THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Collection Care blog

25 posts categorized "Bindings"

12 April 2017

Conservation demonstration at London Craft Week

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London Craft Week

Conservation at the British Library
As part of London Craft Week members of the British Library Conservation team will demonstrate conservation techniques used to protect one of the most significant library collections in the world. The Library houses treasures including The Magna Carta, Leonardo da Vinci’s Notebook and the Beatle’s manuscripts.

Thursday 4 May Demonstrations 11am - 5pm, talks 2pm - 3pm and 6pm - 7pm
Saturday 6 May Demonstrations 12pm - 4pm, talk 2pm - 3pm

Demonstrations free / Entrance Hall
Talk £5 / Foyle Room / booking necessary www.bl.uk/events

Silk curtain

Illuminated manuscript with silk ‘curtain’. Image © British Library Board

13 February 2017

The beauty within: conservation of manuscript Delhi Arabic 1928

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Flavio Marzo reports on the conservation of a unique manuscript from the Delhi Arabic collection.

I have recently undertaken the conservation of a very interesting Arabic manuscript that is a good example of how the mixture of features means richness and beauty.

The manuscript, produced in the first half of the XIX century, contains two different texts bound together, about cosmology and astronomy. This book, measuring 285 x 175 x 30 mm, is one of the scientific volumes that we are presently digitising within the project sponsored by the Qatar Foundation, here on the 6th floor of the British Library, for the Qatar Digital Library web site.

Image 1_2Right/front and left/back cover of Delhi Arabic 1928.

Image 3

The spine of the book.

This manuscript is also another item from the Delhi Arabic Collection; a fantastic series housed at the British Library that has been the subject of other previous blog posts of mine, written for the British Library Collection Care blog.

The book came to us because it needed extensive conservation before any further handling, from cataloguing to photography, would have been possible. Something needed to be done, but as soon as I started to examine the book in detail I realised how interesting and unique its binding was.

Categories are essential to communicate, we need a common language to share information and a common vocabulary to be able to understand each other, but this inevitably often requires simplification. The history of book binding and the craft of book making are not different, we have created a vocabulary that helps us to categorise styles, techniques and features, assigning to specific definitions chronologically and geographically defined areas.

‘Islamic style binding’ is one of them; it identifies books that are bound following specific techniques and are characterised by specific codified and agreed upon features.

At a first look, this book seemed to bear all of those characteristics:

1. A type of decoration with inlays made of tooled toned paper was applied to the leather, as well as being framed with lines of drawn gold pigment. 
2. The boards were not larger than the book block (no squares).
3. It had a flat spine.
4. The burnished shining paper of the pages bore Arabic writing.

Image 4

One of the paper inlays, lifting.

I was also expecting an unsupported sewing (without sewing supports) and Islamic style end bands, but this was not the case.

The sewing, made with a very thick linen thread was actually made on strips of tanned leather with the thread passing behind them in the so called ‘French style technique’ (link stitch) where the thread passages are linked together during the sewing, as visible in the following image.

Image 5

Image 6

The leather strips and the passages of the sewing thread in the ‘French style’.

The end bands, or at least what was left of them (only the one at the tail survived almost entirely) were also a surprise, they were in a western style, sewn with two silk threads (pink and green) onto a round core made of linen cord.

Image 7

Detail of the surviving 'western style' end band at the tail of the book spine.

What a magnificent multicultural binding! An Islamic style cover with French sewing and western end bands; how many stories this damaged little book is telling all at once - not only the fascinating content of the text but also the intriguing mixture of features that speaks of a binder obviously bridging two different worlds and their book binding craftsmanship.

The book was made in the XIX century, a time when the western domination of the Far East (the book was part of the Imperial Mughal Library so possibly produced in India) was already quite established, and so the reciprocated exchange in craftswork and tastes.

Was the binder a westerner or an easterner artisan? It is hard to tell even if the predominance of eastern features, like the attachment of the leather cover to the book block achieved by only adhering the leather to the spine without any lacing of the supports, makes me favour the second option.

The challenge here was then how to treat the book. The leather strips were completely gone and the sewing very loose. A huge amount of insect damage, especially on the spine folds of the bifolia, had made most of the pages detached. Likewise, the leather on the spine and the board edges were almost completely gone.

Approaches in modern conservation are based on some clear principles and ethics, two of which are ‘minimal intervention’ and ‘fit for purpose’. In this specific case I chose the ‘minimal’ approach aimed at keeping all the historical evidence of an object undisturbed as much as possible. I decided to work ‘in situ’ and try to restore all the elements of the binding leaving them as they were.

This was a very ‘minimal’ but not at all ‘fit for purpose’ approach. Digitisation project workflows are based on the constant processing of material to be imaged and uploaded online. Conservation within these work streams is there to support this flow, making sure that the items processed are stabilized and safely handled to produce good quality images. In this context, the ‘fit for purpose’ approach means that conservation treatments on single items should not take more than 5 to 10 hours to be completed. To repair the manuscript, however, took me one week. The time was needed and it was found within the scope of the project, but making sure that we were also keeping a steady flow of material to work on for the rest of the workflow strands.

A new spine lining made of Japanese paper was applied onto the spine to secure the book block as much as possible and to support in place the remnants of the end bands before starting to work on the pages.

Image 8

The spine of the book and the remnants of the end bands are reinforced with Japanese paper layers adhered with wheat starch paste and the new linen tapes inserted under the passage of the sewing.

New cotton tapes were inserted under the sewing thread passages where the leather strip supports were originally placed. In most of the sections the sewing thread was secured in place with small pieces of Japanese paper and wheat starch paste. The loose pages were secured with hinges of Japanese paper, making sure that the correct collation was maintained.

The boards were re-attached to the book block as they had been by attaching the original linen spine lining and the remnants of the old leather supports reinforced with the new cotton tapes.

All the remnants of the covering leather on the spine were secured to the spine lining now supported by a new Japanese paper hollow. No infill with new leather was made, but the spine was repaired only with thin toned Japanese paper instead, leaving the linen fabric of the original lining exposed.

Image 9

The book after the conservation work.

