THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Collection Care blog

37 posts categorized "Digital preservation"

09 August 2018

Handle Books with Care

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

Risks to books

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

Book supports and weights

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

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

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

Now let’s discuss specific binding styles.

Flexible tight back books

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

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

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

Flexible Tight Back

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

Rigid tight back

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

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

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

Rigid Back Book on Foam Supports

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

Case bindings

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

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

Perfect bindings

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

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

Safe handling

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

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

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

Happy #NationalBookLoversDay!

Nicole Monjeau

19 February 2018

Digitising books as objects: The invisible made visible

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Book conservator Flavio Marzo explores how the experience for users of online library material surrogates could be easily improved by enhancing invisible physical features of books.

Working as a book conservator within digitisation projects has been my job for many years. I started in 2006, only one year after joining the British Library Conservation team here in London after leaving my country, Italy.

The subject of that digitisation project was the digitisation and virtual reunification of the Codex Sinaiticus, possibly one of the most known and valuable manuscripts in the Western world. The Codex was compiled in the IV century AD and is the oldest surviving and most complete version of the Old and New Testament. Many years have passed since that project and digitisation has become a common work stream within public institutions. This is especially evident within libraries which now compete in uploading material from their own collections to make them available for scholars, students and readers across the globe.

Technology has improved immensely since then and a lot of ‘ink’ has been spread across physical and virtual pages about the remit, the limitations and the advantages of what is offered to the public through the surrogates uploaded onto countless web portals. This piece is just another little drop into this ocean of ink to share some considerations built upon experience and from the perspective of a book conservator who sees, because of his professional background, the limitations of this, but also the exciting challenges to overcome them.

Books are physical objects and the pleasure of opening them, turning the pages, looking at (when decorated) the illuminations and their pigments, or at the accretions of the ink strokes, even smelling them, cannot be recreated on the screen of a home desktop. This does not mean that we cannot improve the experience and possibly further close the gap between the real object and the two-dimensional images.

I now work for the British Library/Qatar Foundation Digitisation Project and for the past 5 years, with a team of two conservators, I have been repairing documents (printed and hand written) and Scientific Arabic manuscripts for the team of scholars and photographers who are doing the real magic by gifting the world with the content now available on the Qatar Digital Library website (https://www.qdl.qa/en).

I have worked with books all my life since I was a 16 year old apprentice in a Benedictine Monastery. I have to admit that I am not an avid reader but I love books as objects and I get very excited about all the different little features and materials they are made from. How is it possible to please someone like me when offering online surrogates of complex items like books?

Books are recognised as 3D items and a lot of work has been done to migrate the content of those printed and manuscript texts into online, easy to access versions, but very little has been done to capture their physicality as objects.

Photographers, like any other professional, follow strict professional standards defined by general rules and specific project boundaries. Those standards are built to assure that the best possible result is achieved consistently and the meter to measure this result is the quality of the final product i.e. the image to be uploaded. Those images are supposed to reproduce as faithfully as possible the text and the carrier of the content of a book. Very rarely attention is given to the substrate or to the physical features of the object.

Lights for digitisation are carefully positioned to avoid shadows and they help to reduce surface irregularities and anomalies. This is all to the benefit of the written text and/or of the decorations, but with much loss for the lovers of the book as an object!

Here I want to describe some very practical ways to achieve different results and show some ‘behind the scenes’ of items I have been working on and how these very interesting results can be achieved with simple straight-forward techniques that do not require any high-tech equipment.

Raking light

I have mentioned the Codex Sinaiticus and I would like to start with it.

Normal light Raking light

Revelation, 2:7 - 3:5, British Library folio: 326. Left: Normal light. Right: Raking light.

All the available remaining pages of the Codex from the different geographical sites where they are presently held (The British library, The Library of the University of Leipzig, The National Library of Russia in Saint Petersburg, and the Holy Monastery of Saint Catherine’s) were digitised and uploaded onto the purposely created website (http://www.codexsinaiticus.org/en/). Contrary to common practice, all the pages were imaged both with normal and ‘raking light’. 

When imaging pages of books with normal light the attention is placed primarily to achieve the full readability of the text. Lights are placed and conditioned to radiate evenly over the surface of the page making sure no shadows are created and paying great attention to colours and tones to ensure they are as close as possible to the real appearance of the object reproduced.

