Collection Care blog

Behind the scenes with our conservators and scientists

5 posts from October 2013

31 October 2013

Conservation Revealed! The conservation work behind our latest exhibition, Georgians Revealed

The British Library's latest major exhibition Georgians Revealed: Life, Style and the Making of Modern Britain opens in the PACCAR Gallery on 8 November 2013. Conservator Iwona Jurkiewicz worked on some of the items which will be on display and describes in this blog post the work that the conservation section put into preparing them for exhibition.

Did you know that there were department stores in Georgian times? The recent television dramas; Mr. Selfridge and The Paradise, set in department stores gave an average television viewer, myself included, a strong impression that department stores were Victorian inventions. Imagine my surprise when a number of prints on the subject taken from the Ackermann’s Repository of Arts arrived in the conservation studio early in September to be prepared for the ‘Georgians Revealed’ exhibition. Three of those in particular show wonderfully clad shoppers browsing in the glassware, furniture and clothing stores.

A colour print showing a room of glasswares. A series of long tables runs through the centre of the print, starting in the foreground of the bottom left of the print, and running toward the right side of the print at an angle. Many glasswares are displayed on these tables. On either side, visitors are viewing the glassware, or sitting in chairs in the showroom. A number of chandeliers adorn the ceiling.
Messrs Pellatt and Green, Glassware from Ackermann’s Repository of Arts

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A colour print showing a room of furniture. There is a plethora of globes, wooden chests, chairs, tables and more dotted around the large room. On the right of the print is a couple of people looking at a mirror, and on the left, a customer sits in a chair.
Messrs Morgan and Sanders, Furniture from Ackermann’s Repository of Arts

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A colour print showing a room of draperies. Through the centre of the print is a hallway leading to another room at the background. On either side of this hallway/walkway are desks at which patrons and sellers stand. Textiles are draped from poles throughout the room, and at the top of the walls on either side of the print are rolled textiles.
Messrs Harding, Howell, & Co., Drapers

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All of those, and many more, were hinged and mounted in the conservation grade window mounts ready to be framed depending on size either by the exhibition or the conservation departments. By the time the exhibition opens on 8 November 2013 the conservation section will have worked on over 100 items, a larger number than was required for the previous Propaganda exhibition.

Most of the prints and other ephemera in the studio were in good condition and did not need any conservation treatment beyond mounting and/or framing, but there were some that required more attention.

Two letters sent by John McIntyre dated 1776, and 1777 respectively were identified as more in need of conservation. The first letter dated 1776, referring to the cart load of china ready to be sent, had considerable damage and was incomplete while the second one with the heading “List of Necessities sent home in 1777”, on first inspection, seemed to be damaged mainly along the edges and corners. Both letters had tears and folds covered in self-adhesive tape, sometimes on both sides, which on removal revealed long tears or fragmentation of folded sections.

A closeup of the letter which shows cursive handwriting in a dark brown iron gall ink. The tape has started to be removed along the tear.
Correspondence of John McIntyre before conservation, showing tears and folds ‘mended’ with the self-adhesive tape

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Another closeup of a letter, again dark brown ink is visible on paper. The paper appears to have been folded, and on one half of the fold, the paper has yellowed, while the other have remains white.
Correspondence of John McIntyre before conservation, showing self adhesive tape on vulnerable areas 

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In the process of conservation the tape was removed. Luckily, the adhesive from the tape had not yet leached into the fibers and the degradation was not extensive. After the removal, all tears and folds were repaired using thin strips of Japanese paper, and the missing area at the bottom of the first letter (dated 1776) was in-filled.

The first correspondence after conservation, shown in full. Dark ink has been written on white paper, fold lines are clearly visible, and it appears part of the bottom of the piece of paper has been removed or torn away and lost.
John McIntyre’s correspondence after conservation


The second piece of correspondence following conservation. Dark brown ink has been written on paper that has a yellow appearance. Again fold lines are visible.
John McIntyre’s correspondence after conservation

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Over 250 items from the British Library collection, as well as loaned artworks and artifacts will feature in the exhibition promising to explore the lives of the Georgians. Judging by the quality and variety of items we have had in the studio, it is an exhibition not to be missed!

Iwona Jurkiewicz

Follow us on Twitter: @BL_CollCare

24 October 2013

Collection Care Conference 2013: Evolution or Revolution: the Changing Face of Collection Care

Last week Collection Care hosted an international conference at the British Library. Over 120 delegates from 17 countries convened in London from 14 – 15 October. The conference was divided into six sessions covering the health of collections and the provision of care; an evolving profession; teaching & training; collection care business models; perspectives and practitioners; and digitisation and collection care. A high calibre of papers was given leading to some lively debates where it was concluded that more communication and collaboration between collection care disciplines is required.