During the conservation of the book block, a note was also found inserted. Written on this note are the shelf mark and probably a request from the cataloguer for the restoration of the book (‘Repairs & binding’).

The note was most surely inserted at the time the book was being catalogued since the handwriting on it matches the calligraphy on the cataloguing labels adhered on the right and left boards.

Image10_11

Pink slip with handwritten shelf mark and annotation compared with the shelf mark written on the labels adhered on the right/front board.

At the British Library, the practice of inserting pink slips to highlight the need for urgent conservation work is still in use today. This procedure obviously dates back quite far.

We know that the manuscripts in the Delhi collection were moved from Calcutta to the India Office in London, and at a certain point divided into their respective language collections. This arrangement was made after they were catalogued in 1937, so it is reasonable to assume that the labels were placed not much later than this date.

The request on the slip was obviously ignored and the book was not restored, a ‘negligence’ that probably saved the manuscript from a complete rebinding that would have destroyed all the historical evidences of this unique artefact.

The perception of beauty is another very controversial topic; this work of mine was meant to preserve as much as possible all the evidence of a very unique and fascinating item, keeping the original features in place and preserving all the possibly hidden information for future research.

The tattered look of the damaged book was also preserved, arguably not a pleasing look, but time has left its marks and that has its own beauty.

Flavio Marzo

21 November 2016

The Conservation and Spectroscopic Analysis of a Burmese Concertina Binding

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Background

Last year I was asked to conserve a high profile, yet highly degraded late 18th century Burmese Concertina binding (OR.3591). Almost everything that could go wrong with a paper-based manuscript had gone wrong with this. It was mouldy, it had pest damage, the media was coming off the paper, and there were significant losses of the paper substrate which had compromised its handling and legibility. Consequently the item was deemed ‘unfit’ for use by the British Library, and was in desperate need of conservation.

Concertina Bindings

A concertina binding, also known as an accordion binding, is a binding method that sits somewhere between a modern sewn book and an ancient scroll. Concertinas are customarily a long sheet (see Diagram 1), or multiple adhered sheets (see Diagram 2), folded vertically into panels, which can then either be displayed as a continuous sheet, or picked up and read like a book (making it far easier to handle than the often cumbersome scroll).

Diagram 1

Fig. 1 A concertina binding like OR.3591, formed of one continuous sheet of paper.

Diagram 2

Fig.2 A concertina binding formed of multiple sheets adhered together.

Figure 3

Fig.3 OR.3591 The carved relief wooden end board.

Fig.4

Fig.4 OR.3591 Stratified, highly deteriorated concertina folds.

OR.3591

This concertina was formed of one continuous sheet of handmade light brown long-fibred eastern paper (see Diagram 1), folded into 24 panels, between two dark wood boards with carved relief designs. Coloured paint and inks on a white ground adorned both sides of the paper. Side A illustrated Buddhist cosmology and side B illustrated fortune telling. The manuscript was acquired from a collector by the British Museum in 1888. The accompanying letter reads:

This book was found by me in the Laywun hut at Thatwé which is about 20 miles S.E of Yamethin in upper Burmah. Thatwé was occupied on the 10th December 1886 by a column of the 3rd Brigade under the command of the Brig. Gen W.S.A Lockhart.

The Burmese interpreter informed me that the pictorial side represents the progress of a saintly man from the nethermost regions to the acme of all goodness. One man shown upside down is the supposed after reaching an exalted position, to have led an immoral life for which he was sent down.

The tables on the reverse are those from which the horoscopes are worked out- every Burman always carries a horoscope."

P.D Jeffreys Lt. Col.
The Connaught Rangers
Late Brigade Major
3rd Brigade Burmah Field Force

Figure 5  Figure 5 and 6
Figs. 5 & 6 OR.3591 Accompanying letter from L t. Col Jeffreys.

Condition: the paper

Fig.7

Fig.7 OR.3591 Manuscript torn into two parts.

The paper was soft, weak and fragile to handle, distorted, holey and creased. The manuscript was in two parts, having torn down one of the fold-lines. There were also extensive losses on each panel, due in part to rodent damage.

The manuscript had also obviously been exposed to water at some point in its lifetime as there were clusters of black spots, which were identified as inactive mould. The water had also stuck the folded panels together, which had later been forced apart, skinning (or tearing off) the top layers of the paper, leaving them stuck to the opposing panels.

Figure 8  Figure 8 and 9
Left: Fig.8  OR.3591 Skinned, creased and torn panel edge with off-set accretions and media. Right: Fig.9  OR.3591 Water damaged media and inactive vegetative mould.

Condition: the media

Water damage had also solubilised the media, causing it to smudge and offset again onto apposing panels. When examined under microscopy the paint was powdery or ‘friable’ and was coming off the paper, suggesting the paint’s binder was exhibiting stronger cohesive rather than adhesive properties, and had ultimately failed in its utility.

Fig.10 and 11

Left: Fig.10  OR.3591 Friable powdery pigment media. Right: Fig.11  OR.3591 Example of visually obstructive off-set media on opposing panels.

Pigment Analysis via p-XRF Spectroscopy

Portable X-ray Fluorescence (p-XRF) Spectroscopy is a non-destructive elemental analysis technique for quantification of nearly any element from Magnesium to Uranium, which enables conservation professionals to identify pigments. Precisely identifying pigments governs the succeeding conservation treatment as some pigments can be adversely affected if treated incorrectly - for example some discolouration if exposed to some solvents. Identifying the pigments also gives invaluable insight into the history, materiality and manufacture of the manuscript.

Fig.12

Fig.12  OR.3591 Analysing pigments via use of p-XRF spectroscopy.

P-XRF analysis was carried out using a Bruker ‘Tracer-III SD’ portable device, and the resulting data was then compared against suitable reference data to determine the identities of the pigments. Four pigments from the manuscript were examined: red, white, yellow and green. In addition, the composition of the underlying paper was also assessed, and this datum was used as a ‘background’ so its influence could be removed from the results.

The data suggested that the four pigments are: red - vermilion; white - lead white; yellow - orpiment;
green - orpiment plus an organic blue (possibly indigo).

