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Review: University of Iowa Librarians Use Medical Imaging Technology To Reveal Hidden Book Fragments

As a passionate bookbinder and restorer, I'm always intrigued by innovative approaches to uncovering the hidden stories within the pages of ancient manuscripts. Recently, I stumbled upon an article by Jennifer A. Dixon on the Library Journal website, published on August 25, 2023. It sheds light on the groundbreaking work of librarians at the University of Iowa who employed medical imaging technology, specifically a computerized tomography (CT) scanner, to unveil concealed fragments within rare books. Join me on this journey as we explore the fascinating intersection of technology and book restoration.

The University of Iowa librarians embarked on a unique quest to employ CT scanning, traditionally thought ineffective for revealing medieval fragments, to unlock the mysteries of rare books. Contrary to prior beliefs, the team, led by Eric Ensley, curator of rare books and maps, discovered that CT scanning not only proved efficient but also offered a quicker alternative to the widely-used X-ray fluorescence (XRF) scanner. The interdisciplinary collaboration, initiated in 2020, combined the expertise of librarians, medical professionals, and scholars from various departments, resulting in the successful unveiling of hidden texts within medieval book bindings.

The team's initial experiment involved scanning three volumes of Historia Animalium, an early zoological encyclopedia, revealing legible text from a Latin Bible that predates the 16th-century book's binding. The innovative use of a CT scanner, originally designed for medical purposes, showcased the potential to uncover hidden fragments in a cost-effective and efficient manner. Despite the time-intensive process of data reconstruction and image enhancement, the results were beyond expectations, prompting the team to explore even higher resolutions with a new photon-counting scanner.

As a seasoned bookbinder, the prospect of using CT scanning to reveal hidden fragments piqued my interest. The University of Iowa team's pioneering efforts, documented in their article "Using computed tomography to recover hidden medieval fragments beneath early modern leather bindings, first results," signify a promising avenue for the preservation and exploration of rare books. The fusion of technology and historical expertise offers a fresh perspective on book restoration.

While the article outlines the challenges of image processing and the laborious efforts involved in stabilizing books for scanning, the potential benefits for the broader academic community are immense. The notion of major research universities sharing resources to digitize materials from smaller institutions, as proposed by Eric Ensley, holds promise for democratizing access to hidden collections and advancing collaborative scholarship.

Katherine Tachau's enthusiasm for digital imaging's potential in reconstructing books and understanding historical practices resonates with the ethos of preserving physical books. The discussion around how libraries present these fragments and contribute to a holistic view of bookmaking adds depth to the narrative, emphasizing the unique insights that physical books offer in comparison to their digital counterparts.

In conclusion, the University of Iowa librarians' innovative use of CT scanning opens new doors for book restoration and historical exploration. The fusion of technology, interdisciplinary collaboration, and a genuine passion for preserving the tangible artifacts of our literary heritage exemplifies the spirit of innovation within the world of bookbinding. As we look to the future, this breakthrough invites us to reimagine the possibilities of uncovering hidden fragments and, in doing so, enriching our understanding of the history encapsulated within the pages of rare books.

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