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A Rookie’s Guide to Handling Manuscripts: How to Not Get Kicked out of the Reading Room, Stay on the Archivists’ Good Side, and Live Your Best Indiana Jones Life

By Emily Walls


Of all the books you’re ever going to touch, medieval manuscripts will most likely be the most delicate, most valuable, and most intimidating ones. Handling these books requires an above average level of preparation, intent, and understanding of what you’re doing before you try to actually do it. You will be watched like a hawk by your instructor and the librarians and archivists on staff for a very simple reason: the stuff that you’re touching is literally irreplaceable. While parchment isn’t nearly as susceptible to damage as paper is (paper tears more easily than parchment), handling manuscripts can still feel intimidating, especially for someone new at it. That makes it super cool, but also more than a little bit scary. As with everything else, walking into a reading room prepared with the correct materials and questions, both for yourself and the librarians, highly increases your likelihood of having a productive and informative time with your materials

Using the Reading Room

The Special Collections Library is one of over a dozen libraries that fall under the umbrella of the University of Georgia Library System, and the Special Collections Library building houses three individual libraries/collections within it: The Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library, including University Archives, The Richard B. Russell Jr. Library for Political Research and Studies, and The Walter J. Brown Media Archives and Peabody Awards Collection. In order to physically handle anything in the collections a student must first register as a researcher, and also agree to abide by all of the reading room rules and policies, both while in the reading room and while in a classroom setting. No pens, no pencils, no paper, no food, no drinks. This is the part where you’re encouraged to utilize your technology as much as possible and bring in your phone/tablet/laptop in order to take pictures and type up notes. The desk attendant will provide scrap paper and pencils if you really need to sketch something out. The main reading room is located on the third floor, and is very spacious and well lit with large windows made of special archival safe glass that filters out UV rays in order to avoid any light damage to the materials. Just remember to never have your back to the desk attendant while you’re handling materials! (intimidating? yes) It’s also dead quiet in there, and the room is only accessible to a researcher after being buzzed in through the door by a desk attendant (knock gently).

A variety of book pillows sitting on the book stand.
A close up of the book weights.

There is a myriad of very soft (literally) equipment used to handle manuscripts. Everything is done with the goal of opening the book as little as possible in order to put minimal stress on the spine. When using the Hargrett Hours we don’t often open the spine more than 90°. Every time these books are opened more and more damage is being done to them, and all of that slight pulling and bending of the spine will eventually add up to folio pages being separated from the binding and folio pages breaking off from one another.

How to properly drape the book weights over pages.
The book stand, book pillows, and book weight all being used together.

The three main pieces of equipment used to handle the manuscripts in a general setting are the book stand, book pillows, and a book snake (sometimes called a book weight). The book stands are foam inserts/pieces, which come in a variety of shapes and sizes, and are used to keep the book angled in order to prevent it from laying flat (don’t ever let the book lay completely flat while it is open as it will cause too much stress on the spine). We also have other smaller foam inserts used to supplement the larger ones as needed. The book pillows are  used to keep the manuscripts as supported as possible, and also come in different sizes. Having different sizes for the foam inserts and the book pillows allows the user to adjust the way the manuscript lays as they are going through page by page. Your equipment set up for the first page of the manuscript will look somewhat different by the time you get to the last page as adjustments are being made and you’re getting further along in the pages of the book. The book snake/book weight functions as kind of a very aggressive bookmark and looks like a cotton sock filled with BB pellets. Should the library come under attack while you’re in the reading room, this is the thing you want to defend the manuscripts with.

Occasionally you will come across or be handed folio pages that have been removed from their original bindings and are now stored as an individual page, which are called manuscript fragments. Fragments are usually the result of the binding of a book coming undone and pages falling out, or they result from people purposely cutting manuscripts into pieces to sell individual pages or illuminations. Fragments are stored individually in clear plastic sleeves, and the most important thing to remember when handling fragments is to not bend them and to make sure that they don’t fall out of their sleeves as they’re being flipped over and moved around.

