All sewn up: British Library colleagues work together to ensure the survival of 100 embroidered and textile bookbindings
Mary Horrell, Conservation Support Assistant, and Mark Oxtoby, Collection Care Workflow Coordinator
Ever wondered how centuries old textiles have endured whilst todayâ€™s t-shirt only lasts a season? Library colleagues from different departments have been working together to develop new ways to protect fragile embroidered and textile bookbindings.
The Felbrigge Psalterâ€™s decorative 14c covers (pictured below) are the oldest known examples of English embroidery on a book and a prime example of the type of binding this project is working to protect.
Although faded with areas of lost stitching the design is clearly visible. Luxury bookbindings like this have covers of fragile silk, satin, and velvet and are often decorated with pearls, sequins and gold and silver embroidery threads, all of which may require different approaches to conservation but should all be stored in a similar way.
The project to re-box collection items with â€˜at riskâ€™ embroidered and textile bookbindings has been ongoing since 2016 and has involved colleagues from various teams including; Conservation, Western Heritage Collections, Basements, Collection Care North and Reader and Reference Services.
C.108.aa.7: 17c English prayer book. The design has a stunning trompe lâ€™oeil effect which can still be seen despite the loose threads. The spine piece has also been lost.
The first step of the project involved Maddy Smith, Curator Printed Heritage Collections, and Philippa Marks, Curator Bookbindings, selecting around 100 bindings which needed attention and preparing a preservation bid. Traditionally these items were boxed to resemble leather bindings on a library shelf, stored in sometimes abrasive slipcases, or in tight drop-back boxes lined with woollen fabric.
Maddy Smith (left) and Philippa Marks (right) reviewing some embroidered bindings.
Philippa says: â€˜The Libraryâ€™s collection of textile bookbindings is so rich that the problem regarding selection was not what to include, but what to exclude! An important first step was to identify the books which had been boxed in the past or were not protected at all. Boxing provided an effective and practical solution historically, but we now know some elements of the construction can put bindings at risk. Today conservators have a choice of modern materials, all of which have been tested by Paul Garside, Conservation Scientist, and will remain stable and protect the textile and embroidered surfacesâ€™.
C.183.aa.6: enlargement of 16c English binding shows red and green embroidery threads, metallic coils and sequins which have oxidised (blackened).
At this point it was down to the Libraryâ€™s Textile Conservator Liz Rose to devise storage solutions to protect these fragile bindings. Liz was invited to attend an embroidered books rehousing workshop at the Herzogin Anna Amelia Bibliothek in Weimar, Germany, where conservators from Germany, France and Austria discussed storage and handling solutions for these delicate structures to both prolong their lifecycle and enable access.
Liz says: â€˜It was a privilege to be the only textile conservator invited to attend the workshop. The organiser, Jonah Marenlise HÃ¶lscher, from the Anna Amelia Bibliothek had visited St Pancras in early 2016.â€™
C.23.a.26: enlargement of late 16c binding design comprising pearls.
Following this workshop Liz pursued her idea of using standard sized phase boxes (these are archival storage boxes) lined with PlastazoteÂ®. The new boxes were made by Mark Oxtoby, Collection Care Workflow Coordinator in Boston Spa and then lined with removable PlastazoteÂ®, a type of foam. The bookbindings were wrapped in BondinaÂ® (a smooth polyester tissue used for conservation).
C.65.k.9; enlargement of centrepiece of 16c Italian embroidered prayer book.
During the following period Liz and her colleague Mary Horrell, Conservation Support Assistant, consulted with colleagues from other Library departments to ensure that the change from 18c methods to the new approach was approved by all. Prototype phase boxes and bespoke inserts were constructed.
Peter Roberts, Basement 2 Manager, says: â€˜The main consideration from the Operations side was how much extra storage space and what sort of storage would be needed when the items returned in expanded, padded boxes.'
â€˜We got an estimation of the expected dimensions, numbers and configuration of the new boxes from BLCC. We have begun moving four ranges of Case books (rare printed books) to provide enough shelf space to accommodate the new boxes and to ensure each item can be safely shelved. We recently attended a demonstration of the padded boxes so I will be able to brief my team on how to assemble the boxes and what to look out for if any parts go missing/get damaged with use.â€™
C.130.a.11; note the wear around the edges of the velvet covers of this 17c Danish binding and the raised decoration (called stump work). The clasps (in the shape of a face) would cause damage to neighbouring books if not boxed.
The consultation stage of the project is now almost complete and a collection handling morning has taken place where Liz and Mary demonstrated the new storage solution to colleagues across the Library.
Philippa concludes: â€˜I was so impressed by the way colleagues worked together, each using their individual skills and experience to ensure that these items, some of them 400 years old, last another 400 years ... at least!â€™
G.6319 19c French binding by Louis Janet. Enlargement shows the raised nap on the velvet covers at risk of abrasion.