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Digitization & Rebinding of a 19th-Century Persian Manuscript

By Jessica Henze, Senior Book Conservator, June 2024

Some projects that come into the Northeast Document Conservation Center (NEDCC) force us to stretch our technical skills while others ask us to make difficult and complex decisions. The conservation treatment and digitization of Amherst College’s Tazkirat al-Salatin manuscript required us to do both. With close consultation between College staff, book conservators, and collections photographers, we developed a plan to meet the access requirements of the college while respecting the historical integrity of the volume.

Illustrated page openings with little or no gutter margin

Tazkirat al-Salatin is an illustrated manuscript in Persian on the history of the Kings of Kabul. This copy was completed in 1817, and was presented as a gift to Lord William Pitt Amherst, who served as Governor-General of India from 1823-1828. The manuscript is now part of the William Pitt and Sarah Archer Amherst Family Collection at Amherst College’s Archives and Special Collections.

When it arrived at NEDCC for evaluation, the manuscript was bound in a full-leather Islamic-style binding with characteristics suggesting it had been made in the Indian sub-continent. The distinctive features indicating the binding’s origin include the endsheet structure, board squares, and decorative elements.

Amherst College was primarily interested in having the volume digitized and received a grant from the Persian Heritage Foundation to fund this project. The book, however, was difficult to open fully because of the way it was bound, with rigid strips across the flat spine mimicking raised bands. The restricted opening of the volume was problematic for digitization because the illustrations and text extended deep into the gutter and were inaccessible without forcing (and breaking) the binding.

Illustrated page openings with little or no gutter margin

Illustrated page opening with little or no gutter margin

This presented both the conservators at NEDCC and the librarians and curators at Amherst College with a choice: to remove a mostly intact binding that was contemporary with the manuscript in order to fully digitize the content, or to maintain the binding but compromise the quality and completeness of the digital images.

NEDCC book conservators provided Amherst with several possible approaches:

  • One: stabilize the weak areas of the binding and accept that the images would be incomplete and that the binding could be stressed by the imaging process and future use,
  • Two: disbind the volume to allow for complete image capture and then rebind in the original binding, accepting that this would involve adding new material and altering the structure of the original binding, and would replicate the restricted opening of the volume,
  • Or Three: disbind the volume to allow for complete image capture in a way that kept the original binding, including endbands and sewing pattern, almost completely intact, and then rebind in a new binding of similar structure and appearance but with less restricted opening.

Because Amherst had scholars waiting for access to the content of the volume, they made the carefully considered decision to go with the third option, prioritizing the completeness of the images over maintaining the binding. Although as book conservators, we strive to retain original material and structure whenever possible, in this case, doing so would have compromised not only the quality of the digital images, but the usability of the volume itself. By following the third option we could make the content completely accessible in a digital format, allow for safer access of the physical object, and preserve the original binding for future researchers.


Left Image: Shows how much of the image and text were inaccessible with the volume in its original binding. Right: The same page opening during the digital imaging process, disbound.

Careful removal of the binding helped us to understand exactly how it was constructed so that we could rebind the volume in a way that was not only visually similar but also structurally similar to the original. That said, we did not want to perfectly recreate the restricted opening of the volume. Islamic bindings, which typically have flat spines and link-stitch sewing, are structurally quite different from the Western bindings that comprise most of our work. To understand which elements of the structure were essential to the binding style and which were causing the limited opening, we did some background research and made a pair of models based on the original binding. 











Left Image: Shows the original endbands, spine lining and endsheet structure; the cloth hinges were adhered to the flyleaves and the false raised bands were underneath the spine lining. Right Image: Two models were made to help understand and practice Islamic-style binding techniques. The green model replicates the structure of the original binding, and the brown model is a test of slight variations designed to allow the book to open more fully.

Through this process, it became clear that the binding features restricting the opening of the volume were the false raised bands and the endsheet structure. The rigid false raised bands may have been added to the spine to keep it flat, but they also prevented movement of the spine when the book was opened. The endsheets structure, with both the linen and the leather hinges adhered to the flyleaves, made the flyleaves very stiff, further restricting the opening at the front and back of the volume. By making slight variations to these two elements we were able to improve the openability of the volume without changing the appearance significantly. All other elements of the new binding, including sewing pattern, flat spine, integral woven endbands, leather inner hinges and painted decoration were based directly on the original binding.  











These images show the new endbands, spine lining and endsheet structure; the cloth hinges were adhered to the cover boards (as is more common in this binding style), and the false raised bands are more flexible and are on top of the spine lining.

With collaborative decision-making between curators, conservators and photographers, and a willingness to venture outside our typical binding practices, the content of Tazkirat al-Salatin is now freely available to scholars in digital format, the original binding is available for reference, and the volume is bound in a way that closely reproduces the look and feel of the original.

Amherst College
Founded in 1821, Amherst College is a liberal arts college is Massachusetts. This manuscript is part of the William Pitt and Sarah Archer Amherst Family Collection at Amherst College’s Archives and Special Collections.

Founded in 1973, the Northeast Document Conservation Center is a non-profit specializing in the conservation of book and paper collections, digital imaging, audio reformatting, preservation training, assessments, and consultations.