When handling nearly all manuscripts and manuscript fragments a researcher generally never uses gloves (cotton or otherwise), which comes as a surprise to a lot of people. We don’t use gloves because it reduces finger dexterity, and you become more likely to actually do damage to the manuscript. Generally, the only times a researcher should be wearing gloves is when handling molded or mildewed materials, metal (which can tarnish through coming in contact with oils on your fingers), or when handling textiles. None of those things apply to any of the manuscripts pulled out for teaching purposes at UGA, so students are just asked to wash and dry their hands thoroughly before using the manuscripts and to refrain from putting any kind of lotion on beforehand. The other most hardcore rule for handling manuscripts is to never touch the inks and illuminated parts of the manuscripts, as these have a different chemical compositions and are the part of the manuscripts most susceptible to damage. That gold foil has lasted through hundreds of years. Don’t rub it off on your fingers or the archivists will take the book away.

Floor plans of the Special Collections Library.

About The Library

The Hargrett Hours placed inside its “fake book” for protection.

The main function of the Special Collections Library is to preserve their manuscripts to the best of their abilities and keep them intact and usable for as long as possible. When I say “to the best of their abilities” that doesn’t imply that the library is struggling in any way. It’s the exact opposite. You wouldn’t know it from the outside, but the Special Collections Library and its holdings have some of the safest and most secure setups on campus, and probably in Athens (although the safety measures at the Georgia Museum of Art could probably give the library a run for its money). The library building itself is composed almost entirely of stone, which is the first line of defense against a fire. The building actually has five floors, and the permanent holdings are stored in basements the size of a small warehouse. These basement storage facilities are only accessible to select library employees and the pickers who work to move materials around. There are fingerprint scanners used to access the innermost vaults and only a handful of people on campus are approved to use them. The storage levels have mechanisms that can close off individual sections in case of fire, structural designs built into the foundations to help minimize damage from earthquakes (not that Athens is exactly prone to earthquakes), and there is a moat around the foundations to divert floodwaters. The average library patron will never see any of this, but during whatever disaster happens in Athens the Special Collections Library is where you want to be.

Hargrett Hours (left), with its storage companions, the Bhagavad Gita

The Hargrett Hours itself is stored a fake book, which goes in a super special archival box that won’t degrade like normal cardboard (it’s stored in the box alongside an ornate copy of the Bhagavad Gita), then into a vault, and then into another vault. Vaults inside of vaults.

The outside of the special cardboard box used for storage.

Digitizing the Hargrett Hours
In the Fall 2018 semester a group of students in Dr. Camp’s Literature in the Archives class went through the process of creating a digital facsimile of the Hargrett Hours (Disclaimer: I was part of the group the made the website). The site was created with extensive support from UGA’s Digital Humanities Lab, who created the domain for us, formatted all of our plug-ins, and answered endless troubleshooting questions. The site encompasses high resolution images of each page, Latin transcriptions for the Prayers and Passions of John’s Gospel sections, and several pages of written commentary. The companion to the edition site is the classroom blog, which includes manuscript related blog posts from Dr. Camp as well from every student who has worked on each iteration of the archives class.

The Future of the Hargrett Hours

The Hargrett Hours already has the next few years of its life planned out (what a go getter!). As one of the main teaching manuscripts used at UGA, it’s pulled out of the vault more often than other manuscripts of comparable age. The Hargrett Hours sees the light of day (filtered through archival safe window panes) a few times a semester, mainly for Dr. Camp’s classes and occasionally for a show-and-tell session for donors. Next up for the Hargrett Hours is a second pigment analysis class in Fall 2019 that will be done with help from staff and equipment at UGA’s Center for Applied Isotope Studies. In Fall 2021 the Archives class will be returning to studying and editing the text of the manuscript, most likely focusing on its calendar and determining whether it really was made for use at the royal chapel of Sainte-Chapelle, as is suspected.

A close up of one of the Calendar pages.

Comparing the size of the Hargrett Hours to a standard sized sheet of notebook paper.

Final Notes

Although it’s true that these books are historical artifacts that should be handled gently and protected for their own sake, it is equally important to extend the life of these manuscripts for as long as possible in order to keep being able to use them as teaching tools. There’s only one Hargrett Hours and once pages start falling out of it then that’s the end of using it for teaching. UGA is first and foremost a research and teaching institution, so it is most likely that the Hargrett Hours will stay in use for as long as it is safe to do so.

Acknowledgements: This blog post would not have been possible without help and mentoring from Dr. Cynthia Turner Camp of the UGA English Department and Mr. Jason Hasty, the UGA Athletics History Specialist who also works closely with Dr. Camp’s classes for work done in the Special Collections Library.