THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Collection Care blog

44 posts categorized "Materials"

10 October 2017

Magic in Conservation – using leaf-casting on paper and palm leaves

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As the library is preparing for the opening of the new exhibition: Harry Potter: A History of Magic, on October 20th, and objects for the exhibition begin to arrive into the studio, our minds turn to ‘magical’ transformations of objects in conservation. Visitors to the studio are often stunned by amazing transformations of objects in our care, particularly when shown before and after photographic evidence of treatments. But our work is not based on tricks, but knowledge and skills, and is far from instantaneous! However, there is one conservation process known as ‘leaf-casting’, which comes nearest to ‘magic’, as understood in the traditional way of things happening suddenly in front of our eyes. Similarly to a performing magician, with prior preparation, a conservator using a leaf-casting machine can transform a damaged object in an instant with the help of paper pulp, gravity, and suction!

Blender  leaf casting machine and press
Picture 1: Tools of the trade: A blender to make the pulp, a leaf-casting machine, and a press.

The mechanical pulp repair process only takes less than a minute! Holes, tears and missing areas disappear, as if by magic once the paper item is put into a leaf-caster!

Paper item on the grid
Picture 2: A paper item placed on the grid in the leaf-caster and masked off.

Pouring paper pulp
Picture 3: Next, the leaf-caster is filled with water and paper pulp poured into the machine.

Missing areas filled with paper pulp
Picture 4: The missing areas are filled with paper pulp once the water has been sucked out of the machine.

The leaf-casting process draws on the principles of papermaking and is particularly successful for large-scale repair of damaged artefacts. Our test repair, illustrated above and below, shows the torn edge and holes seamlessly covered by new paper fibres with the repair being more visible in the areas round the edges where the degradation of paper fibres was most pronounced.

Before and after
Pictures 5 & 6: The damaged paper before and after leaf-casting.

Although the process is mainly used for paper, it has also been tried out on palm leaves as part of the final research project carried out in the Copernicus University in Torun, Polandi. The process was not widely known, but offered a real opportunity for dealing with a large amount of damaged material in a more efficient way than it had been done previously. A Tamil manuscript - Sri Vaishnava Sect doctrines by Pillai Lokacharya - written on 256 leaves was a case in point.

A variety of treatments were tried out on the leaves before they arrived in our studio. They had very old string repairs, and roughly 25 of them were treated using fish glue and palm leaves to repair the missing areas.

String mends and palm leaf repairs
Pictures 7 and 8: Examples of older string mends and a palm leaf repairs respectively.

The remaining leaves showed varying degree of damage ranging from worm holes, breaks, damaged or missing ends and edges. Some were totally fragmented with the text completely lost.

Damaged leaves on light table
Picture 9: Typical damage to the leaves (1-10) made more visible by the light table.

With no undamaged leaves left in the batch to be conserved, I suggested that we try the leaf-casting on leaves that have suffered severe loss to the base material. Before the process started, the inks incised into the palm leaves had to be tested and proved to be stable. The leaves were leaf-cast in batches of 5 using toned paper pulp. Once they were taken out of the machine, they were dried, pressed, cut into individual strips, faced with toned Japanese tissue and cut to size using a template.

Leaves in a leaf-caster and dried
Pictures 10 & 11: Leaves in a leaf-caster and dried respectively.

Leaves cut to size
Pictures 12 & 13: Leaves cut into individual strips, faced with tissue and cut to size.

The template gave a rough idea of the length and width of a leaf, particularly if it had ends missing or was incomplete. It was not meant to make them uniform, keeping those with undamaged ends or with a natural curve unchanged. Below are two batches of 10 leaves from the manuscript before and after conservation.

Leaves 1-10
Pictures 14 & 15: Leaves 1-10.

Leaves 241-250
Pictures 16 & 17: Leaves 241-250 before and after conservation.

Leaves with less damage were not put through the leaf-caster, but mended by hand. A surgical needle was used to insert toned paper pulp into worm holes, and small missing areas. A piece of blotter paper was placed underneath for absorption of excess water.

