Collection Care blog

Behind the scenes with our conservators and scientists


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

22 July 2024

The Mystery of Swarbreck’s Sketches in Scotland by Eloise Halliwell

This article outlines the investigation into the item ‘Swarbreck’s Sketches in Scotland’ and where the item belongs.  

On a smoky day in August 2023, Swarbreck’s Sketches in Scotland appeared on shelf 11B in the Qatar Storage Area. Nobody knew where this item came from or how it came to be on the 6th floor. The item had no content and was merely a front and back cover. Why was it in this storage area? Who put it there? Was the ghost of Swarbreck haunting the 6th floor?


This is the tale of how the mystery of Swarbeck’s Sketches in Scotland was resolved.

Following the smoke incident on the 6th floor on Tuesday 15th August 2023, all items on the floor were moved into the Qatar Storage Area and audited by the Qatar Project Library Collection Assistant’s. when it was safe to re-enter the office, the QPLCAs promptly conducted an audit of the Qatar Storage area, when a mysterious discovery was made, an item called ‘Swarbreck’s Sketches in Scotland’ which did not have a ticket, used for tracking items within the library. The item had no content and was simply the front and back cover. The LCAs first made enquiries with project colleagues enquiring within the project, it was concluded that nobody within the project knew where the item had come from or why it was in the office. No concrete evidence could be established as to how this item came to be on the 6th floor. How were they ever going to find out where it came from?

The front board of the Swarbreck volume, cover in brown leather and the title printed in gold letters "Swarbreck's Sketches in Scotland"
Img. 1: The cover of Swarbreck’s Sketches in Scotland found in the Qatar Storage Area


The first step in investigating this item and how to return it to the correct department was researching the item in consulting the online catalogue and IAMS. A breakthrough was made- it was found that an item with the name ‘Sketches in Scotland’ by S.D. Swarbreck on the temporary catalogue had two potential shelfmark entries- ‘1780.c.1’ and ‘X 1237’. ‘1780.c.1’ could have been stored in any of the 625km of shelves1 within the library, however ‘X 1237’ was clearly a map which narrowed the search to only 4.5 million maps2. 

A page of the Maps Storage Catalogue with several entries labelled "Not Found"
Img. 2: The Maps Storage Catalogue
A close up of the Maps Catalogue with "X/1230-1237 entries deleted""
Img. 3: X 1237- Deleted


Upon searching for X 1237 it was found that the item did not exist. In the paper catalogues in the Upper Ground Maps storage, the record for the item said, ‘Not found- entry deleted’. It was a dead end. These paper catalogues contain information from ‘A catalogue of manuscript and printed reports, field books, memoirs, maps, etc., of the Indian Surveys, deposited in the map room of the India office’ originally compiled by Clements Markham in 1878 and so was likely out of date.

However, the item 1780.c.1 was found in basement 2 of the library. The item was similar in size to the front and back covers in the Qatar storage area and the title matched. It was the breakthrough they had been waiting for... 

The spine of the Swarbreck volume bound in blue on the shelves inside storage
Img. 4: The other part of the Swarbreck volume


Through research and enquiring around the library, it was concluded that ‘Printed Heritage’ was the department they needed to interview for Swarbreck. Helen Peden, Lead Curator of Printed Heritage, met the LCAs and assessed the item, concluding that it belonged to the Printed Heritage Office. The covers could finally be returned to where they belonged.   

The final decision with what to do with this item was made- for the old front and back covers (found in the Qatar Project Storage Area) to be placed in an envelope with the current item, 1780.c.1, so that the items could be stored together.   

This tale is a clear example of the variety of resources in the British Library Collection and how much items move around the library. It also shows how easily an item can be lost and the importance of tracking collection items.  


Where did the item come from?  

We believe that the item may have been conserved on the 6th floor when Conservation was operating here (before the Qatar Project) however this was over 12 years ago.  

It was also theorized that it may have been relocated from one of the offices on the other side of the 6th floor from the Qatar Project, during the smoke incident.  

We do not know for certain where the item was stored on the 6th floor or how it came to be on the 6th floor. 


Who was Swarbreck?   

Samuel Dukinfield Swarbreck (fl. 1830-1865) was a painter of landscapes and townscapes and was well known for his sketches of Scotland. In 1839, he issued a folio set of 26 tinted lithographs under the title Sketches in Scotland, drawn on stone from Nature. These prints show different areas of Scotland, including busy streets in Edinburgh and the Scottish Highlands. These works represented a romantic visual representation of Scotland, with views of idyllic countryside and cityscapes.  

