Karen and Jo, Digitisation Assistants, setting up the Brno Scroll on the PhaseOne copystand

Karen Mee, Digitisation Assistant in the Special Collections Digitisation Studio team, writes about the careful process of digitising the Brno Torah scroll.

Digitising a religious cultural artefact such as a Torah scroll requires a lot of planning and preparation in terms of collections care, appropriate handling, and photographic process. The team had already had some experience of digitising a large, rolled object when we undertook photography of the History Roll and this informed our approach to the Torah scroll.

Collections Care

One of the main challenges was minimising damage to the scroll from environmental changes. The scroll is a composite object, made from 47 separate pieces of parchment sewn together with animal sinew with iron gall ink media. Parchment reacts readily to changes in humidity, absorbing and desorbing moisture from the air, making it alter dimensionally with changes in relative humidity. This can result in damage such as ink lifting off the parchment surface, which clearly we wanted to avoid!

In the week prior to digitisation we liaised with the Collections Care Team to track relative humidity (RH) data from the exterior of the building and the digitisation studio. Our aim was to understand the relationship between the exterior and interior humidity in the studio and make any adjustments necessary to minimise variation in RH between the studio and the area where the scroll is stored, which is maintained at a fairly constant temperature and RH. This would help to reduce physical changes in the scroll leading to damage.

Using the Rotronic handheld thermohygrograph to measure RH levels in the Digitisation Studio

The digitisation studio is not climate controlled and due to the pandemic, the windows are open during working hours to ventilate the room, so we were somewhat at the mercy of the weather conditions. The exterior RH was found to be low so the Collections Care Team prepared a method of introducing moisture into the studio, should the RH need to be increased during the digitisation process to bring it closer to the scroll’s storage conditions. For this we used trays of capillary matting, soaked with deionised water as a reservoir, coupled with fans to distribute the moist air.

As it turned out, the moisture reservoirs were not necessary, as the RH in the studio was deemed to be within safe parameters during the photography. We continued to work with Collections Care monitoring the environmental conditions during the photography using both a Rotronic handheld thermohygrograph and data from our SensiaII environmental monitoring system.

There are strict handling requirements the digitisation team had to observe in addition to the regular handling conventions expected in an archive. The Brno Torah Scroll is a religious cultural artefact so we could not touch the writing on the scroll by hand or leave it open in an unoccupied room. As this was a group project involving all three Digitisation Assistants, two of whom are part time, this meant we had to arrange days where we were all on site, and plan carefully when we would start the photography and take breaks.

Photographing the Scroll

Prior to starting the work, we did a trial run of opening and closing the scroll. This was to help us plan the workflow and set-up to ensure we were handling the object as safely as possible. We also needed to find the beginning and end of the scroll, to know in what order to sort the images.

Xiao and Jo rolling the Torah scroll

The parchment sections of the scroll are of differing widths and lengths, so we needed to calculate how high to position the camera to capture the entire item whilst retaining the greatest detail. Luckily, each parchment section had already been measured so we had made a rough calculation using these figures. This process helped us to verify our estimates as well as refine the approach – for example, we introduced an adjustable table from the studio to move next to the camera copy stand to extend the area that the Torah would roll onto and covered it with the black velvet cloth we use for background.

PhaseOne copystand set up using an extra height-adjustable table

As stated earlier each of the three Digitisation Assistants had a role to play. Two oversaw unrolling the scroll piece by piece, the other was based on the PhaseOne camera to line up the image, take the shot and check the focus. We alternated roles as much as we could and the whole project took two half days to photograph. We checked the studio environment in the morning and undertook the photography to the afternoon as we had limited environmental control. During each afternoon’s shooting we observed the parchment ‘relaxing’ and becoming more malleable, testifying to how sensitive this material is to ambient conditions.

Xiao and Jo, Digitisation Assistants unrolling the scroll so it can be photographed piece by piece.
Xiao, Jo and Karen all photographing the scroll
The photographed piece of parchment visible in CaptureOne, the software used to process images on the PhaseOne camera

There is still some work to do with the resulting images before we can publish online but you can learn more about the Brno Torah Scroll on our website and the  Memorial Scrolls Trust