Leaves mended by hand and mending needle
Pictures 18 &19: Showing an example of leaves mended by hand and a beaker with toned paper pulp and the needle used for mending.

The leaf-casting technique used on the palm leaves had several advantages. It returned some flexibility to the leaves, making them less brittle, and it was also a time saving treatment when compared to the traditional repairs using palm leaves. The before and after photographs of the treatment have this magic ‘wow’ quality of seeing items transformed not by a magician, but by a skilful practitioner!

Iwona Jurkiewicz

 

Notes: I would like to thank my colleague Lorraine Holmes for training us to use the leaf-casting process, and for helping me with the conservation of palm leaves.

iThe conservation procedure to repair the palm leaves manuscript from Cambodia was developed as a final conservation project by Anna Hałucha-Lim in the Copernicus University in Torun, Poland – for details see:

Anna Halucha-Lim ‘Kambodżański rękopis na lisciach palmowych (XIX/XX w.) ze zbiorów Muzeum Azji i Pacyfiku w Warszawie – propozycja konserwacji zachowawczej ;Torunskie Studia o Sztuce Orientu, Torun, Tom 1.

10 August 2017

Everything you need to know about birch bark book conservation

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From sawdust to gold dust: The conservation of a 16th century birch bark book

Shelfmark: OMS/Or 13300
Curator: Pasquale Manzo
Treatment Time: 113 hrs
Estimated time: 92 hrs

Introduction:
Late 2016 a black acidic shoe box with a note was transferred to the British Library Centre for Conservation for treatment. The note was dated from 1972, reading ‘object is extremely fragile - do not touch’. Inside the shoe box was a mass of tissue, which when carefully lifted out, had thousands of tiny entangled bark fragments entwined in its fibres. Beneath the tissue was the birch bark book.

The following blog is about how the manuscript was conserved so that it could once again be safely requested and handled by the general public.

The Manuscript:
The manuscript is part of the British Library Asian and African collection. It was originally made in Kashmir, is written in Śāradā script and dates to the 16-17th century. It includes three different texts: (A) Nirṇayāmṛta by Allāḍanātha, a work in 4 chapters concerning suitable times for various Hindu religious ceremonies. (B) Narasiṃhaparicayā by Kṛṣṇdāsa son of Rāmācārya, a text on Vaiṣṇava ritual and (C) a fragment of the Padmapurāṇa.

Binding Structure:
The manuscript was formed of 10 sections, each with 8 folios to the centre. The manuscript was sewn with a thick hemp chord in an unsupported Coptic-style. The sewing had a knotted incongruous double loop centrally on the 3rd section.

Spine edge of textblock

Figure 1: Spine edge of the text block showing the 2 central sewing stations and the headband tie-downs at head and tail.

Both the head and tail had headbands, similar perhaps in style to Monastic headbands. However the cores were made of a Mahogany-type wood dowel, looped several times over with chord, then wrapped in a layer of alum-tawed skin and finally a turned-in leather flap extending up from the cover. The headbands were attached to the text block via tie-downs on each section.

Wood-core headbandFigures 2-4: Wood-core headband with alum-tawed and leather wraps secured to text block with chord tie-downs.

The manuscript was covered in thick brown goat leather with an inner parchment wrapper. The limp leather case was attached to the text block by the headband tie-downs.

Limp goat leather

Figures 5 & 6: Limp goat leather cover with parchment wrapper below.

Dimensions: (L x W x H) 190 x 189 x 70 mm

The Text block:
The text block had 231 folios, foliated 27-258. The folios were transcribed with a carbon-based ink. The media was stable. The folios themselves were made from very fine layers of bark from the outer periderm of the deciduous birch tree. The cork cells of the birch bark are compacted in radial rows according to seasonal growth, and the periderm layers were adhered together by pectin as well as physical knots and streaks.

Birch bark

Figure 7 (Left): Tree anatomy diagram showing the periderm layer of the birch tree (Wojtech 2013). Figure 8 (Right): Peeling birch bark off a birch tree to use as a substrate. Image shows inherent knots and streaks (Wojtech 2011).

Condition:
Unfit: Significant risk of damage even under controlled display conditions due to existing damage or extreme sensitivity, inherent vice.