Swarbreck exhibited at the Royal Academy in the 1850s and 1860, exhibiting over eight artworks. His most famous work, The Bedroom of Mary, Queen of Scots, Holyrood Palace: showing the anteroom where Rizzio was dragged and murdered, and the secret staircase by which the conspirators entered was exhibited in 18563. His work is represented in institutions including the City of Edinburgh Collection, Culzean Castle and Manchester Art Gallery. 

An engraving of Samuel Dukinfield Swarbreck sitting in a chair. We see his profile, he has a wig on and his left hand supports his chin in a reflective pose. He is looking at a bust of a statue, facing forward to us, representing a bearded man.
Img. 5: Samuel Dukinfield Swarbreck (fl. 1830-1865)


An engraving of the porch of what looks like a church, with high decorated walls. This is a close up of the entrance and the words "Skecthes in Scotland" are written on the door
Img. 6: The inside cover of ‘Swarbreck’s Sketches in Scotland



1.  Jeremy Norman, ‘Maybe the British Library is the World’s Largest Physical Library’, Jeremy Norman’s History of Information, 2005 <Maybe the British Library is the World's Largest Physical Library : History of Information> [accessed 28thMarch 2024]

2. A bit about map collections - Maps and views blog 

3. Calton Gallery - Samuel Dukinfield Swarbreck (fl. 1830-1865) 



05 October 2023

A day in the life of a book conservator

Last month we launched a fundraising appeal to raise vital funds for our conservation work. Discover how donations will support the work of people like Roger, one of our specialist conservators.

What does a day in your life look like, Roger?

There are over 170 million collection items at the Library so each day is different and no books are the same every week.

I usually spend five hours a day working on items. The rest of my time includes discussing solutions to solve problems on items and attending Topic Talks where my colleagues in conservation share their skills or give presentations.

I love the variation. For example, I recently started writing condition reports for exhibition items that go on display. This includes some photography and making notes of existing wear and tear on books.

How long does it take to conserve a book?

Something like rebinding a book could take 45 hours or more. This includes removing old glue from the spine, pulling out text block sections and resewing the binding. Any extra work like washing acidic paper, a type of paper which was widely used from the 1900s which turns yellow and brittle over time, adds hours of work. The greater the damage is on a book, the more work is involved.

What’s the biggest transformation you’ve made on a collection item?

These are my favourite pictures of my bookbinding work. It’s a Sale Catalogue by Southgate Auction Rooms from the 1800s which was in a very poor condition with both covers detached from the pages. The first two pictures show the item before treatment and the third shows the reattached spine and binding.

Spine and cover detached from book Bookspine2 Repaired book spine.

I’ve done many transformations on books, large and small, and these pictures show how a damaged item can get a new lease of life through conservation.

What are some of the challenges you face in conserving an item?

As a conservator, you need to be patient. I remember working on a newspaper with very weak acidic papers. You can see how brittle papers like these are in the picture of the fragments below.

I had to be careful to handle the item as when I lifted it, part of the newspaper cracked and fell off. I managed to restore it with Japanese tissue and wheat starch paste to re-enforce the strength of the paper. This treatment should extend the life of these newspapers so that they can be safely handled, which would not be possible without intervention.

Paper fragments in a plastic bag.

What’s an area you’d love to learn more about?

Cutting tools are really important for bookbinding. It’s important that they remain sharp so that you can cut and trim paper with precision. A book looks much better with nice trimming so I would love to learn more about knife and scissor sharpening, like how to sharpen French paring knives in the correct way.

What’s your favourite thing about working in conservation?

That you are always learning. Every day, I’m gaining more knowledge about all kinds of bookbinding materials and the different skills involved in bringing items back to life.

How to support Roger’s work

As a charity, donations help us make the most of our conservators’ incredible knowledge and talent for their craft.

By making a gift today, you could help Roger and his colleagues deepen their expertise through specialist training, helping them find new ways of bringing books back to life.

Visit to donate now or find out more.

06 July 2023

Taking the British Library by Storm Scott

In September 2022, I began a yearlong internship at The British Library in the conservation department. Prior to this I studied general conservation at Lincoln University, and whilst I enjoyed learning about all types of materials, once I started treating paper objects I knew that I had found my passion, and hopefully my future career.

My studies took place during the Covid-19 lockdowns, so my access to hands on conservation was limited. Entry-level conservation jobs often require a minimum of two years practical experience post training, so finding this internship felt something like a blessing. During my yearlong internship, I have been learning from expert preventive conservators, object, textile, book and paper conservators in a fully equipped conservation studio. This blog post will give an overview of my time spent during the first six months of my internship, beginning with the Exhibitions and Loans team, and then on the long-term bids team.