What ‘raking light’ does is very different and the resulting image reveals a completely new landscape. Placing the source of light horizontally relative to the page results in an enhanced texture of the substrate which highlights and brings to life all the physical features present on the surface of the pages. These interesting and unique features can relate to the preparation of the writing surface or more generally to the specific material the substrate is made of e.g. papyrus, parchment or paper.

Here are some details of pages of the Codex Sinaiticus taken with raking light.

Codex Sinaiticus ruled Scraping of the surface
In the previous images the source of light is now helping us to appreciate this famous manuscript on a completely different level.

Horizontal and vertical lines, holes pierced through the page, and scratch marks now appear clearly. They are traced on the surface of the pages for a purpose; those are features related to the page preparation that happened before the text was traced onto it.

The ‘bounding lines’ (vertical) and the ‘writing lines’ (horizontal) are impressed with a blind (not too sharp) tool onto the parchment sheets. The holes, highlighted with red circles in the second image, are used as a reference. This is known as pricking holes for the ruling of the page to provide the scribes with a guide for writing.

The scratches visible on the surface of the page are most likely the marks left by the pumice stone. The pumice stone was commonly used to prepare the surface of the abraded parchment sheet to make it more absorbent and therefore improve the grasp between the grease substrate and the writing ink.

Thanks to this lighting system it is also possible to see the direction of the indentation of those lines and holes. This information can help codicologists, even from the comfort of their homes, to understand from which side of the folio they were traced and pierced and so recreate the step by step process of the creation of an ancient manuscript.       

Letter from Emir Letter from Emir raking light
In this image we see the images of a letter sent by the Emir of Bagdad in 1899 to Lord Curzon when he was appointed Viceroy of India, first taken with normal and then with ‘raking light’. In the first image the letter is just a sheet of paper beautifully arranged and decorated with writing. In the second image the light tells us a completely different story; it shows us the use of this letter, the way it was folded and the number of folds it had.

How incredible that it is possible to see all these different insights by just slightly moving a lamp!

Transmitted light

Another technique to read paper from a different perspective is using ‘transmitted light’. 

Watermark

Simply by placing the same sheet of paper onto a light table (i.e. illuminating from below) it is possible to bring a completely new scenario to life. In this image for example we can clearly see the watermark impressed onto the sheet of paper of the previous letter, detail impossible to be seen only looking at the image taken under normal light.

Paper can be hand or machine made, and sheets can bear chain and wire lines or possess watermarks or not. These details can be of great interest to scholars and add valuable information to the understanding of documents in relation to their use and circulation.     

Laid and wove paper Transmitted light India Office Records

Here are some more examples of sheets of laid and wove paper taken from different files from the India Office Record material, some showing again the characteristic chain and wire lines (except the last one which is actually a sheet of machine made wove paper) and some very distinctive water marks highlighted and made visible thanks to the used of transmitted light. 

Visualization of the physical collation of manuscripts

Books are made of folios and pages and those folios are ‘bound’ together. How the bindings are made is one of the real wonders of books. The variances are numberless and the materials and details of execution not only delight nerds like myself, but more importantly they inform researchers about the history of those books, giving insights into the objects that open doors to sometime unexpected cultural landscapes through links between different craftsmanship and cultures.

To describe a book structure is a very delicate and laborious process, but one that conservators are trained to do and that they automatically do many times when conserving those books as they record the treatments being carried out.

A lot of work has been done during recent years to create tools able to easily make this complex information sharable with the wider audiences. One I wish to mention here is VisColl, developed by Dot Porter at the Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies at the University of Pennsylvania (https://github.com/leoba/VisColl) in collaboration with Alberto Campagnolo at the Library of Congress, a friend and colleague.

Book structure digitisation

In this image we have, additional to the images of the digitised pages, diagrams (on the left) of the structure of the section where those pages are located and, highlighted in white, the specific pages shown on the screen.

Those diagrams, surely more easily understandable than many wordy descriptions, can help researchers to step into a completely new level of understanding for the manuscript, providing vital information about the history of those items, the way they were put together and possibly evidences of late alterations or even forgeries which may have occurred throughout the centuries.

Digitisation has opened new ways to look and make use of books and, I believe, the improvement of understanding of physical features is the next step that should be consistently and widely taken to enhance the online user experience.

One of the issues digitisation has brought to the attention of conservators and professionals involved in the care and preservation of library material is the fact that by enhancing the ‘fame’ of objects we can cause an increase in how much those same objects are requested for access.

To justify restriction in handling objects, which for the most part are very fragile and extremely valuable, we need to improve the online metadata and the amount of information available with the surrogates. Those presented here are just some examples in how, quite easily, this can be done.