A picture of the British Library as seen from the main entrance outdoors. In front of us sits the Newton sculpture by Eduardo Paolozzi, which depicts Isaac Newton leaning over and measuring with a compass. Behind the sculpture is the main entrance to the Library.

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Reading a book can change your life. Engaging online can change the world - Bill Thompson

The need for heritage professionals to come together to exchange ideas and challenge mind-sets was a key theme throughout the sessions. Head of Partnership Development at the BBC Archive Bill Thompson gave the keynote speech and discussed how technology is giving the Enlightenment another 500 years. He stressed how we are not in a Digital World, but an Age of Electronics that is shaping our existence. One of the major challenges faced by professionals is to keep up and meet changing user expectations for delivery.  

Change in collection care mustn’t be disruptive, but adaption to outputs of technology is essential. It was speculated that we might be reaching a point where simulacra of objects in collections may be more useful than the originals. Thompson encouraged us to embrace the potential of new technologies, but to be aware that older ones will not go away.   

Give us screens, but give us bookshelves too – Bill Thompson  

Dr Cath Dillon, post-doctoral research associate at UCL in the Centre for Sustainable Heritage discussed the Collections Demography project and shared the stakeholder’s views on value, change and lifetime. The project defines health and end of life of collections. Dillon asked how long books should last for and reported that most said 100 or 1,000 years. She found that when considering historic documents the public are very reluctant to rate collections as ‘unfit’.  

If conservators are not flexible they won’t be brought to the table for budget planning – Caroline Checkley-Scott  

Conservation is considered a small profession in the UK with about 3,000 active conservators. It was a common theme in the conference that there is a need for teams to respond flexibly to rapidly changing requirements. Kenneth Aitchison, Skills Strategy Manager at the Institute of Conservation (ICON) discussed shaping the future of conservation. Conservation labour market intelligence indicates that 65% of conservators are women, 35% are men, the average age is 42.9 years old, and the median salary is £26,000.   

Flavio Marzo, Conservation Studio Manager for the British Library Qatar Foundation Partnership Programme addressed the audience on Tuesday and stressed that conservators need to sell themselves to sustain their value. For digitisation projects Marzo has realised that conservator knowledge is part of the value where the ultimate aim is the image. The physical location of the conservation studio of the Qatar Foundation Project supports integration with the rest of the team allowing conversations to happen which ordinarily might not. Marzo was joined onstage by Qatar Project Conservator Anna Hoffman who outlined her ‘Conservator’s Charter’: learn from experience, communicate and share expertise; and be visible and creative.  

Jocelyn Cuming, Course Leader for the MA Conservation at Camberwell College of the Arts talked about conservation education. Cuming emphasised that although knowledge of materials is fundamental, knowledge was not in itself sufficient for conservation students. A need for skills in communication and advocacy was identified, as well as a constant re-evaluation of requirements for conservation education and training; such as including care of digital materials. Annie Petersen, Preservation Librarian for Howard-Tilton Memorial Library at Tulane University noted that those working with analogue and digital collections don’t communicate very well. She noted that many new graduates wanted digital to be covered more thoroughly in their preservation education.  

Prue McKay, Supervising Conservator for Projects and Exhibitions at the National Archives of Australia thought students should learn a framework of procedures and rationale at university, and develop skills on the job.   

My reality - save all the things! - Megan De Silva  

Megan De Silva, Object Conservator at Monmouthshire Museums Service pitched that while big organisations work to a strategy, small organisations tend to work to a ‘to-do list’. De Silva stressed that strategic thinking is important for smaller organisations, as well as for larger ones.  

It’s not heritage and digital collections; it is the Collection – Dr Cordelia Rogerson  

Head of Conservation at the British Library, Dr Cordelia Rogerson, asserted that change is the new normal. We need to explore how concepts of authenticity and integrity in digital preservation relate to conservation more generally. At the British Library, Digital Preservation recently became part of Collection Care and is headed up by Maureen Pennock. Pennock stressed that digital collection care has to be managed from the beginning in the same way as traditional collection care.  

We don’t need a digital strategy – we need a strategy – Bill Thompson  

It was raised that there are far fewer people working in digital preservation than traditional conservation and the digital skill set of the 3,000 active conservators in the UK was queried. It is unknown whether any of those 3,000 conservators work on digital content. Juergen Vervoorst, Head of Conservation at The National Archives shared with delegates that 120 million records were delivered online last year from The National Archives; 200 times that delivered in reading rooms. 

