THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Collection Care blog

31 posts categorized "Books"

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

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.

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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.

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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:

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Open fascicule showing repairs to be made with Japanese tissue.

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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.

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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.

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Paper twists inserted.

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Trimmed paper twists.

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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.

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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.

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Re-sewn fascicules (with corners and covers).

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Flexible opening.

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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.

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

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“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).

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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

26 September 2016

Fingerprints & their potential impact in relation to handling library collections

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Back in early 2016, Terry Kent, a consultant specialising in forensic fingerprint analysis, contacted British Library Conservation to learn more about how we assess the impact of handling on our collections with reference to our use (or not) of gloves in the reading room. This was pertinent timing for us since we were on the cusp of refilming and updating our videos that provide instructions to library users about handling collection items. We invited Terry to the British Library to discuss the issue with us in more depth as part of our Continuous Improvement Programme.

In June, Terry Kent gave a presentation about the potential effect of fingerprints on paper artefacts at the ICON (Institute of Conservation) Conference ‘Turn and Face the Change’ in Birmingham. Lively debate ensued. It became clear that there is some perception that the British Library has a blanket policy of no gloves - regardless. Not so, and in this blog post we would like to give brief insight, with Terry’s contribution, into how we assess and mitigate risks to collection items to enable access to and use of a vast and varied collection in a working research library (and how this then helps us form a handling policy).

British-library-reading-room-2

Humanities reading room in the British Library.

By way of background:

  • The British Library has 12 reading rooms; 11 at St Pancras, London and 1 in Boston Spa, West Yorkshire.
  • These have 1200 reader desks and accommodate 400,000 reading room visits per year.
  • Reading rooms are divided into general and special collections, and focus on different subject areas (e.g., Humanities, Maps, Rare Books & Music and Science).
  • To request items readers need to register for a reader pass and sign the conditions of use.

Given this level of use the challenge is to balance the need to make items available to users while at the same time protecting them from further degradation and potential damage in order to ensure their longevity. Collection items are assigned different reading categories, based on factors including their age, condition, and value (historical, religious, cultural, etc.) which affects how and when they can be used, for example:

  • Which reading rooms they can be read in.
  • Whether there is a digital copy (or other surrogate) which should be referred to instead.
  • Whether readers need to provide additional information about why they need particular items before they can be issued.
  • Whether or not the items can be copied.
  • Whether readers need to sit at invigilated desks when they use the items or meet other conditions of use in order to use them. 

Where readers are using original items we encourage them to handle items as little as possible and with care as we know that even with careful handling collection items face risks.

Reading Room Placemat 2

‘Handling instructions’ place mat on a desk in a reading room.

A range of different factors can damage collections and lead to loss - these are summarised in the figure below.

Of these ten categories, any risks presented by fingerprints due to sweat transfer would be covered by ‘Contamination’ (which also includes aggressive volatiles, pollutants and other damaging chemicals). Any potential risk to an item must be considered in light of a number of factors - the likelihood of it occurring, the extent and nature of damage it will cause if it does occur, the degree to which it will limit how the item can be used, and the measures that can be taken to limit or prevent it.

Risks do not exist in isolation, so responses to risks - such as the use, or not, of gloves - must be based on a comprehensive understanding of the nature of an item, its vulnerabilities and the requirements for its use by staff and readers. Furthermore, solutions to any such problems must not exacerbate other risks or introduce new ones.

Preventive Conservation

Risk factors.

Terry Kent writes,

A widely referenced paper, in the conservation field, and several forensic references, refer to fingerprint deposits consisting of 'over 98% water'. Recent analytical and theoretical studies of latent fingerprints, demonstrate that this figure is substantially in error. The deposit from a single human finger touch, whilst varying widely between individuals, is likely to contain less than 20% water and on average be about four micrograms of a mixture of amino acids, salts, primarily sodium and potassium chloride, fatty acids, squalene and many other trace compounds.

