How to copy Rare Books and Manuscripts

I am an amateur interested in the early editions and the mediaeval manuscripts of the Latin writer Tertullian, about whom you can read on my website at Naturally I wanted digital images of pages from these online. I also wanted to be able to browse the pages at home. People wouldn't let me do photocopies, so I needed another method. When digital cameras achieve better results, all this will become history.

However I'm not a camera guru, so I've had to learn what is and isn't possible. These pages are intended for others like me who aren't interested in the technology and just want to get on with it. I can't make you an expert - but this page should have enough to allow you to get some sort of images to read at bed-time.

Disclaimer: I am not an expert on anything I discuss below. Try it out at your own risk. This page is a work in progress, not an authority.

If you go to a major library, they make loads of difficulties. They'd rather die than allow you to copy the works they hold at taxpayers' expense! Usually they will condescend to sell you, at a high price, slides of individual pages (other copies are even more expensive), or a monochrome microfilm which you won't be able to look at easily, again at an exaggerated price. They may allow you to purchase photocopies of rare books, depending on their mood, and whether the binding is loose enough (see photocopying for this).

Anywhere else, it's down to you to make a copy. In minor libraries you will often find a warm welcome - they don't get too many scholars visiting - and these are where you will be allowed to make your own copies. It's as well to be aware of their legitimate concerns that you cause no damage to the books, and to respect this.

Possible Methods

The options I know about are:

I'm not aware of any other alternatives.


When I was brand new to this, and visited a local collection near me, I asked if I could copy some pages from a 16th century edition. They nearly foamed at the mouth! Unfortunately I have encountered the same reaction, born of fear rather than knowledge, elsewhere. On the other hand some small libraries are quite content to allow you to do this.

In reality there is no reason known to me why you should not copy pages from early editions in this way. Exposure to light is damaging to all sorts of things, including books, over a period of time, as a glance at your own shelves will show you. However it is pretty unlikely to be an issue with these volumes, which may go for decades without being opened, and are in any case printed on real paper, made from linen, rather than the modern substitutes made from acidic woodpulp. Of course if the volume is photocopied a few times, it would be better to have a microfilm made and print from that.

The real problem is elsewhere. The binding is often too tight to allow you to photocopy properly without risk to the binding. This may well be contemporary. If it's a Victorian binding, it will almost certainly be too tight to open properly, being bound for show rather than use. Either way, library staff will rightly shrink from risking damage to the sewing/binding, and so should you. Even if you did allow it, what sort of images would you get from close to the spine?

There are some additional issues you should be aware of.

However with care, and a bit of experimenting with the controls, you can get excellent results from pages at the start of a volume (or the end).


When I first wrote this page (in February 2000), all we really had were the film cameras.  Now (2006) we all carry a digital camera around in our mobile phones!  I have left the notes that I wrote on film photography, but these days you'd have to be an idiot to do it.

Now I'm not a photographer. All I can do is point the thing and press the shutter. Camera magazines baffle me. Camera shops depress me. Et cetera et cetera. But I have been able to photograph pages and manuscripts, and so can you. The thing to do is never to spend money until you know exactly what it will do for you. Camera shops are experts at selling things! Only go there with a friend who can drag you away for a cup of coffee when the buying frenzy takes hold.

My first attempt - almost worked!

The first thing I tried, in the film days, was to buy a cheap one-shot film camera at your local supermarket - the sort that costs £4 and you hand in, with the film for development (I had one left over froma holiday, which I didn't know what to do with). Get a magazine about the size of a folio volume, or a large thick book, put it on a table near the window, nice and well-lit by daylight, and take pictures of complete pages with that camera. If you can find some way to steady the camera do so, otherwise don't worry. Then take it to the cheapest local developer you can find and get the shots printed on standard 6"x4" paper.

I was amazed when I looked at these. They were very decent! Not quite good enough - but almost. My shaky hand meant that I could not make out the text perfectly, because it was blurred, but it was far from a failure. If you needed some thumbnails, they would have done fine.

These days I would simply grab the nearest digital camera, and take a snap.  It would be pretty good, likewise.

Now this is important, and I recommend you do just what I did, just to build your confidence. GETTING ADEQUATE RESULTS IS EASY! Let's face it, the equipment I just described is as basic as it gets! Anything will be an improvement - and yet even the worst conditions are almost good enough. In fact, I think that if I could have strapped the one-shot camera to an angle-poise lamp stand of some sort, the results would have been good enough to read. It's worth bearing in mind, if you get stuck somewhere without a camera.

