THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Collection Care blog

37 posts categorized "Manuscripts"

13 February 2017

The beauty within: conservation of manuscript Delhi Arabic 1928

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

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

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

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

Image 3

The spine of the book.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image 4

One of the paper inlays, lifting.

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

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

Image 5

Image 6

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

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

Image 7

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image 8

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

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

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

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

Image 9

The book after the conservation work.

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

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

Image10_11

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flavio Marzo

21 November 2016

The Conservation and Spectroscopic Analysis of a Burmese Concertina Binding

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Background

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

Concertina Bindings

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

Diagram 1

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

Diagram 2

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

Figure 3

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

Fig.4

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

OR.3591

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

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

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

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

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

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

Condition: the paper

Fig.7

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

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

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

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

Condition: the media

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

Fig.10 and 11

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

Pigment Analysis via p-XRF Spectroscopy

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

Fig.12

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

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

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

* Elements given in parentheses are present in minor quantities.

Table

Fig.13  OR.3591 p-XRF spectra.

Treatment

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

Mould reduction

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

Humidification

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

Fig.14

Fig.14  OR.3591 Humidifying the manuscript.

Media consolidation

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

Fig.15

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

Structural consolidation

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

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

Fig.16

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

Fig. 17

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

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

Figs.18 and 19

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

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

Fig.20

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

Fig.21

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

Fig.22

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

Fig.23

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

Fig.24

Fig.24 OR.3591 The completed manuscript.

Fig.25

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

Fig.26

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

Daisy Todd

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

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.

12 September 2016

Job Opportunity - Digitisation Conservator (Hebraic Digitisation Project)

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Digitisation Conservator (Hebraic Digitisation Project)
Salary - £26,000 to £29,966 per annum
Full Time, Fixed Term for 30 Months (2 ½ Years)
British Library, St Pancras site, London

Acknowledged as one of the finest and most important in the world, the British Library’s Hebrew manuscripts collection is a vivid testimony to the creativity and intense scribal activities of Eastern and Western Jewish communities spanning over 1,000 years. The Hebrew Manuscripts Digitisation project, started in 2013, is continuing into a next phase making more of the British Library’s collection of Hebrew manuscripts available online.

This is an opportunity for an experienced conservator to undertake conservation treatment of paper and parchment Hebrew Manuscripts to enable digitisation and in order to improve the longevity, stability and accessibility of these items. The conservator will work closely with the project manager and curators as well as the project survey conservator. 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, 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.

Closing date: 2 October 2016. Interview date: Week commencing 10 October 2016.
For further information and to apply, please visit www.bl.uk/careers vacancy ref: COL00983

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

22 August 2016

Hidden horoscopes and puzzling predictions in Papyrus 98

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Why would certain passages from an ancient horoscope and related predictions be smudged and partially erased? This is what researchers are currently trying to determine using multi-spectral images recently captured of Papyrus 98.

Glass enclosure of Papyrus 98

Papyrus 98 (British Library Pap. XCVIII).

The British Library holds over 3000 papyri, along with several thousand unframed fragments. Western Heritage Collections cares for our Greek and Latin papyri, while papyri in other languages are found in our Asian and African Collections. The papyri collections are sequentially numbered running from Papyrus 1 – Papyrus 3136 with a separate sequence of 37 items forming the Egerton Papyri collection.

Papyrus 98 underwent multi-spectral imaging to improve legibility on some partially erased and smudged passages. Papyrus 98 is housed in a glass enclosure with inscriptions visible on both the recto and verso. The original collector was most interested in the Funeral Oration of Hyperides over Leosthenes and his comrades in the Lamian war [BC 323] which was placed in the recto position at the front of the glass frame. This partially imperfect Greek text is thought to date to the 1st century BC with the greater portion of the oration in fourteen columns. However, it has since been discovered that it is on the verso of the current housing where the oldest and first text was inscribed on the papyrus.

MSI of Papyrus 98

Above: Due to the long profile, multi-spectral imaging of Papyrus 98 was achieved by imaging the manuscript in sections and digitally stitching the images together.

On this 'verso' side is an astrological treatise consisting of three and three-quarter columns of a Greek language horoscope partially in small uncial characters similar to those of Hyperides. This is followed by an Egyptian language set of predictions relating to the horoscope written in cursive handwriting in what is referred to as 'the Old Coptic Script'. The Papyrus 98 manuscript showcases the earliest example of this Old Coptic Script.

The overall majority of the Greek text in this manuscript is in excellent condition, with the exception of the partially erased sections at the bottom of column III and IV which precede the lines in which the Egyptian language section begins. Other areas of faded or partially rubbed out sections were also identified and hoped to be recovered with multi-spectral imaging.

MSI images

Top: Infra-red image of Papyrus 98 showing uncial Greek in the left column and cursive Egyptian (Old Coptic Script) in the right column. Bottom: A composite colour ultra-violet image of Papyrus 98.

Researchers are still going through the results trying to figure out why these particular passages were erased and what was, or is, the significance of the obscured text. While the raw images have provided some clarity in certain areas, there are several algorithms which will be run on the data set to isolate and enhance the blurred regions. This is just one of many projects that our conservation team are working on to aid scholarly research and enable further access through digital means.

Colour space analysis

Left: Original image showing fragmented sections of Papyrus 98. Right: Colour space analysis showing the same region in pseudo-colour.

A small number of British Library papyri have been digitised in full and can be viewed on Digitised Manuscripts. Further information about published papyri can be found on the Trismegistos database. More about this collection item can be found on the Explore Archives and Manuscripts resource, while further information about our Greek and Latin papyri collections can be found here.

Dr Christina Duffy

 

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

27 April 2016

Opportunity: Digitisation Conservator

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Salary range is £26,000 - £29,966 per annum
Full time (36 hours per week)
Fixed Term Contract for 18 months
St Pancras, London

The British Library is undertaking a number of new digitisation programmes including four hundred pre-1200 manuscripts and illuminated manuscripts and Kings Topographical maps. The ‘Discovering Literature’ web resource is also moving into its next phase requiring items to be digitised. 

This is an opportunity for an experienced conservator to undertake condition assessments and conservation treatment of paper and parchment books and manuscripts to enable digitisation as part of these and other projects. The conservator will work closely with the project managers and curators and will report to the Conservation Digitisation Manager. 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, 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.

For further information and to apply, please visit www.bl.uk/careers quoting vacancy ref: COL00841

Closing Date: 12 May 2016
Interview Date: week of 23 May 2016

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