THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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

10 May 2019

All sewn up: British Library colleagues work together to ensure the survival of 100 embroidered and textile bookbindings

Mary

Mary Horrell, Conservation Support Assistant, and Mark Oxtoby, Collection Care Workflow Coordinator

Ever wondered how centuries old textiles have endured whilst today’s t-shirt only lasts a season? Library colleagues from different departments have been working together to develop new ways to protect fragile embroidered and textile bookbindings.

The Felbrigge Psalter’s decorative 14c covers (pictured below) are the oldest known examples of English embroidery on a book and a prime example of the type of binding this project is working to protect. 

Felbrigge

Felbrigge Psalter

Although faded with areas of lost stitching the design is clearly visible. Luxury bookbindings like this have covers of fragile silk, satin, and velvet and are often decorated with pearls, sequins and gold and silver embroidery threads, all of which may require different approaches to conservation but should all be stored in a similar way.

The project to re-box collection items with ‘at risk’ embroidered and textile bookbindings has been ongoing since 2016 and has involved colleagues from various teams including; Conservation, Western Heritage Collections, Basements, Collection Care North and Reader and Reference Services.

Prayer book

C.108.aa.7: 17c English prayer book.  The design has a stunning trompe l’oeil effect which can still be seen despite the loose threads.  The spine piece has also been lost.

The first step of the project involved Maddy Smith, Curator Printed Heritage Collections, and Philippa Marks, Curator Bookbindings, selecting around 100 bindings which needed attention and preparing a preservation bid. Traditionally these items were boxed to resemble leather bindings on a library shelf, stored in sometimes abrasive slipcases, or in tight drop-back boxes lined with woollen fabric.

Maddy Smith

Maddy Smith (left) and Philippa Marks (right) reviewing some embroidered bindings.

Philippa says: ‘The Library’s collection of textile bookbindings is so rich that the problem regarding selection was not what to include, but what to exclude! An important first step was to identify the books which had been boxed in the past or were not protected at all. Boxing provided an effective and practical solution historically, but we now know some elements of the construction can put bindings at risk. Today conservators have a choice of modern materials, all of which have been tested by Paul Garside, Conservation Scientist, and will remain stable and protect the textile and embroidered surfaces’.

Zoom in

C.183.aa.6: enlargement of 16c English binding shows red and green embroidery threads, metallic coils and sequins which have oxidised (blackened).

At this point it was down to the Library’s Textile Conservator Liz Rose to devise storage solutions to protect these fragile bindings. Liz was invited to attend an embroidered books rehousing workshop at the Herzogin Anna Amelia Bibliothek in Weimar, Germany, where conservators from Germany, France and Austria discussed storage and handling solutions for these delicate structures to both prolong their lifecycle and enable access.

Liz says: ‘It was a privilege to be the only textile conservator invited to attend the workshop. The organiser, Jonah Marenlise Hölscher, from the Anna Amelia Bibliothek had visited St Pancras in early 2016.’

Late 16thc

C.23.a.26: enlargement of late 16c binding design comprising pearls.

Following this workshop Liz pursued her idea of using standard sized phase boxes (these are archival storage boxes) lined with Plastazote®. The new boxes were made by Mark Oxtoby, Collection Care Workflow Coordinator in Boston Spa and then lined with removable Plastazote®, a type of foam. The bookbindings were wrapped in Bondina® (a smooth polyester tissue used for conservation).

Embroidery

C.65.k.9; enlargement of centrepiece of 16c Italian embroidered prayer book.

During the following period Liz and her colleague Mary Horrell, Conservation Support Assistant, consulted with colleagues from other Library departments to ensure that the change from 18c methods to the new approach was approved by all. Prototype phase boxes and bespoke inserts were constructed.

Peter Roberts, Basement 2 Manager, says: ‘The main consideration from the Operations side was how much extra storage space and what sort of storage would be needed when the items returned in expanded, padded boxes.'

‘We got an estimation of the expected dimensions, numbers and configuration of the new boxes from BLCC. We have begun moving four ranges of Case books (rare printed books) to provide enough shelf space to accommodate the new boxes and to ensure each item can be safely shelved. We recently attended a demonstration of the padded boxes so I will be able to brief my team on how to assemble the boxes and what to look out for if any parts go missing/get damaged with use.’

