Collection Care blog

Behind the scenes with our conservators and scientists

Introduction

Discover how we care for the British Library’s Collections by following our expert team of conservators and scientists. We take you behind the scenes into the Centre for Conservation and the Scientific Research Lab to share some of the projects we are working on. Read more

19 July 2021

Conservation of Thurloe’s State Papers

You may have seen a recent conversation sparked by one of our ‘Before and After’ conservation posts on the Library’s main social media channels. This may have got you wondering how conservators decide on the best treatment methods for collection items. In this blog we are going to dive deeper into the treatment of the volumes pictured in the Before and After images, giving further insight into the many considerations a conservator makes when treating an item.

Conservators at the British Library have to balance the future use of the book with the preservation of historic evidence. In a working library like ours, books are used by readers and our treatments must take this into account. The set of manuscript volumes pictured in the recent social media post are an example of this decision-making process and posed an interesting yet familiar conservation challenge.

The Thurloe State Papers volumes I-VII date back to 1742 and arrived in our conservation studio in poor condition. Each book exhibited similar degrees of damage and deterioration including detached boards, loss of endbands, severely degraded leather on the spines, splits in the textblock with damage to the sewing structure, and very worn and abraded boards.

These are highly requested collection items, and without thorough treatment would no longer be available for reference. Enabling access to readers is one of the BL’s core purposes and our Conservation department works hard to facilitate public access to our national heritage by ensuring that our books are in good condition in order to be handled and read without risk of further damage to the bindings. 

 

The seven volumes photographed with their textblocks (rather than spines) facing us. The pages have a marbled appearance and six of the seven books have cotton string holding the books together.
Thurloe's State Papers Vols I-VII prior to conservation. All the volumes had detached boards with severely damaged edges and corners. In this condition they cannot be issued to readers.
A birds eye view of the top of the books' textblocks.
The top of the volumes showing ingrained dirt on the textblock and the loss of all the leather headcaps and silk endbands apart from a few remaining fragments.

 

Planning a conservation treatment involves a complex range of considerations from different fields including material and chemical science, preservation, historical context, value, ethics as well as the suitability of practical techniques and available time and resources. 

We follow a Code of Ethics which helps inform the process and to ensure that we are asking the right questions. Conservators use their professional judgement in combination with discussions with curators about the context of the items within the Library's historic collections and so it is a collaborative approach.

The most common form of damage that we find in Library collections is board detachment. This prevents books from being issued to readers due to the risk of damage to the textblock or loss of material.  There are a variety of causes of detached boards, including ageing of materials and general wear and tear from use.

Because a book is a physical object with moving parts, the action of opening and closing the boards can put a strain along the joint area, which can cause the covering material and sewing supports to break - resulting in detachment of the boards. 

There are various techniques used to reattach book boards.  Often, a volume needs to be 'rebacked' as part of the process of reattaching the boards; repairs are made to the textblock, sewing structure and endpapers and then new spine coverings are applied and carefully inserted under the existing leather on the boards. This process necessitates the removal of the existing spine coverings as it is often the case that strong and durable repairs cannot be undertaken without access to the spine of the volume.

An ideal conservation treatment would involve the re-use of original material wherever possible in order to minimise any aesthetic change to the item. When rebacking volumes it is our practice to, where appropriate, reattach the original spine pieces back onto the new spine. This retains the visual appearance of the book whilst providing a strong and durable repair. However, if the original material is too degraded to be reattached to the book - as in the case of the Thurloe State Papers - we need to consider other options.

 

An up-close images of the spine showing 'vol 1' on red leather and designs in gold.
The original spine leather was degraded and worn away with splits and cracks around the raised sewing supports as well as up and down the spine.
A close-up of the bottom of a spine of one of the volumes showing wear and tear.
Many of the endbands and headcaps were missing on all seven volumes. 

 

As you can see from the close-up photograph, the original spine leather was very thin, degraded and fragmented. It was also adhered directly onto the spinefolds of the textblock paper as part of the 'tightback' binding structure making them very difficult to remove intact due to their fragility.

If we did reattach these spine panel fragments they would, in a very short time, wear away through use and be completely lost to researchers now and in the future.  So whilst we couldn’t reuse the spine panels, we did carefully remove and store them with the collection item. This way, they are preserved along with the bindings for future reference.

 

The spine fragments have been placed on a piece of card and sealed in a polyester sleeve for protection.
The remaining spine fragments were too fragile to be reattached and have been stored with each volume in its protective box.

