THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Collection Care blog

7 posts categorized "Research collaboration"

24 July 2017

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

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Zoë Miller and Peter Toth

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

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

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

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

Ownership note

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

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

Original spineTight opening

Original spine and tight opening in Egerton MS 2516.

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

Damaged foliosCut marks

Damaged folios and cut marks in Egerton MS 2516.

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

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

Removing sewing

Removing sewing from Egerton MS 2516.

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

Quotation

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

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

Chemical damage

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

Multi-spectral imaging

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

The treatment proposal had two clear aims: 

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

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

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

New guard structure

New guard structure.

New flat opening

New flat opening.

New binding

New binding.

Gold finishing

Gold finishing on Egerton MS 2516.

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

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

03 February 2017

Job opportunity: Conservator – Adam Matthew Digitisation Project

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Full Time, Fixed Term Contract to 31 March 2018

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

Cover is going to be reattached to text block

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

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

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

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

31 January 2017

PhD placement opportunity: Textiles in the British Library

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Textiles are a numerous but perhaps unexpected part of the collections at the British Library. These intriguing and delicate items require careful storage, handling and conservation to preserve them for the future. Since the British Library’s first Textile Conservator was appointed in January 2015, hundreds of textiles have been discovered within the Library’s collections. These range from fabric covers for Torah scrolls and silk escape maps of Berlin, to a Japanese children’s book resembling a baby in a sleeping bag and Captain Cook’s book containing samples of bark cloth from the South Pacific Islands.

Textiles

This first textile-focused PhD placement presents an opportunity to gain insight into a relatively new area of the Library’s work and contribute to raising the profile of a currently less well-known part of the collections. Working alongside the Textile Conservator, Liz Rose, the placement student will be responsible for completing an internal database of textiles in the
British Library collections. This will involve working with curators across collections to view textile items, photograph them and input their details into the database using the Library’s shelfmark conventions. In addition, there will be opportunities for the student to write blog posts about newly-identified textile items for the Library’s blogs and other public platforms.

During the three-month placement (or part-time equivalent), the student will be a full member of the Conservation Team and will have the chance to assist with holding public tours and events in the conservation centre and with preparing textile items for exhibition displays or external loans. As well as developing specialist knowledge of a wide range of textiles and their conservation needs, the placement thus offers a chance to gain transferable skills in event management and public engagement.

The placement would suit PhD students with an interest in textiles from a range of disciplinary backgrounds. The main requirement is the ability to keep clear and consistent records, and strong IT skills. Training in the handling of fragile textile items, the Library’s subject-specific naming conventions, as well as an induction to the textile collections and to the wider work of
the British Library Centre for Conservation will be provided at the beginning of the placement.

View a detailed placement profile.

Application guidelines

For full application guidelines and profiles of the other placements offered under this scheme, visit the Library’s Research Collaboration webpages. The application deadline is 20 February 2017. For any queries about this placement opportunity, please contact research.development@bl.uk.

A note to interested applicants

This is an unpaid professional development opportunity, which is open to current (or very recent) PhD researchers only. To apply, you need to have the approval of your PhD supervisor and your department’s Graduate Tutor (or equivalent senior academic manager).

Our PhD placement scheme has been developed in consultation with Higher Education partners and stakeholders to provide opportunities for PhD students to develop and apply their research skills outside the university sector. Please note that the Library itself is not able to provide payment to placement students, nor can it provide costs for daily commuting or relocation to the site of the placement. Anyone applying for a placement at the Library
is expected to consult their university or Doctoral Training Partnership/Doctoral Training Centre to ascertain what funding is available to support them. The Library strongly recommends to universities that a PhD student given approval to undertake a placement is in receipt of a stipend for the duration of the placement.

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

 

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.

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