Putting Together the Pieces: Preparing a Highly Fragmented Book for Digitisation

01 May 2018

Empire and Globalism | History

At The National Archives, before a historical document is digitised, it passes through a team of conservators to ensure it is fit for scanning. This ‘stamp of approval’ requires that all information contained within the document be legible and that any damage repaired so that it may be safely handled.

I am currently reviewing records from the Colonial Office for a digitisation project with Adam Matthew Digital for the resource Colonial America. Amongst these records I found a large bound book comprised entirely of oversized foldout pages in a highly fragmented state. Damage was so extensive that it could only be viewed under the supervision of a member of the Collection Care department. Besides numerous tears and creases, most pages were not intact and hundreds of mismatched loose fragments were haphazardly spread throughout the book.

The book, CO 5/509 (available early next year), is a record of shipping returns to ports in South Carolina between 1721 and 1735. The build and ownership of each vessel are registered, as well as their provenance, destination and an inventory of their cargo. Besides the importation of a wide range of material commodities such as food, alcohol, animal skins, elephant tusks and planks of wood, the record also holds testament to slave trade practices, with slaves being brought by the hundreds from Africa – particularly Angola and Guinea – and in significantly smaller numbers from the Caribbean.

Due to the extent of fragmentation of the book’s pages, this information was largely inaccessible and it was impossible to discern whether any fragments (hence information) had been lost. The book could under no circumstances be digitised in its current condition.

The Collection Care department teamed up with the Collections Expertise and Engagement department to bring the chaos back to order. Thanks to the hard work of Early Modern Records Specialist Ruth Selman, the book was sorted before treatment and all fragments were successfully reunited with their respective pages. Surprisingly, very few fragments of paper were missing, and mostly only in small areas.

The document then came to the Collection Care department, where I painstakingly reattached the hundreds of fragments. Following is an example of a page before and after treatment:

Page 145 before treatment. Image © The National Archives. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.
Page 145 after treatment. Image © The National Archives. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

After almost 40 hours of work – an unusually extensive time frame for a treatment carried out by the digitisation team – the information in the book was made accessible and it was sturdy enough for handling, allowing it to be safely digitised.

It was truly a pleasure to accompany the gradual journey from random disarray to a unified and usable document. Thanks to the collaborations both within TNA and with Adam Matthew Digital, this book may now be widely consulted and appreciated.

Book before treatment. Image © The National Archives. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.
Book after treatment. Image © The National Archives. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

Colonial America modules 1, 2 and 3 are out now. For more information, including trial access and price enquiries, please contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. More information about these records can be found within The National Archives catalogue.

About the Author

Carina Rosas

Carina Rosas

I work as a project conservator at The National Archives, within the digitisation team of the Collection Care Department. My role involves surveying and treating a wide range of documents to prepare them for digitisation.

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