Final recommendations for the box design and the manuscripts to be boxed


The need to protect a selection of the bound manuscripts and printed books in the monastery library was proposed in an initial report of February 1998 and confirmed at a meeting of the synaxis on 10 November 1999. A selection of different traditional library box types was shown to the fathers and these were left in the monastery to see how they would behave in the dry conditions of the Sinai. None behaved satisfactorily and further research, carried out in conjunction with Stuart Welsh of Conservation by Design and Alan Lawson of PSJ Fabrications Ltd of Bedford has resulted in an all-stainless steel box which will be durable, non-damaging to the books contained within it and immune to the environmental conditions of the Sinai.


The box is made from 1.2mm (18 guage) 304 grade stainless steel sheet, cut and formed by an Amada guillotine and CNC punch press. The corner seams will be TIG welded by hand and electro polished. The finish obtained by this process, as can be seen from the photographs, is highly impressive. The box is designed to present an unbroken facade, where the handle is fitted, to offer a clean uncluttered appearance when shelved.

The base tray and lid of the box are made the same height, so that it will open fully to 180┬░ and no further, and when open, the entire box will lie on a flat surface without risk of tipping. This opening is obtained by the use of stainless steel SOSS hinges.

The catch is flush-mounted on the lid of the box and we have modified the design of the catch to give a much slimmer fitting on the inside.

The books will be placed in the boxes with their spines against the side opposite to the handle, so that when the box is carried by the handle, the weight of the book will be taken on the spine, the edge of the book best able to sustain the pressure created by the weight without damage to the book. This will allow the boxes to be carried vertically in one hand when in transit from shelf to desk and back. The handle can also be designed to bear the shelfmark of the manuscript and other information as required. The current design of the handle is not final and it needs in any case to be modified to make it more comfortable to carry the heavier manuscripts.

The inside of the boxes will be lined with Plastazote (a chemically inert polyester foam) to the width of the folded flange which runs around the edges of the lower tray and the lid. Pieces of 3mm acid-free millboard will be placed between the Plasazote and the steel walls of the box to provide effective short-term heat insulation in the event of a fire, and the inserted linings have been designed so that they can held in place without adhesive, thus allowing them to be replaced without difficulty, should this be become necessary. This might bethe case when a manuscript is repaired and the thickness in particluar might be changed. Allowance has been made in the measurements for books which have lost one or both boards by adding extra layers of linings, so that if required the boards can be replaced during repair and the books will still fit into their boxes, though the thickness of the linings will have to be adjusted. The Plastazote lining in the base of the lower tray will have a cut-out on the side next to the hinges to allow whoever removes the book from the box to get their fingers under thebook to pull it upwards and thus out of the box.

The gap between the trays will be sealed against dust with a clip-on silicone gasket which will be specially manufactured for this purpose. Existing gaskets of the right design are made from rubber, which is chemically unstable and cannot be used.

The manuscripts will be given custom-made internal wrappers of acid-free card, blocked out with Plastazote to protect the raised endbands, edge pins and metal furniture found on many of the bindings. The wrapper can be made on the Kasemake computer-based design and box-making machine at a low unit cost. Only the blocking out of the wrapper and of the lower tray of the box to fit the individual book in its wrapper will need to be done in the monastery. The internal wrapper will allow a book to be taken out of its box and replaced without direct handling contact, which is an important consideration given the fragile condition of many of the manuscripts.

The book in its wrapper will be located in the box, which will already have been lined with Plastazote, with pairs of blocks of Plasazote in each corner, which will not only prevent the book in its wrapper from moving around inside the box, but will act as spacers to prevent the book coming into contact with the box edges, and as shock absorbers in the event of the box being dropped or receiving some other sharp impact.


