Collection Care blog

Behind the scenes with our conservators and scientists

5 posts from August 2013

27 August 2013

The Bookie Monster: attack of the creepy crawlies!

Have you ever been described as a bookworm?

We hope the only bookworms encountered in our reading rooms are of the Studious genus, but did you know that there are a whole host of pesky pests out there hungry for paper? Fires and floods are usually the scenarios we think of when we hear about damaged books, but books are also susceptible to pest damage. “Bookworm” is actually a generic term and doesn’t apply to any particular species, although it is often used to describe the Anobiid beetle (Anobium punctatum).

A close look at a wooden book board which has been damaged by Furniture beetle. The board is flat with a slightly brownish texture, with no text or images present. The damage is represented as deep furrows,running into bore holes, At the top of the board, the edge has been completely eaten away, exposing a section of board resting underneath, which has also been damaged in the form of the furrowsand also bore holes by themselves.

Figure 1: The larvae of furniture beetles, Anobium punctatum, attack wooden book boards, shelving, frames and compressed paper. Copyright DBP Entomology. 

Where the passionate reader sees inspiration and literary genius, the pest sees a delicious and satisfying papery meal. Holes in books and bindings, large chewed areas and scraped surfaces are all evidence of pest attack. Thankfully, damage like this is largely historic and it is a matter for conservation rather than pest control. Our Preservation Advisory Centre (closed since March 2014) produced a free to download information booklet on Managing pests in paper-based collections written by Consultant Entomologist David Pinniger. Although there are physical and chemical treatments to control infestation, it is much cheaper and far more effective to use preventive methods. Here we take a look at a few of the culprits.

Name: Silverfish (Lepisma saccharina)
Likes to eat: Paper

Silverfish (or fish moths) are nocturnal wingless scaly insects (10-15 mm) associated with damp conditions and require a localised humidity above 70-80%. They are named in light of their silvery exterior and slithery fish-like movements. 

A close-up view of a Silverfish, on a plain grey background. The Insect is on it's legs, resting slightly right of centre in the image, orientating at a 70 degree angle from head to tail. The Silverfish is brownish in colour, with three legs visible either side of the external shell of it's body, which overlaps slightly similar to armour plate. The tail has two 'spikes' that come out on either side at an angle The head is very small, emerging from the carapace with two very long antennae coming out and forward, which are almost the length of the body in size.

Figure 2: The Silverfish is a primitive insect with three bristles called cerci at the tail end where the abdomen tapers. Copyright Aiwok. 

Post-meal evidence includes irregular holes in paper and ragged, scraped surface areas. If they are particularly greedy they will preferentially target areas with glue or ink which may be more nutritious.

A page showing extensive damage by Silverfish. The paper, appearing slightly brownish in the image, is on it's side. The damage is at the top, the bottom and towards the fore-edge. The damage appears as grazing, and looks similar to cartography of maps of fjords, the way the damage isn't in one segment, but areas of large or very small removal of paper from the page.

Figure 3: Silverfish (sometimes known as fish moths) leave irregular holes in paper around a scuffed surface.  Copyright DBP Entomology.

Name: Varied carpet beetle (Anthrenus verbasci)
Likes to eat: Animal glue

The varied carpet beetle is the most common species found in Great Britain. The adults are 2-3 mm long with a grey and gold scaly exterior. They enjoy flying in warm weather and typically hang-out on window sills – the carpet beetle equivalent of the shopping mall. It is the offspring that causes damage to collection material. Young offenders hatch from eggs into hairy larvae (< 1 mm), and grow up to 5 mm. They shed their skins as they develop and tend to wander around randomly chewing holes in bindings and mounts where animal glue resides.

A close-up of a Varied Carpet Beetle on an unidentified surface. The Varied Carpet Beetle shown here is quite colorful, with a body of orangey-brown and black splotches and white. The underside appears from the side to be mostly white, or cream in colour. The Antennae are short and bulbous, and three legs are visible from the side. The wings can be seen jutting out from the underside of the wing casing at the rear of the insect.