Principal Substrate

In response to fluctuating environmental parameters, the inherently weak pectin adhesive in the birch bark had failed, causing the periderm layers to delaminate. It appeared that each folio was made up of around 7 periderm layers. Each folio was in a different state of delamination. Similarly, as a result environmental fluctuation the natural resins in the birch bark had been drawn to the surface, causing a gentle white blooming on the majority of the birch bark folios.

Changes in the birch bark’s moisture equilibrium over time had caused dimensional changes, forcing tangential curling and making the bark stiff and extremely brittle. This had resulted in each folio having significant tears extending from the foredge. Some of the folios had even degenerated into piles of fragmentary leaves. There were vertical cracks on most folios towards the spine, due to the stress induced by turning the pages.

White blooming and delamination
Figure 9 (Left): White blooming from natural resins on the surface of the birch bark. Figure 10 (Right): Delaminating periderm layers of embrittled birch bark.

Binding Condition

The leather and the parchment wrapper beneath were stiff and distorted and subsequently did not effectively cover or protect the text block. The cover was only partially attached to the text block by the headband tie-downs at the head of the spine. As such, when fully opened some of the text block spine was exposed. The sewing had broken at multiple points, however disparately the sewing structure was relatively stable. The opening angle of the manuscript had been compromised by the brittle substrate, so could open to around 60 degrees in a section or 160 degrees between the sections. Two sections at the back of the manuscript had detached and four pages were sitting loose in the back cover.

Distorted leatherFigure 11: Distorted leather no longer covers and protects the text block.

Detached tie-downsFigure 12: Showing detached tie-downs, exposed spine and broken sewing at the spine tail.

Evidence of Previous Repairs:

Previous repairs were carried out in 1972. There appeared to be a white bloom on the surface of the leather cover, suggesting the possible previous use of wax or oil based leather coatings.

Two folios, f.211 and f.212, were coated on both sides with a texacryl 13-002 adhesive (at various strengths) and nylon tissue, with Japanese paper borders. This conservation process was discontinued as the result is visually distracting (sharp contrast in tone and light refraction) and had irreversibly changed the nature of the original birch bark.

The areas of loss, of around twenty of the most fragile folios at the front of the volume, had been infilled with hand-transcribed western paper. Similarly heavy-weight cream paper repairs had also been crudely adhered to multiple folios along edge tears.

Crude paper repairsFigure 13: Showing the crude paper repairs at the foredge of multiple folios

Fragmented sectionsFigure 14: Showing the crude texacryl-adhered nylon lining on 2 birch bark folios.

Texacryl-adhered nylon lining

Figure 15: The fragmented first two sections with annotated western paper infills.

Analytical Adhesive Testing

The decision was made to identify the adhesive used to adhere the paper patch repairs and the annotated infills. This would not only provide more information about the history of the object, but would inform the treatment decision-making process.

A microsample of adhesive residue was removed from beneath the distorted and lifting paper infills. The microsample was then analysed via use of FTIR-ATR to identify and characterise the present adhesive. The results suggested the adhesive used in previous repairs was a protein-based animal glue.

Subtraction spectrumFigure 16: Image of the subtraction spectrum suggesting the adhesive residue was a protein based animal glue.

Micro-sampling locationFigure 17: Adhesive residue visible on birch bark folio. Highlighted area shows micro-sampling location.

Conservation Treatment:

The choice of treatment for any object of historical or cultural significance must reflect its artifactual value, uniqueness and the accessibility of the information it holds. It was decided a minimally interventive treatment would be carried out with the aim of preserving the original and rare binding structure, whilst stabilising the folios for digitisation.

Repair Method Selection

Due to the laminar structure of the birch bark, it was decided that traditional paper-patch repairs would not suffice, as they would only encourage the delamination of the top layer. After experimentation, it was decided that thin strips of toned Japanese tissue, woven in between the stratified layers of each folio would act as an effective repair method.

Inter-woven toned Japanese tissue repair

Figure 18 & 19: An inter-woven toned Japanese tissue repair.

