Collection Care blog

Behind the scenes with our conservators and scientists

4 posts from November 2013

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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

19 November 2013

Fail to prepare for digitisation, prepare to fail at digitising!

Planning a digitisation project can be a lengthy process with consideration required for strategic alignment, funding models, workflow, and metadata – all of which should be led by a clear definition of the overall purpose of the digitisation project. What must also be considered are the practical aspects of digitisation bearing in mind the condition and format of items, and identifying what needs to be done to items to make them camera ready.

There are potential risks from digitisation as books become objects when being copied, and therefore may not be handled, positioned or viewed in the conventional way. This increased handling can accelerate the normal process of wear and tear. In order to minimise these risks the items should be checked over before appearing in the imaging studio. These checks are run by our Preventive Conservation team who make initial condition assessments of items to be digitised; recommend any treatments to stabilise or repair items; and advise on handling and transport, camera equipment, lighting and cradles. We are Collection Care after all!

The outcome of pre-digitisation checks fall broadly under five headings which will be covered in this post, and we’ll share some examples of what to look out for.

1. Items that can be digitised in their current state

Good condition, flat, loose leaf items, and bound items where all the content can be seen easily, and that open well, can be digitised.

Four images in a grid. Top right: a selection of books rest flat on a table. Top left: a books rests open on a table, the picture taken from above. Bottom right: a book rests open on a table; the picture is taking from a lower vantage point showing the bottom edges of the pages and spine. Bottom left: loose leaf materials along with a notepad and pencil rest on a grey surface.
Items in good condition which open well can be digitised easily. Depending on size limits these items may be suitable for scanning


For folded inserts, digitisation is best facilitated through use of a book rest to support the main volume allowing the insert to lie flat. A support can be arranged underneath to provide a flat base for large foldouts. Take note of the format and size of folded inserts as large items may be too big for many scanners, and may need to be photographed instead.

Two images side-by-side. Left: A large foldout advertising a concert is unfolded and the book closed on top of it, showing just how much larger this foldout is when unfolded compared to the book itself. On the right is a small document attached to a guard volume. It is much smaller than the volume itself, so a piece of paper the size of the volume is placed behind the smaller item to provide support and prevent damage.
The value of a good measuring tape cannot be underestimated! This bound book (left) is 260 x 210 mm, but the insert extends to 770 x 500 mm. In guard books (right), the insert may be smaller than the volume in which case a sheet of paper can be placed behind


Guard-books which contain miscellaneous single documents or groups of documents usually open well, and if items are in a good condition then they can be photographed or scanned. If inserts are smaller than the volume then a backing sheet will need to be placed underneath to hide items behind. Size and positioning can vary through the volume so items may have to be repositioned under the camera/scanner. Items with wax or shellac applied seals and vulnerable manuscript items should not be scanned under glass as this can cause damage or make existing damage worse.

Some items may appear to be badly damaged but may still be imaged safely. For example if an item has a broken binding where the boards are off and the sewing has failed, it can be treated like single leaves. If the boards are completely off, but the sewing and text block are still intact then it acts like a bound volume.

2. Items that may need some preparation

It may be possible to photograph rolled items without preparation. If the roll is particularly long then it may need to be photographed in sections with weights positioned to prevent the item rolling up between shots. Where rolled items are distorted and do not lie flat easily (even using weights), they may need some relaxing and pressing first. Bound items which have been rolled need to be relaxed and flattened for digitisation.

Two images side-by-side. Left: a rolled item is placed on a black foam wedge and opened slightly--the remainder of the scroll is still rolled up at both the top and bottom. This is held open with a snake weight on each side of the rolled item. Right: a variety of rolled items rest on top of one another. They are crumpled and crushed due to incorrect storage.
 Some rolled items can be digitised using weights (left), while others (right) may need some care before imaging


Folded items may need to be photographed separately and in sections as they can be much bigger than they first appear. It is important to know how much space is needed as a different location and set up may be needed to capture large items.

Two images side-by-side. Left: a small folded item rests on a table. In its folded state, it looks comically small compared to the table. Right: The item has been unfolded on the table, held open with weight bags around the edges, and fills nearly the entire table surface.
Items may be larger than they seem! This fold out map requires a large working space which imaging studios may not be capable of accommodating


Past stationary remedies such as pins, treasury tags, fasteners and adhesive tapes can damage paper. Rusting induced by a high humidity environment can stain underlying paper. Preparation time may be needed to remove pins, fasteners and threads. Tape removal can be more time consuming involving the work of a conservator. You can read more about tape removal in our Conservation Revealed blog post.

