Collection Care blog

Behind the scenes with our conservators and scientists

3 posts from September 2014

30 September 2014

Conservation and preservation training to continue with West Dean College

The British Library has partnered with West Dean College to deliver a programme of training in support of conservation and preservation activities in libraries and archives. The courses will be based on those developed by the National Preservation Office and the Preservation Advisory Centre and will focus on Continued Professional Development for professionals. Training will also be relevant for students undertaking conservation or similar qualifications.

A close up of Alasdair's hand signing the contract in blue ink.
Alasdair Ball, Head of Collection Management at the British Library signing the agreement with West Dean College.


The Preservation Advisory Centre (PAC), which had been running similar courses at the British Library, closed on 31 March 2014. The Preservation Advisory Centre supported the preservation of library and archive collections of all types through the provision of preservation management tools, training and information services. All publications and resources have been transferred to the British Library Collection Care webpages, while the PAC website can be found on the UK Web Archive.

The new agreement with West Dean College was signed on 23 September 2014 by Alastair Ball, Head of Collection Management at the British Library, and Peter Pearce, Chief Executive of West Dean College. Ball: "The British Library is delighted to enter into this agreement with West Dean College. The public sector often works at its best when it engages in trusted partnerships with highly respected organisations and this is an excellent example. We look forward to seeing the partnership sustain the provision of high quality professional development for this important sector."

The group stand in front of a brick building with an archway to the right and foliage to the left.
Left to right: Francine Norris, Director of Education at West Dean College; David Dorning, Conservation of Books Programme Leader at West Dean College; Cordelia Rogerson, Head of Conservation at the British Library; Peter Pearce, Chief Executive at West Dean College and Alasdair Ball, Head of Collection Management at the British Library.


West Dean College have been running a Professional Conservators in Practice programme for sixteen years. Peter Pearce: “This partnership brings together two organisations recognized for their expertise. This programme is the perfect complement to West Dean College’s existing range of conservation courses which are internationally renowned. We are excited to benefit from the British Library’s pre-eminent reputation in the care of books”.

West Dean College also offers a full time postgraduate Conservation of Books and Library Materials programme. For further information about the College’s conservation programmes please visit

Christina Duffy

28 September 2014

Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination

Our next major exhibition ‘Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination’ opening on 3 October 2014 will explore Gothic themes in art, architecture, literature, music, film and fashion. It will look at the impact British Gothic had, particularly in literature, on Europe and North America, and will explore our continuous fascination with the sublime, sinister and the supernatural in human nature – although ever present – first fully explored through the Gothic imagination.

The exhibition will be showcasing some key items from our collection including the first Gothic novel: The Castle of Otranto written by Horace Walpole* and published on Christmas Eve, 1764; hence the exhibition taking place this year on the 250th anniversary of its publication. It is rare that such classic items from our collection find their way to the conservation studio prior to major exhibitions as most such iconic items would have already undergone conservation in the past. I was therefore surprised, but at the same time very excited, when I saw The Castle of Otranto on the list of items requiring preparation for the exhibition.

The volume rests on a table. It has medium-brown leather which shows general signs of wear and tear with a gold crest at the centre of the left (front) board and gold lettering down the spine.
The leather bound volume of The Castle of Otranto with the original gold tooling on the front board showing Walpole’s coat of arms.

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Needless to say, the small leather bound book looked in pristine condition and the only work it
required was minor trimming of the guards (additional strips of paper attached to the spine side leaf edge) at the front of the book. The volume was probably re-backed about 25-30 years ago. The first few folia must have been loose, as they were re-sewn on guards which were left a little bit too long.

The book rests open showing paper guards sticking out roughly a centimetre onto the page.
The volume with guards before trimming.


The book rests open after the guards have been trimmed--the guards are no longer visible.
The volume with guards trimming.

CC by The volume with guards before and after trimming.

Other volumes for the exhibition required more conservation work including: boards, folia or spine
re-attachments, repair to binding edges or corners, and tear repairs to folia within the volumes. In
total, conservation received 35 items from our collection for preparation, and almost half of those
were volumes. For example, Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho had a loose front board, while the spine had to be repaired and re-attached on Beardsley’s The Yellow Book.

Mysteries of Udolpho rests on a table. It's cover is coming away from the spine, showing a section of the textblock. The cover appears heavily scuffed.
The Mysteries of Udolpho with a loose front cover


The Yellow Book rests on a table. It has a yellow cover with black text and decoration. The spine is coming away.
The Yellow Book before conservation.

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The Mysteries of Udolpho still has scuffed boards but they have been reattached.
The Mysteries of Udolpho after conservation.


The Yellow Book has had its spine reattached.
The Yellow Book after conservation.

CC by Both items after conservation.

