All sewn up: British Library colleagues work together to ensure the survival of 100 embroidered and textile bookbindings
The Felbrigge Psalter’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 ‘at risk’ 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.
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.
Philippa says: ‘The Library’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 surfaces’.
At this point it was down to the Library’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: ‘It was a privilege to be the only textile conservator invited to attend the workshop. The organiser, Jonah Marenlise Hölscher, from the Anna Amelia Bibliothek had visited St Pancras in early 2016.’
Following this workshop Liz pursued her idea of using standard sized phase boxes (these are archival storage boxes) lined with Plastazote®. The new boxes were made by Mark Oxtoby, Collection Care Workflow Coordinator in Boston Spa and then lined with removable Plastazote®, a type of foam. The bookbindings were wrapped in Bondina® (a smooth polyester tissue used for conservation).
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: ‘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.'
‘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.’
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: ‘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!’