Tag Archives: Digitisation

Digitising Shakespeare’s First Folio at King’s College

In my role as photographer at Cambridge University Library’s Digital Content Unit (DCU), I am fortunate to encounter fascinating and unique material. Digitising the library’s vast collections means that I have handled an early biblical palimpsest, illuminated Persian manuscripts, Japanese painted scrolls, and even a 4000 years old Sumerian clay tablet. That is the nature of the work itself: the ever-changing challenge of utilising high-tech photography to create a digital record of wide-ranging pieces of humanity’s endeavours.

Mid-summer 2022, however, I was given an unusual assignment. King’s College’s precious copy of William Shakespeare’s First Folio needed to be digitised. Although King’s is in sight of the University Library, bringing this invaluable volume to the DCU studio for imaging was not an option. It was decided that I would set up a mobile studio in the college library to photograph the First Folio over a two-week period.

Entrance of King’s College Library in Webb’s Court

Mr. William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies (also known as ‘the First Folio’) hardly needs any introduction, especially during the year in which we celebrate the quatercentenary of its publication. Gathering 36 of Shakespeare’s plays, it was published in 1623, seven years after the playwright‘s death. Its literary significance cannot be overstated. Notably, as some original manuscripts were lost over the centuries, the Folio constitutes the earliest record for 18 plays, including some of Shakespeare’s most famous works such as Macbeth and The Tempest. Out of the 235 known First Folio copies disseminated around the world, four are held by Cambridge University institutions, including the one in King’s College. The green leather-bound volume with gold embossing is only slightly taller than an A4 sheet of paper. An engraving of the Bard’s likeness adorns the frontispiece, followed by over 900 pages of text. As Dr James Clements, College Librarian, remarked, it was striking to think that I would be the first person to look closely at (and turn) every single page of the book in many decades, or perhaps a few hundred years.

Close-up of the First Folio frontispiece portrait of William Shakespeare engraved by Martin Droeshout.

One September morning, my colleague Gordon McMillan drove me and a van load of photography equipment across the river. With the assistance of another peer, Błażej Mikuła, I took possession of the space which would become my office for the coming weeks. It was a seminar room on the second floor of the library. The octagonal space was entirely lined with glass-fronted cabinets packed full of rare books. To install my mobile digitisation studio, I moved chairs to the sides and I used the large, solid-wood round table as a sturdy base on which to place a traveller’s book cradle. This device provides extensive support for fragile and precious bound items. Nestled between the cradle’s boards, the book is mostly held down by gravity and a weighted string (known as a snake) keeps it open in the right place. A clear acrylic sheet propped up by foam blocks ensured that the targeted page stayed flat, while minimising the pressure on this historic binding. It is important that the item being captured sits parallel to the camera in order to produce a non-distorted image.

Camera setup in the seminar room. The PhaseOne camera is on a tripod looking over the traveller’s book cradle, on which rests the First Folio, with flash lights on both sides.

The high-resolution camera (a 100-megapixel PhaseOne digital back with a 120mm prime lens) was mounted onto a heavy-duty tripod and the spot for the tripod’s legs was marked on the rug with black tape. The two Broncolor flash lights flanking the camera, equipped with soft boxes, received the same treatment. I tied laptop tethering and all power cables together and out of the way so that they would not constitute a trip hazard. It was crucial to prevent setup disturbances throughout the imaging process to guarantee a consistency of imaging. While this is easier to achieve in a traditional photography studio where lights and book cradles are fixed, replicating it from scratch in a room which has not been designed for it requires a whole lot more effort.

The imaging started with exposure and colour calibration. I tested the positioning of my flash lights, as well as potential reflections. This highlighted the need to cover the camera brand name and other elements which were reflecting in the acrylic sheet. The angle of the lights was adjusted to account for the fact that this traveller’s book cradle sits in the opposite direction to what its larger relatives would in a photography studio. These light and colour parameters remained unchanged during the entire digitisation process. A meticulous workflow results in extremely accurate and detailed digital reproduction. Images do not need to be retouched through post-processing software. A frustrating side effect was that I also had to limit stray light by closing the window shutters while photographing, thus depriving me of the delightful views of Webb’s Court!