Bad storage and poor housing can cause problems making items difficult to handle and lay flat. These items may need to be prepared for digitisation by relaxing and flattening – this is a relatively simple job, however if there is a lot of material it can be time consuming.

Two images side-by-side. Left: A few folder/binders sit in a box. The items contained within the folders are too large for the folder and the box, so they are crushed and damaged. Right: an item which was once bound by thread is now fanned out to show the broken threads.
Poor storage (left) and broken threads (right) can make items difficult to handle


In all of these cases, time has to be factored in for preparation of material.

3. Items that may need minor conservation work

Ideally dirty items should be surface cleaned to remove loose dust and dirt before imaging. Ingrained surface dirt is very difficult to remove so the item may have to be imaged as it is, or even excluded if the condition is detrimental to the project. It’s worth keeping in mind that the appearance may be part of the ‘story’ of the material.

Two images side-be-side. Left: a book with a damaged cover rests on a table. The cover is brown-ish in appearance, looking rather scuffed and degraded. Along the edges of the cover pieces of board are lifting up and tearing away. A piece of paper has come loose from the textblock and overhangs from the boards, showing damage along the edges as a result. Right: A book open to show tears running horizontally along a couple of pages.
Damaged covers (left), and torn pages (right) can be digitised after minimal localised conservation


Outside leaves may be more badly damaged than text blocks, and it may be the case that a few leaves in a text block are torn. These items may be digitised after minimal localised conservation. It may also be possible to place torn loose items into Melinex sleeves to hold flat as an alternative to other preparation/conservation.

Mouldy items can cause damage, losses, staining and weakness to paper. For health and safety reasons, this material needs to be checked by a conservator. It may need to be dried if active and should be cleaned to remove mould spores before being safe to handle.

4. Items that may need more extensive conservation work

Extensive tears and detached sections may need to be repaired. All folds are vulnerable to tearing. If bindings have to be pulled for rebinding, digitisation can take place beforehand – single pages may be easier to handle.

Two images side-by-side. Left: A book is open to show two foldouts advertising concerts. The foldouts have been unfolded, and the foldout on the right-side page has a large tear running the length of one fold vertically. Right: Another book is open with a foldout unfolded advertising a concert. This foldout is in two pieces. There is tearing along the fragile fold lines.
Already damaged material such as this torn foldout is vulnerable to further damage. Check if any items are scheduled for conservation work which may make digitisation easier


5. Items needing handling input as an alternative to conservation

Some inks such as iron gall ink can cause degradation of otherwise good quality paper. Where the damage is extensive and the paper is very brittle, it may be quicker to image with a conservator handling and setting up the items with the photographer.

Two images side-by-side. Left: A book open to pages with text written in iron gall ink, which appears in a brown tone against a soft white paper. There is quite a bit of haloing around the writing, suggesting that the ink is degrading and potentially causing the paper to be fragile. Right: A few pages are loose from a volume.
Having a conservator in the imaging studio to handle ink burn through (left) or loose leaves (right) may be quicker and less expensive than arranging full conservation work


Some bound items may be in very good condition but have restricted openings. Tightly bound volumes often result in text disappearing into the gutter of the book. These types of items can be difficult to digitise and adaptations to book cradles using straps and weights may be needed to enable them to be handled. Most books should not be opened wider than 120° unless they do so naturally. Openings throughout the volume should be checked for opening characteristics. Generally books should be positioned so that supports hold the item open at a safe angle for that item. Opening characteristics can change as a book is worked through, and volumes may need to be adjusted regularly to ensure the item is sitting correctly. Angled book rests can be placed on one side to allow the page being imaged to lie flat.

A grid of four images. Top left: A rigid tight back rests with two black foam book wedges on each board. Snake weights hold the pages down on either side, and the slight curve of the spine rests in between the two foam wedges. The photograph is taken from a low vantage point and straight on, so you get a clear, straight-on view of the bottom of the textblock. Top right: This is shot from a similar vantage point, showing a book resting on two foam wedges as in the previous image. This book is a hallow back, so the hallow of the spine is allowed to open in the gap between the wedges. Bottom left: A paperback book is opened to a 90 degree angle, showing that it is not able to open further without potentially damaging the spine. Bottom right: Another book is opened, but it is very tight and only opens to a small angle. Two hands are visible in the picture opening the book.
Opening characteristics of books: Rigid tight back in conventional reading position (top left), hollow backed book in conventional reading position (top right), tight paperback 90° opening (bottom left), tight binding opens to barely 90° (bottom right)


You may decide that highly valuable items should be accompanied and/or handled and set up by a conservator or curator. This time and cost will need to be factored in to the project.