What is less well researched is the effects such deposits may have over time on substrates such as papers and textiles. We know that body soiling of fabrics will lead to yellow-brown staining, and fingerprint deposits on some papers will darken when heated (accelerated ageing using elevated temperatures); although it is unclear whether this will occur at lower temperatures over longer time periods.

There are other potentially negative effects of fingerprint deposits from a conservation standpoint; again not well researched, these include the effects of microbial or bacteriological activity on such deposits. There is also the potential of the deposit to attract and retain dust and other material from the environment.

The protective effect of hand washing, standard practice for many institutions and effective for the removal of transferred dirt, is less effective for the secretions which lead to fingerprints - it has been shown recently to be negated by natural replenishment of secretions in as little as five to ten minutes. So we need to consider the likely impact of these deposits on various substrates.

Reading Room use

Rare item being used, open access item being handled on shelf.

Conclusion

We are always looking at new evidence to challenge or support our current practices. Clearly fingerprints do have an impact on library and archive materials, although the extent of this is not yet clearly understood. The impact must be considered in light of other risks to the collection items given the context in which we work. Our policy is tailored to the requirements of individual items and the risks they face and the way they can be accessed and consulted. There is no one size fits all. Fragile, rare and significant items are subject to much tighter access and handling controls to minimise risks (including fingerprints) compared with items on open access. A core purpose of the British Library is to allow access to the national collection and our role in conservation is to manage that process as effectively and pragmatically as possible. We hope this blog post generates some thought and debate on the subject of handling and the impact of fingerprints. The collective authors plan to present their thoughts in a longer article in a future ‘ICON News’.

Cordelia Rogerson, Paul Garside, Sarah Hamlyn with thanks to Terry Kent for co-writing this post.

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

28 April 2016

Much Ado About…Possibly Something

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Conservator Flavio Marzo reports on his fascinating findings during the conservation of one of the books bearing the presumed signature of William Shakespeare.

As it is now the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare and the British Library has unveiled a major exhibition about the Bard of Avon, I thought it was a good time to share the conservation work I carried out on one of the items currently on exhibition. In 2005 I was given the opportunity to work on an item here at the British Library bearing one of the few surviving (possible) signatures of the poet. The book, possibly part of Shakespeare’s personal library, is a copy of “The Essayes of Morall, Politike and Militaire Discourses” written by Michaell Montaigne and published in London in 1603. The volume was sent to the conservation studio to be treated before being sent out on a loan and presented some very interesting and unusual features.

The Examination

The cover and the book block were detached and the main task was to secure them together ensuring that any treatment was clearly visible and unobtrusive.

Front cover

Left: Front cover. Right: Cover and book block detached.

The sewing of the body of the book, most likely the result of a quite recent restoration campaign, was made on five narrow strips of tanned brown leather. Probably at the same time new end leaves were added and secured to the first and last sections through an over-casted stitching. There was no evidence of spine lining or glue applied to the spine. When the cover was removed the original sewing supports remained laced through the boards and the page with Shakespeare’s presumed signature was attached on the inside of the left board.

Detached cover

The inside of the detached cover with the signature page and the original supports laced with the cover.

The original sewing supports were made of strips of alum tawed leather with a second layer of tanned brown leather added to give thickness to the raised bands ensuring their visibility on the spine of the book.

Leather strips
Left (viewing from the inside): A strip of alum tawed leather with clear distortions due to the original passages of the thread of the original sewing. Right (viewing from the outside): One of the trimmed tanned leather strips used to create the raised effect on the spine cover.

Areas of the leather cover were missing at the head and tail. After a thorough examination of the cover I realised that the page bearing the signature, adhered onto the inside of the left board, was not originally attached as a paste down, and in fact was never originally placed at the beginning of the book. Careful visual examination revealed that a raised oval was showing through the page.

Signature page

An image of the page taken with raking light clearly showing an oval shaped imprint from the recto of the page.