* Elements given in parentheses are present in minor quantities.

Table

Fig.13  OR.3591 p-XRF spectra.

Treatment

The manuscript was first photographed, and then the media cross-sectionally solubility tested with deionized (D/I) water, ethanol and a 50:50 mix. All media was soluble in water and 50:50.

Mould reduction

The dry surface mould was brushed gently with a sable brush into a HEPA filtered vacuum according to COSHH standards. Extreme care was taken during this process to limit loss of original media. To ensure absolute mould deactivation, the recto and verso of mould damaged areas were treated via local application of ethanol using a fine brush.

Humidification

The manuscript was humidified in a controlled environment using a blotter, Bondina and Gore-Tex stack covered with a polythene sheet. This process relaxed the paper and reduced its distortions, enabling me to accurately realign the fibres, creases and tears using tweezers.

Fig.14

Fig.14  OR.3591 Humidifying the manuscript.

Media consolidation

Straight after humidification the media was consolidated. Jun-Funori, a pure Japanese algae-based consolidant was made up to a 1.4% and inserted into a nebulizer. The nebulizer, which dispersed the consolidant in a fine mist, was then passed cross-sectionally over each panel on each side. The process was repeated twice until friable pigment was sufficiently consolidated, and the manuscript was left to dry. Jun-Funori was selected for the consolidant because it has documented success at consolidating friable media and it has a low refractive index so it is suitable for matte pigments. When emitted via nebulizer the particles penetrated between the friable pigments, adhering them to the paper.

Fig.15

Fig.15  OR.3591 Consolidating the friable media with Jun-Funori emitted in a fine mist via nebulizer.

Structural consolidation

A Japanese kozo paper ‘Nao 2.2’ was selected for infills and repairs due to colour, weight and availability. The paper was not toned as this would have taken up a large amount of time, and its likely inconsistency would have been more visually distracting than the selected paper.

The tears and holes were repaired with the kozo paper, torn and trimmed so the edges were neat but fibrous, and adhered with wheat starch paste (WSP). The losses were infilled with three layers of the paper, needled out along the loss edge, and adhered onto the manuscript again with WSP. This tri- laminate infill was of equal-weight to the manuscripts paper as desired.

Fig.16

Fig.16 OR.3591 The manuscript consolidated with Nao 2.2 kozo tri-laminate infills adhered with wheat starch paste.

Fig. 17

Fig. 17 OR.3591 The 2 parts of the manuscript, part 1 post conservation treatment, part 2 pre-conservation treatment. 

The infills were trimmed with a straight-edge and scalpel and the manuscript refolded using a bone folder. The manuscript was finally re-housed in its original (cleaned) box.

Figs.18 and 19

Figs.18 & 19  OR.3591 Folding the conserved manuscript back into its original concertina format.

The overall treatment took 113 hours, due to the sheer size of the object and the number of infills that needed to be carried out. The manuscript is now back in use and can be requested by readers - job done!

Fig.20

Fig.20 OR.3591 The conserved item having been returned to its original box.

Fig.21

Fig.21 OR.3591 Foredge showing consolidated concertina folds.  

Fig.22

Fig.22 OR.3591 A section of the conserved manuscript.

Fig.23

Fig.23 OR.3591 A section of Side B showing Burmese horoscopes.

Fig.24

Fig.24 OR.3591 The completed manuscript.

Fig.25

Fig.25 OR.3591 A section of Side A showing Buddhist cosmology.

Fig.26

Fig.26 OR.3591 A section of Side B showing the extent of infills that were required.

Daisy Todd

31 October 2016

Talk: Fabric of the Library: discovering textile conservation

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Feed the Mind is a series of inspiring lunchtime talks exploring the rich diversity of collaborative research taking place at the British Library. Fabric of the Library: discovering textile conservation takes place on Monday 7 November at 12.30 pm in the Eliot Room, Conference Centre, British Library.

I am Liz Rose, textile conservator at the British Library and I am giving a talk about the textiles I have found in the British Library collections and some of those I have treated. This amazing collection ranges from a contemporary book to a 4th century piece of silk and many beautiful objects in between.

Tickets are £5 and can be booked here.

There will be an opportunity for questions and discussion, all in the space of your lunch-break. I have included a couple of images to whet your appetite but don’t forget the free tea, coffee and cakes!

Textiles 1
Or 9430 Image copyright the British Library Board

Textiles 2

C 24 d 5  Image copyright the British Library Board

 

17 October 2016

From West to East: Conservation of the Chinese novel ‘Dream of the Red Chamber’

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By Heather Marshall

Six volumes arrived in the Conservation studio at the British Library. They are all bound in Western style bindings, quarter bound in dark blue leather and marbled paper, and they are very much in the format and style with which you will be familiar when looking at a traditional book.

1
One of the six volumes, open, showing the restricted opening, detached boards and spine piece.

I discovered that these volumes contain one of the greatest Chinese novels: the Dream of the Red Chamber (in Chinese: Hong lou meng), written by Cao Xueqin in the 18th century. This edition (British Library shelfmark: 15333.a.1) was made during the Qing dynasty, and it is dated 1811. It is a printed item.

The Dream of the Red Chamber is also called ‘The Story of the Stone’ (in Chinese: Shi tou ji) and it is one of China’s greatest classic novels. Written during the Qing dynasty, this work is widely recognised as one of the pinnacles of Chinese fiction. It narrates the story of two branches of a wealthy aristocratic family (the Jia family) and gives us a vivid account of the Chinese culture and society at that time, portraying funerals, rites, cuisine and medicine aspects.

However, it is relatively unknown in the West, despite the fact that the first translation into English was produced in 1812, just one year after the production of this Chinese copy. It is curious that the original item has at some point been rebound in Western style. The size of the novel is remarkable and when bound in Western style it arrived at 23 fascicules in 6 volumes! The current Penguin books edition is longer than War and Peace!

Books and other collection items in libraries often go through several transformations by being put into a number of different bindings in their several hundred year lives. This can vary from complete rebinding from one style to the next or an amalgamation of styles, through different repairs deemed necessary over the years.