Obviously the smell will stay within the walls of the libraries, but those are pleasures to be experienced in situ, and alone (almost..!) at the table of the reading rooms. No surrogate can replace that for the lovers of books. 

13 February 2018

Conservation Internship in Digitisation (British Library, The National Archives, Bodleian Libraries)

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Salary £21,000 pa
Full Time (36 hours per week over 5 days)
Fixed-Term 2-years (9 months British Library, 9 months The National Archives, 6 months Bodleian Libraries, Oxford)

The link to the vacancies website is here

This is a training internship designed to equip an emerging conservation professional with the skills necessary for developing a career in managing and supporting digitisation work. The internship will be co-hosted by The British Library, The National Archives and the Bodleian Libraries with each institution offering complementary but distinct experience over a 24 month period. It is intended that the internship will present the role of a Digitisation Conservator as a newly emerging discipline and will support a current skills gap in the sector. The internship is funded by the Clothworkers’ Foundation.

The British Library is the national library of the United Kingdom and one of the world’s leading research libraries. The National Archives are the official archive and publisher for the UK government and guardians of over 1,000 years of iconic national documents. Bodleian Libraries provide a world-leading library service to support the University of Oxford in research and education. All three institutions continually digitise collections to enable greater access and preservation for current and future users.

Whilst digitisation involves creating a digital image of an object using a camera or scanner- this is but one element of a complex work flow. Specialist conservation support is also an integral component of the procedure. Condition assessments and surveys, conservation treatment that enables image capture, project planning involving numerous stakeholders and development of methods and equipment to digitise complex and non-standard items all fall into the remit of a Digitisation Conservator.

The internship is available to conservators who have graduated in the last 2 years, have limited work experience in conservation, and who wish to develop their career in supporting digitisation. The successful candidates will have a book or paper conservation qualification(s) (an MA in conservation would be desirable).

At the end of the internship you will be required give a presentation of your work and learning to the internship host institutions.

The internship has a bursary that will be paid on a monthly basis and is subject to tax, and is open to those who have the right to live and work in the UK.

The Job Role

You will work as part of existing teams of Digitisation Conservators, Imaging specialists, Project Managers, Curatorial and subject specialist staff to plan and undertake digitisation of collection items at the British library, The National Archives, Bodleian Libraries.

The projects will vary in size, from individual items to thousands of items and will cover a range of formats from books, archives, manuscripts and objects. Projects may be commercially funded, philanthropically funded or funded by the institution. You will work to agreed miles stones and deadlines for the projects.

Main Tasks

To complete, under supervision, treatments on books, manuscripts and paper based items from the Collections at the host institutions selected for digitisation. This will include:

  • Assessment of items to determine their suitability for digitisation.
  • Developing and undertaking treatment to ensure the improved condition, longevity and accessibility of collection items to enable digitisation.
  • Making decisions about appropriate procedures to use on each item, and therefore self-management to plan and organise work effectively in order to meet wider project timescales and workflows.

Update project documentation, including databases and spreadsheets.

Order collection items from storage areas to the imaging studio for assessment, preparation and digitisation, liaising with library assistants for delivery.

Assist imaging colleagues with queries regarding the collection care aspects of digitising collection items. Assist imaging colleagues when scanning or photographing fragile material.

To role model collection security at all times and ensures collection items are stored securely.

Liaise with the project managers and conservation managers to give regular updates on project progress and highlight any issues.

To take responsibility for own continuous professional development and monitor own learning against an agreed learning plan.

To keep accurate written records detailing treatments undertaken on each individual job, time spent, recording methodology, techniques and results of treatments.

Assist in administrative work as/when required. Attend project meetings when required.

The post holder will be required to participate in Conservation and project related public programmes, talking to members of the public and to represent the work of their studio or area, when required.

Ensure that they have knowledge of and observe the appropriate COSHH (Control of Substances Hazardous to Health) regulations, and follow the recommendations for the safe handling and use of chemicals, materials and equipment and general health & safety controls in all areas of their work and to participate in/co-operate with the risk assessment process.

Expected to demonstrate a willingness to take on a range of tasks and to develop new skills, as appropriate, in own or other departments/directorates to support the delivery of the institutions services as required by line management.

Essential Criteria for the Internship

Must have graduated in the last 2 years with a degree in book conservation or in paper conservation. Be able to demonstrate relevant conservation skills, including diagnostic, remedial and research skills.

