U of T researchers uncover ‘hidden stories’ found in centuries-old books

A medieval manuscript lies open and unwrapped on a table
Researchers analyze a manuscript as part of the The Book and Silk Roads project. U of T Mississauga’s Old Books New Science Lab is coordinating a follow-up project, Hidden Stories, which has received funding from the Mellon Foundation. Photo by Nick Iwanyshyn


Authored by Ali Raza

At first glance, the dusty and worn pages of an old book from centuries ago might not reveal more than their written contents. But a closer look unlocks a treasure trove of knowledge.

It’s those obscured treasures—hidden stories—that U of T researchers want to uncover.

U of T is launching a collaborative and interdisciplinary project entitled Hidden Stories: New Approaches to the Local and Global History of the Book. It’s the latest in a series of projects in global book history by the research team at the Old Books New Science Lab, led by U of T Vice President and UTM Principal Alexandra Gillespie.

This project involves a collaboration with 130 researchers—librarians, humanists, scientists, curators, conservators and others—from U of T and 60 institutions around the world. It will explore all the systems, peoples, and cultures that make a book, including its physical and biological properties as sources of new knowledge. Everything from fungal growth on a book’s pages to the trade routes involved in the materials used to make the book will be studied.

The Mellon Foundation is supporting the project with a $2.0 million (USD) grant for the next four years.

“On behalf of the entire U of T community, I would like to thank the Mellon Foundation for their visionary support,” said U of T Vice President of Advancement David Palmer. “This grant will enable cutting-edge historical research that will transform our understanding of communities and cultures.”

The project is named after a public exhibition displayed at the Aga Khan Museum from October 2021 to February 2022. That exhibit, which included contributions from U of T, the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library and other collaborators, showcased the vibrance of global book collections, including a 17th century manuscript of the Bhagavad Gita from Kashmir.

The larger Hidden Stories project will now examine manuscripts in the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library and across the world including in China, Ethiopia, East Africa, North America, Tunisia and Nepal.

Some of these books are so fragile that opening them would destroy them. To get past this hurdle, researchers conduct micro-CT scans of the book, layer by layer – not page by page. Because the pages are wavy, reconstructing a 3D model of the scanned layers needs to involve the use of AI.

“Hidden Stories will be the team’s most ambitious endeavour yet in terms of the scale, number, and complexity of our collaborations,” says Alexandra Gillespie. “The Mellon Foundation continues to be an incredible partner in this work. Their support sets us on a path to discovery that will change our understanding of global history and reshape the stories we tell today.”

U of T Libraries—a long-time collaborator with the Old Books New Science Lab—will play a major role in the project, supporting work ranging from book conservation practice to research data management and knowledge translation. “By partnering with the communities and researchers behind the Hidden Stories project, U of T is challenging conceptions about what libraries should be,” says Larry P. Alford, Chief Librarian of the University of Toronto.

“Researchers and librarians are working together with knowledge keepers to preserve and re-examine the past while exploring new ways to showcase hidden stories in our present moment. We hope that this kind of collaboration will set a global example for how research libraries can participate in bringing together bright minds and innovative technologies to spark wonder and new connections.” U of T Libraries IT Director Sian Meikle will help make many of these collaborations possible as one of the project’s co-primary investigators.

Alongside Meikle and Gillespie, Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) Professor Suzanne Conklin Akbari will help drive the project’s goals and outcomes. Akbari was a professor at U of T for nearly 25 years, including serving as director for the Centre for Medieval Studies between 2013 and 2018 before moving to IAS in Princeton, New Jersey. She was the co-curator for the Aga Khan Museum exhibition from which the project sprang.

The results of this team’s research will be made available through open-source code, open data repositories, academic publications, media posts, podcasts, videos and exhibits.

A component of the project is to find better ways to conserve precious manuscripts. While some are too fragile to open, other manuscripts made of parchment degrade through a process of gelatinizing.

“It’s where the page starts to physically break down on the molecular level,” says Jessica Lockhart, head of research for the Old Books New Science Lab. “We don’t really have a good conservation solution for that yet, so that’s part of the work.”

Other conservation issues include what’s known as the carbon black problem. CT scans of books reveal that the ink and the page are both made of carbon, which makes it difficult to distinguish in a scan, as is the case with some 16th-century Kashmiri birchbark manuscripts. Researchers turned to machine learning, imaging scientists, Sanskrit scholars, librarians and conservators to figure out how to conserve the book and read it.

But the project is much more than scanning old books. In addition to imaging and machine learning, it includes DNA analysis, ecosystem analysis, data management, and cataloging. It also involves dedicated funding toward communities of origins—the communities where the manuscripts were initially found.


Close up shot of a palm leaf manuscript.
PhD student Arka Chakraborty holds a palm leaf manuscript. (Photo by Nick Iwanyshyn)


Gillespie is interested in “disrupting the traditional narrative about the arrival of printing in Western Europe” which, she explains, is “inconsistent with pre-modern textual culture.” That narrative, which she refers to as the “Gutenberg myth,” is that the arrival of printing in Western Europe in the 15th century is what produced modernity.

Hidden Stories will change this narrative by studying diverse ways of knowledge-sharing that existed millennia before the development of the printing press in Europe. Those stories range from the squashed bug flattened between the pages of an old book to textual traditions in non-Western societies that were suppressed by colonialism or Western scholarship.

“The stories we tell about the past shape the way we live in the present,” Gillespie says.

“Recovering knowledge people have ignored, neglected, stolen or excluded, recovering knowledge, sharing it, doing it truthfully, openly, is necessary for our world to thrive,” she adds. "It's also a tool for cultural resilience—a way of giving hope for the future by affirming the vitality of the past."


Gillespie and researchers analyze a palm leaf manuscript.
(Photo by Nick Iwanyshyn)


Among the project’s most important collaborators are members from Indigenous communities, including the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation and the Munsee Delaware Nation, both located in what is now Ontario. Since the Munsee homeland is in what is now New York and New Jersey, that collaboration is carried on through IAS.

Akbari says the project developed organically and soon spread into a web of connections of interested researchers.

“It started very early on with conversations among medievalists at Toronto,” she says. She hopes Hidden Stories will generate research, speak to a wider public, create exhibitions and effect change in curricula.

“The book is a conduit that lets us find ourselves in the past,” she says. “It’s about the different ways of accessing the past, telling those stories in a good way, respecting the evidence and respecting how people have told the story over time.”