Since the page was adhered to the board along the edges only, it was possible to insert a light sheet between the page and the board. Under transmitted light it was possible to capture an image of what became clearly identifiable as a British Museum stamp - proving that this sheet was, until quite recently, still detached. Under transmitted light it was also possible to locate and record the watermark present on this page.

Transmitted light
Left: British Museum stamp imaged with transmitted light. Right: Watermark of the page with the signature.

This watermark was subsequently compared with others found on the pages within the book block. Although no perfect match was found between the watermarks, there was a very strong similarity between them.

Watermarks
Other watermarks found within the book block.

Another detail that immediately caught my attention was the observation that the damages along the edges of this sheet did not match the losses and tears present along the edges of the first page of the book.

Damage comparison
Mapping of the stains and damages show how different and inconsistent they are along the edges of the two sheets.

Remarkably, these damaged areas matched almost perfectly to the last restored original end leaf of the book-block proving that this sheet was originally placed at the back of the book and not at the beginning.

Damage comparison
Matching damaged areas between the signature sheet and the last right end leaf.

The Repairs

The conservation of the volume involved the removal of the leather strip supports. These supports were failing and becoming brittle due to the acidic nature of the tanned leather. The strips were mechanically removed from the sewing thread passages and replaced with new linen tapes so that the book did not have to be re-sewn.

Leather strip removal
Removal of the leather strips (left) and their replacement with new linen tapes (right).

The leather of the cover was reinforced and in-filled with dyed Japanese paper and wheat starch paste.

Leather cover
Japanese paper and wheat starch paste are used because of their strength and reversibility.

A new spine lining made of light cotton fabric was adhered to the spine of the book-block to further secure the sewing. The extensions of this spine lining with the frayed linen supports were then inserted between the leather and the boards and adhered to the boards to secure the book-block back with its cover.

Secured book-block
The strips of cotton fabric are adhered between the leather cover and the boards to secure the book-block with the cover.

Conclusions

It is hard to say why this page was tampered with. Possibly it was thought that by attaching this page to the front board it would become more difficult to steal. Sometimes conservation needs some forensic skills, but it always requires great attention to detail. Physical features when correctly interpreted can tell us a lot about the history of an item. It is extremely important when repairing items of historical value that conservators are careful not to inadvertently hide or remove features which may later prove to be significant.

This work, carried out a long time ago, is today still one of my most cherished projects. I am very pleased to be able to share it with you, especially during this year so significant in the history of the Great William Shakespeare.

Flavio Marzo

See this intriguing collection item for yourself at our exhibition: Shakespeare in Ten Acts open until Tuesday 6 September.

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

 

25 June 2015

A CT Scan of the St Cuthbert Gospel

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A CT scan of the St Cuthbert Gospel – the earliest intact European book dating to the early eight century - has been published in a ground-breaking new book launched this week: The St Cuthbert Gospel: Studies on the Insular Manuscript of the Gospel of John, edited by Claire Breay, Head of Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts at the British Library, and Bernard Meehan, Head of Research Collections and Keeper of Manuscripts at Trinity College, Dublin. Colleagues from Collection Care and Medieval Manuscripts took the pocket gospel to the Natural History Museum for CT analysis to understand the structure of the ancient gospel, which was found inside the coffin of St Cuthbert in 1104.

CT Team

CC by The British Library project team at the Natural History Museum. From left to right: Claire Breay, Flavio Marzo and Christina Duffy.

X-ray computed tomography (CT) is a non-destructive technique which creates 2-D cross-sectional images from 3-D structures. The St Cuthbert Gospel was scanned using a Metris X-Tek HMX ST 225 CT scanner with an operating voltage of 225 kV at the Natural History Museum.

To protect the gospel during scanning it was placed inside a custom-made phase box and then secured upright in a bespoke piece of polyethylene foam.

