How many people does it take to turn a page? And how long does it take them to do it?
The answers, in the case of the Lindisfarne Gospels, are two people and three hours respectively.
The pair, from the British Library, travelled to Durham on Wednesday and yesterday performed the delicate operation at Durham University’s Palace Green Library before returning to London.
Visitors to the Lindisfarne Gospels will now see a page showing a portrait of St John the Evangelist as opposed to one showing the Canon Tables, a more abstract image – and that is the way it will remain until the exhibition ends on September 30.
Richard Gameson, professor of the history of the book at Durham University, said the procedure was in line with established protocol regarding the loan of valuable objects.
He said: “It’s a real pain in some respects but it means everybody knows that if anything happens to the artefact it is the fault of the owner.
“Durham Cathedral recently loaned a manuscript to a big exhibition in Germany and the head of the heritage collection went there, installed it in the case and then came back.”
As well as changing the exposed page, the two British Library employees had to change the stand the book rests on.
Prof Gameson said two bespoke stands were created for the Durham exhibition once they had decided which two pages would be seen in Durham (the British Library had offered a limited choice in keeping with its plan to conserve the book).
The first was designed to hold a book turned to about page 30, the second to support the same book turned to about page 400.
“It’s a bulky book so it does need the correct support,” said Prof Gameson.
“Once it had been placed on the second stand, they had to make sure it was comfortable – that it was not going to shift position – and then the lighting had to be adjusted accordingly.
“The whole process took about three hours.
Contrary to what many people might imagine, those handling the book did not wear white gloves.
“For medieval books you never wear white gloves because there is a danger of soft pages getting scuffed,” said Prof Gameson.
“The best technique in this case is clean hands.” Prof Gameson, who was allowed to handle the Lindisfarne Gospels when he was preparing a monograph – or written study – about it ahead of the exhibition, said he had handled many medieval documents but it had been a thrill.
“The Lindisfarne Gospels is in good condition so it is like touching the past. You feel as if you are looking over the shoulders of the people who actually made it.”
More than 45,000 people saw the exhibition when the first page was exposed and more than 20,000 tickets have so far been sold for the remainder of the exhibition’s run.
Prof Gameson revealed that another treasured book, the tiny St Cuthbert Gospel, which features in the current exhibition, will be the centrepiece of a new exhibition early next year dedicated to its own place in history.