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The Largest Library in the World Begins 3D Scanning Its Massive Collection of Historical Texts and Artifacts

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The Book of Esther in scroll form, digitally captured as part of the Hebrew Manuscripts project at the British Library.

The Book of Esther in scroll form, digitally captured as part of the Hebrew Manuscripts project at the British Library.

The past few years have seen a radical shift in the use of 3D scanning and 3D printing technology from museums and how they use their digital assets. Using advanced 3D scanning technology isn’t a new practice for most of these institutions, especially those museums that are also actively involved in conducting research. But until the last few years, those digital assets were primarily used in-house as archival data or to help researchers closer examine fragile or vulnerable artifacts without damaging them. Until the recent rise of 3D printing and virtual reality it is likely that most of these museums hadn’t even considered that the general public would be interested in digital versions of their collections.

But the tide has certainly shifted in the past few years as more and more museums line up to digitally catalog their collections and begin offering them up to the general public. Institutions are developing digital versions of many of their exhibits, and in the future many museums will offer virtual reality tours that can be accessed online. Growing numbers of museums are also offering high-quality 3D printable digital models of many of the more popular pieces in their collections. Sure not every museum is on board, but it is likely that digital content will become the norm rather than the exception in the coming years.

Carved oracle bones housed at the British Library.

Carved oracle bones housed at the British Library.

There is a growing movement in the cultural heritage sector to extend museums’ growing acceptance and embracing of 3D technology to libraries. Most large libraries hold more than just 2D books but house a wide variety of historical texts and artifacts similar to museums, and yet most of their collections are locked away to protect them. According to Adi Keinan-Schoonbaert, the Digital Curator for the Hebrew Manuscripts Digitisation Project, the British Library, the largest library in the world, has positioned themselves at the head of the line for libraries digitally cataloging these massive, often unseen collections. The British Library has been experimenting with 3D scanning and 3D printing over the last year. While they are not embarking on a process of systematically scanning entire collection, the work done demonstrates value in artifact digitization. In a recent post over on the British Library’s Asian and African Studies Blog, Keinan-Schoonbaert discusses why libraries are more than just collections of books, and why it is important for them to begin 3D scanning the huge variety of texts and artifacts that call them home.

“It makes perfect sense for such a large library to re-examine its traditional approach to the delivery of information and to keep seeking novel means of public and scholarly engagement – especially in light of the huge variety of items it holds. Aside from the more predictable formats (books, newspapers, documents, maps), the Library’s physical collection spans from inscribed bones, seals, scrolls, wooden cases, fine textiles, and folding books with covers embellished with gold and jewels, to wooden cabinets, chests, ship models and even rifles! Some collection items such as manuscript chests cannot be called up by readers from the Library’s basement – they are too heavy and too fragile. And as most of the Library’s collection items are not on display in one of its galleries, 3D digitisation affords the opportunity to bring these items into the virtual light,” explained Keinan-Schoonbaert.

Here is a 3D model of the Esther Scroll in an ivory case:

Add. MS 11831
by Adi Keinan-Schoonbaert
on Sketchfab

There are two methods of 3D scanning and 3D modelling their artifacts that museums typically employ. The first is the use of a 3D scanner or a laser scanner to generate highly accurate three-dimensional duplicates of objects. While this is the fastest, and typically most accurate, method, in order to get archival quality 3D scans it requires expensive, high-end technology that is difficult to acquire on the tight budgets that most museums and libraries are used to operating with. The second, and most cost effective method, is 3D photogrammetry, a process of capturing dozens, sometimes hundreds of pictures of an object and using software to stitch them all together into a detailed 3D model.

Here is a 3D model of of an oracle bone:

Oracle Bone Or 7694/1595
by Adi Keinan-Schoonbaert
on Sketchfab

3D photogrammetry is capable of producing incredibly detailed 3D models, however it can often be time consuming. It is popular for archiving historical artifacts because it doesn’t require any additional technology and can be done with the digital photography equipment that most museums and libraries already have access to. This is the method that the London library is using to digitally catalog some of their artifacts, and according to Keinan-Schoonbaert the only special equipment that they had to purchase was an inexpensive turntable to make the process of capturing images from every angle easier. Recently she has helped produce several 3D projects for the British Library, including a huge digital collection of historical Hebrew Manuscripts and the Oracle Bones digitization project.

For the Hebrew manuscripts project, Keinan-Schoonbaert helped digitize 1,300 different ancient manuscripts, scrolls, charters, codices (manuscripts that have been bound in book format) and loose folios. The collection spans more than 1,000 years, starting in the 10th century all the way up to the 20th century. The historical manuscripts primarily originate from Europe and the Middle East, and allow researchers access to hundreds of artifacts and texts that would have been too fragile for them to have access to previously. The collection is a wide representation of Jewish knowledge from every aspect, including both the religious and the secular.

The Oracle Bones project captured 3D models of almost 500 ‘oracle bones’ that originate from the Shang Dynasty period of China, between 1600 and 1050 BCE. An oracle bone was used in early divination rituals that would answer questions about the outcome of daily life during the era. Ox bones, and sometimes turtle shells, were used, inscribed with questions for the ancestors and then heated up with hot metal rods. As the bones would heat up they would form fissures, and these cracks were then interpreted by diviners based on their patterns. The oracle bones contain the earliest known examples of ancient Chinese characters, and at 3,000 years old, their collection of bones are the oldest artifacts in the British Library.

In order to preserve the oracle bone collection they are stored in a special storage facility that carefully regulates the temperature and humidity, and they are not typically available for examination. In order to create their digital duplicates, one of the library’s conservators handled the delicate bones, and built special stands for them that would hold them securely while allowing the photographs to be taken. The conservator also remained on hand to monitor the entire process and insure that the bones were handled safely and were not in any jeopardy of being damaged.

The 3D photogrammetry process requires that multiple digital images are taken of the object from every conceivable angle. There needs to be enough overlap between the images so the software used to create the 3D model can sufficiently extrapolate the shape in three dimensions. Each object was placed on a turntable while the camera was secured on a tripod. The turntable is rotated about five to ten degrees between each photo until the object was shot from all sides. The object was then turned over and the process repeated. Once all of the images were taken, they would be white balanced and masked before being input into Agisoft PhotoScan, the software package that the use to convert the collection of images into a 3D model.

Once the 3D models were completed, they were uploaded to Sketchfab where they could be examined in 3D by anyone anywhere in the world. Many of the 3D scanned objects found their way into an exhibit in the library called “More than a Book”, housed in the Reading Room in the Asian and African Studies of the library. Additionally, the British Library also commissioned UK 3D printing service bureau ThinkSee3D to 3D print several of the artifacts, including detailed reproductions of the oracle bones. You can learn more about the Oracle Bones housed in the library here, and you can learn more about the collection of digitized Hebrew manuscripts here. Discuss further in the British Library 3D Scanning Catalog forum over at

[Source/Images: British Library]
A 3D printed replica of an Oracle Bone 3D printed by ThinkSee3D.

A 3D printed replica of an Oracle Bone 3D printed by ThinkSee3D.

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