THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Collection Care blog

Behind the scenes with our conservators and scientists

Introduction

Discover how we care for the British Library’s Collections by following our expert team of conservators and scientists. We take you behind the scenes into the Centre for Conservation and the Scientific Research Lab to share some of the projects we are working on. Read more

10 September 2018

Rehousing two 12th century charters

My name is Wanda Robins, and I am studying book conservation at Camberwell College of Arts, in London. A key component of the Camberwell program is to provide students with ample practical work experience in historical institutions to consolidate the theoretic knowledge gained at university. In addition to one-day per week placements throughout the school year, every student completes a four to six-week summer work placement between the first and second year, which is an opportunity to work on more complex projects and experience full time work in a conservation studio.

I was fortunate to have my placement at the British Library Conservation Centre (BLCC) and had an opportunity to work on an exciting project to rehouse two 12th century parchment charters that were gifted to the British Library from Abbey College, Ramsey.

Ramsey Abbey was a Benedictine abbey founded in AD 969 in what is now Cambridgeshire. The two charters bear the seals of Henry I (king from 1100 – 1135) and Henry II (king from 1154-1189) and grant the surrounding land to the Abbey.

The curators and the conservation team determined that the charters should be rehoused due to the acidic mount board and the frame was not well sealed. It was also apparent that the charters were pasted down to board, which constricts the natural movement of parchment, and would ultimately be detrimental to the charters.

Before Pictures:

Original frame and condition: frame has gaps and is sealed with tape on back.

Original frame and condition 

Sealed with tape Frame condition

Charter with Seal of Henry I, in original housing.

Charter with Seal of Henry I Board backing

Charter is fixed directly to board backing.

Original housing

Charter with Seal of Henry II, in original housing.

Backing Removal

Taking the charters out of the original housing proved to be a bit of a challenge – it turns out that someone took a great deal of time to engineer a safe way to mount the seals so they could be set safely within the mount. The seals were set within tubes with cotton pads and cotton wool.

Backing removal Seal tubes

Cotton wool protection

To lift the parchment off the backing board, we tested with an 80/20 solution of isopropanol to water, which proved effective.

Separating parchment from backing board

Once we had this worked out, I worked from the back and removed layer after layer of the backing board, moistening with a damp sponge. Once I reached the back of the parchment, I used the isopropanol/water solution to reactivate the animal glue so I could remove it with a micro-spatula.

Backing board removal 1 Backing board removal 2

Backing board removal 3 Backing board removal 4

Backing board removal detail

Tools used for backing removal.

Tools

It took me several days to get the backing off and in the end, I couldn’t remove everything. There was a notable difference in the two charters, as the older one was much more degraded, so we decided that we would leave a skim of the paper backing and not risk damaging the parchment further.

Skim of paper backing

Once all the backing was removed we found additional writing on the verso of the charter.

Additional writing discovered

During the cleaning process, we noticed that the seal of the older charter, though likely wax, has a grainy texture, and was shedding bits and granules. One of the senior conservators recommended that we consolidate it with a synthetic adhesive, Paraloid B72.

Grainy texture on seal Consolidation

Finally, to work out a new mount and storage for the charters, we discussed various ways of tabbing the charters to fix them to a mount board. We planned the tabs first.

Planned tabs

Using a light Japanese tissue, we attached small splints to the verso to keep the various strips of parchment in place and protected.

Light Japanese tissue Tissue splints

We cut uniform sized tabs of Japanese tissue with a water pen and attached these to the verso with a light application of wheat starch paste. This can easily be removed in the future, if needed.

Uniform tabs Tab preparation

Example tab Example tab 2

Once the tabs were adhered to the verso of the charters, we cut slits into a sheet of Plastazote foam and pushed the tabs through the Plastazote so that they would not be visible from the recto.

Plastezote slits Plastezote slits 2

The effect was a bit like the charter is floating on top of the foam. The charters are secure and they cannot move around. The Plastazote could also accommodate a small indentation cut into it to support the wax seals

Within its new mount board:

Charter on foam New mount board

I was able to get both charters and the two descriptive labels all housed and ready for a new box. It was a really exciting and interesting project to learn about and get to experience. I am so grateful to the various staff that supported me and helped me through it.

During my month at the BLCC I was given the opportunity to share this project with three different public tours. This was really fun and also meant a lot to me as I as I had first become interested in conservation by attending a public tour of the BLCC in 2015.

09 August 2018

Handle Books with Care

To celebrate #NationalBookLoversDay, I’ve decided to write a follow-up blog to my previous post, A Taste of Training. As discussed in my first blog post, one of the activities I am involved with as a Preventive Conservator here at the British Library is training. In this post, I’d like to share some of the information we deliver when providing book handling training sessions, focusing on various binding styles and the tools you can use to help prevent damage. A great way to show your love for books is to handle them with care!

Risks to books

Books may be vulnerable for a number of reasons. A book might be constructed from materials which are poor quality or the book may have been housed in less-than-ideal storage or environmental conditions. The format of the book itself can also cause damage, so it’s important to know how to handle different types of books and account for each format’s weaknesses.