A view of the main studio of the British Library Centre for Conservation, showing the large space with high ceiling and natural light. There are many workbenches covered with conservation tools and equipment, including a large book press in the foreground.
Img. 1: The BLCC purpose built main studio


Exhibitions and Loans 

The Exhibition and Loans (E&L) team within conservation deal with the treatment and condition checking of objects that have been requested for upcoming exhibitions, either internally at the BL or externally at other lending institutions, including touring exhibitions.

Condition checking and documentation is crucial to the culture of institutions loaning each other objects as record of the exact nature and degree of all damage is important to show that an object has not been further damaged during transit or display. I started on the Exhibitions and Loans team during the install of the Alexander Exhibition, where I was able to watch loan items from other institutions arrive, and to see how different conservators at a variety of institutions described and highlighted different types of damage. I also had the opportunity to assess and record the condition of individual items going out on loan and an entire touring exhibition on its return to the Library. This allowed me to familiarise myself with the specialist vocabulary used in book conservation, the various book structures, and the common types of damage.

I have learnt that putting together an exhibition is a truly collaborative process. During the install many different departments work together to ensure that the final exhibition is educational, contains the most relevant and beautiful objects, is enjoyable for visitors but above all that the objects remain safe, stable and undamaged. The E&L team play a massive role in this: they decide which items are in good enough condition to be displayed, undertake any necessary conservation treatments and decide how best to display objects.

I also worked on the Chinese and British exhibition; I mounted many flat items for display, learning various techniques that ensure each object is displayed at its best whilst being appropriately supported.

Hand-drawn and labelled map, drawn in black ink on beige paper. The map has been mounted onto cream mount board using v-hinges, a mounting technique allowing the hinges to not be visible from the recto. The map is slightly dirty and a previous repair is visible to the bottom right corner but the map is in a good condition.
Img. 2: ink on paper map mounted with V-hinge technique so the hinges aren’t visible
Img. 3 mounted
Img. 3: ink on paper flat work mounted using Melinex corners and sides for additional support

In addition to mounting objects for internal exhibitions I also treated items for internal and external exhibitions, focusing on damage that could increase whilst in transit or on display or aesthetic damage to the display opening. The following are examples of items I have treated for exhibitions and loans.

The front board of volume 10880.d.27 prior to treatment, a half bound green leather volume with marbled paper covers. The leather is in poor condition, it has degraded completely in some areas – the spine the spine has a fluffy texture and large pieces are at risk to flake off it. The board corners are visible and the bottom board corner is scraped. There is also a tear between the spine and the front board at the top edge.
Img. 4: Volume 10880.d.27 before treatment
The front board of volume 10880.d.27 post treatment. The board corners have been covered with Japanese tissue toned to match the leather. The leather has been consolidated darkening the leather but making it stronger. The tear between the spine and the front board has also been repaired using a small piece of leather inserted underneath the spine leather.
Img. 5: Volume 10880.d.27 after treatment, including binding repair, leather consolidation and covering board corners
The head edge of volume 1258.k.5 before treatment. The paper is flaking off the board edges, with areas of complete loss where the board is showing. The leather is very worn at the spine edge and flaking off. The board corners are also bent and starting to delaminate.
Img. 6: Volume 1258.k.5 pre-treatment
The head edge of volume 1258.k.5 after treatment. The covering paper has been re-adhered to the board edges, though the areas of loss where the board is visible remain. The leather has been consolidated. The board corners have been repaired, though the right board corner is still slightly bent.
Img. 7: Volume 1258.k.5 post-treatment: consolidating leather and covering material, repairing delaminating board corners


Long-term bids

In the long-term bids team I have been lucky enough to have three different mentors with varied backgrounds leading to their slightly different areas of knowledge and expertise. This has been an amazing way of learning as I get to see a wider range of treatments and processes and different ways of approaching similar problems. I have learnt that there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to conservation, each book is unique and various materials both deteriorate and respond to repairs differently. I explored which approach suited me best and chose the best method and materials for the treatment of every object. I have been able to learn and develop a wide variety of skills this way: tear repairs on flat works, books and scrolls; many applications for different gels; toning tissue; paring, toning  and consolidating leather; repairing board corners; binding repairs; sewing sections of a text block; sewing endbands; removing spine linings and more.  However, for the purpose of this blog I will detail the treatment of 118.e.5, and how I was able to develop the skills required for each treatment step.