 

Sometimes ‘Before and After’ photographs can look like quite a dramatic change to the object, but in this case only the spines of these volumes required replacement. The original boards were reused even though they were severely damaged.  The worn-down board corners were rebuilt and re-covered in new leather. Along the exposed and abraded board edges, the original leather was carefully lifted and new leather inserted underneath in order to preserve as much of the gold tooled edge decoration as possible.

 

A close-up of the edge of a board.
An example of the damaged board corners prior to conservation.
A close-up of the edge of a board after repair--new leather has ben added.
Board corners after rebuilding and covering with archival calf leather.
A side of one volume showing the gold tooling in tact.
Where the board edges were exposed, new leather was carefully inserted underneath the existing leather whilst retaining the gold tooled edge decoration.

 

The materials used in our conservation treatments are selected for their proven archival qualities, strength and durability.  Materials such as linen fabric and threads, handmade paper and wheat starch paste have been long used in traditional bookbinding, as is the ‘rebacking’ process of covering spines with new leather or cloth and decorating with gold leaf.

Whilst considering how to carry out the finishing on the Thurloe State Papers, it was decided to use a simplified version of the gold leaf lettering and decoration. This was partly because we do not have the historic finishing tools used by the original binder to be able to replicate the decoration exactly.  Secondly, this hand craft is highly skilled and very time-consuming - and we have to justify the amount of time spent on decorating individual volumes when there are so many other books needing conservation in the Library.

 

An image of the spine following conservation.
Spine of Volume 1 following conservation treatment
An image focusing on the left board.
Left board of Volume 1 following conservation treatment

 

Conservators take great care to match the colours of new materials added so that they appear sympathetic to the existing material. In this case, the new spine labels were made of red leather and even the endband threads dyed to match the originals.

 

Endband sewing is in progress here, with a needle and orange thread being pushed through in a green, orange, green, orange thread pattern.
Primary endbands were sewn in plain linen thread followed by secondary endbands in silk, dyed pink and green to match the original thread found in the volumes.
The orange and green endband is complete.
The completed endband.

 

We enjoyed reading the range of comments these Before and After photos inspired. It’s great to see that so many people care about the preservation of historical books - and the range of comments show that not only that there are a huge number of factors to weigh up in making treatment decisions, but also that several different approaches could be used to achieve a similar outcome.

Conservators have to consider that books are mechanical objects, not just historic artefacts, and have moving parts that need to function in conjunction with each other in order for the book to be used. This is often dependent on the construction materials and methods used and is one of many other factors, such as historical context and the status of the object, which are taken into consideration when planning conservation treatments at the British Library.

If readers are interested in learning more about books as 'dynamic objects', there was a recent Institute of Conservation talk about this very subject, which you can watch on the Icon YouTube channel.

Keep an eye out for an upcoming blog post which will discuss more broadly the varying approaches to conservation decision-making in the Library’s Conservation department.

 

Volume I after treatment showing the new spine and one of the boards.
One of seven volumes of Thurloe's State Papers now fully conserved and able to be accessed in our Reading Rooms.

 

 

Vicky West ACR, Book Conservator

Nicole Monjeau, Preventive Conservator

03 June 2021

Iron gall ink on paper: Saving the words that eat themselves

Paul Garside & Zoë Miller

Iron gall ink (IGI) will be familiar to most of us as the characteristic brown ink that we associate with the authenticity and softly aged aesthetic of historic documents.  It is the most important writing and drawing ink in Western culture, initially emerging in the first centuries AD and continuing in widespread use until the 20th century.  Many thousands of examples of its use on both parchment and paper can be found in the British Library’s historic collections, ranging from Treasures and other important items, such as the Codex Sinaiticus, the Lindisfarne Gospels, Magna Carta, manuscripts penned by Henry VIII and the works of famous diarists such as John Evelyn, to more commonplace letters, notes, musical scores and records. And IGI documents will form a vital part of our forthcoming exhibition Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens .

Figure 1: Three sheets of paper with dark brown iron gall ink.  The ink on the opposite sides of the papers is starting to show through.

[Figure 1] An example of IGI on paper (Walpole Papers 73898).

However, IGI may damage the surface on which it is written, and paper is at particular risk, leading to characteristic haloing, fragility, fracturing and areas of loss. It has been estimated that up to 80% of European archives contain items at significant risk of this problem. The potential to cause damage has been known for a long time: in 1765 the English chemist William Lewis published a treatise on the stability of IGI, and over one hundred years ago the Vatican Library warned about the impending destruction of many precious manuscripts from the effect.  However, the ink remained popular, not least for its durability and permanence (it adheres firmly to the substrate, and resists rubbing and washing, unlike carbon inks), but also because it was easy and cheap to make, using a wide variety of historic recipes.  Most recipes are based around four principal components: gallic acid, derived from oak galls; iron(II) sulphate (often referred to as green vitriol); water or an aqueous medium; and a binding agent, such as gum Arabic.  When these ingredients are mixed, the acid and the iron sulphate react together then oxidise to form iron(III) gallate, which is strongly coloured; the ink is typically a dark slate grey when first formed, turning brown or orange as it ages.