Until recent years, when an item from East Asia was ingested in a Western library’s collection, it was usually rebound with Western style technique, including a hard cover with a spine, which usually contained the title in English. It was in fact believed that in this way the items would have been better stored on the shelves and the paper would have been more protected from dust or humidity. The same happened for the British Museum Library’s items from China (now the British Library’s Chinese collection).

The British Library Lead Curator for East Asian Collections, Sara Chiesura, has informed us that more recent and contemporary acquisitions are left with the original binding and put in a custom made box for shelving. This approach goes along with the current conservation trends, which tends to intervene as little as possible on the original items, and to adopt non-invasive techniques to stabilise them.

As a Book Conservator making decisions about the type of repairs needed to a fragile or damaged binding can be very complex and you will always need to consider the evidence which gives the story of the past. Do you keep a book in its current format and make repairs? Sometimes, in fact, even if the Western style binding is not ideal for East Asian items, the binding itself becomes part of the history of the item, and can sometimes reveal information about previous owners or collectors.

Would a new binding be better able to protect the book for the future and honour its history too instead?

The repair work on these Chinese items became therefore a rare case at the British Library. After a discussion with the curators, we decided that the ‘Dream of the Red Chamber’ would have been taken out of its current western style bindings and been put into a Chinese style thread bindings, housed in wrap around ”Tao” cases. Using strong, archival materials, the 6 volumes (23 fascicules in their original format) deserved the sympathy of a return to their origins and a non-Western approach was the best option for the original fragile, thin paper and the need for gentle opening and a secure binding.

As with many Chinese books that have been rebound in Western style, the tight hard binding in contrast to the fragile and this Chinese paper often does not work. In this case, the solid animal glue at the spine created a tight opening and did not allow the bindings to open far enough to see all the text. The detached boards and spines caused much damage as well.

2
Above: one volume after the animal glue was removed from the spine, clearly showing the divisions into fascicules of the original Chinese book and leaving the evidence of the more recent Western style binding.

Working with the item, I immediately noticed some original holes (in the paper text block), which gave me evidence of where the original Chinese thread sewing was. I could therefore reuse these original holes to recreate the sewing for the Chinese binding, tracing back the binding’s original state.

The so-called “Thread Binding” was the usual Chinese binding format in 1811. It is strong and the sewing rarely breaks. Thread bound fascicules in wrap around cases (known as “Tao” cases) would last indefinitely. They allow the flexible pages of each fascicule (which are double sheets, with the fold where the pages are turned) to open flat under their own weight and not be restricted by the spine.

The treatment stages:

3
Open fascicule showing repairs to be made with Japanese tissue.

4
Repairs were made (with wheat starch paste, a neutral adhesive and Japanese tissue) to the delicate spine edge which is still partly glued together by the animal glue used on the previous Western binding.

5
Detail showing remains of the original paper twists and their holes.

The paper twists are used to bind the loose leaves of each fascicule before it is sewn. They are made from a twist of paper pointed at one end and in this case inserted in two places into each fascicule. The Chinese style binding is very strong and the paper twists are often thought of as an ‘inner binding’. They hold each fascicule together before sewing and can act as a back up to the sewing if it breaks.

6

Paper twists inserted.

7
Trimmed paper twists.

8
One stitched fascicule.

Each of the 23 fascicules were re-stitched using the 4 existing sewing holes, using a strong linen thin thread. Extra care was taken to re-use these holes by sewing with a very blunt needle. The needle then finds the hole and eases gently through without causing any damage to the fragile paper.

9

Traditionally thin silk (lined with paper) is folded around the corner of each fascicule to protect the corners and give another source of strength. In this particular case aero cotton was lined with Japanese paper.

10
Re-sewn fascicules (with corners and covers).

11

Flexible opening.

12
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Cases (Tao style cases) were custom made to ensure the fascicules have a snug fit and give very good protection to the book. It is a big advantage of the Chinese style of binding that the elements work together but can also be separated. The wrap around case has to be exactly the correct size. If it is too tight the fascicules can bend, if it is too loose fascicules may fall out! These cases were often remade several times in the book’s life. In this case strong, archival materials have been used so correct storage and handling will ensure good protection for the fascicules and cases in the future.

14
The wrap-around case is made of board covered in cloth, lined with paper, and then fastened with bone pegs.

15

“Chinese Book” is the expression used for the whole object. For this copy of the ‘Dream of the Red Chamber’ 23 individually bound fascicules were encased in 6 wrap around cases (keeping with the format of the 6 western style volumes which arrived in the studio).

16

With thanks to Sara Chiesura for input on this post.

Bibliography:

Atwood, Catherine, ‘Japanese folded sheet books: Construction, materials and conservation’ in The Paper Conservator, papers from the 10th anniversary conference, 14-18 April 1986, part 2

Helliwell, David ‘The Repair and Binding of Old Chinese Books’ in The East Asian Library Journal, Spring 1998, Vol. VIII, no. 1

Ikegami, Kojiro, ‘Japanese Bookbinding’ adapted by Barbara B. Stephan, Wetherhill, London, 11th edition 2007

Wood, Michael, ‘Why is China’s greatest novel virtually unknown in the west?, in The Guardian, 12th February 2016

04 October 2016

Conservation code cracking: finding meaning in hidden symbols

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Everyone loves a good puzzle - and this was definitely found to be the case when Flavio Marzo, conservation team lead for the Qatar/British Library Project, sent an email around to colleagues with a series of mysterious symbols attached. What did they mean? The ancient doodles were uncovered by Flavio during conservation work of a manuscript from the Delhi Collection. Could the code be deciphered by British Library experts? Flavio reports.

Digitisation processes can be quite repetitive. Here at the British Library Qatar Digitisation Project we try to achieve the best we can and this means a lot of quality checks to ensure high levels of efficiency through standardised processes.

There is no difference in our approach to the conservation strand of these digitisation projects. Standardised treatments are applied daily to a great number of items that are processed and prepared to enable a good final result and to ensure safe handling of library material. Unsurprisingly, these items are unique and their content extremely fascinating.

Recently, as part of the material scoped for the second phase of the project, I had to repair a manuscript before imaging and uploading onto the Qatar Digital Library.

