“Yes, whatever we have to do, yes!” This was my husband’s response when I received an email in November from CSNTM: Would I be interested in qualifying to go on an expedition in Athens to photograph the National Library of Greece’s 300 New Testament manuscripts during the summer of 2015? With my family behind me, I started the qualification process at CSNTM with my partner, Nika Spaulding, in January. We qualified in May. These months of training in Texas were necessary because of the time limitations we had to get all 150,000 pages of manuscripts digitized. There are essentially three objectives that CSNTM laid out for each two-person team going on this expedition: (1) protect the manuscripts at all costs; (2) shoot 400 pages a day; (3) take perfect pictures. We arrived in Athens in mid-June, just as the weather and the socio-economic situation were heating up. Each morning the team left promptly at 8:05 am for the subway and then stayed at the library until 4:30 pm; the NLG graciously allowed CSNTM to stay after hours to do its work. We labored primarily in the manuscript room behind a brass gate on the top floor of the library, working directly with the efficient library staff and CSNTM trip supervisors. All manuscripts were expertly prepared beforehand by Dr. Wallace, who pored over each book while noting important aspects and details of the document for us to be aware of while photographing. As a team our job was to create a complete digital archive that accurately portrayed the physical manuscript. Each book had its own personality, difficulties, and beauty. By photographing these books, we were helping to tell and preserve their unique story for all time.I held history in my hands in Athens this summer. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
My job on our two-person team was to carefully hold the manuscript, adjusting it to the perfect position for each picture. Other than CSNTM, it may have been decades since the last person opened this particular manuscript and possibly hundreds of years since it had been kept open for hours at a time. The thickness and rigidity of the pages, present state of the binding, and general condition of each manuscript varied considerably. Getting perfect pictures was more than a point-and-shoot affair. I had to adjust the foam and velvet platform on which the manuscript would rest. The ancient and often frail binding needed support. As the pages progressed and the binding’s center of gravity shifted, the manuscript needed continual adjustment. It was a physical job, as I stood for 8 hours at a time; it was also an incredibly detail-oriented job as I constantly made tiny adjustments at Nika’s instructions while she viewed the image on the computer screen.
For the best photograph I needed to hold back each page to get the fullest picture possible—again, without damaging the book. Many times this meant maintaining a complicated pose for minutes at a time, even holding my breath. Photographing manuscripts is tedious. The standard seemed impossible: perfection. It was a challenge to meet our page goals and difficult getting critical feedback on completed pictures, especially when it resulted in the dreaded ‘reshoot.’ All pictures were examined each night by the trip supervisor; reshoots were ordered even when a millimeter of a page’s corner was cut off in the picture. There were many other cardinal sins that the trip supervisor, our friendly taskmaster, would point out. Flexibility was constantly required… our camera might overheat, there would be an electrical issue, an adapter would go out, etc. One morning vandals had damaged the air conditioner; we worked the rest of our time in the manuscript room without AC. These setbacks were unavoidable, but each minute we weren’t photographing was one less minute we had to meet our goals.
After our workday, there were a few free hours to visit local attractions such as the Olympic stadium, Mars Hill, the Parthenon, the ancient Agora, and Hadrian’s Arch. At night the squares of the city became alive with locals enjoying the sights and sounds of bustling souvenir peddlers, food carts, street organs, teenagers, and more than a few con artists looking for distracted tourists. During our stay, Greece experienced unrest, as every news channel broadcasted incessantly. However the unrest I experienced was primarily peaceful. Political demonstrators, even Anarchists (an actual political party in Greece), register with the government and are allowed to only protest on certain days of the week; police in riot gear are always watching nearby.
I held history in my hands in Athens this summer. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Greece is privileged with great textual prosperity, housing one third of all extant Greek New Testament manuscripts. Being there to photograph these ancient literary relics during the current national upheaval was a dizzying experience. These vital documents had already survived many threats over the centuries. Now due to the extensive and ongoing work of CSNTM, generations to come will be able to see these protected digital documents. The manuscripts never leave their library and when CSNTM is done, the Center gives a complete digital copy of its work (often several terabytes) to the library and provides images online to the public. This is all provided free of charge, made possible by your generous donations.