Be able to demonstrate the benefits of the internship to their professional development and interest in conservation for supporting digitisation.

Good written and verbal communication skills, including the ability to communicate preferred treatment options and implications of these options, ability to write reports and to produce clear documentation.

Good time management skills in order to prioritise workloads and meet tight project deadlines.

An understanding of, and ability to apply the professional code of ethics to practical conservation projects.

Able to work in a team with other professional staff within communal studio space, contributing to the maintenance and management of shared equipment and space.

The right to work in the UK.

Good computer skills in Microsoft Word, PowerPoint and Excel.

Additional Information

The time spent in each institution will be divided as follows and in this order:
British Library – 9 months
The National Archives - 9 months
Bodleian Libraries – 6 months

A mentor who is involved with digitisation conservation projects and is experienced in the subject will be assigned to the intern in each institution, working closely with the intern and to monitor and evaluate progress. The intern will have regular 1:1 sessions with the mentor. An overall plan of work and major learning objectives will be agreed with the intern and 3 mentors at the outset but with detail of exact projects per institution to be decided more locally.

The intern will be expected to use any annual leave due to them during their time at that particular institution and cannot carry it over.

Candidates should note that the internship is for the period specified and does not lead to a permanent position at any of the host institutions.

How to Apply

Please email cordelia.rogerson@bl.uk attaching the following:

1. A letter of interest, which should include how the internship will benefit you and what skills and experience that you will bring to the British Library reflecting the list of criteria for the internship as stated in the Internship Profile.

2. An up to date CV.

3. Two or three examples from your portfolio for items you have worked on.

4. Name and contact details of two referees.

5. A statement indicating that you are able to work in the UK. Official documentation will be required if you are short listed for interview.

The closing date for applications is midnight on Sunday 4th March 2018.

Dr Cordelia Rogerson

Head of Collection Management South

If your application is short-listed, you will be invited for interview to take place around Mid-March 2018.

18 January 2018

Job Opportunity: Conservator, Gulf History and Arabic Science

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Description: Part time (0.6 FTE / 21.6 hours per week), fixed term contract to 31 December 2018

The full job description and application process can be found here.

Caring for the world’s knowledge

Qatar conservation work

The British Library leads and collaborates in growing the world’s knowledge base. We have signed a major partnership to make thousands of digitised historic documents and ancient manuscripts – relating to centuries of history of the Gulf – available online to researchers, scholars and the general public across the Gulf region and around the world. The Collection Care department, which comprises some 40 people, is responsible for the care of one of the largest, richest and most diverse research collections in the world.

This is an opportunity for an experienced conservator to work in a small, busy team. You will be carrying out conservation and preparation treatments on a wide range of collection items relating to the Gulf region that are being digitised as part of this project. You’ll operate with minimal supervision and have the skills and knowledge to plan, manage and track your work to ensure that deadlines are met. You must be able to communicate effectively with people at all levels, and be able to keep clear, consistent and accurate records of all treatments undertaken.

You need to have either a degree in conservation or equivalent knowledge and skills sets, and practical hands-on experience in conservation of library materials for digitisation and/or large-scale conservation projects; a broad knowledge of available conservation treatments within the field of book conservation together with the ability to diagnose conservation problems and to develop and evaluate options for solutions. You should also have a high level of manual dexterity and the ability to treat fragile and delicate materials, together with knowledge of materials chemistry and the properties, behaviours and interaction of a wide range of organic and inorganic materials. A good knowledge of preventive conservation issues is also required with the ability to deliver training on the handling of library material to support and implement best practices within the British Library/Qatar Foundation partnership project and collaboration with the colleagues in the main British Library Conservation Studio (BLCC).

For an informal discussion about the role, please contact Flavio Marzo, Gulf History Arabic Science Project Conservator on 0207 412 7740.


Closing Date: 11 February 2018

Interview Date: 22 or 23 February 2018

24 July 2017

Do more together than we can ourselves: The unique partnership between curator and conservator

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Zoë Miller and Peter Toth

curator, n. Traditionally, a curator or keeper of a cultural heritage institution (e.g. gallery, museum, library, or archive) is a content specialist charged with an institution's collections and involved with the interpretation of heritage material.

conservator, n. A person employed in the conservation of artefacts or sites of archaeological, historical, or cultural significance. Cf. conservation n. 1f.