Dr Rogerson also highlighted that we need more evidence on usage patterns following digitisation, and is keen for a project on the subject to be supported.  

The conference was a great success and we thank all of those involved in the organisation and participation of the event. We invite comments and contributions from any of our delegates to the Collection Care blog, and hope to continue the debate by sharing our knowledge and ideas.  

Christina Duffy (@DuffyChristina)
Imaging Scientist

Follow us on Twitter: @BL_CollCare

17 October 2013

What the CMYK? Colour spaces and printing

Here at the British Library we digitise a lot of our collections to make them accessible to a greater audience, while protecting the item from over-handling. Digital images are a fantastic resource for scholars allowing users to spend as long as they like looking at details. But have you ever wondered how accurate the colour representations are? Is what you see on the screen the same as what you print out? We use digital microscopy on some printed material to show you that what you think is red, may not be… and why you should be careful in using printed images as replicas of originals.

The front of a large office printer with a cover off to show where the CMYK cartridges fit.

Figure 1: Standard office printers use the CMYK colour space. 

The screen of a standard office printer which shows the levels of ink to indicate when cartridges need replacing. The black cartridge is shown to be low (ink levels displayed as bar graphs) and the message 'ORDER BLACK CARTRIDGES' appears on the screen.

Figure 2: Printers often call for replacements of cyan, magenta, yellow and black cartridge replacements.

If you work in an office you may have noticed the printer demanding for the cyan cartridge to be replaced. Seems like an odd colour choice – why not red, green or blue (RGB)? Most printers use the colour space CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow, and black) for print output, and like all colour spaces uses a manipulation of these to generate other colours.

What’s a colour space?

A colour space is a combination of a colour model (such as the RGB model) and a mapping to that model called a gamut. It is essentially the range of colours that a monitor can display or a printer can print. Digital cameras and scanning devices create images using combinations of the three primary colours red, green and blue, and TV screens and computer monitors display images in the same way. The three colours are combined to create variations in hue measured on a scale of 0-255. For example R255, G255, B255 creates white, while R0, G0, B0 creates black. You may have come across similar numbers in Photoshop when the mouse is held over a certain colour pixel.

Very few images are captured as originals in the CMYK colour space as the files have only a third of the information that an RGB image has. This reduction in file size makes CMYK ideal for printing as it improves network speeds reducing the delay between the user clicking print and actually collecting the print out. Images captured in RGB must be converted to CMYK in order to print. A reduced file size means there is a slight colour change upon printing as there are colours in the RGB colour space that are out of the CMYK gamut.

The CMYK colour space

Below is an example of how our eyes are deceived by colour combinations. Figure 3 shows a print-out of a folio from a manuscript. When this image was printed onto a white A4 sheet it was examined in closer detail using a high resolution digital microscope. In Figure 4 the page has been magnified twenty times and we can start to make out a pattern in the background.

The bottom right of a manuscript as seen as a typical print out. Text is written in a dark brown ink. There is marginalia in the right margins, and to the right of the page is a ruler showing centimetres.

Figure 3: Original image onscreen.

A closeup of marginalia--a handwritten word which appears to say Feltunia. You can just start to make out a variety of small dots in this magnified image, but they all appear uniform in colour.

Figure 4: Printed page at 20x magnification.

At two hundred times magnification we can see that what we think are different colours are in fact various overlapping dots of cyan, magenta, yellow and black.

A such high magnification, we can now make out individual dots in cyan, magenta, yellow, and black. This image shows a small selection of dots, and nothing but the dots are visible.

Figure 5: CMYK dots at 200x magnification.

CMYK colour space works in the opposite way to the additive RGB colour space. In CMYK space the process is subtractive and inks subtract brightness from white (cyan, magenta, yellow and black are known as subtractive primaries) by layering cyan, magenta, yellow and black to achieve a certain hue.


The colour wheel shown with each colour represented as a triangle.

Figure 6: Cyan, magenta and yellow lie directly opposite red green and blue on the colour wheel. (CC-BY-SA-3.0 author DanPMK)

So how do we interpret these tiny dots to be different colours? This is the printing technique known as half-toning where tiny dots of each colour in the colour space are printed in a pattern small enough that we humans see it as a solid colour. In a print-out where there is a region of pale blue as in Figure 7, what we are actually looking at is a half-tone print pattern of cyan dots. More cyan dots would make the contrast against the white background appear more saturated, and we would perceive this to be dark blue.

In this magnified image, we can see a swath of blue dots with fewer, smaller magenta and yellow dots around the blue.

