03 January 2019
Exploring and Recording Textiles in the British Library Collections
Frances Casey, PhD Research Placement
It is perhaps not widely known that the British Library has a diverse and fascinating range of textiles which span all collection areas. These textiles range from fabric covers for Torah scrolls and silk escape maps of Berlin, to a Japanese children’s book resembling a baby in a sleeping bag and Captain Cook’s samples of bark cloth from the South Pacific Islands. Yet, despite the number of textiles in the collections, many of these have not been recorded or catalogued in their own right, although most have a Library shelfmark. If textile items have been catalogued in the Library, then their descriptions can be inconsistent.
Following on from an investigation by the Library’s Textile Conservator, Liz Rose, my role as part of the British Library’s PhD placement scheme was to identify textiles in the Library and record information about them into a textile specific database. This involved referring to and searching the Library catalogues, as well as liaising with curators across collections to view textile items, photograph them, and input their details into the textile database using the Library’s shelfmark system.
Despite the wide variety of textiles in the Library, it is possible to identify three general forms that they take in the collections. These can be loosely termed: Textual Textiles; Associated Textiles; and Component Textiles – although some can be a combination of these.
As the library is primarily concerned with written content as well as images and sound, books and manuscripts comprise the main part of the Library collections. In some cases, textiles can take the form of the text and image items. For example, the theatrical playbill shown here is printed on silk. This playbill is the ‘textual’ item of interest to the library.
Textile items can also be associated with written content or image items, although they may not form the specific item of interest to the Library. For example, the Torah mantle illustrated is associated with a written Torah. This mantle may have been re-used from another purpose, and so this textile potentially has an alternative history and associations, e.g. those of design, which are in addition to those of its role as a mantle. Associated textiles are often items that have been obtained by the Library alongside text or image items, i.e. they have not been collected in their own right.
Component Textiles: These can be Symbolic and Functional
Textiles can also be a component part of the text item: symbolic or functional. For example, the embroidered book cover shown here refers to the content of the bible through the symbolism of the cover design. It therefore has both a symbolic and functional role. There are many textile book jackets and doublures in the Library, and these textile features often add significance to the text content.
This placement research project has emphasised that textiles are part of the story of the objects in the Library. They have a relationship to the written content, and understanding them can help us to understand that content.
Although the British Library catalogues are a rich source of textile information, there is not one foolproof or consistent way of extracting textile information from them. It is helpful to cross reference catalogues for further information, in particular textiles can be found in the Explore, Archives and Manuscripts, Illuminated Manuscripts, Digitised Manuscripts and Bookbindings catalogues.
The Textile Database
The textile specific database has been designed to incorporate details of textile features, whilst also maintain a link and reference to the existing catalogue records. The information recorded in the database includes details of the Library Division/Department/Collection; Shelfmark; British Library catalogue description; Textile related description and components; and assessment photographs. At the moment, this database is only used for in-house Library reference by the textile conservator, but there may be the potential to make this information accessible to the public in the future.
During this research, 155 shelfmarks were recorded resulting in a total of 1,074 textile items identified in the textile database. The discrepancy between the shelfmark numbers and the number of textile items is due to the way in which more than one textile can be recorded under a single shelfmark. As a result of information gathered during the placement, there are 190 more shelfmarks to add to the database, and the records associated with these are prepared for continuation of this useful research.
In the future, the quantity of textile items recorded will continue to grow as items are discovered in the collections or acquired by the Library. As textiles are present in all collecting Divisions of the Library, and they continue to enter the collections, recording textiles is best seen as an ongoing activity rather than a finite project. Based upon the fact that textiles span the Library, it is likely that there are at least 10,000 textile items across the British Library collection, although this is likely to be quite a conservative estimate.
We are then left with the question, what use might this research be put to in the future? Once textile items are identified and located, it is possible to plan for their long-term care. Preventative conservation can take place and storage needs can be assessed. It is also possible to carry out remedial conservation work. For example, as a result of enquiries into textile items in the collections, the Cosmic Jain Diagram shown here was identified for treatment to reduce folds, stabilise flaking paint and rehouse.
Information about textiles also has the potential to enrich our knowledge about the Library’s collections. It can be used to develop research and inform Library exhibitions. Research which starts with textile information has the potential to draw out associations that we might otherwise miss. This placement project therefore lays a foundation to be built upon in the future.
For further information about textiles in the Library, or to book a tour of textile items, contact Liz Rose, Textile Conservator on [email protected]