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Harvard University Library Notes / November 2005 / No. 1328
College Library Breathes New Life into Rübel's East Asian Rubbings
Through the generosity of Kenneth Chang, AB 1968 and MArch 1973, Harvard librarians are breathing new life into 1,500 rare East Asian rubbings that are being digitized and made available online by the Digital Imaging and Photography Group in Widener Library. Hand in hand with the digitization process, special collections conservators in the Weissman Preservation Center are carefully assessing and treating the rubbings to ensure that these extraordinary original materials will be available to future generations of scholars.
The rubbings, which are part of the Rübel Asiatic Research Collection in HCL's Fine Arts Library, capture Buddhist and Daoist scriptural texts that are carved on stone slabs, cave walls, bronze vessels, jade, ceramics, roof tiles, and other materials. While the original carvings date from the Qin (221-207 BCE) to the Ming dynasties (1348-1644 CE), the rubbings themselves date from the Ming Dynasty to about 1940. The rubbings are highly accurate, and often unique, sources for scholars of Chinese history, epigraphy, and related disciplines.
Each rubbing is an "ink squeeze"—that is, an impression made by pressing thin, damp paper over a carved or "incised" surface. Using a brush, the paper is then tamped into the incisions. When the paper is almost dry, ink—usually black—is skimmed evenly over the entire paper surface. Because the ink does not adhere to the carved incisions, the result is a "rubbing" with white writing on a black background.
The Rübel rubbings, which range in size from six inches square to four by ten feet, present a range of challenges to imaging specialists and to conservators. Some of the rubbings are formed from multiple sheets of paper. Others have been folded into tight bundles and have developed creases that lead to distortions, that obscure image areas, and that weaken the surface of the paper and compromise the adherence of the ink.
According to Jan Merrill-Oldham, Malloy-Rabinowitz Preservation Librarian, the Rübel rubbings project shows Harvard's preservation activities at their best—and most comprehensive. "Within the Harvard libraries, digital imaging and traditional conservation efforts are always intertwined. Before we digitize an object—whether it's a book, a photograph, a map, a manuscript, or a rubbing—our conservators assess its condition and treat it as necessary. Our goal is to ensure that the Library's rare and unique materials receive the care necessary to ensure that they survive far into the future."
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