Figure 4: The varied carpet beetle, as well as being partial to animal glue, can be found dining on wool, fur, feathers, silk and skins.  Copyright André Karwath


Name: Biscuit beetle (Stegobium paniceum)
Likes to eat: Starch and dried food

A close-up view of a Biscuit beetle (Stegobium paniceum) from a top down view. The beetle appears a rich red-brown in colour, on a plain white background. It has two medium length antennae which each have three nodules on the end. One leg is visible juttin out from the right hand side of the beetle. The thorax is quite bulbous, and the abdomen with wing casings, has lines of dots running down it's length, almost like a peanut. The wing casings are spilt in the middle to reveal the folded wings underneath. Their is a fine fuzz around the insect.

Figure 5: The biscuit beetle bores holes in harder materials and emerges leaving a symmetrical exit hole. Copyright Sarefo

They may sound friendly (or tasty!), but beware the biscuit beetle. Unlike woodworm larvae which eat wood and cellulose, biscuit beetle larvae bore holes and cavities in paper, papier maché and starch-rich composite board in books and boxes. They are also known as the Drugstore beetle or the Bread beetle with adults reaching about 2-3 mm long.


Name: Woodlouse
Likes to eat: Damp paper and cardboard

Two types of Woodlice are exposed on a small section of wood, upon which they are busily engaged in devouring. The larger Woodlice is horizontal to the image and appears as dark grey, with flecks of yellow or gold on each section of the exoskeleton whixh consists of ridges not unlike armour plate, that rise over the adjoining plate and flare out at the sides, almost at the underside of the insect. The ridges reduce to a tail of three small soft spikes. Three legs, appearing almost translucent in colour can be seen poking out under the ridges. The other woodlouse is smaller, is facing the top of the image, is smaller and appears a much more dull grey colour. It is also only half the size of the other, which it appears to be climbing over. It has two long antennae that hang down and out, and are rather thick.

Figure 6: Woodlice Porcellio scaber (left) and Oniscus asellus (centre) in wood  

The woodlouse is not an insect but belongs to the Crustacea group which includes shrimp and crabs. They love damp high humidity conditions such as rotting wood or vegetation and cause damage by grazing on damp paper and cardboard if located nearby. Most people have encountered woodlice by disturbing old logs outside and watching as they scurry around in bewilderment. They cannot survive in dry conditions so when found inside have usually wandered in from a damper outside environment, and therefore do not live very long.

Land and air attack

It’s not just insects that attack books, rodents and birds also play their part. Mice can be particularly damaging as they tend to gnaw materials habitually to keep their teeth sharp, while females shred paper to make nests for their young.

A image of a Mouse damaged book. The book is open, resting on a dark grey background. The book is open and the narrow text margins can be seen; the script appears possibly Italian. The left hand page appears fairly fine, but the right hand side of the book has been heavily damaged. A large section of pages have been eaten away, with almost a quarter of the book taken away in a giant chunk, from the bottom of the pages to around halfway up. A small section of the pages are left close to the sewing. Underneath the removed area can be seen the the pages that were not removed.

Figure 7: Mouse damage Copyright DBP Entomology

Birds are unlikely to directly target books for nutrition, but as anyone who has tried to shoo a pigeon out of a room will know - bird droppings can cause unsightly stains and be very corrosive.

Integrated Pest Management

A close-up image of four book spines, green in colour, with the focus on their ends and the wooden bookshelf they are resting on. On the wooden shelf and around the spines can be seen the light-coloured frass which looks a little similar to sawdust in this image.

Figure 8: One of the first signs of a furniture beetle attack is frass (insect excrement) which is pushed out of the larvae tunnels when the adult furniture beetle emerges. Copyright DBP Entomology.

Pests will only usually damage material because they are seeking nutrition. Collection items boasting mouth-watering edible materials such as wooden boards, textiles, adhesives, gelatine and starch can satisfy the pickiest of pests. Prevention is always better than cure so it is important to be vigilant for the signs of an infestation. If you are unsure about a potential pest problem contact the Preservation Advisory Centre for some helpful advice.