Paper and Adhesive Selection

Kozo 2 Japanese tissue was selected as the repair material. It was chosen as it was semi-opaque and thus not visually obstructive; weaker than the primary substrate; and had a degree of stiffness that enabled it to be inserted and woven between bark layers. The tissue strips were adhered with a low concentration of methylcellulose (2%) in water. Methylcellulose was chosen as adhesive firstly because of its cellulosic similarity to birch bark, secondly its refractive index was similar to birch bark, and lastly it had a greater water retention capacity and flexibility than wheat starch paste.

Tears and areas of delamination repaired

Figure 20 & 21: Tears and areas of delamination were repaired and reinforced with toned Kozo 2 tissue adhered with 2% methylcellulose.

Tissue Preparation

The Kozo 2 tissue was toned using an airbrush, with dilute burnt umber and raw sienna Golden heavy body acrylic paints. The tissue was toned in a colour-range of tones so that the repairs match the multi-tonal folios. The tissue was then cut into thin strips using a scalpel. The widths of the strips varied from about 3-6 mm.

Tonal variation
Figure 22: Tonal variation of different birch bark folios.

Repair

A strip was selected, woven through the delaminated layers using tweezers, adhesive applied with a paintbrush (size 001), and the joint gently pressed into place using a cotton swab. The swab also removed any excess adhesive. The repair was then pressed gently under weights. Pressure-light weights were used due to the brittle nature of the substrate. Large areas of delaminated layers were re-adhered to their folio similarly, using a thin application of methylcellulose and gentle pressure.

Delaminated corner repairs

Figure 23-25 (Left): Applying toned Kozo 2 to delaminated corner. Centre: applying methylcellulose with a fine brush. Right: Applying gentle pressure to the join using a cotton swab.

The folios were conserved systematically, one by one, starting from the back of the volume (as these were in better condition than those at the front). Each folio took around 15-20 minutes to repair depending on the extent of its damage.

The crude previous paper repairs and the annotated infills were lifted from the birch bark using tweezers, and the dry powdery adhesive carefully scraped off the surface of the folio using a scalpel. The repair’s locations were documented prior to removal.

The four loose pages at the back of the manuscript were stripped up with Japanese tissue and adhered into the two detached sections according to their foliation. The texacryl-coated pages were trimmed to remove the Japanese paper border, and likewise stripped up and attached into these sections.

The final repairs were made to the outer spine folds of the sections. These were carefully repaired in-situ using slightly wider strips of toned tissue.

Treated folios stripped up and sewn into their section
Figure 26: The trimmed texacryl 13-002 and nylon coated folios, stripped up and sewn into their section.

Re-sewing Loose Sections

The two detached sections at the back of the volume were attached at the head-edge sewing station via Coptic chain stitch. An extra Coptic stitch was attached to the 3rd section to reinforce the attachment. The decision to not attach the section at two sewing stations was due firstly to the fragmented state of the sewing on the tail-edge station, secondly because the minimal sewing sufficed, and lastly because the purpose of the attachment was solely to prevent loss and disassociation.

Repaired spine edge of textblock
Figure 27 & 28: Showing the repaired spine edge of the text block and the three chain stitches at the head of the volume.

Cover Decisions

SC6000 leather treatment was rubbed lightly into the leather cover to reduce the white blooming.

The sewing, despite being broken, was remarkably stable post treatment, . This is perhaps because the chords were consolidated in place by the Japanese tissue repairs. The relative stability of the binding enabled the decision to not interfere with the original sewing, and to leave the binding, as well as the cover, as it was. The object post treatment was stable enough to digitise and even stable enough to be handled and viewed by researchers.

It was noted also that by leaving the leather cover attached only at the head, it facilitated the viewing of the sewing structure and spine. As the rare binding style is as much of cultural value as the textual content of the object, the fact that it was left exposed was regarded positively.

Volume post treatment
Figure 29 & 30: Showing volume post treatment with limp leather cover left in its original state.

Re-housing Fragments

Adhesive labels and condition reportsFigure 31 & 32: Showing adhesive labels and previous condition reports re-housed in Melinex sheaths.

Annotated infills and birch fragmentsFigure 33 & 34: Showing annotated infills and birch bark fragments spot-welded into Melinex sheaths.

