THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Collection Care blog

04 October 2017

Talk: Iron Gall Ink - Conservation challenges and research

Join Zoë Miller and Paul Garside in a lunchtime Feed the Mind talk at the British Library to find out how conservators are treating manuscripts at risk of being destroyed by their own writing.

Iron Gall Ink: Conservation challenges and research
Mon 9 Oct 2017, 12:30 - 13:30

Full details and booking information can be found here.

So what is the problem with Iron Gall Ink?

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Conservators caring for the 150 million items in the British Library face many challenges, from crumbling paper to detached book boards. But arguably one of the biggest issues is the conundrum of how to care for one of the most widely used and inherently damaging historic inks - iron gall ink.

You have probably come across this ink with its distinctive brown colour and halo of discolouration. Made from a combination of tannins (from oak gall nuts), iron sulphate (extracted from cave walls or pyritic nodules) and gum Arabic, this ink can become corrosive and thereby damage the writing surface it lies upon. Why was such a damaging substance used so prolifically? Because iron gall ink can be made from readily available materials, and cannot be rubbed or scraped away without leaving a textual stain behind. Thus it was used to write important manuscripts and legal documents for thousands of years. These include such iconic ‘Treasures’ of the Library as Magna Carta and the Lindisfarne Gospels, and range from illuminated manuscripts to personal correspondence and formal maps to impromptu sketches including those of Leonardo Da Vinci.

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The beauty - and evil - of the recipe lies in its properties of corrosion. When applied to paper or vellum the ink ‘burns’ into it leaving a mark which is insoluble in water or alcohol, and which cannot be erased. Over time it may attack the underlying paper or parchment, weakening the material and causing areas of text to be damaged or lost. In the very worst cases, we can lose the text completely as it drops out of the sheet of paper! The work of conservators is vital in identifying vulnerable items and intervening when necessary.

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What can be done? Come and find out at our Feed the Mind talk on Monday 9th October where, using visual examples, we will examine the historic use of this ink, including the influence which different recipes and writing implements can have on its properties. We will illustrate the range of treatments that are currently used in the Conservation department to address this problem, some traditional and some very modern, as well as the ongoing research to develop new approaches. This will demonstrate one of the many ways in which conservation helps to safeguard the collection and ensure its survival for future generations. Book your place now.

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