Collection Care blog

Behind the scenes with our conservators and scientists

26 November 2013

Conservation gets mobile

Conservator Ann Tomalak tells us about the new mobile conservation workstation being trialled at the British Library.

Because we are a library, our books get handled and read. Inevitably, a small number get damaged, either by accident or because the materials degrade as they get older, and fall apart. In order to get items with minor damage back into use as quickly as possible, we have a Running Repairs programme for work that will only take a few hours.

The pamphlet, titled The War in its Effect Upon Women, rests on a table. The front and back covers are a light blue, with yellowed discolouration around the edges. The covers have come away from the rest of the pamphlet, and it's clear the paper is very brittle--it appears to be breaking away easily, leaving the outer edges of the covers missing and jagged.
A pamphlet in urgent need of repair

CC by 

Traditionally, Running Repairs have been done in the conservation studios alongside major conservation projects. Items needing repair are identified by curators, library assistants or readers and join a never-ending list, from where they are delivered in small batches to the Centre for Conservation every few weeks. The paperwork takes time. Every item has to be ordered individually, and security tracked. When the repair is finished, the conservator records the time spent on it, writes a report and attaches photographs. Then the process is reversed to get the item back to store.

The workstation has a series of metal drawers at the front, some of which are pulled open to reveal content like blue nitrile gloves and paper. On top of the trolley is a flat workspace where a wooden book press and a weight rest, ready for conservation work to begin.
The mobile workstation and its contents

CC by 

Recently, we have been trialling a new method to get running repairs done more quickly, without compromising the quality of the conservation work. A mobile workstation has been kitted out with basic tools and lots of repair materials, so that we can take the conservator to the collection. The workstation is “parked” for a week or two in the collection areas – either in the storage pen or nearby, in curatorial offices. Colleagues are notified and soon come along, clutching damaged items. The conservator takes a quick look and discusses the options. Most running repairs can be done at the trolley, though a few items which need specialised equipment or advanced techniques must still be sent to the Centre for Conservation. A further few need extensive conservation and will be set aside for a full assessment.

A book rests on top of the trolley. it has a black and red leather cover--the red is a smaller strip running lengthwise down the spine. the spine is in poor condition: the covering is coming away from the textblock and pieces of leather are missing.
A detached board and spine fragments. This routine repair can be done quickly, using only basic tools and materials

CC by 

Taking the conservator to the collection means that we avoid the tedious ordering, tracking and delivery system. We have also greatly simplified the treatment record, simply noting the shelf-mark, work done, materials used and any other essential information, with a link to photographs. Since the conservator often works on several items at a time (for example, allowing one repair to dry while preparing another), the overall time spent on the visit is averaged over the number of items treated.

A conservator stands in front of the mobile workstation, looking at a book in her hands. On top of the workstation is a light (attached to the side of the top of the trolley), a wooden book press, a weight, and other conservation tools.
Conservation in progress at the workstation

CC by 

Considering that a simple paper tear only takes 15 minutes to repair and a loose leaf can be reattached in well under an hour, the paperwork often took far longer than the conservation treatment. We estimate we are saving 30 minutes on ordering and delivery, 15 minutes on security administration and 30 minutes on the treatment report. This time can now be used for more running repairs, meaning items can be returned to use much more quickly.

The page of a book is visible, with a plastic sleeve holding the detached seal.
A detached seal can easily be lost, so this is a priority repair

CC by 

The curators are delighted. Treatments are completed to the same high standard, but precious books need never leave their sight and are returned to them quickly – often within hours. They can discuss the work with the conservator and talk through options. By watching the conservator at work, they also get a better understanding of what can be done as a running repair and what needs full conservation.

A map has been folded out from the book. The map shows a number of tears.
Folded material bound into a book is doubly vulnerable – the attachment point can tear from incautious opening and the folds eventually split

CC by 

All in all, everybody benefits from the mobile workstation; not least our Readers who find damaged collection items return to use more quickly.

Ann Tomalak


The comments to this entry are closed.