Updated: Friday, 28th February 2020 @ 2:01pm

Revealing the hidden past at Manchester's gem – the John Rylands Library

Revealing the hidden past at Manchester's gem – the John Rylands Library

| By Kit Roberts

The lobby of the John Rylands Library is a sleek, modern space cut out in glass and slate.

Finished in institutional white, a totem of coloured glass streaks down the atrium wall displaying prints of some of the library’s most prestigious items. Iconic names like Gutenberg, Shakespeare, and Caxton are familiar on the lips of the staff.

Contrary to its neo-gothic facade, even the original library is, in historical terms at least, a thoroughly modern building. Opened at the turn of the 20th century, its architecture sets it up as a cathedral to knowledge and learning, as well as a titanic expression of the private wealth held in Victorian Manchester.

I am here to meet Gwen Riley-Jones, who works as a photographer in one of the library’s most unique and cutting-edge departments.

From the stark modernism of the atrium we pass backstage. The change from the new to the old building is immediately apparent, with  whitewashed plaster giving way to ochre sandstone brickwork and wrought iron ornaments.

(image courtesy of University of Manchester, with thanks)

Although I am told some books are still held in the old building, most are now stored in the modern section. The original vaults, way down in the bowels of the library, with their formidable, foot thick, cast-iron safe doors, simply cannot create the optimum conditions to store the most precious collections.

Those now live in a climate controlled archive with a mildly unnerving fire safety system which pumps argon gas into the room to stifle fire.

Gwen leads the way, and we arrive into a small, dark room containing a computer on a trolley, and an extraordinary camera setup. A large rig holds a modified digital camera, and either side a light panel faces down onto the foam-covered table beneath. This is what I am here to see.

Began in 2012, the Rylands now plays host to one of the few photo laboratories in the UK which uses an photographic technique called “multi-spectral imaging”. The aim of this technique is to reveal texts and images which have either faded in time or been  deliberately erased from an item. 


How it works, Gwen explains, involves exposing an item to light from many different parts of the spectrum, including UV and infa-red. As the light reflects off residual ink on the page, it can accentuate faded texts invisible to the naked eye.

This method, perhaps unsurprisingly, originated in medical imaging techniques. It is not the only example of such crossover, as CT scans are sometimes used to look inside heritage items with minimal damage. Unlike a CT scan however, multi-spectral imaging relies only on the reflection of light from the item.

The result can be spectacular, and reveals fascinating truths about the use and production of books throughout history. One example I am shown is of one of the library's extensive collection of papyrus, including some of the earliest known manuscripts of the New Testament in their original Greek.

The fragment, which Gwen reveals contains the earliest known mention of the Last Supper, is shown by the imaging to have also been used for something a little more mundane: a receipt of sale.

Such multiple use, I am told, was common in a time when writing materials were extremely costly. Even important and sacred texts might share their papyrus with bills, IOUs, or stock takes.

The method is also very useful in preserving the collections. Gwen shows me the library’s famous portrait, believed to be of Shakespeare. To the naked eye, it appears in as good a condition as might be expected.

However, under the new light, pock marks and spots start to appear. By the end, the unfortunate Bard looks to be suffering from a virulent case of the pox.

But, as ever in this room, all is not as it seems. The nasty-looking rashes on his face, Gwen explains, are in fact restoration work carried out following an assessment of the portrait by the library’s team of conservators.

Multi-spectral imaging is also useful in the tricky process of identifying forgeries, as modern materials can often react differently to light than the original materials. However, Gwen is keen to highlight that it is not immutable, as modern synthetics are now so good that even the camera can sometimes be fooled.

Throughout our talk, the team’s exceptional knowledge of their work is apparent. Whilst similar laboratories do exist in other parts of the country, very few employ trained photographers to operate them. Many rely instead on archivists and librarians.

The difference in understanding of the process is immediately apparent. This lab is a powerful tool for any researcher, and importantly allows specialists from many disciplines to share insights over the collections. Having its own team with specialist expertise makes a clear difference in what the library can make available to researchers.

Such a technologically innovative outlook is nothing new here. As early as 1911, library founder Enriqueta Rylands, who inherited from her husband John one of the largest cotton empires in Manchester, saw the potential of photography in documenting its collections.

A memo from the archives declares: “There can be little doubt that this new department is fraught with possibilities of world-wide benefit.”

In the main section of the library, the exhibition space displays a selection of exquisite manuscripts in Syriac and Arabic. The exhibition traces the spread of medical knowledge from the Middle-East and Europe. There are versions of famous historical medical practitioners, including Galen, among talismans and beautifully illustrated manuscripts.

Many of these are “palimpsests”, which means that the original text has been scraped off so that the paper or parchment can be reused. In other words, they are perfect for displaying the possibilities of multi-spectral imaging.

Throughout my visit, the feeling of commitment to the founding philosophy of the library seems is palpable. The legacy of Enriqueta is clearly very much alive.

Seeing the Invisible, an exhibition showcasing these imaging techniques, is on at the John Rylands Library until March 8 2020. Admission is free. More info available here.

Main image courtesy of John Rylands Library via Twitter, with thanks.