OK, so all I need to do is to get the camera steady, and be able to cope with the low lighting levels in most libraries. Rarely will you be able to bring in auxillary lighting, although a few standard household lightbulbs will give a lot of help if you can use them!  But again, in these days of digital cameras, we just do not need to worry about lighting.

What tripod should I use?

Something a bit flexible. Remember that you want to take photographs looking straight down, onto the pages of a book. This rules out a lot of tripods. In my experience the pages won't lie flat, so I need to point the camera at some sort of angle as well!

Currently I'm using a Benbo Trekker, which cost about £100 and can be arranged to point in any direction. It doesn't weigh a ton either.

Should I buy a copystand?

Not at this stage. These also cost about £100 upwards, but are very heavy and very rigid. Don't even think about getting one of these until you've carried it to the end of a street and back. I did buy one briefly, and had to have help to get it to the car! It was not what I needed, and I returned it. I think they are great for fragments of manuscript, but less good for books unless you can arrange how the book lies on the desk exactly so that the pages are horizontal. That said, I'd like to try again, but this time more warily. It's certainly a luxury. You'd probably also need some form of lighting, as the camera will otherwise cast a shadow on the page, because the library lighting is overhead.

Photography - Digital

This is what I do today.  I use a Canon Powershot G5, I mount it on a Benbo Trekker tripod, and I use the automatic settings.  It gives great results!

What camera should I use? - Digital

The market is changing very fast.  I'm using a 5 megapixel camera, and this is fine.  The current standard is 8mp, and should be better yet.  I have found that I can get reasonable results on books smaller than folio (i.e. less than a foot tall) using 2mp upwards.  Mobile phones are about to have 3mp cameras in them, so these will probably be good.  But remember, you want the lens to be as large as possible - it has to collect light! - so make allowances for the tiny little lens on a mobile.

Should I get a microdrive?

Do NOT use a microdrive in your camera for storage.  I bought one, and found that it generated very slight shake!  Stick with the static flash cards.

How do I physically do the photographing?

Put the book under the camera, holding one page horizontal and the other out of camera-shot upright (so we don't strain the spine), click the remote, turn the page, click the remote, turn the page...  Then turn the book around and come back through the reverse of all the pages.

Then download the pics to your laptop and collate them NOW! - you may find one or two images are duff, and should be reshot.

How do I get the pictures in the PC?

Windows XP has the software built in.  Just connect your camera, and squirt them all onto the PC.  NB: I always save a copy of the folder before I do any editing on it!

All my photographs are on their side: can I manipulate them all upright?

I have just downloaded some 120 pictures of the pages of a book.  Half need to be turned through 90º clockwise, the other hald 90º anti-clockwise.  This will be slow if I use Paintshop Pro!  (But see note at end of page on a better way!)

I have discovered a tool called ImageMagic.  It is free, and installs very sweetly.  You run it from a command prompt.  Syntax is:

convert -rotate 90 sourcefile.jpg resultfile.jpg

for clockwise (sourcefile.jpg and resultfile.jpg can be the same, and I do this).  For anticlockwise do:

convert -rotate -90 sourcefile.jpg resultfile.jpg

What I have not found is wildcard options, so I end up writing a little .bat file which contains one command per file.  I create this by doing a 

dir /b > op.bat

in the folder.  This gives a bare list of names:  

img 001.jpg
img 002.jpg
img 003.jpg
img 004.jpg
img 005.jpg

I then open up textpad (also free and superior to notepad).  Hit F8 to get the Find/Replace box.  Select 'regular expression' and then change



"\nconvert -rotate 90 "

which gives

convert -rotate 90 "img 034.jpg"
convert -rotate 90 "img 035.jpg"
convert -rotate 90 "img 036.jpg"
convert -rotate 90 "img 037.jpg"
convert -rotate 90 "img 038.jpg"

(You'll have to manually adjust the first and last lines).  The quotes are needed because of the space in the file name.  Now you need to get the second file name into the command.  Do this using the replacement parameters (I know it is awful, but there you are):



\1 img\1

This specifies that there are three numerics (each is [0-9] in the pattern) and that the pattern to replace (which is called \1) is defined between \( and \).  Again keep regular expression checked and you will get:

convert -rotate 90 "img 034.jpg" img034.jpg"
convert -rotate 90 "img 035.jpg" img035.jpg"
convert -rotate 90 "img 036.jpg" img036.jpg"
convert -rotate 90 "img 037.jpg" img037.jpg"
convert -rotate 90 "img 038.jpg" img038.jpg"

Then you can run op.bat at the command line, and watch the progress using Windows Explorer and thumbnail view.

Photography - Non-Digital

What camera should I use?