Placing the Gospel in a phase box

CC by The St Cuthbert Gospel was placed in a phase box which was secured in a piece of foam.

A facsimile of the gospel produced by Jim Bloxam and Kristine Rose was generously made available to the team during the CT scan. This enabled a direct comparison of materials known to be used in the facsimile with those unknown in the original St Cuthbert Gospel. Both volumes were placed inside the CT chamber on a precision rotation stage between an X-ray source and a detector.

Attaching the facsimile for CT scan

CC by The two copies were placed side-by-side in the CT chamber.

As the volumes rotated on the stage through 360⁰ a conical beam of X-rays took digital projections in 0.5⁰ increments. The CT image pixels are displayed in terms of their relative radiodensity allowing us to scroll through the image slices revealing the materials underneath the leather binding.

Checking the results onscreen

CC by The results were poured over in the lab. From left to right; Christina Duffy, Claire Breay, Nicholas Pickwoad and Dan Sykes.

The results were initally examined by the British Library team and Professor Nicholas Pickwoad, whose chapter in the new publication draws on the CT scan results and discusses how the central motif on the binding appears to have been made using a clay-like material, rather than gesso or cord as previously thought.

The St Cuthbert Gospel binding

CC by The St Cuthbert Gospel with raised plant-motif decoration examined under high magnification. 

Comparing the facsimileUnder the coverLeather cover

CT datasets contain vast amounts of information and samples can be visualised in many ways using various software tools. Drishti, which stands for vision or insight in Sanskrit, is an open source volume exploration and presentation tool. It allows volumetric data sets to be both explored and used for presentation of results.

Visualisation of the St Cuthbert Gospel

CC by A screen shot of the St Cuthbert Gospel as visualised in Drishti.

CT scanning can provide tremendous amounts of information on the condition and construction of books and their bindings. This level of detail is unavailable through visual examination and can often lead to speculation. More information about the project can be found over on the Medieval Manuscripts blog. The new publication, The St Cuthbert Gospel: Studies on the Insular Manuscript of the Gospel of John, can be bought in the British Library shop or ordered online.

Christina Duffy (@DuffyChristina)

09 April 2015

The House Of Lords, Commoners, And Everybody Else

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Rob Sherman is the Interactive Fiction Writer-in-Residence for the current British Library exhibition Lines in the Ice. Part of his project involved inventing a new false history for a fictional explorer named Isaak Scinbank. With the help of our Conservation team, Rob created a journal which contained Scinbank's writings during his fictional voyage to the Arctic in 1852. Here Rob reflects on his time at the British Library.

Sewn book block

Not many visitors to the British Library realise that the institution's political fulcrum lies hidden at the very rear of the St. Pancras complex, just past the staff restaurant and the windy, suntrap terrace.

This powerhouse is low-slung and decidedly shy for such an important building. Entering through the double glass doors at its front, a visitor is presented with a small museum to the work done inside.

During my time at the Library as writer-in-residence I was one of the few who could descend into the Conservation Centre, perhaps the most important cabinet in the Library's governance.

It is in this building, far away from the readers and the meeting rooms full of priceless paintings and the baize-carpeted hall of the executive suite that the real debate occurs. These are debates with the most incorrigible and old-fashioned of politicians; time.

Conservation Centre

Entering the private corridors of the Centre for the first time last year, I was accompanied by the closest to a party Whip that the conservators have; Dr. Cordelia Rogerson, the Centre's Head of Conservation and a specialist in plastics and textiles (two areas which I have barely any space or knowledge to consider here). She was giving me a tour to show me what it was that the conservators did. With relatively few exceptions, every unit of knowledge, discourse, history and artistry that the archives contain, every book and pamphlet and poster and tome, is slowly degrading. We have so abstracted these bricks upon which we build a culture that we easily forget what they are, materially; globsters, monsters, amalgams of different corpses.

