Western Libraries Helps Uncover Hidden Stories from the Silk Roads

Published on November 03, 2021

Travelled for 1,400 years, the Silk Roads were trade routes across land and sea that once connected regions across Asia to the Mediterranean.

Along these roads journeyed merchants and scholars, pilgrims, diplomats and spies, as did goods like silk, gold, and ivory. And books travelled, too, with some surviving to this very day to share the stories and ideas of that remarkable era.

Today, as part of an exhibit at the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto, such artifacts are on display together for the first time, including three books on loan from Western Libraries: a 15th century Spanish choir book (Antiphoner), a Christian Book of Hours medieval text, and an 1827 Persian manuscript of 13th century Rumi poetry.

Aside from their travel routes, what links these materials are the unique ways they were inscribed and bound, telling us how the makers and users of books put them together, and repaired and rebuilt them. But how does one read and examine these rare books without damaging them?

As Deb Meert-Williston, Special Collections Librarian with Western Libraries’ Archives and Special Collections, explains, “We need to have non-invasive approaches to examining the books, or any materials, because they don't belong to us. We are caretakers – for the next generations to come – of this material.”

Micro-CT is one way that allows contemporary researchers to study such fragile manuscripts. Similar to how an x-ray shows the inner workings of a human body, micro-CT reveals the inner structures of books through computed tomography, or CT. By using this kind of technology, you can read all the pages of a book at once, without even opening its covers, or look under the bindings of books without removing them, essentially preserving the physical integrity of the material. This is exactly what happened with the Book of Hours, one of the first discoveries of the collaboration between the Old Books, New Science Lab at the University of Toronto, Professor Andrew Nelson with Western University’s Department of Anthropology, and Meert-Williston.

The Book of Hours was one of the first Western University books scanned by Nelson using the micro-CT scanner at the Ontario Museum of Archaeology. “In collaboration with colleagues at the Old Books, New Science lab, we could identify and interpret features hidden in the binding of the book, such as a previous ghost binding,” says Meert-Williston. “The ghost binding tells us the book was bound at least once before its current binding was put in place, which gives scholars additional information as they try to tell the story of the life of this book, including its creation and purpose.”

Learn more about micro-CT and the study of historical books in this short video, created by the Old Books, New Science lab with collaborators at Western University, the University of Toronto, the Museum of Ontario Archaeology, St. Joseph’s Health Centre, and the Aga Khan Museum in conjunction with Chris Monette.