to create a digital edition of the Simon Papers and a critical biography. This is part of a major research project, led by Professor Stephen Parker and funded by the Leverhulme Trust.

Standard Techniques:

To achieve this we use a camera mounted over a cradle, with lights at a 45° angle, a standard setup for flat copy reproduction. The cradle allows the volume to rest open, whilst remaining fully supported, so that one side will be flat to the camera.

Photographing a bound-volume on a camera cradle

Sometimes, due to age, storage, and use, we find the paper has started to curl and will not sit flat on its own. In this case we use a plastic spatula to hold down one edge and keep the page flat to be photographed. Mainly, it is a question of turning the pages and photographing them until the volume is complete.

Spatulas, used to hold curled paper down. Translucent to show nothing underneath is being obscured

The Complexity of the Simon Papers:

However, the Simon Papers proved much more complex than this, being volumes comprising full-sized pages, half pages, scraps of paper in all shapes and sizes, small diary pages glued to paper flaps and full notebooks, cover and all, sewn in between other pages. All of this had to be imaged on both sides of each page. 

At a size of just under A3 these were also too large to sit on a cradle, so they had to be photographed on a copy stand with the camera mounted directly above.

A copy stand with lights at a 45 degree angle; this is a standard setup for flat copy reproduction.

The Simon Papers were bound largely (but not entirely) in chronological order which has resulted in each volume containing wildly varying page sizes and materials, presenting multiple challenges for photography.

The variation in page size meant that there was mostly more physical paper closer to the spine, resulting in the edges of pages dropping out of focus.

The Simon Papers Volume 2 showing the page is significantly lower at the outer edge than the spine edge.

Foam blocks were used to lift the corners of the pages and keep them flat.

Sometimes there were smaller, curling pages fixed in the middle of the volume. Trying to hold these down with a spatula would result in a lot of the spatula in shot, possibly obscuring the structure of the volume even if you could see there was no text underneath. It is also likely that the hand and arm holding the spatula in place would cast a shadow on the volume below, and that area would not be exposed correctly. In cases like these you can string twine between two weights so it forms a semi-taut line over the top of the page without obscuring what’s underneath.

Stacks of foam were also used to lift the twine up above the volume so it wasn’t putting undue pressure on any other pages, this setup also required building towers of foam on either side of the volume, using leather weights to secure the ends of twin up high enough.

Twine lifting a small scrap of paper up, so the text below can be photographed.

Monofilament cord could also be used to hold items up and out of the way, perpendicular to the page, so that what is underneath can be photographed.

Some small pages were stuck to the middle of large verso pages, so in this case you might need the twine to hold a page up so it is flat to the camera, rather than holding it down. 

Sometimes, e.g. for the diary pages, glued in a cascading fashion in such a way that each page pulled on the pages above AND below it, it was necessary to use TWO lengths of twine, one to hold the above pages out of the way, and another to hold the rest down. 

And sometimes there were multiple scraps stuck down on top of one another, and I just had to try gently changing the angles and positioning multiple lengths of twine and stacks of foam to see what I could make work. 

All materials were chosen with the fragility of the archive in mind, in collaboration with our Collection Care team.

It was an interesting archive to work with, though I cannot read 19th-century German, as it also contained quite a collection of miscellany, including codes and decoders, coins, plant material, and an envelope with an unbroken seal. I never quite knew what I would find on the next page.

Needless to say, this was quite an unusual project, and a bit of a trial-by-fire, but it taught me a lot as it required such careful handling of the materials along with some thought and creativity to make sure that all the information was represented.

This photography forms the basis for a research project which will result in a digital archive of all the images and accompanying information, including a selection of roughly 1000 items which will be accompanied by full transcription, as well as a biography of Heinrich Simon, written by Professor Stephen Parker at Cardiff University. I look forward to seeing what the researchers find once the translation work is complete.

3 comments on “Photographing the Simon Papers

  1. Great blog Jo. Thanks for sharing this.

  2. Geoffrey Wood

    That’s brilliant stuff Jo. The unsung, hardworking heroines/heroes behind the scenes, Thank you.

  3. Steve Parker

    Great to read this, Jo. You’ve captured so well the great care that you took to translate the Simon Papers into an excellent digital form. Many thanks, Steve Parker

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