Christina Duffy (@DuffyChristina)

19 August 2013

Iron gall ink and wasps

Iron gall ink has been used since the middle-ages and is found on many of our most treasured collections including the Lindisfarne Gospels, Beowulf and the Magna Carta. As we read in our last post about conserving a mould-damaged iron gall ink manuscript, the main ingredients of iron gall ink include iron sulphate, tannins from oak galls and water. But what exactly are these ingredients and what have parasitic wasps got to do with it? Head of Conservation Science and Research Dr Barry Knight shares his observations.

Thunderbolts and Oak Apples

I was brought up in Sussex, on the chalk downs. You can sometimes find nodules of iron pyrites, FeS2, that have weathered out of the chalk. When I was at school they were called thunderbolts, because nobody knew what they were. Figure 1 shows a whole nodule compared to one that has been broken to show its internal crystalline structure. The whole nodule is about the size and colour (but not flavour!) of a Scotch egg.

Two nodules of iron pyrites are displayed on a grey unblemished background. The left-hand image shows the pyrite in it natural state. The shape is mostly round, but irregular, due to the surface which is mostly raised bumps. It is mostly a burnt yellow or ochre colour, which some dark blotches on the lower right. The pyrite on the right of the image, has been cut in half to reveal it's properties. The pyrite resembles the look of the underside of a large mushroom with the internal structure having a raised lip around the edge, and recessed lines running into the centre, which appears  yellow in colour. The rest of the pyrite is brown, with dark blotches around the rim.
Figure 1: Left: Whole nodule of iron pyrite (FeS2). Right: Internal crystalline structure of iron pyrite nodule

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The connection with iron gall ink is that these nodules used to be collected from the foreshore, in places like Whitstable, where they had weathered out of the cliffs. They were crushed and put into huge tanks, where, over a period of two or three years, they slowly oxidised to form iron (II) sulphate and sulphuric acid. The liquid was run off and scrap iron was added - this had three functions:

1. It neutralised the sulphuric acid, forming more FeSO4
2. It reduced any iron (III) to iron (II)
3. It would precipitate any less reactive metals (such as copper) from solution

The overall effect was to make a purer solution of FeSO4. The solution was then boiled to concentrate it until crystals of FeSO4 formed, otherwise known as green vitriol or copperas. This was used primarily for dyeing leather black (by reaction with the tannins in the leather), and in a much less important way for making ink.

I once found a nodule on the beach - it was about the size of a cricket ball, and had been worn almost smooth by the action of the waves. Being that sort of boy, I took it home and put it in a wooden box. Some time later, when I came to look at it, it had swelled up and disintegrated; there was a strong smell of sulphur and the wood was stained black. The nodule had obviously oxidised and the iron (II) produced had reacted with the tannin in the wood.

About 40 years later I became interested in iron gall ink, and I tried to repeat this experiment. I had some fragments of a pyritic nodule which I crushed and put into a beaker of deionised water. After a few weeks the liquid was definitely greenish, and as the water evaporated crystals formed. However, after two years the reaction has not proceeded very far. There is still a lot of grey sludge in the bottom of the beaker - unreacted pyrite - which is basically unchanged. I do wonder whether the salt in the sea water was responsible for the rapid reaction of my nodule - chloride ion does generally enhance the rate of corrosion, so I wonder whether my bench experiment would be more successful if I added a bit of NaCl to it.

Oak galls and gall wasps

The other main ingredient of iron gall ink is gallic acid, which comes not from France but from oak galls. The gallic acid was extracted by grinding up the galls and soaking them in hot water.

I now know a lot more than I wanted to about oak galls and gall wasps! I had always referred to oak galls as "oak apples", but I now learn from the Wikipedia entry "Oak apple" that the true oak apple is more apple-sized, up to 5cm diameter. The things I collected as a child (and still do, for purely scientific purposes!) are called "oak marble galls", and are only about 1.5cm dia.

In the summer I collected some marble galls from oak trees near St Albans; I took them home and put them in a paper bag. Later, when I looked in the bag, I found that the gall wasps had hatched out. On closer examination, I discovered there were two sorts of wasp, one larger and one smaller. It turns out that the larger one is the true gall wasp (Andricus kollari); the smaller one is a parasite that either lives on the material of the gall, or actually eats the larva of the gall wasp. You probably didn't want to know that. See the Wikipedia entry "Andricus kollari".