Well, it's pretty clearly unimportant! If a four quid throwaway of the kind I mentioned above will do, why spend any money? Most people have an old manual-focus SLR camera with a 50mm lens hanging around in the house somewhere - and if you don't, your dad will. I have one, so that's what I use. It's actually a Pentax P30, as if anyone cares. Please don't buy anything until you've taken some photographs for real!

Things you want in your camera, if you have a choice:

That's it really - and Dad's camera will mostly likely have the lot. The above gives you maximum flexibility.

Remember you can get around all the above. If you can't control the lighting, you must control the operation of the camera. If you have a camera like our one-shot with all the options preset, then you must control the lighting. If you can't control either, ask if you can take the blessed thing outdoors or somewhere (which is a final attempt to control the lighting)!

As always, sacrifice a film and just try it. Use one of your own books at home, and use a roll of film under various conditions as a test. Make sure you note down what the condition was - #1 outdoors, #2 indoors near the window, #3 in the darkest corner, etc. This will build confidence as you see what works and what doesn't.

(You can skip this paragraph if you like: Professionals, I believe, use larger sizes of film than 35mm, in what are called 'medium-format' cameras. Obviously the resolution, in dots per inch, of the image depends on how much space there is on the film. Large negative means more dots per inch means higher definition. But who cares? 35mm is fine for our purposes. I have a 6x4 card next to me now, which has a picture of a 13"x8" page, with 50 italic lines on it of text. There's a wide border with a colour card (see below) in it, so the 13" is only about 5" high. It's as clear as crystal. So why bother with medium format?)

What lens should I use?

It doesn't matter. Camera shops will try to sell you zoom lenses, and macro lenses (with edge correction). Ignore them. Don't even explore those issues until you've tried using a bog-standard 50mm lens (like that fitted in the factory to every camera in creation).

What lighting should I use?

You may not get given a choice. Some libraries don't like the idea of you illuminating their babies, or taking them anywhere near daylight.  Luckily if you're using a digital camera you can just use available light.

If you do get a choice, then you want daylight. That's most natural and normal, and gives the best looking results.

Normal artificial light works fine, but has certain problems.

How do I position the book?

Any which way you can. I haven't come to any very firm conclusions on this yet. Generally I prop the thing open using other (non-valuable) books to support it. I've also seen foam rests made in three parts, a base and two sides which have a space between them for the spine. More info needed here.

Do make sure that the camera is pointing at the centre of the page, and at right-angles to it. Otherwise all your pictures will have a 'sloping' look to them! But look out for the shadow of the camera/tripod. Again, more info needed here.

How do I take the pictures? (Non-digital cameras)

OK, let's assume you have your kit in position. How do you use the camera? It's a bit fiddly the first time, but thereafter you don't worry.

1. FOCUS. Focus the camera on the centre of the image. You'll have to twist a ring on the len to do this, but it's usually obvious how that works. On my camera the ring has numbers on it which indicate how far away the focused object is, in feet and meters, from the shutter. I'm usually around 2.4 feet (0.78 meters) from the subject, but obviously I decide how far the camera should be by squinting through the viewfinder and moving nearer or further until the whole page is in the viewfinder. Then I bolt it to the tripod, and focus it. It is useful to know how far away I am, tho!

2. DEPTH OF FIELD. Now you need to set the 'depth of field', i.e. ensure that the whole page is in focus. If you take a photograph of a room, you may well find that some objects which are very near to the camera are out of focus. Likewise some that are far away will be out of focus. Only the object you focused on, and a few nearer/further away from the camera, are in focus. The distance between the nearest item in focus and the furthest item in focus is called the 'depth of field'(in focus).

The reason you may care about this, is that pages are rarely flat. Consequently you don't just want the letter you focused on, but also those which are closer to the spine, and so further away. Usually you want the whole page in focus - which means you need a 'depth of field' of at least an inch or two.

Now this detail on what is in focus is done by adjusting the size of the hole through which light passes into the camera - a smaller hole gives deeper focus, a bigger hole gives less in focus. One of the rings on the lens will set the hole size, known as the 'F-stop'. There are various selectable hole sizes (F-stops): mine range from F1.7, 2.8, 4, 5.6, 8, 11, 16 to F22. F22 is the smallest hole, and the greatest depth of focus. On my camera there is another ring, between the focus and the F-stops, which does not move but indicates the depth of focus. It's a bit hard to understand, because it has the F-stop on it twice: i.e. 22-16-8-4-4-8-16-22. What does it mean?

Try the camera at F22. That means that we are in focus between the extreme ends of the fixed-ring. We can then use the distances on the focusing ring (now you see why they are there!) to see where that is. The centre of the focus is at (say) 2.4 feet, so things will be in focus from (reading off the ring) about 2.1 feet to 2.9 feet. So the depth of field is 0.8" - about 10" - or 5" in front of the page and 5" behind it.

