A different kind of subtext

X-Rays Reveal “Hidden Library” on the Spines of Early Books [Jason Daley – Smithsonian.com]

The first book printers, in 15th Century Europe, used handwritten manuscripts to reinforce spines and covers of the new printed books. Now, using technology called “macro X-ray fluorescence spectrometry,” researchers at Leiden University in the Netherlands are able to read these old texts without ripping apart the almost-as-old books.

As part of the experiment, the team scanned 20 books. According to a press release, their discoveries include fragments from a 12th century manuscript from the early English historian Bede as well as text from the Dutch Book of Hours. The X-ray was also able to separate out texts that had been pasted on top of one another.

“Every library has thousands of these bindings, especially the larger collections. If you go to the British Library or the Bodleian [in Oxford], they will have thousands of these bindings,” [says Leiden book historian Erik Kwakkel] “So you can see how that adds up to a huge potential.”

But it may be a while before the hidden library is fully revealed. The current method is painfully slow, taking up to 24 hours to scan a book’s spine. The researchers hope that advances in X-ray technology will soon help speed up the process.

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