A close-up of the insect, possibly the Andricus kollari or 'Gall Wasp'. The Insect is lying on it's side with head towards the bottom of the image, on a plain grey background. the wings can be seen oriented towards the right of the image. The insect has two antennae of medium length pointing towards the bottom of the image.
Presumed Andricus kollari
An image of a presumed Parasitic wasp. The insect is lying on it's side facing right, off-centre towards the left of the image, on a plain grey background. The wasp is facing towards the top of the image, and both wings are laid out behind it. The two antennae come out and curve around like a composite bow.
Presumed parasitic wasp

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I also collected some quite differently shaped galls from oak trees in another place near St Albans. They are green and shiny with excrescences, and it would seem from Wikipedia that they are called Knopper galls, and are caused by a different insect called Andricus quercuscalicis.

Oak marble galls sitting in a white china bowl on a timber table. The balls are a mxture of dark brown, light brown, and green.
Oak marble galls
In this image the galls have shrunken to a withered form resembling raisins. They are sitting in a bowl of white china, on a timber table.
Knopper galls

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A close-up shot  of one of the Oak galls. The Gall fills just over three quarters of the image, the background being a light grey. The image is focused on a single exit hole bored into the gall.
Oak marble gall showing single larger exit hole of Andricus kollari
Another close-up of a Oak gall, this time showing multiple exit holes, caused by the parasitic wasp
Gall showing multiple smaller exit holes of parasitic wasp

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Barry Knight

08 August 2013

Conserving a mould-damaged iron gall ink manuscript

Did you know that conservators often wash paper?

When paper is badly degraded, and especially when there has been mould damage as with the document below, it often needs to be washed. Washing paper helps to remove acidic degradation products and reforms the hydrogen bonds in the paper structure, making it stronger.

A mould damaged sheet of paper rests on a piece of Bondina, a non-woven polyester which is white in colour and often used as a barrier material due to its non-stick qualities. The piece of paper is very fragmented in the middle where mould has caused the bulk of the damage. Some of the fragments still lie crumpled on the piece of Bondina. Some reddish and blueish staining from the mould is visible.
Fig 1: Additional MS 70282. Prior to its acquisition by the British Museum this manuscript was water damaged and became mouldy. Although the mould spores are no longer active, the damage remains. The mould has eaten away at the paper, making the fibres soft and fragile. This manuscript is written using iron gall ink, which presents its own unique problems for the conservator.


Iron gall ink

Iron gall ink was the primary ink used in Europe from the middle-ages right into the 19th and even 20th centuries. It was often homemade and there is a huge variation in recipe, but its principal ingredients are tannins (usually extracted from oak galls), iron sulphate (also known as vitriol), and water. The different recipes result in inks with different levels of chemical stability, but in most cases there will be an excess of sulphuric acid and free iron (II) ions present, which result in a degradation phenomenon known as ink corrosion. Documents written using iron gall ink are very vulnerable to moisture, which can accelerate the degradation process.

In the case of Additional MS 70282 we have a manuscript which, after treatment to remove the inactive mould spores, needs to be washed in order to remove degradation products and strengthen the paper structure, but it is written using iron gall ink, which should not be exposed to excess moisture as this will accelerate its degradation. So what do we do?

Conservation options for iron gall ink

In 1995 a new treatment for iron gall ink was proposed by senior conservation scientist/ chemist J.G. Neevel at the Central Research Laboratory for Objects of Art and Science (CL) in Amsterdam. Known as the Calcium Phytate Treatment, it uses a solution of calcium phytate in partnership with a de-acidification wash in a solution of calcium bicarbonate and is designed to both remove excess sulphuric acid present in the ink and to chemically complex the free iron (II) ions, thus preventing further degradation.

Calcium Phytate Treatment

The first step is to wash the folios in a bath of reverse osmosis water until no visible degradation products (which cause the water to discolour as they wash out) remain. It may be necessary to change the water a number of times.