Bookbinding has always used glue made from boiled bones, mashed trees and the skins of goats, whose unassuming little frames still dictate the standard sizing of our trade hardbacks. From the moment the book is bound it is dying a second death. The 'old book smell' is so fetishised that there are now colognes available which emulate it. Frankenstein and his monster are no more tortured than the vellum in which their first edition was published in 1818. Thinking this way, it is perhaps easier to imagine the Rooibos towers of the Library, so stately and sterile and civic from the surface, resting on a strata of almost-endless decay, a medicine cabinet full of slow-drying herbs, aging adhesives and mummified flesh.

The Library is a sarcophagus of knowledge.

From this organic perspective we may lend the conservators another role; that of the court embalmer, of Lenin's apparatchik, Mao's physician, keeping the cadavers moist and public for as long as possible so that those who come after can venerate them, divine what they need, and be able to say that they had been there, just like tourists.

Conservation Centre

Cordelia took me deeper into the building, past displays of golden tooling seals immortalised in cabinets like butterflies. We walked past labs full of test tubes and near-baptismal fonts of strange chemicals. Between the staff they possess every tool, modern and ancient, that they could need to help slow the inevitable degradation. They repair split spines, suture wounds in leather, and reconstruct text and gold leaf from almost nothing. I met one conservator, Maria, at her desk in the vast main room of the Centre, a cross between a surgery and a railway shed. She was attempting to resuscitate a Hebrew text from the 1400s which had, at some point in its ignominious existence, been submerged in water. Maria worked on that book with quiet, intricate confidence, and told me that she could save it, and it would be read again.

Her work, and the work of her colleagues, will never finish. With hundreds of millions of items in the archives in various states of decrepitude, some so advanced that they are at risk of being lost altogether, it is all the conservators can do to keep up. Work is allocated not in terms of books to save or projects to complete but in terms of hours spent; attempts are made, the best is done in some cases, and then they must move on to the next.

Cordelia introduced me to the two conservators with whom I would be working; Zoe and Royston both were as quiet and assured as Maria, with keenly open minds. Royston had worked at the Library for over 30 years and retired only a month or two ago, taking his incomparable, irreplaceable knowledge with him. It was after this meeting that I started to lay out exactly why somebody like me was there, and what it was that I wanted.

Fictional explorer Isaak Scinbank

My project at the Library has been a petulant one, in which I essentially try to throw stones at the bedroom windows of history to get its attention. My artistic interests lie in how knowledge and rumour and rhetoric are transformed into unimpeachable historical record just by being written down, and what role the Library plays in storing and displaying such records for access. I was exploring these themes by attaching myself to the current exhibition at the Library, a diorama of Arctic exploration called Lines In The Ice, and inventing a new false history with all the attendant paraphernalia. I invented a polar explorer, and wrote songs about him, reams of false conjecture and essay, and drew maps of the journeys that he never took, parallel-parking him into the real stuff of the exhibition. It seems inevitable, then, that such an explorer needed a book of his own to legitimise him completely. I had come to the Conservation Centre to manufacture him one.

I wanted to make from scratch the journal that my explorer, Isaak Scinbank, would have written during his fictional voyage to the Arctic in 1852. My time at the Library has already impressed upon me the corporeality and authority of books, how very much the physicality of them affects how we interact with the information they contain. Because of this, I wanted the blank diary with which I was beginning to be as much a part of the story as Isaak's account written inside it. I described what I wanted to Zoe and Royston in the form of a 'biography' of the book, recounting not only its fictional creation but also its fictional journey through time to reach us in the present day. I designated it as a sort of fisherman's ledger, a present to Isaak from his father; clad in salmon-flesh leather, and embossed with the mark of its fictional publisher ('Thomas Whiflick, of Derby'). I described a large notch in its top edge, designed to be a rest for a gentleman's rods as he relaxed on the riverbank. More than this, I described the life of the book once its primary purpose was over; its existence since Scinbank had returned from the Arctic and died, passing through the hands of various collectors and dealers. I told of the times it had been forgotten and neglected, left to sit in the damp dark of a cellar, sat on and even used as a chopping board for a joint of beef. From this story Zoe and Royston began a complete reversal of their usual jobs as battlefield doctors, as undertakers and temple attendants; together we made Isaak's book, stitching and binding it, and then we began to simulate the infinitesimal, gradual torture which time enacts over hundreds of years. We had a few weeks.

