Judge a Book by its Cover

Books that were bound before this century can be serious page turners, although you might have to pull their covers off or use an x-ray machine to find their secrets. These ones hide all sorts of strange things in their bindings.


While printing techniques had been used across Asia beforehand, the printing press only came to Europe in the 15th Century. Handwritten manuscripts were superseded by this ‘technology’. Rather than being discarded entirely, some pieces of manuscript ended up going along with the book-binding trend. These old loose sheets were used to strengthen and construct spines for new books.

Researchers from the University of Delft have started uncovering the manuscripts hidden within books using x-ray technology. Most of the books being studied are from between the 15th and 18th Centuries, with the manuscripts inside dating from much earlier. The University’s discoveries include a 12th Century manuscript with excerpts from the 8th Century scholar, Bede. Some are estimated to be over a thousand years old. The same x-ray process has been used before to uncover paintings beneath paintings, the result of cash-strapped artists painting over earlier works. Using this method to delve under book bindings is something new and similar techniques are also being developed at the University of Delft to read beneath the charring on ash-covered scrolls from Herculaneum, a city destroyed alongside Pompeii in 79AD.


It currently takes around 24 hours to scan one spine. Researchers from Delft are working on improving the scanning process to allow you to read text using Macro X-ray Fluorescent Spectrometry (MA-XRF). Such slow and pain-staking work might seem unnecessary if the reward is finding a few centimetres of old text, but it is hoped that new methods will make these scrap pages legible and uncover something more of societies past.

Old pages were still commonly used inside bindings up to the 20th Century. Nancy Kraft, Head of Preservation and Conservation at the University of Iowa Libraries, discovered these drawings on the inside of the ‘Catalogue of Irish Manuscripts in the British Museum’ from 1926. While not as old as the discoveries made by the University of Deft, the volumes let out hints of life at the time. One features an owl, penguin and a swan (not entirely sure how they’re connected), while the other wonders at the “extraordinary growth of the fountain pen habit”.


I found out about this from an article on surprising things inside collection items (I mean, literally stuffed inside them). Have a look…that gigantic fish!: http://s1289.photobucket.com/user/robguz24/media/Robs%20bananas/file_zps8c2ea66e.jpg.html

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