The folio rests on top of the water in its bath. Again this folio is very fragmented in damaged in the middle, with brown staining visible.
Fig 2: This fragile folio has been sandwiched between two sheets of archival polyester film and spot-welded before washing to ensure that fragile and mould damaged areas are not distorted and to prevent the loss of small fragments during the treatment.

A conservator lifts a folio out of the bath at an angle. The conservator stands at the left side (when facing it) of a double sink, and the photograph cuts them off at the head. They are wearing blue nitrile gloves.
Fig 3: A sheet of plexi-glass placed at the bottom of the wash bath provides a rigid support for the fragile sheets when they are being moved.

The conservator is full in frame now and continues to lift the item out of the bath at an angle so the water can drip off. Behind the conservator is a table and surrounding him are various tools.
Fig 4: The rigid support can be tilted in order for the water to drain away, taking the degradation products with it. Additional support is provided by sheets of Bondina®, a non-woven polyester fabric which has a smooth surface and will not stick to the manuscript folios.

The conservator places the folio into a white tray with the solution. The tray rests on a trolley and sits just to the left of the double sink.
Fig 5: The folios are then placed in the calcium phytate solution, which will complex the free iron ions and prevent further degradation of the iron gall ink.


After immersion in the calcium phytate solution, the folios are washed again in a de-acidification bath, which contains calcium bicarbonate. This alkaline-reserve will remain in the paper after the treatment and help to neutralise acidity caused by the natural ageing of the paper and the ink.

A drying rack is pictured with multiple folios resting on each shelf. One shelf has been slightly pulled out to show two folios drying on a support on Bondina. The drying rack is similar to a baker's cooling rack.
Fig 6: After wet treatment, the sheets are laid out on Bondina® and blotting paper on a drying rack and allowed to air dry before they are repaired.


Although washing will reform the hydrogen bonds and make the paper stronger, repairs are still needed to support tears and infill missing areas. The most fragile folios, such as the mould damaged folio shown in Fig 1, will need to be fully lined with thin Japanese tissue. Japanese papers have very long fibres which make them ideal as conservation repair papers.

Lining and repair

Wheat starch paste, which has been thinned to the consistency of double cream, is first brushed out onto a sheet of Bondina® using a Japanese brush.

The conservator is captured holding the sheet of Japanese tissue just a few inches above the sheet of Bondina.
Fig 7: A thin sheet of Japanese tissue is placed onto the pasted Bondina®, holding it by diagonally opposite corners to prevent creasing.

The conservator is using a brush to apply paste to the sheet of tissue that has just been laid down.
Fig 8: The tissue is then pasted out in the same way, ensuring an even coverage.


The folio to be lined is then humidified on a sheet of Bondina® and all the tears and small fragments are unfolded and aligned.
Two conservators hold the ends of a sheet of Bondina which has a fragmented folio on the underside, and is hovering just a few inches above the pasted Japanese tissue.   The conservator on the right side of the image has placed their side of the Bondina down, and the conservator on the left side is just following suit.
CC_by Figs 9 & 10: Carefully holding the corners of the Bondina®, the humidified folio is turned over and lowered directly onto the pasted lining tissue.

It is then brushed-out through the Bondina® using a Japanese brush to remove any air bubbles and ensure a strong bond. After air-drying, the missing areas are in-filled with a matching Japanese paper, before the other side is lined in the same way.

A closeup of an area of damage on a folio. In the centre of this sheet where the damage has occurred, you can see the white Japanese tissue from the lining process, but it is a thin piece of tissue and not visually jarring.   Another close-up of a mould damaged area, this time the sheet has no text and you can see the stains from the mould. Again the tissue from the lining process is just visible in the centre.
CC_by Figs 11 & 12: Details of two mould damaged folios after conservation treatment.

After all repairs were completed the folios were tipped to guards of archival paper, collated, and given a new binding to protect them.

This manuscript is part of the Portland Papers, which were originally housed at Welbeck Abbey and deposited in the British Museum between 1947-1967 by His Grace, the seventh Duke of Portland as 'The Portland Loan.' They were allocated to the British Library in 1987, having been accepted by the government in lieu of Capital Transfer Tax.

The conserved manuscript can now safely be consulted by readers in the Library's Manuscripts Reading Room.