After treatment there was varied ephemera to re-house and to keep with the object:

1. The old adhesive labels on the old box
2. The previous condition reports
3. The annotated infills
4. Three unplaceable birch bark fragments.

The old adhesive labels and the condition reports were placed in independent inert polyester Melinex © sheaths. The top edges of the sheaths were left open so the items could be removed, unfolded and read in the future.

The annotated infills and the birch bark fragments were secured in place in their independent Melinex sheaths using an ultrasonic spot-welder. Both sets of sheaths were hole-punched and secured together in the top left hand corner using an archival snap-ring.

Re-housing the Manuscript

To impede the likelihood of potentially harmful physical or environmental damage, it was decided that a custom made drop-back box would be made. It was decided that a shelved compartment would be included in the design in which to store the sheathed ephemera. A four flap wrapper was also made for the volume from Kraft paper, to further impede the potential of damage and to facilitate future handling.

Finally the shelfmark of the item was gold tooled onto the spine of the box.

Drop-back box
Figure 35 & 36: Showing Kraft paper 4 flap folder and buckram-covered drop-back box with shelf compartment.

Gold tooling

Figure 37 & 38: Gold tooling the manuscript shelfmark onto the box.

Before and After Treatment Photographs:

Before and after treatmentBefore and after treatment 2Before and after treatment 3

By Daisy Todd

Image References

Wojtech, M 2013, The Language of Bark, American Forests, article: http://www.americanforests.org/magazine/article/the-language-of-bark

Wojtech, M 2011, Getting to know bark, Northern Woodlands, article: http://northernwoodlands.org/articles/article/getting-to-know-bark

Further Reading

Agrawal, OP & Bhatia, SK 1981, Investigations for preservation of birch bark manuscripts, ICOM committee for conservation, 6th triennial meeting, Ottawa, September, pp. 21 – 25.

Batton, S 2000, Seperation Anxiety: The Conservation of a 5th Century Buddhist Gandharan Manuscript, WAAC Newsletter, Vol. 2, No.2

Florian, ML, Kronkright, DP, Norton, RE 1991, The Conservation of Artifacts Made from Plant Materials, Getty Trust Publications, Getty Conservation Institute.

Gilberg, MR 1986, Plasticization and forming of misshapen birch-bark artifacts using solvent vapours, Studies in conservation, Vol. 31, No. 4, pp. 177-184.

Gilroy, N 2008, The Stein birch-bark collection in Oxford: Thirty years of developing treatment options for our most fragile manuscripts, ICOM Committee for Conservation:15th triennial meeting, New Delhi, 22-26 September, Delhi: Allied Publishers, Vol. 1, pp. 264-269.

Suryawanshi, DG, 2000, An ancient writing material: Birch-bark and its need of conservation, Restaurator: International journal for the preservation of library and archival material, Vol. 21, No. 1, pp. 1-8.

08 May 2017

Beauty is only Skin Deep – Installation of the 101st Soviet Rifle Regiment Banner for the Russian Revolution Exhibition

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Iwona Jurkiewicz reports on the installation of an extraordinary and iconic banner on exhibition for the first time outside Poland at the British Library's latest exhibition: Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths. It can be seen until the exhibition closes on 29 August 2017.

It is a well-known truth that external attractiveness bears little relation to the essential internal qualities of a person. This time, the old saying: ‘beauty is only skin deep’ proved to be true for a banner.

The 101st Soviet Rifle Regiment banner captured in the 1919-20 Soviet–Polish War by the victorious Poles is very plain and unassuming in appearance. It is, however, of enormous value, being the only surviving banner from that conflict still held in the Polish collections.

A great number of other banners were captured during the Soviet-Polish War and kept in the Polish Army Museum in Warsaw. In the 1950’s all but this one were ordered to be returned to the Soviet Union (hence its unique status).

Soviet Rifle Regiment
Picture 1: The banner of the 101st Soviet Rifle Regiment with the popular propaganda slogan of the time: ‘Peace to huts, war to palaces’.

The banner has been borrowed from Warsaw for the Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy and Myths Exhibition together with a much more visually appealing hat of a Red Army soldier, known as Budenovka.

