Rob Sherman is the Interactive Fiction Writer-in-Residence for the current British Library exhibition Lines in the Ice. Part of his project involved inventing a new false history for a fictional explorer named Isaak Scinbank. With the help of our Conservation team, Rob created a journal which contained Scinbank's writings during his fictional voyage to the Arctic in 1852. Here Rob reflects on his time at the British Library.
Not many visitors to the British Library realise that the institution's political fulcrum lies hidden at the very rear of the St. Pancras complex, just past the staff restaurant and the windy, suntrap terrace.
This powerhouse is low-slung and decidedly shy for such an important building. Entering through the double glass doors at its front, a visitor is presented with a small museum to the work done inside.
During my time at the Library as writer-in-residence I was one of the few who could descend into the Conservation Centre, perhaps the most important cabinet in the Library's governance.
It is in this building, far away from the readers and the meeting rooms full of priceless paintings and the baize-carpeted hall of the executive suite that the real debate occurs. These are debates with the most incorrigible and old-fashioned of politicians; time.
Entering the private corridors of the Centre for the first time last year, I was accompanied by the closest to a party Whip that the conservators have; Dr. Cordelia Rogerson, the Centre's Head of Conservation and a specialist in plastics and textiles (two areas which I have barely any space or knowledge to consider here). She was giving me a tour to show me what it was that the conservators did. With relatively few exceptions, every unit of knowledge, discourse, history and artistry that the archives contain, every book and pamphlet and poster and tome, is slowly degrading. We have so abstracted these bricks upon which we build a culture that we easily forget what they are, materially; globsters, monsters, amalgams of different corpses.
Bookbinding has always used glue made from boiled bones, mashed trees and the skins of goats, whose unassuming little frames still dictate the standard sizing of our trade hardbacks. From the moment the book is bound it is dying a second death. The 'old book smell' is so fetishised that there are now colognes available which emulate it. Frankenstein and his monster are no more tortured than the vellum in which their first edition was published in 1818. Thinking this way, it is perhaps easier to imagine the Rooibos towers of the Library, so stately and sterile and civic from the surface, resting on a strata of almost-endless decay, a medicine cabinet full of slow-drying herbs, aging adhesives and mummified flesh.
The Library is a sarcophagus of knowledge.
From this organic perspective we may lend the conservators another role; that of the court embalmer, of Lenin's apparatchik, Mao's physician, keeping the cadavers moist and public for as long as possible so that those who come after can venerate them, divine what they need, and be able to say that they had been there, just like tourists.
Cordelia took me deeper into the building, past displays of golden tooling seals immortalised in cabinets like butterflies. We walked past labs full of test tubes and near-baptismal fonts of strange chemicals. Between the staff they possess every tool, modern and ancient, that they could need to help slow the inevitable degradation. They repair split spines, suture wounds in leather, and reconstruct text and gold leaf from almost nothing. I met one conservator, Maria, at her desk in the vast main room of the Centre, a cross between a surgery and a railway shed. She was attempting to resuscitate a Hebrew text from the 1400s which had, at some point in its ignominious existence, been submerged in water. Maria worked on that book with quiet, intricate confidence, and told me that she could save it, and it would be read again.
Her work, and the work of her colleagues, will never finish. With hundreds of millions of items in the archives in various states of decrepitude, some so advanced that they are at risk of being lost altogether, it is all the conservators can do to keep up. Work is allocated not in terms of books to save or projects to complete but in terms of hours spent; attempts are made, the best is done in some cases, and then they must move on to the next.
Cordelia introduced me to the two conservators with whom I would be working; Zoe and Royston both were as quiet and assured as Maria, with keenly open minds. Royston had worked at the Library for over 30 years and retired only a month or two ago, taking his incomparable, irreplaceable knowledge with him. It was after this meeting that I started to lay out exactly why somebody like me was there, and what it was that I wanted.
My project at the Library has been a petulant one, in which I essentially try to throw stones at the bedroom windows of history to get its attention. My artistic interests lie in how knowledge and rumour and rhetoric are transformed into unimpeachable historical record just by being written down, and what role the Library plays in storing and displaying such records for access. I was exploring these themes by attaching myself to the current exhibition at the Library, a diorama of Arctic exploration called Lines In The Ice, and inventing a new false history with all the attendant paraphernalia. I invented a polar explorer, and wrote songs about him, reams of false conjecture and essay, and drew maps of the journeys that he never took, parallel-parking him into the real stuff of the exhibition. It seems inevitable, then, that such an explorer needed a book of his own to legitimise him completely. I had come to the Conservation Centre to manufacture him one.