This manuscript contains two mathematical treaties bound together dating back to the beginning of the XVIII century. It was in need of conservation treatment because the sewing of a previous restoration attempt was impairing the opening making some of the text inaccessible and impossible to be imaged.

The manuscript is one of 36 scoped for the project belonging to the Delhi Collection. The Delhi Collection encompasses more than 2900 manuscripts stored across the British Library. The manuscripts are all that is left of the Imperial Mughal Library that was acquired by the English run Government in Delhi after the final destruction of the Delhi Red Fortress.

Those texts are now finally becoming available to readers for the first time thanks to the surrogates that we are uploading onto the Qatar Digital Library website. They all are in very poor condition and for this reason many of them have never been made available to readers in our reading rooms.

The prime concern for conservation when treating items is to find the right balance between the level of intervention necessary to make a book strong enough to be safely handled while still preserving the unique and invaluable physical features related to its history and use. These concerns are even more apparent for the Delhi Collection manuscripts since their history and the vicissitudes relating to their move to London are still quite confused.

This manuscript and the treatments carried out to conserve it are a very good example of how challenging it can be to decide what to do and where to stop, but also a very unique case of a fascinating discovery. When the little manuscript (measuring just 182 mm high, 120 mm long and only 7 mm thick) was brought to the studio its book block was detached from its cover.

Delhi Arabic 1925
At a certain point of its life the manuscript was restored and a new over-casted sewing was made to keep the loose, badly damaged pages together.

Construction of the book block
Diagram of the construction of the book block and the full leather cover.

This new sewing, even if achieving its purpose, was badly impairing the opening of the book making some of the marginal notes illegible.

Hidden annotation
Annotation disappearing into the gutter before (left) and after (right) the removal of the over-casted sewing passages.

We know from historical sources that these manuscripts were moved from Delhi to Calcutta for evaluation in the view to be then transferred to London; it was during this time that they were left neglected and befell extensive damage. It was most likely around the same time that the manuscripts were crudely restored and the present cover was applied to the text.

Changes are unavoidable during restoration processes, but conservation is committed to keeping this to a minimal level and always trying to preserve evidence of past treatments while keeping detailed treatment documentation.

After consultation with the curators it was decided to remove the over-casted sewing to improve the opening. The passage holes of the sewing thread were left undisturbed and even the passages of thread on the first and last sheets, not causing any harm to the book, were left and secured in place with wheat starch paste.

Unfortunately most of the pages of the two small manuscripts, repaired even before this last restoration campaign, became loose with no clear evidence of the original construction of the sections.

Many of the sheets were attached to each other at the inner joint and it was decided, after discussion with the curators, to keep this arrangement since no other evidence of thread passages was found. New joints were made with Japanese paper to create the bifolia for the quires.

Book block construction after conservation

Diagram of the construction of the manuscripts after conservation.

The three sections were sewn together with an unsupported sewing using the holes found in only three conjoint bifolia. This is represented in the previous diagram by continuous black lines.

The different layers of original spine lining were re-adhered as they were originally. The end leaves were re-connected to the book-block by gluing them along the spine edges to the first and last leaves of the book, as they were previously.

Only the front right paste down, originally attached to the inner face of the board was left detached and this was due to a very interesting discovery. During the conservation treatment of the end-leaves some hidden manuscript annotations came to light.

Right board
The right board of the cover was made from reused manuscript material. A couple of signatures (now under investigation) appeared, accompanied by what looked like a series of squiggles almost entirely hidden by the leather cover.

After a more careful examination it became clear that these symbols were actually much more than simple doodles. I decided to figure out how to decode them.

The code
The line of symbols emerged partially obscured by the turn in of the leather cover on the fore edge of the inner right board.

An email was written with images attached and it was sent to all colleagues working here at the 6th floor within the British Library/Qatar Partnership: an open invitation to participate in the decoding. Less than an hour later the mystery was solved. The squiggles were in fact a rebus - a puzzle where words are represented by pictures and letters, and its translation came out as: I see you but you cannot see me

The breakdown is shown below:

Code

What an incredible and exciting discovery!

This really is the most appropriate motto to what I am always saying about conservation and the challenges in preserving evidence of historical clues: they are there, they look at you, but we are not necessarily able to see them.

The curator of the Arabic manuscript strand of the project, Bink Hallum, was the person who cracked most of the code. This demonstrates how tasks can be resolved through collaboration and sharing of expertise.

So many invisible pieces of information, during our careers, look at us from the items we handle everyday. We don't always have the necessary knowledge to see them, but surely we have the responsibility to preserve and convey them for posterity.

Flavio Marzo

05 September 2016

Growing a thick skin

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Camille Thuet, Parchment Intern at the British Library, shares her experiences working at the British Library Centre for Conservation so far this year. Parchment (noun): A stiff, flat, thin material made from the prepared skin of an animal, usually a sheep or goat, and used as a durable writing surface in ancient and medieval times - Oxford dictionary

Camille opening a roll

2 February 2016 - First day

I'm very excited to start my 11 month internship here. The building is impressive and in every corner I feel like something is happening. I am very glad to be the first intern that will focus on a specialised material, in my case: vellum and parchment. The British Library is giving me a great opportunity to fill-in my knowledge and become a specialist. I am expecting to work on a broad selection of items from the collection which will present a range of conservation problems.

3 February 2016 – Meeting the team

Today I've met my two mentors, who will support me with my work: Zoe in the conservation studio and Paul for the science-based research projects. They are both passionate about their work and are keen to learn new things as much as I am. A lively and dynamic atmosphere emanates from the huge conservation studio. About 35 conservators are working there, 35 different personalities from various backgrounds. I feel this internship is going to be fascinating…

9 March 2016 - My first parchment challenge

When used as a book cover parchment needs to be flexible; the joints where cover and spine meet are repeatedly taking tension during handling. When there is material missing or weakness in this particular area, the cover is not protecting the text-block any longer and handling can create damage. The infill material must be flexible, strong, toned to match the original aged hues of the cover, and have a similar surface finish with parchment. Many tests were needed to find a Japanese paper which looks like the perfect answer.