Red Army uniform hat
Picture 2: Red Army uniform hat named after Red Army Commander, Semen Budennyi.

Yet, it was this plain looking banner, with its twists and turns of history that go beyond the Russian Revolution, rather than the cute red hat, that captured my attention.

The current monochrome appearance of the cotton ground is misleading since it was originally red, and the star stitched in the middle of the banner with the early emblem of the Soviet state of a hammer and sickle was - against all expectations - white.

We know this thanks to the detailed documentations of all captured banners made between 1930's-1950's published in a book on trophies seized during the Soviet–Polish War by Jarosław Pych1.

Banner
Picture 3: The banner as shown in the documentation in the Polish Army Museum after it was donated in the 1930’s.

Unfortunately, this iconic item lost its original colours in the course of the long term display and due to the poor stability of the dye used. It now, indeed, seems very plain and unassuming. However, the post Second World War Soviet intervention gave it the status of the only surviving banner in the Polish Army Museum collection, and this added to its already great national significance. The banner has never been displayed abroad before, and it was conserved prior to the Russian Revolution exhibition by the Textile Conservation team based in the Polish Army Museum and led by Jadwiga Kozlowska, who also couriered the item for the British Library exhibition.

Jadwiga Kozlowska
Picture 4: Jadwiga Kozlowska with the banner.

Her presence during the installation proved vital. The banner, usually displayed in portrait orientation in Warsaw had firm attachment – a Perspex rod - on the short side, but not the long one as was necessary for the landscape orientation of the case in the Russian Revolution exhibition.

Perspex rod attachment
Picture 5: The Perspex rod attachment of the banner.

Display case
Picture 6: Landscape orientation of the display case.

This situation was promptly remedied by Jadwiga Kozłowska who was able to stitch the crêpeline facing the banner alongside the top edge using an invisible polyester thread.

Attaching the banner
Picture 7: Jadwiga Kozłowska attaching the banner to the supporting board.

This enabled a secure display of the item in landscape rather than portrait direction. The banner is displayed on a slope within the case, and the supporting board is secured using acrylic clips.

Final installation
Picture 8: The final installation of the banner.

The installation of the banner with such a chequered history couldn’t have been straightforward, but nothing proves impossible with teams of dedicated exhibition, conservation and loans registry staff!

The Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths Exhibition opened on 28 April and will run until 29 August 2017. You can also read articles from our experts exploring some of the themes of our exhibition on our Russian Revolution website.

 

Iwona Jurkiewicz

 

I would like to thank Jadwiga Kozłowska for not only helping with the installation, but also providing the information about the banner.

Further reading:

1. Jarosław Pych "Trofea wojny polsko-bolszewickiej 1920 roku", Warszawa, 2000

31 October 2016

Talk: Fabric of the Library: discovering textile conservation

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

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

Tickets are £5 and can be booked here.

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

Textiles 1
Or 9430 Image copyright the British Library Board

Textiles 2

C 24 d 5  Image copyright the British Library Board

 

26 September 2016

Fingerprints & their potential impact in relation to handling library collections

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

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

British-library-reading-room-2

Humanities reading room in the British Library.

By way of background:

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

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

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

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

Reading Room Placemat 2

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

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

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

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

Preventive Conservation

Risk factors.

Terry Kent writes,

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

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

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

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

Reading Room use

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

Conclusion

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

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

05 September 2016

Growing a thick skin

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

Camille opening a roll

2 February 2016 - First day

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

3 February 2016 – Meeting the team

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

9 March 2016 - My first parchment challenge

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

Using a conservation pencil  Cover released and ready for treatment

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

Before treatment

After treatment

The book spine before and after treatment.

18 May 2016 - A big project!

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

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

Detail 20 pages cut off 

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

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

Manuscript with 45 degree opening  Disbinding the manuscript

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

2 June 2016 – A wall of rolls

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

A wall of rolls

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

26 July 2016 – Half way already!

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

To be continued…

Camille Thuet

28 April 2016

Much Ado About…Possibly Something

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

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

The Examination

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

Front cover

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

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

Detached cover

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

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

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

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

Signature page

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

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

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

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

Watermarks
Other watermarks found within the book block.