The first page of ‘The Tragedie of Romeo and Iuliet’ on my laptop screen during the digitisation. The white snake is visible on the left of the image, outside the cropped area which will constitute the final image.

A close-up photo of the title page decorated by an ornate head-piece.










Regularly checking that the image was in focus, I photographed the front cover first, followed by the rectos of each page, interleaving them with a black background. Once all the rectos were imaged, I flipped the book over and repeated the process, capturing the versos including the back cover. Before I knew it I came across the words uttered by Hamlet ‘To be or not to be…’. It was hard not to read every famous passage of these seminal plays. Finally, the spine and gilt top and bottom edges were recorded, therefore creating a complete digital copy of the volume. Importantly, I double (and triple) checked the hundreds of files before dismantling the mobile studio, as indeed, the exact photography conditions would all be near impossible to reproduce once they were taken apart.

The First Folio book spine as seen through the camera viewfinder. ‘Shakespeare – 1623’ is embossed in gold.

The beauty of King’s College and its various locations is something I found myself constantly in awe of during the fortnight I spent there. Whether it was a river Cam view from a library window, the beautiful display of modern paintings on the south wall of the dining hall (talk about a backdrop for fish and chips on Friday), or, of course, the glorious fan vaulting of the college’s chapel ceiling, it remains one of the greatest aspects of my job. Finally, I would be remiss if I did not mention another undoubtable highlight of my mission: meeting the staff of King’s College Library. I was very appreciative of all of them for making me feel welcome, inviting me to join their tea breaks and lunches, and for telling me about their work. I was particularly grateful to James Clements for all his help and kindness. His behind-the-scenes tour of the library was fascinating, and I was touched that he took time out of his busy schedule to show me around.

King’s College Chapel, a fifteenth-century wonder basking in late afternoon light.

Friday fish and chips in the college nineteenth-century gothic revival dining hall.

The King’s College First Folio is fully digitised and accessible online on this link.

Amélie Deblauwe

Rupert Brooke papers online

ScreenshotNot only does today mark the anniversary of Rupert Brooke’s death, it also marks the launch of a new online resource which offers unprecedented access to his archives.

Exactly three years ago, on the centenary of Brooke’s death, King’s College acquired the Schroder Collection. This had been the largest private collection of Rupert Brooke papers, so by adding them to our already extensive collection of his papers, we provided scholars who were able to visit our reading room with access to papers which might only have been seen by Brooke’s biographers before.

The Schroder Collection had cost £500,000 and the purchase was only possible because of generous grants from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Friends of the National Libraries, along with other private donations.

In 2017 King’s College received a further grant from the Friends of the National Libraries, enabling us to digitise approximately half of the Schroder papers. Archivists selected the letters between Rupert Brooke, Edward (‘Eddie’) Marsh and William Denis Browne as a large body of papers that offered in-depth insight into the friendships, from all three sides because they each wrote to each other about the third party. It is rare in archives to have both sides of a correspondence, let alone all three sides of a triangle of correspondents.

If you are reading this blog, it is likely that you will have heard of Rupert Brooke, one of the College’s most famous and possibly even controversial alumni. He is best known as the poet who wrote ‘The Old Vicarage, Grantchester’ and ‘The Soldier’ (these can be read on the Rupert Brooke Society’s website), but perceptions of him are constantly evolving. At the time of his death, there was a ‘myth’ surrounding him, with an obituary by Winston Churchill in The Times, a controversial  Memoir by Edward Marsh and  Brooke being called a ‘young Apollo’ (Frances Cornford) and ‘the most handsome man in England’ (W.B. Yeats). Later biographies have focussed on Brooke’s complicated relationships. The jury is still out, so to speak, and these papers may help fuel that debate, allowing people to form their own opinions.

While Brooke is relatively well known, Marsh and Denis Browne have not received the same attention. It is hoped that this new online resource will change that.