The eventual sizes of the boxes will depend on the number of books to be boxed. Francis Hookham, a retired architect living in Cambridge who worked with Nicholas Hadgraft and myself on the Corpus Christi College (Cambridge) Library boxing programme in the 1980s has designed a spreadsheet that will allow him to calculate the optimum sizes of box according to whatever criteria are agreed by the Synaxis. The primary set of measurements records the hight of the book (head to tail) and their width (spine to foredge). By fitting all the books into boxes of a relatively small number of standard height/width dimensions, it will be possible to place the books in racks of the same number of standard dimensions to take all the a neat, economical, storage arrangement which will take the books lying horizontally with their foredges (the handle-side of the box) outwards. Although it would be possible to have each box carcass more or less fitted to each manuscript in terms of height and width, this would not allow the economical use of racking that we envisage, and would also greatly increase the cost of manufacturing and lining the boxes by introducing a multitude of different sizes to contend with. We envisage four or five basic box sizes.

The variable we do want is in the thickness of the box, as this will allow us to fit as many boxes as possible into each vertical racking bay. The exact variation of thickness will depend on how the runners are to be fitted to the sides of the bays, as it may prove better to work within defined increments (of perhaps 10mm) to allow the runners to be fixed to pre-drilled holes in the uprights. An infinitely variable series of thicknesses would necessitate either locating the runners at exactly predetermined positions (thus removing all possibility of future adjustment) or relying on some form of attachment that relied on clamping or friction to secure the runners, with all the risks of movement that that would entail over the years. Full variation in box thickness coupled with fixed increments for the runners would result in unequal spaces between the boxes, and an uneven and unattractive appearance.


The decision to use stainless steel for the boxes may come as a surprise to those familiar with the more traditional materials used for box-making. The following section explains the rationale which lies behind the choice.


All wood off-gasses and the gaseous product is acidic, and if released into a sealed box will quickly create an acidic environment which will be damaging to many of the organic the materials (particularly paper) from which the manuscripts are made. If any of the pigments used in the miniatures are pH sensitive (and some will be), there will be colour change as a result of an acidic storage environment. The insides of the boxes can be sealed with an impermeable film, but fitting this film without puncturing it (which renders it useless) is not easy and would be very time-consuming. Any warping or distortion of the wood may result in tears in or perforation of the film. There are no reliable coatings that can be applied by spray or brush.

Stainless steel is effectively inert in terms of degradation products and will require no additional linings or treatments for that resason (all the box types would require linings to cushion the books).

Buckram-covered millboard boxes, if the correct materials are used, will also provide a chemically stable environment for the book inside.


All three box types will provide a measure of crush and impact resistance, but the dryness of the wood will make it brittle and more likely to shatter on impact (dropped on a concrete floor, for instance). Wood will retain a fair measure of crush resistance.

The buckram-covered millboard boxes will lose strength on account of the embrittlement of the linen or cotton textiles used to make the buckram for covering the boxes. This will result in the breakdown of the hinges of the boxes on impact. The millboard is unlikely to lose much of it strength and will retain a fair measure of crush resistance.

The stainless steel will dent on impact, but will not break and will have a high level of impact resistance. It will also retain indefinitely its full crush resistance.


In addition to problems caused by the embrittlement of the wood, there will be a tendency for wooden boxes to warp and split, In other respects, they would prove relatively durable, though the attachment of metal fittings in the form of clasps and/or hinges is likely to give occasional trouble in the longer term.

Buckram-covered boxes are likely to show early break-down of the textile base of the buckram which will result in the boxes coming apart at the hinges, as the buckram forms the hingeing material. Buckram also has low abrasion resistance and will quickly look shabby and worn. The laminated construction of the boxes is also likely to give problems with warping, unless manufactured on site, which will be very expensive.

The stainless steel boxes with metal hinges will last almost indefinitely, especially when fitted with robust hinges, as in the current design, and will remain absolutely stable.


No practicable box is fire proof to the extent that it will give 100% protection to the contents in a fire. The best way to prevent fire damage to the books is to provide effective fire protection to the building.

The wooden and buckram boxes will offer a higher level of insulation against heat penetration, but both are inflammable materials, especially when stored in the dry conditions of the monastery. They will be rapidly and permanently damaged by fire and smoke damage and would need to be replaced after even a minor fire. In a longer-lasting fire, they will destroy the books inside them.