Rob Sherman

I thought initially that the conservators would think me a bit kooky, or at the worst flippant about the difficult realities of their work. However to their credit they were as excited by the possibilities as I was, rejuvenated by this brief diversion from the Sisyphean task of patching, plastering and repairing. They took on the role of their nemesis with enthusiasm and began to pick apart what it was that made a book elderly or antique, where the beauty, rather than the nuisance, lay in that, and what stories they could tell separate from mine in the wrinkles, stains and folds of this old-not-old book. As every child everywhere knows, and we rediscovered, the best way to make a page look old is to dab it with a wet teabag; we didn't spare an inch of the book from the ministrations. The only element that we could not craft was that ambrosial, deathly smell of old paper. Apparently, the alchemy of that was beyond our skills.

The construction of the book took me to every corner of the Conservation Centre, and every facet of its work; from the handbinding cradles which made me feel as if I was lacing up somebody robust in a corset, to the storage rooms for the marbled paper which, when I went around opening the drawers and finding the ranked, swirling colours, seemed to me like a catalogue of oceans and explosions and nebulae. I met so many other talented artisans fighting the good fight, including Christina, the resident multispectral imaging minister. Her lab, a warm, silent sliver of a room filled with the always-drawn curtains, lamps and banks of machinery, has the air of an engine compartment, a police interrogation room and a disciplinary hearing in Westminster. It is here that the deepest, darkest corruptions of the Library's collections are revealed, at a microscopic detail that the Chilcot Inquiry can only dream of.

The Salmon Book

As I finish my time at the Library, and I grudgingly return my pass which got me through so many of the Centre's doors, I return to being a member of the public, a 'user' of the Library, with a realisation. As you can see, Zoe and Royston's work on my book is unequivocally art, not merely conservation. On display in the Lines In The Ice exhibition until the middle of April, our book sits alongside the 'true' artefacts of polar exploration almost imperceptibly, tricking the public without malice and camouflaging its story, its biography, amongst the degradation upon which the Library is built. In doing so it hijacks a small, respectful amount of the value, respect and meaning which the very old are due. The loveliness of this deception will be amplified when I finish Isaak's story, some day; then, the book will accessioned into the Library's archives, where it will begin to truly disintegrate rather than than just playing at it. One day even further in the future, the book will come back to its birthplace in the Conservation Centre, that squat building full of silent discourse and argument with the past, and plead its case.

It is in this way that I see the importance of the Centre's role at the Library taking on almost-legislative proportions. It is no secret that the public sector, of which the Library is a part, must now make do with less and less money as time goes on, even as the archives grow and the doddery old celebrities that they contain require even more work. The Conservation Centre is where such decisions on resources are made; it must be determined which books are to be rescued, where the hours will be spent and which items must, inevitably, wait until it is too late to save them. That book of Hebrew scripture was lucky, but in one hundred years Isaak's diary may not be as fortunate. It is a minor work, by three unheard-of artists. Who knows how difficult the choices that Cordelia's successor faces will be?

These thoughts are frightening ones, especially to those who believe in the immutability and the permanence of such collections. However, my time amongst the Conservation Centre's work has convinced me that such choices about what knowledge we shall retain and what shall be lost, and what will form the truth of the future, is being undertaken by the best people for the job. No matter how difficult time is to negotiate, how unbending and bullying, I know that the conservators will fight to make sure as much is saved as possible.

Even, I hope, those dog yoga books that I found in the archives, one bored Wednesday.

Rob Sherman