Volume 118.e.5 in a wooden book press, with boards protected by just visible mount board on either side, sits atop a studio bench. The spine is upright with the tail-edge in the fore ground so that the endband is visible. The endband is partially detached and hanging by a thread.
Img. 8: Volume 118.e.5 pre-treatment

The tail endband had become partially detached and the endband and spine were dirty. I began with surface cleaning to improve the appearance and to ensure repair materials would adhere sufficiently.

I attended a gels course run by three British Library conservators where I learnt how to make a variety of gels at different concentrations and experiment with their suggested applications.

A variety of gels in individual marked plastic sealed bags sit in rows on top a sheet of Tyvek on top of a trolley. From left to right these gels are: Agarose 2%, agarose 3%, agarose 5%, agarose 10%, agar 2%, agar 3%, agar 5%, agar 10%, LA gellan 1%, LA gellan 1.5%, LA gellan 2%, LA gellan 2.5%, 30:20 xantham:konjac 1%, 50:50 xantham:Konjac, nanorestore peggy 5, peggy gum, nanorestore peggy 6 and Nevek 4.5%.
Img. 9: The different gels tested during the gels course
A sheet of paper lies on a piece of Tyvek with different types of stains: tea, coffee, biro pen, ink, permanent marker and Evacon adhesive. Different gels are being tested on each of these stains, some with a barrier layer of Bondina some without, some with a glass weight on top and some without.
Img. 10: experimenting with a variety of gels to reduce different types of stains
Volume 118.e.5 is held in a wooden book press, protected by mount board on either side. The left board and the spine are visible, including the partially exposed text block at the bottom edge and the endband which is only attached at the right side. The endband is covered in a layer of Konjac and Xantham gel.
Img. 11: Endband during cleaning with Konjac & Xantham
Volume 118.e.5 after gel cleaning is held in a wooden book press, the image is taken from straight above the book meaning only the spine is visible in the image. The exposed text block and partially detached endband are both clean.
Img. 12: Endband and exposed spine after cleaning

I selected Konjac and Xantham gel to clean the spine and endband by applying it as a poultice, leaving for a few minutes and then removing the poultice, which was very effective. The endband was now ready to be reattached!

I learnt to sew endbands whilst making a sewing model, which furthered my understanding of the structure and purpose of the endband.

A hand holds a text block without boards attached. A bright red and deep burgundy endband has been sewn onto the text block, matching the curvature of the spine.
Img. 13: Sewing model endband

I learnt to reattach endbands by observing my mentor completing an endband repair to a volume where the head and tail endbands were detaching. This enabled me to take photos and make detailed notes before repairing the other endband, giving me enough confidence to carry out similar treatments more independently in the future.

The head edge and top of the spine of volume 118.e.5 are visible. Multiple strips of paper poke out of the head edge of the text block to mark the centre of each section that will be sewed through.
Img. 14: endband fixed into original position and endband markers mark each

I fixed the endband into its correct position using a piece of Japanese tissue adhered with wheat starch paste before marking the centre of each section I planned to sew through. After the first stitch, I tied a knot on the outer side of the spine to secure the thread.

Only the top edge of the spine of volume 118.e.5 is visible. The thread has been poked through the spine, around the top of the endband and tied in a knot on the exterior of the spine.
Img. 15: endband sewn back into original position

I then sewed underneath the endband core, back over the top of the endband and then back through the textblock, with a linen thread that closely matched the original white thread.

The top section of the spine and the head edge of the text block are visible. The repair stitching has been covered with a piece of thin Japanese tissue.
Img 16: The repair stitches

Now secured, the next step was to reform the head cap using archival calf leather.

I had no experience working with leather prior to my internship, but have quickly learnt that each leather is different and that paring leather takes a considerable amount of strength! My first attempts at paring leather were thankfully on strips of off-cut leather as they were not pretty, though I’m assured it’s a skill that requires much practice to perfect.

The endband has been reattached into its original position and the partially exposed spine has been covered with a piece of leather that closely matches the colour of the leather on the spine.
Img 17 : The spine edge and head edge of volume 118.e.5 after treatment

After paring and consolidating the leather, I adhered it to the spine using wheat starch paste.

I loved working on this book, having confidence in my ability to complete each step made me feel like a real, fully-fledged book conservator, and I was really happy with the outcome of the treatment. I am learning more and more by the day and whilst I will be sad to leave the long term bids team, I am excited to join the preventive team before returning to the studio to focus on binding structures. If you’ve found this an interesting read, I will be writing another post detailing my time on future teams so watch this space !