The Art of Repairing and Digitizing a 400-year-old 3D Book

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From the BODY WORLDS exhibition to Brain Surgery Live, it’s clear that modern humans are pretty curious about what goes on beneath our skin. But this is hardly a new phenomenon: More than 400 years ago, an intricate lift-the-flap anatomy book called Catoptrum Microcosmicum was a smash hit in Europe.

“Back then, pictures of the body were a lot less frequent, and there wasn’t anything like x-rays,” Steve Novak, head of Archives & Special Collections at Columbia University, tells mental_floss. “This satisfied a very basic curiosity about how the body is formed. And then there’s that pregnant woman in the middle of the first page. In the 17th century, as today, sex sells … and in the 17th century, I think that qualified as sex.”

The book was so popular that it was reprinted again and again, and some copies are still around today. One of those copies lives in the collection of Columbia’s Health Sciences Library, where staff members have recently restored and digitized the fragile book. 

The book, a 1661 edition, came to the library in pretty rough shape. Its parchment cover had stretched, which caused the book to warp. At some point in the last few centuries, someone had spilled a dark liquid onto the pages, rendering some of the text unreadable.

A conservator carefully removed the cover and took the book apart. He then crafted a new cover out of paper and leather—materials common in bookmaking in the 17th century—and hand-stitched the book back together. 

Next came the stain removal, which was accomplished using a device called a suction table. The conservator washed the stained pages with water, then sucked out the moisture before it could spread. 

The paper flaps themselves were quite jumbled, and some were torn. The conservator delicately disentangled them, then applied a thin tissue backing to make them just a little sturdier.

Once the book was clean and sturdy, it went to the library’s reprography department, where expert photographers painstakingly captured every inch of every page. They used tiny brushes and panes of glass to separate the flaps, each of which took quite a long time to photograph. 

“It’s not a matter of just putting it underneath the camera and flipping pages,” digital imaging manager Dave Ortiz explains. “Just to do the three flapped pages took us upward of eight or nine days.” 

Once the photo shoots had ended, the imaging staff compiled a master version of the book, which is now available to the public online. Alexis Hagadorn, head of the library's conservation program, says she's thrilled with the outcome: “It’s really exciting. Because of the conservation treatment and the care with the high-resolution imaging, you can actually see a lot more online than you can working directly from the book. It’s a really perfect example of how conservation and reprography and special collections departments all work together. We have this new technology to bring to bear on much older things, and we’re finding new ways to make them accessible to people who want to see them.”

Steve Novak agrees. The book is a treasure, he says—not only as an object, but also as a window into history. “It’s a wonderful example of popular science writing,” he says, made all the more impressive because it came “… from a time when science was really just getting started.”

To see the book online or download it for your e-reader, visit Archive.org.

Banner image via YouTube.

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