Decisions about preparation sometimes depend on the purpose of the digitisation project, e.g. to publicise the collection or to provide a study source. This may affect the level of preparation needed for digitisation, i.e. whether or not to relax and flatten items. Digital copies may raise awareness of physical items and increase demand to see the original – so decisions about future access need to be addressed. Planning for a digitisation project is vital to ensure the success of your project, with the emphasis on balancing the benefits of producing a digital copy against the risk of damage during the imaging process.

Christina Duffy (@DuffyChristina)
Imaging Scientist

11 November 2013

Goldfinisher: He’s the man, the man with the Midas touch

An event on gold finishing was held in the British Library Conservation Centre to celebrate a recent antiquarian acquisition of a rare example of an 18th century book cover lavishly decorated with gold. Gold finishing, or gold tooling, is the decorative process of covering the spine and/or covers of a book with gold leaf designs. Visitors including many VIPS such as the Dutch Ambassador got a unique chance to view the acquisition and to watch book conservator and gold finisher Doug Mitchell demonstrate the technique in person.

On a table in the foreground, a variety of items rest on a table in preparation for gold tooling: a book in a wooden book press, gold leaf, and various metal tools which will be heated and pressed into the book's leather.

Book conservator Doug Mitchell prepares to demonstrate gold finishing.

The 18th century acquisition is often referred to as the Binder’s Sample. It is thought that the good condition of the tooling, the high quality leather, and the use of 33 different tools are evidence that the cover was produced to showcase the binder’s skill when seeking new clients. It is a sample book cover (Folio 362 x 249 mm) of limp speckled calf dating to about 1730 and originated in Utrecht or Amsterdam.

Gold finishing designs are impressed onto leather covers using a variety of tools including heated brass letters held in type holders, and decorative tools such as pallets, fillets and rolls. In the Binder’s Sample three rectangular outer frames showcase five different rolling tools. Most distinctive are the hunting roll; depicting a hunting lodge unlike the more traditional hunting roll, and the musician roll; showing harpist, vocalist, triangle player, viol player and organist separated by a stag, bird, lion, hound, gryphon and a crow eating grapes.

This volume has a dark brown leather with a myriad of gold tooling on the cover. Three rectangular designs are done around the cover's edges, with a variety of floral, geometric, and other designs in the centre of these rectangular designs.

The Binder’s Sample, Utrecht or Amsterdam approximately 1730. 33 different tools were used to create this extravagant cover.

The musician roll used on the Binder’s Sample was a particularly fine roll and was a reverse cutting of a roll belonging to the Amsterdam Double Drawer Handle Bindery. This particular roll was used from the mid-1720s to 1730s on presentation copies of books for the luxury market. Below are some examples of the rolling tools used at the British Library.

Four rolling tools rest on a table. They have a long wooden or plastic handle, with a metal arm extension that holds the roller with the design. The metal piece is heated.

Rolling tools were used for border designs.

A close up on the design of one rolling tool.

This rolling tool depicts interlacing spirals which create a flowing pattern along the binding when applied.

The central field of the Binder’s Sample showcases 27 different tools. In the centre is a coat of arms depicting a man in a loin cloth with the scales of justice in his right hand and a bird of prey in the left hand. Corner pieces include blooms, angels (one with a quill pen), stars, foliage, scallop shells, pomegranates and vases.


A box made of archival board holds a variety of tools, including those which have floral designs, a design of a bee or similar, a star, and many others.

Variety of tools used to produce different designs.

For the demonstration Doug used a goatskin leather dummy book held in a finishing press on the workbench. The leather was size washed with a wheat starch paste and an adhesive made of egg whites, called glair, was applied to the leather where the gold leaf was to be placed. The surface is then smeared with Vaseline. A sheet of 23.5 carat gold leaf was cut into a suitable size for the design and placed onto the glaired area on the spine of the volume. Gold leaf comes in two thicknesses; single and double with the latter used primarily by British Library conservators.

Doug bends over a raised platform which has the gold leaf on it, using a knife to delicately cut the gold leaf. To the left of him is the book in the wooden press.

Doug Mitchell carefully cuts a sheet of gold leaf using a knife.