Using a conservation pencil  Cover released and ready for treatment

Cover is going to be reattached to text block  Opening after treatment
Top left: Using a conservation pencil to release the lace-in. Top right: The cover released and ready for treatment. Bottom left: The cover about to be reattached to the text block. Bottom right: The opening after treatment.

Before treatment

After treatment

The book spine before and after treatment.

18 May 2016 - A big project!

I am thrilled to be working on a book from the 13th century. Its pages are ancient parchment and its cover is a reminder of the volume’s passage through time. Everybody can have access to this seminal text by Cicero online today but particularities of this include the handwritten margin-notes by scholars from various periods in history. The parchment text-block has survived many readers from Italy to England and is heavily damaged: losses, tears, iron gall ink corrosion, and a myriad of previous treatments but to name a few.

This book is holding mysteries: the lower part of the first twenty pages has been cut off for no obvious reason. It is not unusual for an 18th century’s restorator to collect parchment from a book to repair a more valuable parchment document, but 20 pages… really? Could this be an old mould treatment? Or, censorship of Middle-Aged notes or drawings?

Detail 20 pages cut off 

Left: Detail from a 13th century book. Right: 20 pages mysteriously cropped!

The 18th century binding only allows me to open the book 45° which makes it almost impossible to read, and future handling perilous given its actual condition. One of my tasks is to prepare the fragile book for digitisation so that we can share its mysteries with the world. I have come to the difficult yet essential decision to disband the book and I am supporting the most vulnerable areas before the imaging process by using gelatine remoistenable tissue. The Japanese paper used has been toned with airbrush-sprayed acrylics. Indeed, the result on the image must disrupt the visual appearance as little as possible so as to influence future interpretation as little as possible.

Manuscript with 45 degree opening  Disbinding the manuscript

Left: Manuscript with a 45° opening. Right: Disbinding the manuscript.

2 June 2016 – A wall of rolls

A parchment document feels always more relaxed when conserved flat but large documents which can’t fit on shelves would usually be rolled. The British Library has a large collection of scrolls and rolled documents which are in need of some bespoke storage. A tightly rolled skin becomes cockled, distorted and loses its surface coherence which causes severe repercussions on the media. Won’t it be a massive loss if all the gold sheets of an illuminated document are flaking-off? For a roll parchment, the bigger the core, the better! This means items need big cores as support and ingenious storing and boxing systems accordingly. The challenge is to marry this with the constant fight for space under Euston road!

A wall of rolls

My aims for this project are to assess the collection, prioritising heavily damaged items for conservation treatment and reorganise the collection storage conditions… not too hard then!

26 July 2016 – Half way already!

When I first stepped into the studio I wasn’t a parchment specialist. I am still not quite there, but… I am becoming confident with this complicated material by meeting specialists, attending workshops, conferences and treating a unique collection of parchment objects.

To be continued…

Camille Thuet

05 May 2016

Fragments in bindings

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The conservation process is always a very special time for the item under repair. It is a time during which normally concealed elements of the object are exposed offering a unique opportunity to understand the processes involved in the making of the item. This is even more apparent when conserving books. Books are complex three dimensional objects and for this reason the conservator’s decision-making process can be extremely challenging.

The following examples show how important it is to record every step in the conservation process and to be able to discuss findings made along the way with other experts. This enables us to fully understand and consequently be able to retain and share the information uncovered during all stages of the work. For the past three years I have been working as Manager of the Conservation Studio for the British Library Qatar Foundation Partnership. I have worked with a rich and heterogeneous variety of library material ranging from archival files to ancient scientific Arabic Manuscripts. This material has been arriving on our benches for digitisation preparation and for more extensive conservation.

A group of sixteen manuscripts was identified as being relevant for the Qatar Digital Library Portal during scoping for the second phase of the project. This portal is where our project team upload digitised material. The sixteen manuscripts are a small fraction of the so called Delhi Collection; a vast collection of more than 2,900 manuscripts held here at the British Library. The manuscripts are written in various languages and historically thought to have come from the Royal Mughal Library in Delhi.

The manuscripts are in very poor condition and housed in conservation boxes. The books were transported from Delhi to Calcutta and faced many perils on their journey to the India Office Library in London. They were eventually transferred to their current home here at the British Library, but have never been conserved. This is quite a unique situation since in the past few centuries vast campaigns of restoration and re-binding have irremediably transformed much of our library collections. During these campaigns original bindings were often removed. This resulted in a loss of historical evidence relating to the use and provenance of the volumes.

The subject of this piece is the recent conservation work carried out on two of these manuscripts to enable their imminent digitisation.

Figure 1

Left: Delhi Arabic 1902. Right: Delhi Arabic 1937B.

These manuscripts contain collections of mathematical treatises dating possibly to the XIX and have been heavily damaged by insects and centuries of use and abuse. The treatments conservators apply to items of historical value should always follow a series of ethical guidelines that standardise our profession. Those guidelines are based on one main principle called ‘minimal approach’. ‘Minimal’ doesn't mean less time doing the work or small in the sense of the amount of money spent for the treatment; ‘minimal’ refers to minimal intervention.

The conservator must work with great attention to detail ensuring that historically relevant physical features in the binding, sewing and substrate remain intact and undisrupted. Our work in the British Library Qatar Foundation Partnership Conservation studio is primarily preparation for digitisation. This means we focus on making items fit for withstanding the imaging process. This is both to ensure safe handling of the object and to enable the creation of a good quality surrogate.

Books are very challenging items to reproduce digitally and are often tightly bound. Each page needs to be carefully photographed and the text needs to be entirely visible and legible. The aim of a good quality online surrogate is to give users a truthful virtual experience of the item in its entirety, that is, in the case of bound volumes, much more than the mere text written on its pages.

Delhi Arabic 1902 and 1937B required conservation work because they were too fragile to be safely handled. It would have been impossible to achieve full legibility due to the poor state of their pages. Pages laced with insect holes were repaired with very thin toned Japanese tissue paper and the weak sewing of the book block was reinforced. Every piece of the book structure such as the remnants of the threads used to create the end bands or the sewing of the book-block were supported and secured where they were originally.