Denis Browne had attended Rugby School, in the year below Brooke, then followed him to Cambridge, although Denis Browne matriculated at Clare College. Both were involved in dramatic productions at Cambridge and during World War 1 both joined the Hood Battalion. Denis Browne was among those who buried Brooke on the Greek island of Skyros. He gave an account of Brooke’s death and burial in a letter to Marsh.  In another letter, Denis Browne pre-empted his own tragic death. On 4 June 1915, Denis Browne died at Gallipoli and his body was never found.

On 11th March 1913, Brooke introduced Denis Browne to Marsh at a dinner after Pétrouchka at Covent Garden. Marsh and Denis Browne quickly became close friends.

Marsh was Private Secretary for Churchill, as well as publisher of the Georgian Poetry anthologies (with Brooke) and a patron of the arts. After Brooke’s death, Marsh acted as his literary executor until 1934.

The new online resource can be seen on the Cambridge University Digital Library.

The Archivists would like to thank the volunteers Mandy Marvin, Harriet Alder, Maddie McDonagh, and Thelma May for their assistance in the creation of metadata for this project. They were the first to respond to our original project announcement and call for volunteers on this blog – we were sorry that we couldn’t accommodate everybody who offered their time for this project. We are also very grateful to the Friends of the National Libraries for enabling the creation of this resource.




Thackeray Project Digital Library

It might seem that we have been a little quiet here recently, but that is because we have been working hard behind the scenes on our digital library which we are now able to share with everyone.

Rare book spines (from left): vellum (gatherings exposed), three with raised bands and decorative gold-tooled panels, the last without raised bands, but with coloured leather spine labels tooled in gold.

One of the objectives of our HLF-funded project, which is centred around the rare book collection of former King’s Provost George Thackeray (1777-1850), is the creation of a corpus of digital content that will last well beyond the lifetime of the two-year project. This can now be viewed on the King’s website here.

Title within woodcut architectural border (McKerrow and Ferguson 278). William Gouge, The Saints sacrifice (London: George Miller, 1632; Thackeray.I.7.5)

The digital library, which we will continue to add to during the project, currently includes a gallery of book bindings, title pages, a gallery showing the stages of book conservation and a page devoted to the first and early editions of Jane Austen.

Title page of the first English edition of Emma (Thackeray.J.57.10)

Stay tuned for many more images from the Thackeray collection!


Call for volunteers to help digitise selected Rupert Brooke papers


Rupert Brooke in uniform, at Blandford, Dorset. 1914. Print by W. Hazel of Bournemouth.
Archive Centre, King’s College, Cambridge. RCB/Ph/262

We are pleased to announce that the Archive Centre has been awarded a grant of £2,797 by the Friends of the National Libraries towards the cost of digitising significant parts of the Schroder collection. These papers are thought to have been the largest collection of Rupert Brooke archives to be held privately until we purchased them in 2015, with grants from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Friends of the National Libraries, as well as further donations by friends of the library through the Munby Centenary Fund. The Schroder papers now form a series within our main Rupert Brooke collection. The fact they were acquired so much later than the rest of the collection means they still hold considerable potential for original research, having only been seen by privileged biographers before they came to King’s.

Most of the items selected for digitisation are correspondence between Rupert Brooke (RCB), Edward Marsh (RCB’s friend, literary executor and biographer) and William Denis Browne (RCB’s friend and a young composer, who died at Gallipoli only days after burying RCB). A famous letter RCB wrote to Lascelles Abercrombie (possibly the last thing RCB ever wrote), RCB’s attaché case and Denis Browne’s personal effects will also be included.

The material will be digitised by the Cambridge University Library and shared online through their Digital Library, where it will sit alongside such interesting collections as the personal papers of Siegfried Sassoon.

The Archive Centre will create metadata (essentially, adding further details to our catalogue, including listing individual letters within guard books) to be added to the images, making them easier to search. We hope to do this with the help of volunteers, who will be properly trained and have a wonderful opportunity to gain some experience of working with archives.

The in-house aspects of the project will be led by Peter Monteith (Assistant Archivist), who developed the education resource ‘Introduction to Archives: Rupert Brooke’.

If you would like to offer some of your time to assist in the creation of metadata for this new digitisation project, please contact archivist@kings.cam.ac.uk.