Now turn the setting to F4. The two 4's are very close together. Looking on the focusing ring shows that they are probably (the distances are not marked very finely) less than 0.1 feet apart - about an inch. So depth of field is 1 inch, or half an inch either side of the focus. In this case, you may well find the area closest to the spine goes outside that region, and is out of focus.

There is a further 'feature' to this setup. You may feel that you would go for F22 and leave the shutter open a long time. However the result may well be quite 'grainy'. The definition is better with a wider hole - although that means less depth of field. Decisions decisions!

Actually, as ever, it only really matters to professionals. By and large something in the middle will do. Try F8, which gives a couple of inches either way on the focus spot. I did a whole lot on F16 by accident, and it was fine.

3. SHUTTER TIME. How long should we leave the shutter open? This is actually fairly easy. It's going to be very hard to overexpose - get too much light in - and much easier to underexpose - too dull or dark. So if in doubt, leave it open longer. You'd probably get quite decent results just leaving it always open for a second. But you can improve on that rule of thumb by using the light meter. I admit I have no idea how to overexpose a film, other than by pointing it at the sun.

In my camera, I have a builtin light meter with an LED which flashes up a little red number indicating how long the shutter needs to be open for, when I tap the release (rather than press it firmly). The number is the fraction of a second - the darker it is, the smaller the number gets. I know that 125 (=1/125 second) or 60 (1/60 sec) are fine for hand held. Indoors with the settings I did above, I found 4 (1/4 sec) and even 2 (1/2 sec) were coming up.

My camera allows me to set the time open manually. Normally I would just set it to the same value that the light meter gave. I tried this, and everything came out grey - i.e. underexposed. The reason, I gather, is that the light meter presumes that it is looking at a picture containing 'average' colours (i.e. a mix, averaging out to grey). However we actually have a lot of white in ours - from the paper - so the average is wrong, and if we used the standard, it would try to reproduce our paper as greyish. The solution is either to carry a bit of grey card with you, to focus on and get the light meter values. Alternatively just push the shutter speed down a notch - instead of 1/4 sec, leave it open for 1/2 sec, etc.

So here's a table of what settings affect what:

F-stop Depth of field
(All in focus)
Light reaching film Sharpness
F2.5 Minimum Most light - shutter needn't be open very long More blurry/grainy
F32 Maximum Least light - need shutter open longer Sharpest


You have a choice between colour and black and white. Black and white will often give better results for printed books. For one thing, the B/W emulsion gives sharper results, all other things being equal.

I've found that B/W developing is nowadays very expensive, and slow. I believe it is actually a doddle to do yourself, if you have any inclination that way.

However I've found that the makers now do B/W film which develops in Color Chemistry(Colour development is called C41). This means you can take these films and develop them in any high-street one-hour developer. Both Kodak and Ilford do these films - look for the C41 on the packet. I've had some positive results from this.

Don't be led astray (as I was) and presume that if you take a B/W film of a printed book, it will give you a white background. It won't, unless you've got the lighting on high. My results came out rather grey, but still better than the colour film.

Digital Cameras

These will take over the world - no doubt about it. At the time of writing, there are two types.

In the mean time, people are using slides or negatives and a film scanner. This has the drawback that the colours are not copied correctly, and tend to be very dull. 

Anything else?

You're now ready to go! Stop reading and start clicking. Until you burn some film, you won't know what sort of results you're getting. Remember that one-shot camera? You can hardly fail to do better than that!

One suggestion. When you go off bravely to your first library to do the first film for real, do the first film and then go into the local town for lunch. Take it into a 1hr development shop (the library will know where the nearest is) and get them to do it while you have lunch - take a long lunch if need be. That will tell you immediately what sort of results you are getting.

As ever, constructive feedback welcomed to Roger Pearse. And the best of luck to you.

Updated 25th February, 2000.
Brief digital material added 27th May 2006.  My how things have changed!


your page gives a method for rotating an image...

convert -rotate 90 sourcefile.jpg resultfile.jpg

...but you may be interested to know there is a better way.

The problem with the above is that "convert" uncompresses the jpeg, rotates the image, and then re-compresses the jpeg - the recompression stage is lossy and so some image quality is lost.

The following utility re-orders the components within the compressed image directly (somehow) to affect a 90 degree turn without any image quality loss...

jpegtran -rotate 90 -copy all -outfile <dest>.jpg <src>.jpg


Thanks Phil! Added 8th November 2007.

This page has been online since 30th December 1999.

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