Francesca Whymark

This manuscript was conserved by Timothy Nason and Gayle Whitby and bound by Douglas Mitchell.

Under the microscope with the Lindisfarne Gospels: name that folio – the answer

We recently took you Under the microscope with the Lindisfarne Gospels in a previous post and shared some incredible images of medieval artistry. The four gospels are introduced by an illumination of the saint, a carpet page, and a major initial opening a folio of decorated text. We asked you to identify the folio from one of our zoomed in images. Did you figure it out..?

As you can see below, it is part of folio 2v, the carpet page of St Jerome! 

A view of the Carpet page of St Jerome in its entirety. The manuscript page itself has some staining, particularly in the top middle which has run into the image. There is much dirt around the edges, and also close to the binding. The Image itself is central to the page. It consists of a large horizontal rectangle, bordered at the corners with elaborate finials, of hounds with teeth clenched into the corners of the image. The outer border is red, followed by a thick inner decorative border containing intertwined birds in teal and red on a black background. This border is then supplemented by a smaller thinner border of faded blue. Within that is the main image itself, a stylised cross done as squares, on top of a red and gold celtic-style knotwork in small squares.
Carpet page of St Jerome ff 2v

    A close-up view of the left side of the carpet page of St Jerome. The left hand side of the cross or crucifix can be seen, laid out square similar to the floorplan of a church, which connects to the main body of the cross off the image. Within the square of the cross is highly intricate squaresof red, yellow and pink aligned around a green square which is itself bordering a white central square. The outer squares are on top of a vivid red background. The knotwork of the main background can be glimpsed closer, while a section of the illustrated border can be seen more clearly, showing the birds connected by knotwork moving up the border page.
CC by Figure 1: The carpet page of St Jerome (folio 2v)

A highly focused close-up of the Carpet page detail at x50 resolution. The Image has focussed on a section of coloured illustration. Central to the image is a section of pink pigment squares at right angles to the image, separated in the middle by a white and black bounding line. Outside the pink squares is a thick white line which is itself bordered by a thick black line. The space between this and the outer border of the same style, is filled in with purple pigment.
Figure 2: The image in question showing the step and key pattern in the cross panels. This region has been magnified by x50.

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Carpet pages typically occur at the beginning of a gospel in illuminated manuscripts and exhibit geometric and colourful designs that consume the entire folio. They are referred to as carpet pages due to their resemblance to oriental rugs or prayer mats. Prayer mats were used to prepare worshippers for prayer and the carpet pages in the Lindisfarne Gospels serve a similar function in preparing readers for the Gospel message. The carpet pages feature a cross set against a background of highly ordered ornamentation. Each carpet page in the Lindisfarne Gospels contains a different form of cross representing different church traditions.

Folio 2v is dominated by an interlace motif controlled by the eight-ribbon knot with cruciform breaks pattern. As observed in our image they surround a cross consisting of panels filled with step and key patterns. The folio is borded by ribbon birds and dog heads.

Carpet pages were influenced by early Coptic manuscripts and contain ornamentation with similar motifs found on contemporary metalwork and jewellery.

Christina Duffy, Imaging Scientist

05 August 2013

Collection Care fired up for BBC Four appearance

The work of our Collection Care team is going to feature on a new major television series airing on BBC Four. King Alfred and the Anglo-Saxons will examine the careers of King Alfred the Great, the Lady Æthelflæd and King Athelstan in a three part series starting on Tuesday, 6 August (21:00-22:00). Some of the archival material consulted for the series is from the burnt Cotton collection and was severely damaged by fire in the 18th century at Ashburnham House. Our conservators, scientists and curators will be featured handling and caring for the vulnerable material in all three episodes, while being interviewed by presenter and historian Michael Woods. The extraordinary tale of King Alfred is almost surpassed by the fascinating history of the ill-fated Cotton manuscripts.