Figure 2

Damage due to insect infestation of Ms Delhi Arabic 1902.

Figure 3

Reinforced areas along the edges of the pages.

The leather covers proved to be a completely different challenge on their own. As soon as they were closely examined it became clear that the boards for both the books were created with layers of reused manuscript fragments.

Figure 4

Inside the detached cover of Ms Delhi Arabic 1902 with evidence of the reused manuscript fragments.

The layers constituting the boards in manuscript Delhi Arabic 1902 were already delaminating and the adhesive used to stick them together was failing. During discussions with the curators it was decided to completely separate the layers forming the boards and to not re-use the leather cover any more due to its fragility.

Each layer of the newly found manuscript was easily lifted with the help of a spatula before re-housing in Melinex folders. Numbering was applied to each envelope recording the sequence of the original layering, and subsequently all envelopes were housed in two separate four flap folders to identify the left from the right board. The writing style and content of these manuscript fragments is currently under study and has not yet been identified. It will add interesting information about Delhi Arabic 1902 and help to date the cover and possibly to identify the geographical area where it was made.

Figure 5

Layers of manuscript fragments are easily lifted and housed in Melinex numbered envelopes.

New conservation boards were prepared and inserted into the now “empty” leather cover. A piece of Plastazote was cut to size and used as a substitute for the now removed book-block in order to hold the leather. The leather cover was wrapped in Melinex to protect it during future handling.

Figure 6

The leather cover with the transparent Melinex wrap and the Plastazote support.

A new light board limp cover was created for the book-block after all the pages had been repaired and the sewing reinforced.

Figure 7

Book block with new limp paper cover.

The now separated parts of the manuscript were housed together in a drop back spine box made to size.

Figure 8

All the separated parts of the manuscripts are housed together in the box.

The cover of the second manuscript, Delhi Arabic 1937B, also showed evidence of fragments (from possibly the same manuscript) used to make its boards, but in this case a different method was devised for the overall conservation of the book.

Figure 9

Heavily damaged cover of Ms Delhi Arabic 1937B.

Figure 10

Fragment of reused manuscript used to reinforce the board of MS Delhi Arabic 1937B.

In this case only one layer, on both of the boards, transpired to be made of reused written paper. For this reason it was decided that the boards and the cover, also detached and delaminating, would not have to be dismantled. Instead they would be imaged and later re-composed to be re-attached, as originally was, with the book-block.

Figure 11

Right (front) and left (back) boards of the fully restored binding.

The losses of leather on the spine and on the edges of the boards were filled with new goat archival leather and all the fragments of the old leather and the decorated paper were re-adhered where they were originally. Interesting features were in this way preserved for posterity, for example the covering leather that was applied to the spine, along the edges, and on the corners of the boards in thinly pared pieces retained its overlapping appearance.

Figure 12

Details from the spine and one of the corners clearly showing different pieces of leather overlapping.

Small remnants of strips of blue decorative paper were consolidated and adhered along the perimeters of the decorative marbled paper.

Figure 13

The arrows indicate small remnants of decorative blue paper strips that were originally forming a frame, now overlapping the decorated marbled central piece.

Our meticulous method of working enables us to provide scholars who are interested in all aspects of the volume, not just the content, with as much information as possible. This attention to detail potentially protects clues to a past we can only imagine.

Flavio Marzo

18 April 2016

Play your part in preserving our heritage

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Every year we conserve approximately 2,200 items, taking hours of skilled work, but there are many more items in need of repair. As the Library’s collection continues to grow and age, so do the number of items that need our attention.

In this post, book conservator Zoe Miller describes the work carried out to conserve Sloane Manuscript 1006, Astronomical Scheme after Henricus Khunrath.

This unusual and unique late 17th century manuscript came to conservation in a very poor condition. It was thought to have been produced by Dr Heinrich Khunrath (1560-1605), a physician, hermetic philosopher and alchemist who travelled Europe working as a court physician. He met John Dee, one of several alchemists who heavily influenced his famous work Amphitheatrum Sapientiae Aeternae [The Amphitheatre of Eternal Wisdom].

The binding, with its covering of sprinkled calf skin with green paper had broken, much of the original leather and paper covering had worn away and the spine and sewing were split in many places. It was foxed (a form of age-related chemical degradation of paper which causes reddish-brown spots) with ingrained surface dirt and many folds and stresses to the contents through inappropriate handling.

Before conservation

Much of the damage is a result of its physical uniqueness. The text block consists of heavy weight single folios sewn on cords, onto which are stitched 181 paper objects with hand drawn geometrical diagrams and deconstructions of an astronomical model.

Detail of intricate drawing

These paper objects—often annotated in iron gall ink—have been carefully arranged on each folio and freely hang from the page as it is turned, posing a significant risk during handling and consultation.

Vulnerable interior

Very little detail was known about the provenance of this volume, its creator, or the scholarly importance of the curious contents. This posed a problem. With all objects I am responsible for conserving, I aim to build a detailed conservation treatment proposal from an understanding of the cultural, historical and intellectual context of an object and its past use and ownership. This is to ensure that important historical evidence is preserved and that its scholarly value is not inadvertently diminished.

Working together with collection specialists we arranged to meet a previous reader of this book, a university professor whose expertise could help us make informed decisions for treatment. As the conservator, I was able to add to the body of knowledge of this item through my physical examination of the materials and processes used to construct the book and by contributing my understanding of patterns of deterioration and damage.

As a result of this interesting discussion it was decided to digitise the manuscript in order to preserve the exact state and positioning of the contents for scholarly study. This also will allow us to restrict access to the original in order to preserve it.

In preparation for digitisation, the manuscript was cleaned and dis-bound, removing broken threads and degraded binding materials which were causing further vulnerability.

Surface cleaning showing before and after cleaning

The astronomical objects were then stabilised using repair techniques which respected delicate inks and pigments to enable high quality images to be taken.

Cleaning adhesive

Following digitisation, the volume was returned to the Centre for Conservation to undergo further treatment. After recreating the original sewing structure the book boards were consolidated to prevent further loss of fragile materials and reattached to the text block.