Doug has placed the gold leaf on the spine of the book and presses this down evenly with a cloth.

The gold is placed on top of the greased area of the volume.

A heated tool is then used to press the gold leaf permanently into the leather using a combination of heat, dwell and pressure, leaving an impression dictated by the shape of the tool. The remaining gold leaf is rubbed away revealing an intricate design.

An action shot of Doug pressing a heated tool into the gold leaf.

The heated tool is pressed perpendicularly onto the gold leaf which is on the spine of the volume.

Doug also demonstrated tooling onto cloth using a Type holder tool. In this case the word LIBRARY (my favourite word!) was pressed onto real gold foil.

Doug presses this larger heated told into another area of gold foil on the spine.

Larger tools can be used to apply text to the spine and is applied in the same way as smaller designs.

The gold doesn’t tarnish and has an affinity to the leather such that it is very difficult to remove.

The gold foil piece has been removed, showing the word LIBRARY in gold pressed into the spine's leather.

When the excess gold is removed the spine is left beautifully decorated.

Doug had previously prepared a British Library version of the Binder’s Sample, copying the format to display just some of the extensive collection of finishing tools here at the conservation center, shown to the right in the image below, which was on view for visitors to compare to the original.

A variety of people gather around to example two volume's resting in plastic cradles on a table.

The Binder’s Sample is examined by Nicholas Pickwoad (left) and was displayed next to the replica (right)

A sheet of Vivak was placed behind the Binder’s Sample by our conservators to allow readers to view the reverse side, which would be obscured if mounted on opaque material.

The underside of the transparent mount, which shows the backside of the item and the curve at which the mount is constructed to hold items at a safe angle.

The Binder’s Sample as viewed from behind showing the Vivak reverse mount. 

Although the popularity of gold finishing has declined in recent years, tooling is an important part of any conservator’s skillset. An exhibit showing the vast  array of tools available is on display in the Conservation Centre.


Behind glass sits a variety of gold tools on display alongside examples of the designs created with these tools.

A display of bookbinding tools inside the Conservation Centre showing an example of the huge range of equipment available.

Various conservation tools rest on a table, including brushes, spatulas, and scalpels, and visitors listen as a conservator explains how they are used.

Visitors were shown a display and given a demonstration of tools used in conservation. 

Gold leaf is nearly always used for this type of decoration due to its lasting qualities. Other varieties include white gold leaf which gives a silver appearance, or pigment foils (red, green blue etc.) which can be used on cloth and paper bindings. The British Library uses gold finishing on all its leather bound books. Generally gold finishing is done to re-produce the design that was on the original, but some of our collections such as Sloane, Egerton, Harley and Cotton manuscripts have an existing format. When no reference is available designs are based on the year of the book by choosing the tools that were appropriate for that time period.

The skill of gold finishing is very difficult to master and requires precision, patience and perseverance!

Christina Duffy (@DuffyChristina)
Imaging Scientist


Further Reading:

For more about the musician roll see Storm van Leeuwen’s pamphlet Dutch
Decorated Bookbinding in the Eighteenth Century r III in C55, C 61, C 66 & C 72
-3 (1727 – 38) and I pp 234, 237, 239 & 252-3

Bookbindings in the British Library

Database of Bookbindings

07 November 2013

Read All About It! Preserving the National Newspaper Collection

You may have heard that we are moving the national newspaper collection from its current home of the Newspaper Library in Colindale North London to a brand new storage facility on our Boston Spa site in Yorkshire. Want to know why? Then read on!

In the background of the image is a window with bright light shining through, casting a hazy glaze over the entire image. Books rest on shelving, with the books mainly being in shadow due to the bright light. The light also shows a large amount of dust particles floating in the air around the books.

 Cc-by The dust of another day’s research settles as the sun sets over Colindale

In a series of Read All About It! blog posts we’ll take you behind the scenes of the Newspaper Collection. We’ll tell you a little bit more about it and share some Stop Press! fascinating facts. We’ll explain exactly what newspapers are made of and what makes them so vulnerable. We’ll share with you the collection care challenges we’ve faced in managing the newspaper collection and the ground-breaking steps we’re taking to preserve it and keep its content available.

We’ll show you why we’re moving it, where we’re moving it to, and let you have a little insight into the massive logistical challenge that this involves. And we’ll give you a little taster of what you can expect from the forthcoming News and Media Reading Room at St watch this space! Follow us on Twitter to keep an eye open for new blog posts.

Sandy Ryan