Figure 7: A region of blue is represented by a higher frequency of cyan dots.

Much of the printed material around us is a result of half-tone printing and has the same CMYK pattern when examined at high magnification. Take another example using this standard business card.

Part of a standard British Library business card. The British Library logo is visible, and you can make out about half of the owner's information.

Figure 8: Standard printed business card.

Below are various magnifications of the card showing how the "red" colour is built up using layers of CMYK ink.

The BR in British is shown here under magnification. You can see a variety of red dots around the white BR, with a few of the CMYK dots visible as well.

Figure 9: Business card at 50x magnification.

The top half of the B is magnified here. In the white that makes up the letter, you can see more of the CMYK dots.

Figure 10: 100x magnification.

The bottom right of the R. Again more CMYK dots are visible at this high magnification.

Figure 11: 200x magnification of "red" printed ink.

At such high magnification, you cannot tell what part of the business card this is showing, but CMYK dots are clearly visible and overlapping one another.

Figure 12: 200x magnification of black CMYK printed ink.

The controlled conversion between the colour representations of various devices is called colour management with a primary goal of obtaining good matches. This is why sometimes you see colour cards in digitised material. Converting images into different colour spaces is used as an imaging technique to reveal hidden or faded information, and we’ll be posting about that later.

As an educator you may rely on print-outs of paintings or illuminated manuscripts as learning materials, so don’t be disillusioned if your students aren’t impressed; it must be the printer! What a great excuse to visit our free Sir John Ritblat Gallery: Treasures of the British Library at the BL and experience the real thing.

Christina Duffy (@DuffyChristina)
Imaging Scientist

08 October 2013

Victorian trade bindings

Look after your 19th century decorated books!

The age of the Internet progresses with texts and wonderful images abound on the World Wide Web. Books are still produced and sold in bookshops on our high streets, and we can see designs for book dust jackets and for paperback book covers. These designs are created to attract us to buy and read the contents. All of this was true from the 1840s from which time books were bound in ever-greater numbers in boards covered with cloth that had been dyed in bright colours and grained to provide contrast to the colour. Books were blocked with designs that varied from the simple to the highly elaborate. An example of a simple design blocked in the 1830s is that of an animal blocked on the centre of the upper cover (Figure 1).


A scan of the front cover and spine of the book. The book is covered in a medium blue bookcloth and blocked on the front cover in gold is a lion. On the spine is a swirling leaf/floral design, with the title BOOK OF ANIMALS toward the top in gold.
Figure 1: The Little Book of Animals/Select and amusing anecdotes of various animals, 1839, shelfmark 1606/1653

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In the 1840s, 1850s and 1860s, blocking of covers with gold or in blind (blind meaning uncoloured) predominated. An example of a very elaborate design by John Leighton is blocked on the very popular work, The Ingoldsby Legends as shown below in Figure 2.



This image show both covers and the spine. The book is bound in a brown cloth. Each cover features the same design: in the centre is an oval which features the title and a crest with perhaps a lion (hard to tell due to image size). Surrounding this central motif is a series of geometric designs following the rectangular shape of the cover. The spine features a cup with tools coming front it and a crescent moon along the stem, along with the title, author, and a variety of other gold designs forming a rectangle along the shape of the spine.
Figure 2: The Ingoldsby Legends/Mirth and Marvels, 1864, shelfmark C.129.d.3

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From the 1860s to the 1880s, blocking in black as well as gold introduced yet more design variety. Publishers issued series that had only small differences in the overall design, with the colours being used to differentiate each volume.



Two works of poetry: one by Milton and one by Burns. They each have similar tooled designs. The authors name are in scrolls on the covers, there are floral motifs, and both have gold and black tooling. The Milton volume is bound in a bright red cloth and the Burns in a cobalt blue.
Figure 3: Ward and Lock Poems series, 1880, shelfmark 11609h12


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By the 1890s, ‘pictorial’ designs could be blocked in multiple colours onto cloth covers, with results that often hinted at or showed drama.

This cover shows two med in red snowsuits and boots (one in black boots, the other in white) surrounded by water and ice. The man to the left appears to be gesturing to something out of view. The title text has icicles dripping from it, and the background is a blue cloth. The spine of the book shows the man in white boots walking through the snow.
Under the Sea to the North Pole, 1895, shelfmark 01255h22.