A advertisement poster for King Alfred and the Anglo-Saxons TV series on BBC4, with a picture of celebrated historian Michael Wood (The thinking woman's crumpet) standing to the fore of a digitally rendered battlefield, with the hilt of a sword in the foreground running horizontally in the center of the image.
MayaVision presents King Alfred and the Anglo-Saxons on BBC Four on Tuesday, 6, 13 and 20 August (21:00-22:00) featuring the British Library’s Collection Care team

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The Cotton Collection

Two of the manuscripts consulted during filming were Cotton MS Otho B. IX, a late 9th- or early 10th-century gospel book which came into the possession of King Athelstan, and Cotton MS Otho A. VI, the only surviving copy of Alfred the Great’s Old English prose and verse translation of Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy. The Cotton collection refers to the library assembled by Sir Robert Cotton (1571-1631) which was presented to the British nation by his Grandson Sir John Cotton around 1700. It contains some of the most well-known treasures of the British Library including the Lindisfarne Gospels (Cotton MS Nero D. IV), Magna Carta: Exemplification of 1215 (Cotton MS Augustus II. 106) and Beowulf (Cotton MS Vitellius A. XV). Manuscripts were originally housed by Sir Robert Cotton in large presses surmounted by busts of the Twelve Caesars and two Imperial Ladies, and labelled according to their position (for example Cotton Otho A. VI was under the bust of Otho, top shelf (A), and six over). This arrangement has been incorporated into modern shelfmarks at the British Library. It was described as ‘the most important collection of manuscripts ever assembled in Britain by a private individual.’ Suddenly, the unthinkable occurred.

A fire breaks out

On 23 October 1731 a great fire broke out where the Cotton manuscripts were being temporarily held at Ashburnham House, Westminster. About a quarter of the collection was affected. The librarian at Ashburnham House Dr Bentley is recorded to have leapt from a window to escape the fire with the 5th-century Codex Alexandrinus (MS Royal 1. D. V-VIII; one of three of the earliest manuscripts of the Bible) under one arm. Thanks to Bentley’s agility you can today view the manuscript online in its fireproof digitised form. The fire consumed almost the entire printed book collection and some of the manuscripts. Although only 13 entire manuscripts perished, there was significant damage to many which lost important articles or remained only as charred fragments.

Charred fragments form part of the Burnt Cotton Collection. The image shows a black box with white lining, open with its lid to the side, filled with jumbled fragments. gothic style text can be seen on some fragments.
A box of charred fragments collected from the Ashburnham House fire in 1731. The many cinder-like fragments and burnt lumps of parchment were bundled into drawers and flimsy boxes later causing much confusion as to their origin

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The damage was utterly devastating. A black edge bead had formed on the manuscript edges, most often consisting of a brownish congealed gelatine and carbon particulates. Gelatine is the end product of the sudden degradation of the parchment collagen and occurs when the long fibres under tension break apart. When cooled the parchment became very brittle and any subsequent handling resulted in serious textual loss. The heat not only damaged the text but left vulnerable wax seals as melted shapeless globules bereft of their intricate design.

A close-up image of Warped parchment from the cotton collection. The parchment is bubbled and a line of text towards the edge disappears around the bubbled edge, showing the amount of warping that has occurred.
A fragment of warped parchment from the burnt Cotton collection at 20x magnification. The iron gall ink follows the path of the parchment making it difficult to read

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As is often the case in fires, much of the damage was caused by the water used to extinguish the flames. Damp parchment and paper manuscripts were at risk of developing mould and urgently required drying.

Early conservation work

In the aftermath of the fire emergency conservation work resulted in many manuscripts being broken up and rebound. Carbonised bindings were removed and the burnt parchment manuscripts were carefully opened. Some of the parchment manuscripts were dried by lying flat out. In the rush of the rescue work many of the leaves were assembled in the wrong order, permanently disrupting the collation of volumes.

A renewed effort at restoration

The Cotton collection made its way to the British Museum in 1753, but it wasn’t until 1837 when Sir Frederic Madden was appointed Keeper of Manuscripts that further work was done. The burnt manuscripts were divided into classes depending on the severity of the damage, and a plan was put in place for their restoration. Expertise was sought from Henry Gough who had undertaken repair work of damaged manuscripts in the Bodleian and other College Libraries in Oxford. Solutions of ethanol and water were reported to have been used to soften the manuscripts in order to wash individual leaves. Tiny incisions were made between the columns and the lines of writing to allow room for expansion of the most shrivelled part of parchment contracted by the flames. Many of the Cotton manuscripts thought to have been lost were identified, flattened, inlaid, collated and bound.