I wanted to make from scratch the journal that my explorer, Isaak Scinbank, would have written during his fictional voyage to the Arctic in 1852. My time at the Library has already impressed upon me the corporeality and authority of books, how very much the physicality of them affects how we interact with the information they contain. Because of this, I wanted the blank diary with which I was beginning to be as much a part of the story as Isaak's account written inside it. I described what I wanted to Zoe and Royston in the form of a 'biography' of the book, recounting not only its fictional creation but also its fictional journey through time to reach us in the present day. I designated it as a sort of fisherman's ledger, a present to Isaak from his father; clad in salmon-flesh leather, and embossed with the mark of its fictional publisher ('Thomas Whiflick, of Derby'). I described a large notch in its top edge, designed to be a rest for a gentleman's rods as he relaxed on the riverbank. More than this, I described the life of the book once its primary purpose was over; its existence since Scinbank had returned from the Arctic and died, passing through the hands of various collectors and dealers. I told of the times it had been forgotten and neglected, left to sit in the damp dark of a cellar, sat on and even used as a chopping board for a joint of beef. From this story Zoe and Royston began a complete reversal of their usual jobs as battlefield doctors, as undertakers and temple attendants; together we made Isaak's book, stitching and binding it, and then we began to simulate the infinitesimal, gradual torture which time enacts over hundreds of years. We had a few weeks.
I thought initially that the conservators would think me a bit kooky, or at the worst flippant about the difficult realities of their work. However to their credit they were as excited by the possibilities as I was, rejuvenated by this brief diversion from the Sisyphean task of patching, plastering and repairing. They took on the role of their nemesis with enthusiasm and began to pick apart what it was that made a book elderly or antique, where the beauty, rather than the nuisance, lay in that, and what stories they could tell separate from mine in the wrinkles, stains and folds of this old-not-old book. As every child everywhere knows, and we rediscovered, the best way to make a page look old is to dab it with a wet teabag; we didn't spare an inch of the book from the ministrations. The only element that we could not craft was that ambrosial, deathly smell of old paper. Apparently, the alchemy of that was beyond our skills.
The construction of the book took me to every corner of the Conservation Centre, and every facet of its work; from the handbinding cradles which made me feel as if I was lacing up somebody robust in a corset, to the storage rooms for the marbled paper which, when I went around opening the drawers and finding the ranked, swirling colours, seemed to me like a catalogue of oceans and explosions and nebulae. I met so many other talented artisans fighting the good fight, including Christina, the resident multispectral imaging minister. Her lab, a warm, silent sliver of a room filled with the always-drawn curtains, lamps and banks of machinery, has the air of an engine compartment, a police interrogation room and a disciplinary hearing in Westminster. It is here that the deepest, darkest corruptions of the Library's collections are revealed, at a microscopic detail that the Chilcot Inquiry can only dream of.
As I finish my time at the Library, and I grudgingly return my pass which got me through so many of the Centre's doors, I return to being a member of the public, a 'user' of the Library, with a realisation. As you can see, Zoe and Royston's work on my book is unequivocally art, not merely conservation. On display in the Lines In The Ice exhibition until the middle of April, our book sits alongside the 'true' artefacts of polar exploration almost imperceptibly, tricking the public without malice and camouflaging its story, its biography, amongst the degradation upon which the Library is built. In doing so it hijacks a small, respectful amount of the value, respect and meaning which the very old are due. The loveliness of this deception will be amplified when I finish Isaak's story, some day; then, the book will accessioned into the Library's archives, where it will begin to truly disintegrate rather than than just playing at it. One day even further in the future, the book will come back to its birthplace in the Conservation Centre, that squat building full of silent discourse and argument with the past, and plead its case.
It is in this way that I see the importance of the Centre's role at the Library taking on almost-legislative proportions. It is no secret that the public sector, of which the Library is a part, must now make do with less and less money as time goes on, even as the archives grow and the doddery old celebrities that they contain require even more work. The Conservation Centre is where such decisions on resources are made; it must be determined which books are to be rescued, where the hours will be spent and which items must, inevitably, wait until it is too late to save them. That book of Hebrew scripture was lucky, but in one hundred years Isaak's diary may not be as fortunate. It is a minor work, by three unheard-of artists. Who knows how difficult the choices that Cordelia's successor faces will be?
These thoughts are frightening ones, especially to those who believe in the immutability and the permanence of such collections. However, my time amongst the Conservation Centre's work has convinced me that such choices about what knowledge we shall retain and what shall be lost, and what will form the truth of the future, is being undertaken by the best people for the job. No matter how difficult time is to negotiate, how unbending and bullying, I know that the conservators will fight to make sure as much is saved as possible.
Even, I hope, those dog yoga books that I found in the archives, one bored Wednesday.