The British Library is the custodian of thousands of manuscript treasures and it is a shared duty of its curators and conservators to care for and interpret them. I’m inviting you to share this meeting of minds and how it brings our collection to life through the rediscovery of a unique fourteenth century manuscript; Egerton MS 2516.

Once part of the library of bibliophile friar Leonardo Mansueti of Perugia (d.1480), this fragile selection of writings from Cicero and the famous African magician and philosopher Apuleius was brought to our conservation studio by curator Peter Toth for assessment and treatment advice.  

Ownership note

Ownership note by Leonardo Mansueti in Egerton MS 2516, f. 162r.

The volume had been rebound in the nineteenth century in a style and design typical of the collection of Francis Henry Egerton. The very small script was written in iron gall ink on thin parchment to save money, and decoration was kept to a minimum. This book was destined to be a scholarly study text and it is an early and important manuscript of the works of the second-century Apuleius.

Original spineTight opening

Original spine and tight opening in Egerton MS 2516.

Peter is able to read and interpret the ancient text and marginalia and to provide this crucial contextual and historical narrative. When he presented us with this book we could immediately see the problem. Its materials had aged so much that it couldn’t be opened beyond forty five degrees! It was so tight that we could not see the text in the gutter. The pages were fragmented, mutilated and corroded by the chemical action typical of this ink. Like leaf skeletons they were incredibly fragile and impossible to turn.

Damaged foliosCut marks

Damaged folios and cut marks in Egerton MS 2516.

As conservators, our first sight and handling of an object can play like a movie of its life. We experience the ageing character and material signs of use and damage known so well of leather, parchment, threads and paper. Even the smells and stains, the cuts, marks and tears of a hundred scholars thumbing the pages are brought to life as we hold it in our hands. There were mysterious cuts to the tail of many folios, which suggested a purposeful extraction. Could this have been to remove mould, mistakes or secret text? Perhaps the parchment was stolen for love notes by a fifteenth century student? 

The existing book boards with a gold crest and inscriptions are part of the unique provenance of this object, and yet the re-binding destroyed evidence of the manuscript’s original shape and sewing. Peter explained that its hard work as an academic ‘set text’ contributed to the patterns of deterioration we see today. We therefore tailored our treatments to preserve evidence of this damage and limit our repairs and intervention to safeguard the narrative. We created a new binding from calfskin replicating the Egerton tradition to respect this significant part of its history.

Removing sewing

Removing sewing from Egerton MS 2516.

The old leather, glues and overcast sewing threads were painstakingly removed by parchment specialist intern Camille Thuet. Once the delicate folios had been released, medieval manuscript cataloguer Laure Miolo was able to access and identify hidden marginal notes. She found fifteenth and sixteenth century comments and a Greek quotation from Euripides which had been added by early readers of the text and reveal how it was used and interpreted. 

Quotation

Quotation from Euripides in the lower margin of Egerton MS 2516, f. 123v.

With the help of conservation imaging scientist Christina Duffy, Camille analysed dark stains across areas of script which were speculated to be early attempts at revealing hidden text. Multi-spectral imaging was also useful in enhancing faded marginalia.

Chemical damage

Historical chemical damage on Egerton MS 2516 f. 4r in an attempt to improve legibility of corroded iron gall ink.

Multi-spectral imaging

Multi-spectral imaging of Egerton MS 2516, f. 116r.

The treatment proposal had two clear aims: 

Enabling access and digitisation through repair of the delicate and damaged folios to ensure they continue to exist for future generations

Preserving and protecting historical evidence so that as much of the past is accessible to the future reader.

A new guard book structure means that the original parchment text block is protected from adhesive and the necessary mechanics of the binding’s spine. This allows every part of it to be viewed, and no part to be constricted. Parchment likes to breathe!

New guard structure

New guard structure.

New flat opening

New flat opening.

New binding

New binding.

Gold finishing

Gold finishing on Egerton MS 2516.

The books in our rich collection inspire both for the intellectual information they carry and as artefacts of craft. We were able to make complex conservation decisions to preserve this manuscript through collaboration with curators. We must together protect what our collection will represent in the future where respect for such treasured objects only grows in this changing digital age.

Thanks to Camille Thuet for her observant eye and parchment knowledge, and to Peter Toth, Andrea Clarke, and Laure Miolo for their historical expertise. The manuscript has now been restored and completely digitised and is available at the Library’s Digitised Manuscripts site here.