Resewing the volume

A flexible, low adhesive method was chosen to repair the spine using layers of Japanese tissue and wheat starch paste to recreate the original appearance of the binding as a tight-back (where the spine covering is adhered directly to the spine folds and sewing supports) while in reality creating a hollow-back, which serves to protect both the spine folds and the original spine labels which were adhered to the new covering leather.

Spine covering

Finally the delicate remnants of gold finishing from the degraded leather spine, which had been carefully removed before treatment, were encapsulated, to be stored with the volume for future consultation. Wherever possible we will aim to keep valuable evidence of a previous binding if it cannot be re-used.

Before and after conservation

Treatment of this unique object has not only stabilised it physically for future generations but through digitisation we have been able to make its contents available to scholars within this niche area of study. Conservation has enabled and contributed to a growing body of knowledge on this manuscript.

Zoe Miller

Every item that comes into the Centre for Conservation receives this kind of care and attention, because to us every item is a treasure in its own way. It’s our high standards and level of expertise that means conserving items is a timely process and we will not compromise on the quality of the work that we do.

Your can play your part in preserving our heritage by making sure we have the resource to play ours, together we can make it last for generations to come.

Donate online by visiting: www.support.bl.uk/conservation

30 November 2015

Farewell to all that

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Preparing for retirement, I inevitably revisited the exciting projects and beautiful objects I worked on during my time at the British Library. The conservator’s role has seen many changes, even in a decade. Limited resources are increasingly focused on preserving whole collections by reducing the risks of damage and deterioration, rather than treating single items. But to make those collections more available both in the Reading Rooms and digitally to users across the world, some repairs are essential so items can be handled safely. Minimal intervention helps to retain evidence of the item’s history and past use.

St Cuthbert Gospel f1r

 The St Cuthbert Gospel (Add Ms 89000) f.1r The damage records the ways the book was used and stored through the centuries and will be preserved.

My first project was the conservation of Alexander Fleming’s papers (Add Ms 56106-56225), including those relating to his discovery of penicillin – not perhaps the most suitable job as I am highly allergic to it. The repaired notebooks were housed in plastazote, laboriously cut to shape by hand. Eventually, I would learn to “drive” a Zünd cutter, which did the same job in minutes.

Beryl Bainbridge’s papers followed, and it was a surprise to discover that she had been to art school as a teenager and illustrated her early work. However, she used a poster paint with very little binder, so the surface was often powdery. The paintings were treated with a weak solution of JunFunori, misted on with a nebuliser repeatedly over a week or more.

Add Ms 83745

A double page image from a volume of fragments 1951-3 (Add Ms 83745 ff.5v-6).

Immediately after World War II writing paper was scarce, so Bainbridge often used poor quality scraps held together with pressure sensitive tape. This was all degrading and had to be removed with heat and solvents – very carefully, where there was text nearby. Modern inks can run in both water and solvents, making conservation more difficult.

Add Ms 83745

The same volume showing different papers and typical edge damage (Add Ms 83745 ff.33-41).

Edgar Mansfield’s working archive for his designer bindings gave me much delight, and more challenges. First seen packed tight in two box files, after conservation and proper housing they filled a shelf and a half. Early on we agreed to preserve evidence of how the design process developed, and how the final tooling patterns used folds and excisions to fix the paper to the book leather temporarily. Loose overlays needed careful hinging to secure them in precisely the right position. The British Library has two of Mansfield’s finished bindings.

Dance and the Soul

Valery’s Dance and the Soul bound by Mansfield (C130c6) with his final design and the tooling pattern used to transfer it to the leather cover.

Eventually I moved into digitisation projects (Harley Scientific Manuscripts, Greek manuscripts and finally Hebraic manuscripts). As I gained experience, I also got the more difficult one-off jobs. The largest item, the Moutier-Grandval Bible (Add Ms 10546), more than half a metre high, needed a special cradle and team of people to handle it safely (read more here).

Digitisation

Two people turn the leaves while a third adjusts the cradle.

For the Brontë miniature books I had to make tiny “fingers” to hold the leaves flat for imaging (more on that here.

Ashley Ms 157

Blackwood’s Young Men’s Magazine, First Series, No. 6, f.6v (Ashley Ms 157)

Through the years, a stream of running repairs have come my way; simple tasks for the most part, but letting me handle many beautiful items: the Theodore Psalter (Add Ms 19352), Cruciform Lectionary (Add Ms 39603), Chinese Qur’an (Or Ms 15256/1), Queen Mary Psalter (Royal Ms 2.B.VII), Macclesfield Alphabet Book (Add Ms 88887), Prayer Roll of Henry VIII (Add Ms 88929), Guthlac Roll (Harley Roll Y 6), charts of Cook’s voyages (Add Ms 31360), a suffragette prison diary (Add Ms 49976) and many hundred more, most recently the Leonardo Notebook (Arundel Ms 263). To increase efficiency, a mobile workstation took me out of the studio to work in the storage areas, eliminating the transportation of books to the Conservation Centre and the associated security and paperwork.

Life of St Guthlac

Life of St Guthlac (Harley Roll Y 6) f.15r The spectacles and feather were added by an earlier owner.

I also did exhibition work, mostly condition reporting and checking loan items. But one job in Durham had the local newspaper asking “How many people does it take to turn a page and how long does it take them to do it?” Since the book was the Lindisfarne Gospels, it did take a while.

Visitors sometimes asked about my favourite collection item and most often I chose whatever I was currently working on and making discoveries about. But the book that lingers in my memory is Thomas Osborne’s Treatise on Arithmetic (Harley Ms 4924). If I had had such an attractive textbook as a child, I would have been a more eager student. It is now too frail to be issued in the Reading Room, but is available to everyone in digital form.

Treatise on Arithmetic

Treatise on Arithmetic (Harley Ms 4924) f.6r Note the schoolroom scene in the lower left corner.

I plan to revisit the British Library eventually to research historic binding structures, but meanwhile I shall be following the blogs and keeping an eye on the latest uploads to Digitised Manuscripts.

Ann Tomalak