Collection Care blog

29 July 2020

A Book Conservator Without Any Books: Part 1

By Samantha Hare (Book Conservation Intern)

As I write this it’s been 134 days and 6 hours since I last stepped foot in the British Library (not that I’m counting or anything). I began a year-long internship in book conservation last November, arranged by Icon and funded by the Clare Hampson Fund. This experience has taken a drastic change over the last few months, as we as a nation have gone into lockdown. Instead, social distancing, PPE, Zoom Calls and Tiger King have all become part of our daily vocabulary. I have been reflecting upon how my internship has changed as we all continue in this uncertainty, questioning how the future of heritage is going to look over the coming months.

A black and white pencil drawing of the British Library building. The conference centre and piazza are also drawn. Her pencil is at the top of the photograph.

Image 1: My illustration of the British Library - drawn in my garden, can you tell I’m missing the building?

A bit more about me...

In 1997, at the age of four I decided I wanted to be a conservator. With my parents I visited Brighton pavilion and saw a woman restoring wallpaper, she patiently explained what she was doing and I sat and watched her. Since then I have wanted to work in heritage, but it wasn’t until my teenage years that I found out about book and paper conservation. Last summer I graduated from Camberwell College of Arts with an MA in Paper and Book Conservation (specialising in books and archives).

So conservation is a profession that not many people know about, and as an emerging professional it is always something I’m happy to explain. I was once asked at an interview how I would explain conservation to someone at a party, (remember those?!). I described conservation as the management of change, safeguarding collections and preserving items for future generations to view and receive knowledge and enjoyment from. Book conservators have an understanding of the mechanics of a book and its significance, be it culturally, visually, economically etc. They have a growing knowledge of the different binding processes, in order to conserve and care for those that are damaged, and an awareness of deterioration and how collections are altered by age. At a party I’d usually digress and say, I understand and fix old books, which really is only the tip of the iceberg.

My parents, both wonderfully patient and encouraging individuals just about have this explanation down when one of their friends asks ‘So what IS Samantha doing?’ However, lockdown has really confused my family and friends. Because how can I be a conservator if I can’t access the books?

Back to the present day...

At the British Library I was working on a variety of flat and bound works, including an Islamic manuscript, bound Civil War tracts, a 12th century parchment manuscript and a large guard book I am binding from scratch, assisted and taught by experienced conservators in the department. Currently these books are locked away safely in the Inergen room inside the library, whilst I’m at home under lockdown in Forest Hill, South East London, with my partner, two housemates and two cats.

Contrary to confused family faces over Zoom, a conservator at home still has a lot to do! When I applied for the internship at The British Library I was so excited to learn from so many incredibly talented conservators in the department that I would become a small part of. My colleagues and mentors have all trained at various times and in different places, resulting in a huge practical breadth of knowledge and experience displayed by my team and others. From November until lockdown began I received such wonderful training at my bench, and my internship was everything I thought it would be and more.

I have always been aware that there’s so much more to conservation than the practical work, despite that being my main area of interest. For example, the preventive side. Controlling the environment should be the primary and most fundamental care for any object extending to the storage and rehousing of volumes.

Entering lockdown I have seen the British Library shift to digital communication, maintaining their duty to provide mental nourishment for its online visitors. There have also been connections with the local community, such as conservation donating their PPE to frontline workers (usually used by us when dealing with chemicals or harmful substances such as mould in the quarantine room).

Upcoming exhibitions are an important consideration, from the organisation, storage, and loans; up to the installation of the objects with social distancing in place. Post-install, the rules for social distancing have changed how an exhibition can be viewed; during lockdown a large consideration has been the technical challenges that come with this, e.g. audio aids such as headphones and visual aids such as touch screens can no longer be used. As such museums and galleries are coming up with innovative alternatives. Through shadowing senior members of the conservation team in meetings I have seen just how many internal members of staff and departments come together in the curation and creation of an exhibition. I have also had a glimpse at the external teams involved, such as contractors and transportation companies responsible for the safe journey of an object to The British Library, many of whom are currently furloughed so unable to take part in strategising.

A large portion of a conservator’s time at home revolves around continuing professional development. This can take many forms, such as webinars, and online courses. Digitally I have learnt a wide range of skills and developed an understanding in areas such as historical imperfections to paper at the time of manufacture, the materiality of early Islamic bindings, pigments used around the globe to the possibilities of using x-ray scanners in conservation digitisation.

A photograph of Samantha's home desk showing an open laptop, a desk covered in notes, a mug of tea and her cat Reno yawning next to the laptop.

Image 2: A photograph of my desk, our cat Reno has also become a regular attendee of webinars and team meetings.

There has been continuation in my own research and many subgroups within the department furthering conservation methodology, as well as an opportunity for scientific tests and advancement, with scaled back tests being completed from home. I myself took part in a washing experiment, guided by textile conservation; I created samples with flaking pigments to test at home. One of my housemates was at the time baking banana bread (surely we all have by now?) so I used our bathroom. I created a washing bath in a plastic storage box, the only flat surface in the tiny bathroom being the toilet lid so I had to ask my housemates to alert me if they needed to use the facilities as I was ‘doing science’ in there.

A large portion of time has also been spent completing and updating risk assessments and health and safety procedures, an ongoing process within the department. There has also been an overview of workflows regarding conservation processes both internal and external to the library. Considering the decision making from acquisition, to the curator’s desk, to the conservator’s bench, to display in the galleries, to a reader’s request. Like most people working from home I have spent the majority of my time at a computer, but I have also been developing my practical skills at home, maintaining dexterity and my hand skills so that when I can safely return to my bench my practical skills don’t feel like a distant memory.

Some endband and binding models Samantha has made at home. The images show tools, scissors, a ruler, some pins and threads with some finished and unfinished endband work.

Image 3: Some endband and binding models I’ve made at home.

These are just some of the areas I’ve been focussing whilst in lockdown, showing the diverse skills possessed by conservators whose knowledge has to cover this wide field. As we’ve adapted to working in the great indoors, my tool roll has remained mostly untouched except for the odd brush or needle. This has allowed me to evaluate the non practical tools a conservator equips themselves with when they are away from their bench. There are too many to list so I have instead tried to capture this in an illustration of my tool roll.

Samantha's black and white pencil illustration of a conservators tools, inscribed with the tools a conservator uses away from their bench. Some pencil shavings are shown in the top right of the photograph.

Image 4: My illustration of a conservators tools, inscribed with the tools a conservator uses away from their bench.

My diary is filling up with plans for the next few months as we take the first hesitant step out of lockdown, surrounded in uncertainty for the future of heritage. