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The Collation

Mellow Yellow and 50 Shades of Grey: the challenges of bi-tonal images

Well, I’m afraid our mystery image might have been a little too mysterious. For those of you still playing along, the mystery image from last week is an image from a microfilm of Folger MS D.a.6 that seems to show multiple pages on top of each other. Here is the full double page opening for context:

Doesn’t help much, does it? But if you look closely at the top of the left-hand page, you’ll see a clue as to what might be going on:

Something’s not quite right here…

You can see that the tops of the larger, thicker letters are oddly deformed—like, perhaps, the very tops were written on some other piece of paper that was later removed… And that is, in fact, exactly what happened. The extra piece of paper on the right-hand page is a tipped-in piece meant to cover the top part of the left page. However, when the manuscript was microfilmed, the tipped-in piece was folded to the right and photographed that way, thus obscuring both the top of the right page and the writing on both sides of the tipped-in piece.

But wait, it gets better.

Here is a recent photo I took of the left-hand page of this opening:

Suddenly, everything becomes much more clear, doesn’t it?

So not only does the page suddenly become legible and more cohesive, but it comes alive with careful coloring. The left-hand edge, a blurry mess in the microfilm, now appears as a careful border. The thickness of the lines at the top are offset by the yellow coloring. The whole thing looks far more intentional. Changes your perspective on these pages a bit, doesn’t it?

The color image helps the legibility of the verso of the tipped-in page, too. Here it is, with a white sheet behind it for contrast:

Much more legible this way!

It’s not actually the color that lends legibility to the images above (after all, there is really only one color—yellow—that is added), it’s the shift away from a bi-tonal image of the microfilm. Even if the color images in this post were shifted to greyscale, they would still be significantly more legible than the microfilm.

We’ve written in previous posts about the potential challenges of using microfilm images rather than the original document (take, for example, the case of a book of mourning that got inverted on the microfilm; or the challenges of connecting a microfilm/digital version with the physical object it was created from). This manuscript, I think, really exemplifies the role that a multi-tonal image (whether it’s color or greyscale) can play in a researcher’s perception of an item.

Imagine, for instance, that you’d only ever seen this manuscript on the microfilm (or worse, in printouts from the microfilm!). From your perspective, this is what fol.19r of this manuscript looks like:

Folger MS D.a.6, fol.19r, from microfilm

And here is (closer to) what it would look like if you saw it in person:

A magic square is much more magical with color. (Folger MS D.a.6, fol.19r)

And similarly, fol.20r:

Folger MS D.a.6, fol.20r, from microfilm.

Instead of:

Hey, there’s a border on this page too!

In both cases, these pages are (mostly) legible in the microfilm, rendering them sufficient for most researchers’ use. But when seen side-by-side with the color images, you can see that the microfilm obscures and blurs (sometimes literally) some of the details that the color gives.

As you can see from the few images I’ve shared above, Folger MS D.a.6 is a bit of an odd duck. The title we give it in the catalog reflects that: “Miscellaneous collection of material compiled by William Cook chiefly relating to Thomas Arden and his murder”. But even this doesn’t quite capture the truly cobbled-together nature of this item.

It is a compiling of separate compiled parts and looking at the spine, you can see that there are distinct parts that have been sewn together.

Different pieces, sewn together.

The first “chunk” of the volume is in a heavy paper wrapper and contains, in order, the chapbook “A Short Account of Lord Cheyne and Ld. Shorland”, “The Characters of the Persons concerned in the Tragedy of Arden” (printed contiguously with Cheyne & Shorland), and the chapbook “A Short Account of the Murder of Mr. Arden” (printed separately from the other two).

The second “chunk” of the volume begins after the end wrapper page for the first chunk, and begins with a printed “Catalog of Several Libraries and Parcels Lately Purchased” by one Thomas Smith. After this page (which I don’t think is used so much as a wrapper than as a flyleaf?), is fol.19, which is the magic square/measurements page pictured above. Fol. 19, 20, and 21 are all on relatively thick paper. Fol. 22 (shown below) is also a black-and-yellow page, and is partially on heavier blue paper, similar to the wrapper of the first chunk.

A two-tone page. Yet more color for this colorful item.

Most of the pages between fol.22 and the final leaf, fol.49, are not colored. Fol. 49, however, is:

Finishing with a flourish.

So as you can see, this item is not particularly easy to describe, even with color photos. Think about all that is lost in the regularized, bi-tonal images of the microfilm.

This is not to say that microfilm doesn’t have its place! It is a useful, durable format that allows for broad access to otherwise fragile items and will probably outlast us all (I’ve occasionally heard microfilm referred to as the cockroach of the library world…). But, as with any surrogate, be it digital, print or film, we need to be aware of what is and is NOT being represented in the images in front of us.


Abbie, do you happen to know what is on the reverse of the ‘Prologue’ page (i.e. 20r) – does it connect to the writing on the tipped-in piece or not? From the image it isn’t quite clear whether the remainder of the text has been sliced off (i.e. a bit of paper that was blank on one side was repurposed) or whether the piece of paper was tipped in while it was still blank in order to restore the page to its usual size, so whatever is on 20r could be written across.
(Sorry, that probably sounded needlessly complicated, but I think you’ll know what I mean).

Elisabeth Chaghafi — February 5, 2020

Hi Elizabeth! 20r is the “title page” shown lower down in the post, this image:

The writing on the verso of the tipped in piece is the same as the last few lines on 20v, so perhaps it was from an earlier draft/copy before the author did the final fair copy?

Abbie Weinberg — February 5, 2020

Whoops, sorry, I must have missed that. Though that still leaves the question of why the top part of the page was excised in the first place – an accidental ink blot, perhaps? The lower part of the page was probably still blank at the time, because if the top part had been substituted afterwards, it would probably have shown in the pattern. Plus the black border at the centre looks as though it was intended to obscure the transition between the two bits of paper (which it does rather well, actually).

Elisabeth Chaghafi — February 5, 2020