The British Library has a rich collection of Gothic material, but a number of items, almost double the amount of items requiring conservation, will also be loaned for the exhibition from various museums, galleries, libraries and institutions across the United Kingdom. Conservation will be involved with condition checking prior to the exhibition for some of those items, while others will be checked on arrival. The key loans for the exhibition include paintings, posters, furniture, costume and film. Visitors can look forward to nearly 30 film posters, props from Stanley Kubrick’s film The Shining, photographs and investigative report from a haunted rectory, as well as a rare Limoges enamel casket belonging to Horace Walpole which depicts the murder of Thomas Becket.

On a personal level, I was very pleased to be asked to mount an engraving showing the view of
Strawberry Hill. Strawberry Hill was the eccentric and idiosyncratic home of Horace Walpole built in the Gothic revival style. His home was also the inspiration for his writings; most famously the
setting for The Castle of Otranto.

The print in its mount. The print shows a home surrounded by trees and a garden in black ink.
 The view of Strawberry Hill near Twickenham mounted in cream museum board.

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I first visited Strawberry Hill when it was still in the first phase of restoration, and was  fascinated by its history, significance in the development of the architectural style, connection to the Gothic novel and… the papier mâché ceiling! Horace Walpole once famously said that his buildings, like his writings, were made of paper and would be blown away 10 years after his death.** He obviously underestimated both the strength of paper and his writings, not to mention his lasting contribution to the new literary genre and the Gothic Revival in architecture.

The current exhibition will bring the story of Gothic to the present times, showing our enduring and continuous fascination with the romance of the medieval past, as well as the darker side of human nature and the supernatural!


Iwona Jurkiewicz

I would like to thank Tanya Kirk and Tim Pye, the curators for the exhibition, for their help with
the blog and the invaluable information provided on the content of the exhibition, as well as
references for the quotations included.


*Horace Walpole, the youngest son of Britain’s first Prime Minister, was a man of letters, historian,
collector and an influential social commentator and trendsetter of his times.

**Horace Walpole’s letter to his cousin, Henry Conway, on Aug 5 1761: 'My buildings are paper, like my writings, and both will be blown away in ten years after I am dead.' He also expressed a similar sentiment in a letter to Anne Fitzpatrick, Lady Ossory, on Aug 11 1778: 'I am no poet, and my castle is of paper, and my castle and my attachment and I, shall soon vanish and be forgotten together!'

23 September 2014

Meet Adopt a Book Conservator Rick Brown

In our last Adopt a Book conservators post, we introduced conservator Kim Mulder who has a special interest in large paper objects. Now, meet book conservator Rick Brown who joined the Library as an apprentice in 1984 and has been involved with the Adopt a Book scheme since it first began.

Rick Brown

I have been working in the conservation department on British Library collection items since September 1984: at the newspaper library in Colindale, at the Bloomsbury bindery (British Museum), on the 6th floor of St Pancras (British Library) and now in the purpose built Centre for Conservation situated at the back of the British Library St Pancras site.

I was taken on under an apprenticeship scheme which consisted of being taught by a journeyman (mentor) and attending a day release City and Guilds course at the Elephant and Castle London College of Printing.

In those days there was no such thing as a book conservator as the role was split into four disciplines; sewing, paper conservation, binding/box making and finishing (gold leaf lettering).

I was extremely lucky to be trained at the British Library (British Museum) at that time as the conservators, binders and finishers there were some of the most skilled in the profession. I have nothing but good memories of working with these people and I owe them so much.

We now undertake a minimal intervention approach; we conserve and repair just enough without removing any features of the item’s historical past. To do this you need to be fully skilled in all disciplines. Alongside scheduled work to treat items, we also undertake a programme of running repairs where items which have been identified as needing minor repairs come into the studio and are repaired in less than ten hours. One of the running repair items I’ve worked on is The Secret Garden (1911).


Watch Rick making repairs to The Secret Garden in this video about supporting the Library’s conservation work.

I have been involved in the Adopt a Book scheme since it first began; where a group of school children came to the Bloomsbury bindery for a visit and after seeing the work that was being carried out suggested that they fundraise for a particular book to be conserved. It was thought to be such a good concept that it was advertised as a gift idea. I remember seeing adverts for Adopt a Book on tube stations and inside tube train carriages. Books were conserved for the Adopt a Book scheme by all conservators until it was decided in 1998 to have a dedicated Adopt a Book team, for which I became manager.

Adopt a Book works in a different way now to when it started. The program now supports the work of our conservators rather than funding for an individual book to be repaired. This is a more sensible approach as it helps the future of conservation at the British Library and manages to conserve more items in the process.

Rick Brown stands at a table which has a large map on top of it. Tabs of paper have been adhered around all four edges of the map, and Rick inspects an area.
Rick working on one of the maps in our collection.

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From a memorial to a loved one who read a particular book to their children, to readers who used a book consistently whilst researching at the Library; I am still touched by some of the stories I hear for the reasons why people adopt books.

Rick Brown