The stainless steel will not burn, but will transmit heat quickly and efficiently. The damaging consequences of this can be reduced by installing materials with low thermal conductivity on the inside of the boxes. It should also be remembered that the books will never be in direct contact with the carcases of any of the box types.


Water damage in the library is likely to come only as the consequence of a fire and I do not know the extent to which water would be available to quench a fire. However, buckram-covered boxes will be destroyed by water and will offer only short term protection against it.

Wooden and steel boxes will both be quite effective in resisting water penetration, depending on the effectiveness of the seals used on the lids.


Both the wooden and the buckram-covered boxes will be liable to insect attack, whereas the stainless steel box, of course, is not.


Wooden boxes will require complex preparation in the form of impermeable linings to prevent gasses from the wood accumulating in the box. In other respects there would be no significant difference in the cost of fitting out the boxes for each book.


If the cost of construction is to be kept under control, the wooden boxes will have to have externally fitted catches and hinges (if a hinged lid construction was chosen), and such fittings will offer opportunites for further damage. Buckram boxes present neat, clean exterior surfaces, but there will be problems in keeping adhered labels for titles and shelfmarks in place in the dry Sinai air. The surface of the buckram is easily abraded and marked and will soon lose its pristine appearance. The steel boxes have a very neat, sleek and durable exterior without any projecting fittings (other than the handle).


Wooden boxes are perceived as "traditional" and "low tech" though it should be remembered that with the exception of the wooden box provided for Syriac 30 by Margaret Gibson and Agnes Lewis there is no existing tradition of boxing manuscripts in the Sinai. The buckram boxes also offer what might be called a "low tech" appearance, though they will be easily marked and scuffed in use. The "high tech" appearance of the steel boxes can, if so desired, be disguised in storage by the addition of an additional "false facade" attached to the actual facade (the handle-side) of the box, to give them whatever appearance might be though desirable.


There appears to be little significant difference in the cost of the box carcasses of the three different box types under discussion. All the box designs would need to be fitted-out on the inside to fit the individual books to be kept in them, and this is work that can only be done on site at St Catherineâ??s.

I have discussed with Petros Kufopoulos the possiblity of having wooden boxes fabricated in the monastery by Egyptian carpenters, which would obviously be much cheaper, but would present considerable problems in terms of quality control. It would not of course change the other characteristics of wooden boxes.

The buckram boxes would have to be made on site, as their laminated structure cannot withstand the sharp drop in humidity that transit to the Sinai will involve without warping. They need to be made by trained binders/conservators, and bringing such skilled labour to the monastery would increase their cost by at least 30-40% over having them made in Europe.

The steel boxes would be entirely fabricated in Europe and would need only to fitted out on the inside after their arrival in Sinai.

The superior durability of the steel boxes also means that in the longer term, as the other boxes might need replacement, they will become by comparison, less expensive.


The criteria for boxing are relatively simple. They include all the manuscripts that are written on parchment (which effectively means all the earlier manuscripts and the more important later manuscripts), all the manuscripts bound in Byzantine or Greek-style bindings (which are important, vulnerable to damage and need to be shelved horizontally) and other manuscripts of particular importance which are vulnerable without protection (this includes the small number of high-quality Islamic bindings).


The maximum number of manuscripts that fall within the criteria given above is 2001 (out of a total of 3306), and this is therefore the number that ideally I would recommend should be boxed. It includes some relatively late manuscripts (up to the beginning of the nineteenth century) but all these are in bindings of some significance and I have checked all of them to confirm the desirability of boxing them. If a reduction of numbers is absolutely necessary, this can best and most simply be done by removing the later manuscripts from the list. These consist of the following totals:

19th century - 3 manuscripts (out of 61)
18th century - 30 manuscripts (out of 548)
17th century - 90 manuscripts (out of 473)
16th century - 187 manuscripts (out of 342)

Total: 310

Below this number, the deselection of manuscripts becomes very difficult indeed.