New Light on Old Texts: Imaging Science at the SUB Goettingen

Alex Zawacki at the MSI Lab, SUB Göttingen, photo: Mona Kirsch

Since January 2023, Alexander Zawacki has been working as Imaging Scientist at the SUB Göttingen. This position was established as a result of a joint project of the university library with the Institute for Digital Humanities in Göttingen – Digital Palaeography and Imaging Science –, funded by the VolkswagenStiftung. The main aim of the project is to combine the rather traditional field of (Western) palaeography with the most recent digital methods and their practical application, in particular in the areas of the digital recovery of handwritten text

What is your educational background? How did you become an imaging scientist?

My background is a little unusual. Many of the people working in this field come from either a strictly science or a strictly humanities background, but mine is a bit of both. I pursued a science degree as an undergraduate but always had a strong interest in medieval literature, so after completing my bachelor’s I took postgraduate degrees in that field from Bangor University and the University of Rochester. At the latter school I joined the Lazarus Project under Dr. Gregory Heyworth, which uses multispectral imaging and other technologies to recover lost texts. I found that my mixed background helped a lot in that environment – it’s very useful to have at least a working knowledge of chemistry as well as medieval codicology, for example.

Tell us about your role and your responsibilities at the SUB Göttingen.

At the library, I work as an imaging scientist, using multispectral imaging to digitally restore illegible text and images from different cultural heritage objects – manuscripts, printed books, letters, and everything in between. I work with other scholars who study some of these objects and pursue research projects of my own. I am also a lecturer in the Institute for Digital Humanities, where I teach, among other things, the Digital Paleography schools in the Spring and Summer. This spring we’ll be teaching students at the Biblioteca Capitolare in Verona and Vercelli, both of which have priceless collections of medieval manuscripts. 

How does multispectral imaging of cultural heritage work and what is it used for?

At its core, multispectral imaging is a fairly simple procedure. We take a number of photographs of a single page of a book or manuscript under different wavelengths of light, from the ultraviolet through the spectrum and into the infrared. It’s rare that any one image will give us what we’re looking for, though, so the next step is to process the images. We apply different statistical processes to the data we’ve captured, which can, for example, make very faint text more visible, or remove the overtext of a palimpsest so that we can read what is written below. That’s usually our goal – to recover writing or images that are erased, damaged, or otherwise unreadable. 

Does it damage the historical documents?

No, it’s very safe and non-invasive. The documents are not exposed to more light energy than they would be from sitting underneath normal fluorescent office lighting for a few seconds.

Is it possible to reconstruct any damaged text or are there certain limitations? 

In theory, as long as the page still exists, it should be possible to recover traces of the text. Whether or not that’s feasible in practice depends on a number of factors, including what kind of damage it has been subjected to (and how bad the damage is), the materials used to prepare the document, and the tools and techniques you bring to it. The age of the document matters, too – text that sat on the page for a long time before being erased usually leaves more of a trace than text that was more recent. I’ve been surprised by positive results more than once in situations where I did not expect much success, so it’s rare that I come across a document that I think is so badly damaged as to be a lost cause.

Cod. Ms. syr. 11, in the background St. Jude, saint of Hope and lost causes

Have you ever invested a lot of time and effort in recovering a text and didn’t achieved a satisfactory result?

Yes, I am still disappointed that I was not able to recover the text from some postcards that were censored by the Nazis during the Second World War. The censors used inks that did a very good job of covering things up, and I had little success in penetrating them. It’s likely that in the future, with some of the new technologies on the horizon, that situation will change, though. 

What’s been the most exciting or challenging thing you’ve worked on so far?

One of them would certainly be the Gai Codex Rescriptus, a very important book of Roman law at the Biblioteca Capitolare in Verona that is profoundly challenging to read. It is a palimpsest, meaning the original text has been erased and overwritten, and previous generations of scholars treated the manuscript with chemical reagents meant to recover the lost text. Those have stained the pages very badly, and have darkened with age, making the faint original text very difficult to digitally extract. Every bit of text that we managed to recover from that document has the potential to add considerably to our collective knowledge of history, so it was extremely rewarding.

What do you love most about your job?

Getting to work with some of the most precious cultural heritage documents in existence is an incredible privilege, but having the chance to recover something from those documents that no one has been able to read in centuries or millennia – adding to the extant store of textual knowledge available to scholars and the public – is an incredible feeling. 



Diesen Blogbeitrag zitieren
Alexander Zawacki (2023, 6. März). New Light on Old Texts: Imaging Science at the SUB Goettingen. Selten und Bemerkenswert . Abgerufen am 24. April 2024, von https://doi.org/10.58079/ulkr

Alexander Zawacki

Alexander J. Zawacki is an imaging scientist and lecturer in the digital humanities at the University of Göttingen. He teaches in the Digital Paleography Spring and Summer Schools with the Institute for Digital Humanitities. His research focuses on the use of multispectral imaging to recover damaged cultural heritage documents and on magic and the supernatural in the Middle Ages. He can be reached at alexander.zawacki (at) sub.uni-goettingen.de

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3 Antworten

  1. Hans-Werner Hilse sagt:

    there’s a redundant copy of the two questions “is it…”, “have you ever…”.
    Thanks for doing the interview!

  1. 19/06/2023

    […] Göttingen, portable multispectral imaging equipment and the expertise of our Imaging Scientist, Alexander Zawacki, as well as the resources of the Institute for Digital […]

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