Undergraduate Course

Department of Chemistry University of Oxford


Part II Research Projects for Chemists in the Bodleian Libraries
David Howell, Prof. Grant Ritchie

The Bodleian Libraries are famous for their fantastic buildings and unique collections. It is the largest University Library in Europe, the second largest library in the UK and has over 12 million books and over 20 miles of shelving are filled with ‘Special Collection’ material.

Most of the ‘Special Collection’ material is in pristine condition. It includes well known objects like Shakespeare’s First Folio, Magna Carta, the Guttenberg Bible but also hugely important items such as the earliest use of zero in mathematics and 2500 year old letters from Egypt. These items have never been investigated for their materiality because most methods for material identification and analysis have relied on sampling. Sampling has never been allowed in the Bodleian.

However over the past 4 years the Bodleian has acquired a number of instruments for carrying out non-destructive analysis, thus enabling research to be carried out. The main instruments available are polarised light microscopy, Raman spectroscopy (on loan from the University of Durham), hyperspectral imaging and FTIR with IR microscopy. Whilst the FTIR and microscope are the most powerful of the analytical tools they are least used because initial tests showed that the ATR diamond left indentations in the material being tested.

Although sampling is still not possible we are becoming more aware that there are many tiny fragments that become detached from objects during conservation treatments. It is proposed to investigate these fragments using the IR microscope in reflectance mode, thereby ensuring that the fragment is not damaged or destroyed. To be able to use the spectra of unknown material for identification we need a database of known spectra. Whilst there are many published and online spectral libraries available not many of them contain spectra of the kind of materials we are likely to find. For instance, we may be able to find a spectrum for the pigment vermillion, but this may not help in identifying a degraded sample on a degraded substrate.

What would be extremely useful for the Bodleian, and interesting to a Part 2 undergraduate, would be to build up a database of spectra of a huge range of known materials. This would involve optimisation of the methodology, procurement of samples, liaison with the conservation section to find out the most commonly found materials, database construction and maintenance, and finally using the equipment and database to identify fragments that the conservators will find. The student would have almost exclusive use of an excellent instrument. The student would work in a small laboratory within the Weston Library reporting to the Head of Heritage Science, David Howell. The laboratory is shared with a Leverhulme funded Post-doctoral research assistant and a second year DPhil student. The project will be co-supervised by Grant Ritchie (PTCL).

This is an excellent opportunity to apply knowledge of analytical chemistry in an immediately useful and practical project that will be of lasting benefit to the library and hopefully acquaint the student to a relatively new and unknown area of scientific research.

For more information please contact by email:

David Howell
Grant Ritchie