Figure 2: A magnified image of iron gall ink on paper, lit from the back, showing dark haloing around the text and areas of loss from regions of heavy ink.

[Figure 2] The effects of IGI corrosion.

Why does this ink cause damage? There are two main, interlinked processes. Sulphuric acid is a by-product of the reaction which creates the ink, and this can lead to hydrolysis of the cellulose that forms the building blocks of paper. Excess iron(II) ions, from the initial ingredients, can also speed up the oxidative degradation of cellulose. In conjunction, these two effects are often referred to as IGI corrosion, and in extreme cases inked lines can actually crack and drop out of the paper surface. We have found that imbalanced recipes and impure ingredients can complicate the aging process and damaging properties of these inks, resulting in wide visual differences. The Instituut Collectie Nederland (ICN) has developed a four level system to categorise the damage caused by IGI , from 1 to 4 ('good' to 'very poor' condition), as shown in these examples from the BL's collection:

Figure 3: The four ICN condition levels, illustrated with examples from the British Library’s collection.

[Figure 3] The condition of IGI on paper: 1 (good condition - no/light discoluration and stable to handle); 2 (fair condition - dark discolouration around ink, with no immediate mechanical damage, but this could result from handling); 3 (poor condition - some mechanical damage around ink, and handling is likely to cause more damage); 4 (very poor condition - serious loss of substance, which will be exacerbated by handling).

Historically, treatments for paper documents suffering from IGI corrosion were much more invasive than would now be considered acceptable, including processes such as lamination, simmering or aggressive de-acidification.  Greater understanding of the material and developments in conservation science have allowed a more tailored, less invasive range of options. For some documents, aqueous treatments will be the most appropriate choice: the items are immersed in a calcium phytate solution, to bind and isolate damaging iron(II) ions, accompanied by gentle de-acidification, to remove existing acids and provide an alkaline reserve.  For other documents, low moisture repairs (using gelatine adhesive, which resists IGI attack as well as providing mechanical stabilisation) or the more conventional support of physical damage will be better choices.  The following chart gives an overview of our thought-processes when considering the best approach; we developed it to help visualise the process and explain our decision-making to colleagues.  As can be seen, we would consider a wide range of factors, including:

  • The state of the IGI and the damage it has caused, assessed using the ICN categorisation.
  • The overall condition of the item, taking into account any signs of damage to its composition or structure, the presence of vulnerable components such as water-sensitive materials, and its general stability and ease of handling.
  • Our 'risk appetite' for the item.  This represents our willingness to accept risks when treating the object, and is related to factors such as cultural value, historic significance and rarity. This would obviously be very low for Treasures items, but even with objects assigned a higher risk appetite, we would not act recklessly or without planning – we may, however, be willing to consider more interventive or extensive treatments to enable the item to be more widely accessed.

Figure 4: A flowchart indicating the decision-making process for the treatment of iron gall ink on paper.

[Figure 4] Decision-making for the treatment of IGI on paper.

This scheme is not prescriptive, however, and each object would be assessed and treated on its own merits. Furthermore, sometimes the best conservation decision is to carry out no treatment at all, and in all cases our work is underpinned by good preventive conservation, in the form of appropriate storage, suitable environmental conditions and sympathetic handling.

Figure 5: A British Library conservator carrying out immersion treatment of a paper manuscript with iron gall ink.

[Figure 5] Aqueous treatment of poor condition IGI on paper, in the BL’s conservation studio.

Many thanks to the Thriplow Charitable Trust for supporting this research.