This cover shows a man helping a child escape a fire. Buildings are in the background, and soot, ash, and fire surround the two characters. The design has a real graphic quality to it, similar to a graphic novel or comic. The title appears to be on fire with flames coming from the letters.
Foundling Mick, 1893, Shelfmark 012550h1

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All of these designs continue to attract us today. But how durable are these 19th century books? It is well known that the paper on which the texts were printed is liable to decay. This is through the use of wood for papermaking, which in its manufacturing resulted in the shortening of paper fibres and mixed in a combination of chemicals to make the process more rapid.

A couple of examples show the problem. I purchased these two books recently. On the outside, The Little Woodman looks in fair condition (Figure 5). The red dye is reasonably bright and the coloured design on the spine and upper cover still show a forest scene.

This book is bound in a bright red book cloth. The cover shows a figure appearing to have fallen in the woods, and a dog is sniffing the figure. Surround them are trees, shown in the bright red cloth, and a blue sky behind them.
Figure 5: The Little Woodman and his Dog Cæsar, 1894

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However, when the book is opened the poor quality of the paper is observed (Figure 6). The pages have detached from the sewing, and the whole text block has detached from the case. Cases were never strong in relation to the weight of the paper, and this now shows very clearly.

The book opened, showing how the pages are separating and the book case is coming away from the textblock. The pages also appear yellowed around the edges, a sign of the poor quality pages.
Figure 6: Pages detached from a 19th century sewing

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Another example that I purchased is a publication typical of its time. William Mackenzie issued many publications in multiple issues (similar to monthly issues of magazines today), and then had the separate issues bound into cloth cases. The National Encyclopædia/A Dictionary of Universal Knowledge was published in the 1880s, in fourteen volumes, with a design by John Leighton in gold and in black onto the covers and the spine (Figure 7).

The book is bound in a dark brown cloth, and features gold and black tooling. At the centre of the cover is a man in what appears to be a man's head in a helmet with a snake surrounding him. On the left side of the front board are a series of rectangles, which show geometric designs as well as what appear to be animals--a bird and perhaps a sea creature appear present, although the image size makes it hard to discern exactly what is visible. The spine features the title along with a case and a swirling floral motif.
Figure 7: The National Encyclopædia/A Dictionary of Universal Knowledge, 1884-1888, Vol.11

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From a quick glance all appears well, but upon opening volume 11 it is clear that it has lost its endpaper and title page. The sewing of the text has now given way, and it has detached itself from the case at the front revealing the back of the spine underneath.

The book is opened, showing the casing coming away from the textblock.
Figure 8: Failed sewing in The National Encyclopædia

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A closeup of the spine with the book open. You can see the sewing structure has started to fail.
Figure 9: Failed sewing in The National Encyclopædia results in the text detaching from the volume

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Making repairs to books in this sort of condition can be expensive. If you manage to buy a copy that is not as degraded as the books shown here, then it is best to keep the books out of strong light, to open the books with care and to not turn the pages too quickly. With care you can look after copies of 19th century books for your enjoyment, and for the future pleasure of others.

Edmund M. B. King

Follow us on Twitter @BL_CollCare

Further reading

1. There is a plethora websites to visit and large numbers of images on Google images for the search ‘19th century decorated bindings’
2. For the degradation of paper made from wood, see the University of Chicago Preservation Department website 
3. For the effective storage of books to preserve the original, see for example:
- The Rare Books and Manuscripts Section of the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL), a division of the American Library Association (ALA)
- Preservation Advisory Centre's publication on Damaged Books
4. The British Library's Database of Bookbindings

About the author

Edmund M. B. King worked for the British Library from 1975 until 2012. He catalogued and indexed books in English and in French, 1975-1978. He worked in the Preservation Service of the Library from 1982 to 1997, in charge of programmes of work for the selection of books and other documents for conservation and for binding. From 1999, he was Head of the Library’s Newspaper Collection, one of the world’s finest. He led work on the the mass scanning of older UK newspapers, developments which today have resulted in the British Newspaper Archive, containing some 7 million pages, which are searchable.

Edmund has lectured extensively on the subject of Victorian book bindings. His bibliography of Victorian Decorated Trade Bindings was published in 2003. Details of this are at He is currently working on adding entries to the British Library database of book bindings for the Victorian period

07 October 2013

Collection Care is now on Twitter!

Collection Care has just started a Twitter account. Follow us now: @BL_CollCare. We will be posting about our blog and sharing the latest news in collection care around the world.

A screenshot of our first three Tweets on Twitter. The Tweets are saying Collection Care is now on Twitter, showing a link to the blog, an an invitation to register for a conference.

We are also very excited about our conference next week: Evolution or revolution! The changing face of collection care, where you will be able to tweet live about the topics being discussed with the hashtag #BL_EvoRevo. We would love to hear from you so please follow and tweet us to your heart's content!