The partial leaves of a fire-damaged manuscript inlaid upon two leaves of a newer book. The pages, which are a mottled brown colour, stand out from the cream coloured sheets. The parchment resembles cartography in the cuts and indents. The pulling of the parchment has led to cockling of the paper underneath.
The inlaid leaves of Cotton MS Vitellius B. IV. Since the parchment is sensitive to humidity changes it can pull on the paper frame causing cockling

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A view of a manuscript from its end, seen while open and laid out. The cockling of the pages can be seen here, as they refuse to lie flat against each other. A snake weight can be seen in the distance, along the top of the page.
Cockled paper in Cotton MS Vitellius A. VIII distorts the bindings making volumes difficult to close

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The remaining loose fragments were flattened, some identified and most of those inlaid. Inlays were made by tracing out the shape of the parchment leaves on construction paper. These pencil marks are still visible and you may have noticed them on some of our Digitised Manuscripts. The centre of the construction paper was cut out a few millimetres inside the pencil lines to leave a frame. Paste was applied behind the frame and the loose leaf was then secured in place, sometimes obscuring regions of writing. The paste often left stains that later became brittle.

A close up of one of the salvaged manuscript pages. Incisions have been made on the right hand side of the parchment between the text lines, which have allowed for expansion. Pencil lines can also be seen underneath the cuts, where the inlay was traced. The edges around the top of the parchment are slightly blackened, but also show a opaque film where the glue has interacted with the parchment.
Cotton MS Otho A. VI folio 32r. Incisions between lines of writing are observed on the right hand side of the parchment to allow for expansion. Pencil lines are visible around the edges where the inlay was traced and cut out. The cockled centre and shrunken edges reflect a temperature gradient across the original book block, which remained cooler nearer the centre

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The entire process was complete in 1856. Although the inlaying has been much criticised it provided much-needed protection against handling as some of the leaves had a tendency to erode. Many more fragments may have been entirely lost had they not been treated at all.

Another fire!

On 10 July 1865 Madden received some horrifying news: another fire had broken out and the manuscripts were again in jeopardy. He was horrified. A charcoal brazier in the finishing room at the bindery had caused the blaze resulting in severe damage to the manuscripts that had been left out to work on. Fortunately, the majority of the manuscripts were locked away in an iron safe, but it was little consolation for Madden’s tireless efforts. Madden kept a detailed record of his work as Keeper which is today held in the British Library. A late 9th-century copy of King Alfred’s Old English translation of Gregory the Great’s Pastoral Care (Cotton MS Tiberius B. XI) was lost and according to Madden’s records: “…it lay on a board immediately above the bin of charcoal, and a slate slab was placed above it. The slate flew into fragments from the heat, and the MS. (a good thick folio written on vellum, bound in russia) must have fallen into the midst of the burning charcoal.

Madden retired in 1866 somewhat bitter about the lack of recognition he received for his conservation efforts. Much of the documentation regarding his work was unknown to the public until 1981 when they were incorporated from the Departmental Archives into the Additional Manuscripts. The story of the Cotton manuscripts is a fascinating one and you can read more detail in this essay by Andrew Prescott.

Cared for at the BL

More than 1,400 manuscripts and over 1,500 charters and seals comprise the Cotton collection at the British Library ranging in date from the 4th – 17th centuries. Madden would be pleased to know that we now have low-oxygen storage facilities to prevent any more fires from breaking out! Collection Care is using new imaging technologies such as multispectral imaging to recover lost information and protect these valuable fragments from misuse. Much work has recently been carried out on the burnt Cotton collections by our parchment specialist Mariluz Beltran de Guevara. Even now more fragments are being identified. For more examples of burnt material at the British library read our Conservation Officer Ann Tomalak’s post in the Medieval Manuscript’s blog.

Tune in to BBC Four this month to see the manuscripts in action. Understanding the history of our collections is crucial for understanding the care required to treat them.

Christina Duffy (@DuffyChristina)

Imaging Scientist