Saturday, December 12, 2015

Malta Milestone for CUA's Rare Books

Rare Books this week finalized an agreement with the Malta Study Center of the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library (HMML) which will allow wider access to Catholic University's manuscripts and rare books relating to the island nation of Malta and the history of the Sovereign Order of Malta. Through a collaborative effort, the manuscript holdings at CUA will be photographed by staff of the HMML and, after cataloging, will be accessible to scholars everywhere via the HMML portal. Eventually some of CUA's Malta-related rare books will also be digitally available. This marks the first formal partnership between the two institutions, although HMML's recent exhibition, Knights, Memory, and the Siege of 1565, included four items from Catholic University.  The Hill Museum and Manuscript Library has a proud tradition of microfilming and digitizing at-risk manuscripts in foreign countries and the agreement with Rare Books is their first domestic collaboration.

 Andrew Abela, Provost of CUA and Daniel Gullo, Curator of the Malta Study Center share a lighter moment after signing the digitization agreement. Behind them are Charles Farrugia, Archivist of Malta, Joseph Micallef, KMOb, and Christopher Grech, Associate Professor of Architecture at CUA.

Digitization is expected to commence in the spring of 2016. Two of the CUA manuscripts will require substantial conservation work before they can be safely photographed.  Saliba MS 38 and MS 53 both suffer from the effects of the iron-gall ink with which they were written.  The stabilization of these two manuscripts will cost approximately $25,000 -- work that is essential to prevent more loss of paper and information. 

Most manuscripts from the Middle Ages until the 19th century were produced with home-made inks of varying chemical compositions, some more corrosive than others. An example from MS 38 is seen below. The ink has eaten through the paper in a process which brings together inherent vice and data-rot to produce irreversible loss of both text and paper. Further physical disintegration can only be prevented by expert conservators whose painstaking application of Japanese tissue to damaged areas allows the paper to be handled and read without risking further damage. Treatment of the underlying chemical problem is far more complicated. 

Spanish manuscript of 1778 showing paper dropout from ink corrosion

The Carol Saliba collection, containing material on the 18th- and early 19th-century history of the Knights of Malta, includes several manuscripts which have already been stabilized to prevent further loss of the paper substrate. Below are before-and-after images of a badly damaged example, from the 1807 letter of bailli La Tour du Pin, concerning finances and negotiations between members of the recently displaced Order and the King of Sweden for a new home base on Gotland.
MS 26 before treatment showing losses

After treatment,stabilized with Berlin tissue

Future posts will highlight other items from the Saliba collection and from the earlier gift of Foster Stearns, the New Hampshire congressman whose gift of books and manuscripts was the seed of the present Malta Collection. In closing, we express warm thanks to Daniel Gullo for his imagination in conceiving this partnership and for having the industry and patience to bring it about.