Book supports and weights

Book supports are a great way to minimise damage when using a book. They restrict the opening angle of a book and provide support while the book is being used. This helps to prevent damage to the spine and boards.  Book supports commonly come in the form of foam wedges, but you can also find other styles, including cradles with cushions and cushions on their own.

Weights are another useful tool when using books. Books are, generally speaking, not made to open flat, which can result in pages that want to spring upwards. Rather than pressing down on the pages and potentially causing damage, it’s better to gently lay a weight on the page. Just take care not to place the weights directly on any areas with text or images—these areas may be fragile and susceptible to damage.

Foam Support  Cradle and Cushion  Cushion
From left to right: A book on foam supports, a cradle with a cushion, and a cushion, with snake weights preventing the pages from springing upwards.

Now let’s discuss specific binding styles.

Flexible tight back books

A flexible tight back is a book which has the covering material (often leather) adhered directly to the spine. This means that the covering material flexes as the book is opened and closed. This can cause cracking along the spine, and will worsen as the leather and paper degrade.   

FTB Damage  FTB Partial
Left: Vertical cracking along the spine of a rigid tight back book (please note that this image, along with all others, shows a sample book and not a collection item; books should not normally be placed on their foredge). Right: A partially bound flexible tight back with minimal lining between the text block and the leather covering.

When using a flexible tight back book, place the boards on foam wedges. You may also find it beneficial to use a spine support piece--a thin strip of foam placed in the centre to help support the fragile spine, as seen below. 

Flexible Tight Back

A flexible tight back book on foam book supports with spine support piece.

Rigid tight back

A rigid tight back book has more material covering the spine, which makes the spine rigid and more robust. This rigid spine causes the book to have a restricted opening, and the pages of the book will spring upward when opened. The rigid spine can also cause a weakness in the joint--the area where the book boards meet the spine--and may lead to the boards detaching.   

Loose Boards  Rigid Tight Back Detail
Left: Whilst not a rigid tight back, this image does show a book with its boards detached—this type of damage is common with rigid tight back books. Right: A partially bound rigid tight back showing a more built up spine: book board is present between the text block and leather, highlighted in the white square.

Rigid tight back books do not need a spine support piece. Instead, the focus should be on supporting the boards with wedges and leaving space in the centre for the spine. 

Rigid Back Book on Foam Supports

A rigid tight back book on foam book supports; note the pages springing up rather than lying flat.

Case bindings

Now let’s get into a couple of the more common types of bindings, which everyone is likely to have on their bookshelf. A case binding, or hardback book, features a textblock which is adhered to the case (or boards) by pasting a piece of paper to the textblock and the case. Over time, the case can split away from the textblock, causing pages and/or the textblock to come loose, and possibly detach completely. To prevent damage to your hardbacks, we recommend restricting the opening angle so as to not cause too much strain to that single piece of paper holding the textblock to the case.   

Case Binding 1  Case Binding 2
Left: Showing the piece of paper adhering the textblock to the case. Right: The text block has split from the case, causing some pages to detach and the textblock as a whole to be loose.

Perfect bindings

Perfect bindings, or paperback books, are made by glueing the textblock directly to the cover. They are not made to be long-lasting, and as a result, are often made from poor quality materials. As the adhesive fails, pages will detach and come loose. Paperback books are also not very flexible, so they won’t open well. To keep your paperbacks in the best condition possible, restrict the opening angle so you’re not causing a stress point where the adhesive can fail easily.      

Perfect Binding 1_Edited  Case Binding 2
Left and right: The pages have detached from the cover of this book.

Safe handling

Finally, I’d like to share some general best practice tips to help you safely handle your books:

  • Ensure your hands are clean and dry when handling books
  • Be aware of long jewellery or loose clothing which can catch
  • Lift books instead of sliding or dragging them
  • Don’t carry too many books at one time
  • Handle your books with care and be sure to take your time

If you’re using our reading rooms and do not see any book supports or weights around, simply ask Reading Room staff and they will provide them for you. The more time you take to ensure you’re using best practice when handling books, the longer your favourite books will survive!

Happy #NationalBookLoversDay!

Nicole Monjeau

12 July 2018

Deaf Tours at the British Library Centre for Conservation

The British Library Centre for Conservation offers four deaf tours a year with a sign language interpreter. The next tour is on Wednesday 05 September at 2.00 pm. 

Six free tickets have been reserved for the 05 September tour and are available by emailing Conservation Tours: conservationvisits-tours@bl.uk using the reference Free ticket BLCC 05 09. Tickets will be offered on a first come first served basis. 

Ticket information: Full Price: ÂŁ10.00; Member: ÂŁ8.00; Under 18: ÂŁ8.00 and other concessions may be available.

All tours leave from the main information desk at 2.00 pm. Please be aware that there is a considerable amount of walking and standing as the tour lasts for approximately 60 minutes. 

Signed BLCC tours

Roger, Book and Paper Conservator and Wayne, Sign Language Interpreter. Image © British Library Board

Please remember that:

  • Bags and coats cannot be taken into the BLCC but can be left in the Conservation Manager’s secure office
  • Unfortunately the tour is not suitable for children under 12 
  • There is also a tour on Wednesday 06 December at 2.00 pm – information will be available on https://www.bl.uk/events/conservation-studios-guided-tour