28 June 2017

Time-lapse Video Showing Conservation of Tangut Documents

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The Tangut documents are part of the Stein collection that is held at the British Library. They were recovered by Aurel Stein in 1914, during his Third Expedition to Central Asia (1913–1916). From the moment they were unearthed from the ancient city of Kharakhoto, a major centre of the Tangut State of Xia located in the Gobi Desert right inside the present-day Chinese border with Mongolia, these important items have remained untreated. This has made their study impossible.

Tangut fragments

Conservator Vania Assis is in charge of repairing and stabilising the documents, which have survived in a fragmentary state, in the aim of eventually digitising them as part of the International Dunhuang Project. This task is a time-consuming process, where all fragments need to be humidified to unfold all their existing layers. However, in order for this to happen, all the sand from excavation needs to be removed beforehand, or else it would sink into the paper fibres and permanently obscure the text. Only once cleaned can the fragments be flattened and repaired, using small Japanese paper tabs to stop disintegration.

So far, more than 1500 items have been conserved, and many are already housed in spot welded polyester sleeves, ready to be digitised. Hopefully, making these items accessible will help unfold more secrets about the Tangut Empire which only existed from 1038 to 1227.

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

03 February 2017

Job opportunity: Conservator – Adam Matthew Digitisation Project

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Full Time, Fixed Term Contract to 31 March 2018

The British Library leads and collaborates in growing the world’s knowledge base. We have signed a partnership with Adam Matthew Digital to make thousands of digitised historic documents and manuscripts available online to researchers, scholars and the general public. The Conservation department, which comprises some 50 people, is responsible for the care of one of the largest, richest and most diverse research collections in the world.

Cover is going to be reattached to text block

This is an opportunity for an experienced Conservator to work closely with the imaging team, Project Manager and Curators. For the majority of the time you will be based in the imaging studio carrying out the ordering of materials to ensure the workflow, condition checks and preparation treatments on a range of collection items that are being digitised as part of this project. Some conservation treatments will be carried out in the conservation studio. You’ll operate with minimal supervision and have the skills and knowledge to plan, manage and track your work to ensure that deadlines are met. You must be able to communicate effectively with people at all levels, and be able to keep clear, consistent and accurate records of all activities undertaken.

You need to have either a degree in conservation or equivalent knowledge and skills sets, and practical hands-on experience in conservation of library materials for digitisation and/or large-scale conservation projects. A broad knowledge of available conservation treatments within the field of book/paper conservation together with the ability to diagnose conservation problems and to develop and evaluate options for solutions. You should also have a high level of manual dexterity and the ability to treat fragile and delicate materials, together with knowledge of materials chemistry and the properties, behaviours and interaction of a wide range of organic and inorganic materials. A good knowledge of preventive conservation issues is also required with the ability to deliver training on the handling of library material to support and implement best practices within the British Library/Adam Matthew Digital partnership project and collaboration with the colleagues in the main British Library Conservation Studio (BLCC).

Job reference number 01095
For the full job profile and to apply please visit British Library website, https://britishlibrary.recruitment.northgatearinso.com/birl/

Closing Date: 26 February 2017
Interviews will take place in mid-March 2017

24 November 2016

Applications of Image Processing Software to Archival Material

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Images of archival material are useful to both conservators for monitoring changes, and to researchers for detailed analysis and permanent access to collection items. Image processing allows historical documents and other collection items to be studied without the risk of damage to the primary source. The increase in digitisation projects is generating large volumes of image files that can be processed to enhance the understanding of our collections without physically handling fragile material.

ImageJ is a powerful public domain Java-based image processing package. The nature of open source software allows for the constant update and availability of new plugins and recordable macros designed for specific tasks. ImageJ’s built-in editor and a Java compiler allow for the development of custom acquisition, analysis and processing plugins. In April 2013 I presented a poster at the ICOM Graphics Documents Working Group Interim Meeting in Vienna, outlining the applications of image processing software to archival material . The full poster can be downloaded as a PDF here.

C-DUFFY-poster

While several improvements have been made to the functionality of ImageJ since 2013, I hope this poster provides useful information to those less familiar with image processing techniques.

ImageJ was originally designed for the purpose of medical imaging by the National Institutes for Health by Wayne Rasband, but has since found applications in many fields. It can be run on any computer with a Java 5 or later virtual machine, as an online applet or as a downloadable application (Microsoft Windows, Mac OS, Mac OSX, Linux, Sharp Zaurus PDA). ImageJ offers features similar to commercially available image processing software packages such as brightness/contrast adjustment, frequency domain filtering, binarisation and particle analysis.

Christina Duffy

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