Wear

C.130.a.11; note the wear around the edges of the velvet covers of this 17c Danish binding and the raised decoration (called stump work).  The clasps (in the shape of a face) would cause damage to neighbouring books if not boxed.

The consultation stage of the project is now almost complete and a collection handling morning has taken place where Liz and Mary demonstrated the new storage solution to colleagues across the Library.

Philippa concludes: ‘I was so impressed by the way colleagues worked together, each using their individual skills and experience to ensure that these items, some of them 400 years old, last another 400 years ... at least!’

French binding

G.6319 19c French binding by Louis Janet. Enlargement shows the raised nap on the velvet covers at risk of abrasion.

09 April 2019

Consider the cover: conserving a Chinese book

The British Library's next major exhibition, Writing: Making Your Mark, opens 26 April and runs until 27 August 2019. In preparation for the exhibition, conservator Rebecca D'Ambrosio has been working on the conservation of one of the items which will be on display.

The story of a book through its binding

What does the cover and structure tell us about the story, provenance, use and journey of a book? Do they add value to the information it contains? The history of book binding has gone hand in hand with the history of writing. So, what happens if a covering is changed? Has anything been lost or gained? These are some of the questions we ask ourselves as conservators as we try to understand a book and consider how best to repair it.

Lost binding Chinese and Western book

The lost original binding: A Chinese and Western book

The book, titled Zi bu ji jie (Explanation of the Radicals of Chinese characters), introduces the concept of how Chinese writing works. It was made in a Chinese style binding in Macao, China in 1840, commissioned by an American man, Issachar Jacox Roberts as a gift for Walter Medhurst who was translating the bible into Chinese at the time.

IJ Roberts Roberts title

The broken second binding: The British Library style

Many years ago the book was dis-bound from its Chinese-style binding and re-bound into a Western-style binding. The disadvantages of this binding are that it does not respect its original opening direction from right to left, it deforms the structure of the book and new sewing holes were made in the process.

In addition to all this, the western-style binding has become worn around all edges and the back board of the cover is detached.

New conservation binding

The new conservation binding: Sympathetic to its origins

Rather than repairing the back board, it was decided with the Curator that this was an opportunity to return the book to a style of binding similar to its original.

Firstly, the spine was removed and the adhesive below was softened with the application of wheat starch paste. The Chinese book was now free of the Western binding but the remaining adhesive residue prevented the separation of the pages.

Binding tears Binding separation
Separation of binding
The tears and losses in the cover were repaired and the spine strengthened with a toned Japanese tissue paper and wheat starch.

RepairsJapanese paper repairs

Finally, because of the fragility of the book, new covers of a neutral-coloured Japanese paper were added, folded in the same way as the rest of the textblock pages. The whole was sewn together with linen thread re-using its original sewing holes and following the traditional Chinese binding pattern.

Adding to the story of a book

As conservators, knowledge of the history of the book format inspires every conservation treatment we carry out. We must take into consideration how our decisions will impact aesthetics, use and durability, historical aspect, value and significance. Every treatment will have a certain degree of impact on a book and adds to its story.

It was exciting to return this Chinese book to its original style, and learn more about its story as I added to it. Soon you will be able to see this book for yourself on display in the exhibition ‘Writing: Making your Mark’.

Rebecca D'Ambrosio

25 February 2019

British Sign Language Tours at the British Library Centre for Conservation

The British Library Centre for Conservation offers a number British Sign Language (BSL) tours during the course of the year. The next tour is on Wednesday 13 March at 2.00pm.
You can book your tickets from the box office +44 (0)1937 546546, by contacting the
boxoffice@bl.uk, or by following this link: https://www.bl.uk/events/conservation-studios-guided-tour-with-bsl

Ticket information: Full Price: £6.00 and Carers go free, other concessions may be available.

This tour leaves from the main information desk at 2pm. Please be aware that there is a considerable amount of walking and standing as the tour lasts for approximately 70 minutes.

Deaf tours

Wayne, BSL interpreter and Roger, Book and Paper Conservator. Image © British Library Board

Things to remember:
- Bags and coats cannot be taken into the BLCC but can be left in the Conservation Manager’s secure office
- Unfortunately, the tour is not suitable for children under 12
- There will be another tour on Wednesday 11 September at 2pm – information will be available on https://www.bl.uk/events/conservation-studios-guided-tour