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

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

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

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

The Repairs

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusions

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

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

Flavio Marzo

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

14 March 2016

Video: The removal of linen backed paper from a silk scroll cover

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Our conservation team were recently tasked with the removal of linen backed paper (a previous repair) from the back of a silk scroll cover. An overview of the item can be found on the International Dunhuang Project website: IOL Khot S 46

Original position of silk cover

Photograph (Photo 392/27(567)) showing original position of the silk cover on the verso of the scroll before its conservation in the India Office Library, when the cover was removed and reattached on a linen backing to the recto of the scroll. 

The position of the silk cover following its conservation in the India Office Library can be seen on the IDP website and in the image below.

Verso of the scroll
Verso of the scroll showing original position of silk cover and linen backed paper attached to the scroll in the British Museum. 

The linen backed paper and silk were detached from the scroll and then the silk was removed from the linen backed paper. The rigidity of the linen backed paper and the India Office Library scroll and storage box were causing extensive damage to the painted silk.

Silk cover before conservation
The silk cover before conservation showing the curl caused by the previous repair. 

Silk cover after conservation
The silk cover following conservation. 

More about the scroll can be read here. The scroll and cover will be rehoused and re-photographed and the new images will be made available on the British Library International Dunhuang Project website.

Liz Rose, Textile Conservator

27 January 2016

Torah Mantle Conservation

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The Torah is the Hebrew Bible. Torah mantles are sometimes used to cover the Torah scrolls and are constructed in a similar way to a skirt. The ‘skirt’ has a top with two ‘holes’ and these allow the wooden scroll handles to protrude.

Construction of Torah Mantle

Construction of a Torah mantle.

Before conservation

Before conservation the front of Torah mantle OMS/Or 13027 showed degraded silk - probably caused by light damage.

During conservation
During conservation solvent activation of adhesive on conservation net was applied to the degraded silk using portable air extraction.

After conservation
Post conservation the Torah mantle now shows stabilisation of the degraded silk. This is most evident in the centre front left and right, around the pleats, and around the holes for the wooden scroll handles.

Liz Rose, Textile Conservator

03 December 2015

Magna Carta (an embroidery) - now on display at the Bodleian Library

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If you visited the British Library during summer 2015 you may have seen the 13 metre long Magna Carta Wikipedia embroidery conceived by Cornelia Parker. Commissioned by the Ruskin School of Art, the embroidery was an original piece of modern artwork to complement and enrich the British Library Magna Carta exhibition commemorating the 800th year since Magna Carta was sealed. 

On display at the British Library

On display at British Library Summer 2015

The piece was a recreation of the Wikipedia entry of Magna Carta – an interpretation of its influence in a digital era. Much of the embroidery was completed by Fine Cell Work

The stunning pictorial elements were completed by members of the Embroiderers Guild

Detail of intricate embroidery

Detail of intricate embroidery

Smaller sections were embroidered by named individuals, some notable, Germaine Greer, Alan Rusbridger, Mary Beard to name a few. Others less so – the British Library Head of Conservation, for example, who was privileged to embroider the hallowed words ‘British Library’.

Mid-way through embroidery
Mid-way through embroidery on the Head of Conservation’s desk, December 2014.

Piecing together the many individually embroidered sections and making it ready for display was completed by the Royal School of Needlework (RSN).  Final touches were completed in the conservation studio at the library by the RSN. A 13 metre long textile was an unusual sight in our studios but given the variety of the British Library's collections, including textiles, nothing fazes us.

Final touches

Final touches are made prior to display

Detail of the reverse

Detail of the reverse of the embroidery

Sadly the British Library had to say goodbye to the embroidery in late July and it travelled to Manchester for a period of display at the Whitworth Art gallery. Yet the project remains a particular favourite in British Library Conservation from recent years, probably because we assisted in the creation of something new – a departure from our usual line of work.

If you have not had a chance to see this fascinating artwork you can now see it at the Bodleian Library in Oxford for a limited period.

Cordelia Rogerson, Head of Conservation