05 May 2021

Conservation for Digitisation: A collaboration with the Palestinian Museum

Amy Baldwin, Book Conservator & Jessica Pollard, Digitisation Conservator

In April and May 2019 we had the pleasure of welcoming two members of staff from the Palestinian Museum, Baha Jubeh, Conservation Manager and Bara Bawatneh, Conservator, to the British Library as part of a collaborative Conservation for Digitisation project funded by the Cultural Protection Fund administered by the British Council. Over a six week period we carried out training in conservation methods specifically for digitisation to assist in the successful completion of the project, the aims of which were:

  1. To establish the first paper-based conservation studio in the West Bank
  2. Training and capacity building for staff from the Palestinian Museum
  3. Conservation and Preservation of 3000 paper-based endangered collection items
  4. Education and advocacy activities

 

Picture 1: Welcoming Baha and Bara to the British Library Centre for Conservation. Left to right Baha Jubeh, Roly Keating, Bara Bawatneh, Amy Baldwin, Jessica Pollard, Cecile Communal

[Picture 1: Welcoming Baha and Bara to the British Library Centre for Conservation. Left to right Baha Jubeh, Roly Keating, Bara Bawatneh, Amy Baldwin, Jessica Pollard, Cecile Communal]

The relatively short time period but large amount of information to cover meant an intensive and busy six weeks were spent in the conservation studios. Our priority was to equip them with the necessary skills to complete the project while keeping intervention to a minimum, and although we had to be realistic with the timescale we also needed to be flexible to adapt to their specific needs. The training schedule included, but was not limited to, an introduction to paper conservation; the practicalities of setting up a conservation studio; mould identification and remediation; and developing an understanding of the end-to-end digitisation process.  Time spent with colleagues from imaging and curatorial departments, as well as trips to Windsor Castle and The National Archives conservation studios, complemented this practical training and gave further insight into the complexities of digitisation projects.

Picture 2: Bara carrying out repairs to a manuscript

[Picture 2: Bara carrying out repairs to a manuscript]

Picture 3: Bara and Baha being introduced to a selection of Arabic collection items by curator Daniel Lowe and head of Asian and African Collections Luisa Mengoni

[Picture 3: Bara and Baha being introduced to a selection of Arabic collection items by curator Daniel Lowe and head of Asian and African Collections Luisa Mengoni]

We made a return visit to the Palestinian Museum in Birzeit, Ramallah in June 2019. The Museum is housed in a stunning award-winning building surrounded by gardens which illustrate the history of agriculture and plants in Palestine, and the paper conservation studio is the first of its kind on the West Bank. At the time of our visit the conservation focus was on the Museum’s Digital Archive project, which digitised thousands of paper items from endangered collections belonging to small institutions and private individuals. These items were loaned to the Museum for the duration of the digitisation process. Many had been kept in private homes for many years, and the condition varied from a light layer of surface dirt to large tears and water damage.

Picture 4: Piecing together a damaged item

[Picture 4: Piecing together a damaged item]

Three volunteers had been recruited to assist with the project, and we were able to collaborate with the Museum’s conservator in providing training for them. We only had four days together, so we had to ensure that the volunteers’ skills were utilised effectively, and we knew that the time available for them to practice their new skills before starting work on loan items would be very short. With this in mind, the volunteers’ training focused on surface cleaning, flattening and simpler paper repairs. This left the Museum’s conservator to concentrate on items with more complex damage, including photographs, which require different treatment to other paper-based items.

Picture 5: Discussing treatment options of a rolled item damaged by mould

[Picture 5: Discussing treatment options of a rolled item damaged by mould]

Picture 6: Assessment of items prior to digitisation with Bara and the three volunteers

[Picture 6: Assessment of items prior to digitisation with Bara and the three volunteers]

The final phase of the project took place in late 2020. Its focus was on those items that were classified as badly damaged and had so far been left untreated, the majority of which were bound manuscripts. Further training was required to assist in completing the treatment of these item, however the global pandemic put a stop to any hope of providing UK based in-person training so we turned our attention to what could reasonably and safely be taught virtually. The original training sessions, largely focusing on wet treatments and simple book repair methods, had to be adapted with a new emphasis on handling and imaging fragile manuscripts safely with limited conservation intervention. Using a mixture of online presentations, pre-recorded demonstration videos and digital handouts we provided training in the following: handling fragile items for digitisation; consolidation and repair of mould-damaged paper; health and safety for conservation; an introduction to book structures; separating pages adhered together; and mould remediation. With no previous experience of carrying out virtual training it was a steep learning curve, especially filming and editing our own videos, and although we had to adapt our initial training proposal and scale-down our expectations, we were incredibly pleased to be able provide training during a difficult period and assist in the completion of a complicated project, which was only made possible due to the enthusiasm, skill and determination of those at the Palestinian Museum.

Picture 7: During filming of a pre-recorded training video for the consolidation of paper

[Picture 7: During filming of a pre-recorded training video for the consolidation of paper]

Picture 8: A still from a training video showing the separation of pages adhered together due to mould damage

[Picture 8: A still from a training video showing the separation of pages adhered together due to mould damage]