Workshop report: Digitally Archiving Japanese Collections-Photographing 2D materials

On the 1st of November, Dr Ryoko Matsuba led a workshop on digitising 2D artefacts at the Sainsbury Institute. Attended by MA students on the Interdisciplinary Japanese Studies course at UEA, the workshop comprised a lecture on theoretical knowledge of Japanese prints and rare books, followed by a digitisation practice and handling session. 

During the lecture, Dr Matsuba introduced the print sizes and formats commonly seen for ukiyo-e and printed books, essential knowledge for historical research on Japanese print culture. This was followed by an overview of the binding techniques, the identification of which is important not only as a form of connoisseurship knowledge, but also for historical research through ascertaining the purpose of the books’ production. Additionally, the Japanese terms frequently appearing in discussions of prints and books were also introduced.

After familiarising students with theories and technical aspects of printed materials, Dr Matsuba went on to demonstrate best practices of digitising 2D objects. The photography procedure was described in great detail, from setting up the equipment to adjusting the camera settings for capturing high-quality photographs. Examples from Dr Matsuba’s past digitisation work made it straightforward for students to see the dos and don’ts when it comes to actual practice. For instance, most Edo-period books in fukurotoji format are bound using a paper cord or koyori to hold together the folios or chō that make up the book block. However, we sometimes encounter books where the binding holes are too close to the image/text field frame. As a result, the content close to the inner margin is difficult to read. Since the one purpose of digitisation is to preserve sensitive material through reducing damage arising from excessive handling, one priority of digitisation is to capture as much information as possible so that researchers don’t have to visit the institutions and handle the objects in person. Other things, such as small holes left on the margins of the pages, reveal the process of re-binding, and call close attention to the materiality of printed books. It is therefore important that these traces are captured in the digital photographs. Dr Matsuba also introduced the “cradle”, an equipment designed especially for digitising printed books that provides a creative solution to the issue of unevenness when a book is laid open on a flat surface.

Additional analyses are contextualised in the historical conditions of Early Modern Japan. In particular, book publication in the Edo period is closely intertwined with censorship regulations of the Tokugawa shogunate. For instance, in one of the most influential reform efforts by the shogunate, the Kyōhō reforms of 1720s saw the issuing of a ban on “amorous books”, discussion of current events, unorthodox beliefs, as well as any mention of the Tokugawa rulers and their ancestry. In addition, artists and publishers were required to include their names in newly printed materials to make them accountable for any potential incompliance. As a result, not only did the types of published book titles vary with such regulations, the vast majority of ukiyo-e from after this period come with seals and signatures that serve as clear evidence for modern researchers to identify their creators.

In the latter half of the workshop, students had the opportunity to apply what they learned from the lecture into practice. Students were divided into three activity groups, namely photo shooting, workstation assembling and book binding. Even though Dr Matsuba had made the whole process look effortless in her demonstrations, we soon learned that these activities are not so simple for beginners! For example, with photo shooting, the preparation alone would involve centring the camera focus, removing sources of reflections and manually adjusting the white balance. It is a time-consuming process even for experienced photographers to find the perfect settings for digitisation.

The workshop ended with a handling session of items from Dr Matsuba’s personal collection. Paying close attention to the used condition of the books, Dr Matsuba emphasised several points that researchers need to bear in mind when handling these often-fragile objects: when opened, the books must be laid flat on a surface; and when turning the pages, contrary to the common reading habit, it is best to flip from the top edges, hence avoiding touching the bottom edges fragile from heavy use.

The workshops served as specialist training for future academics, as they provided MA students from UEA with hands-on digitisation experience. We hope these workshops would contribute to the understanding and preservation of Japanese culture in the UK and beyond.

Yuhan Ji
Ishibashi Foundation Digital Project Officer, Sainsbury Institute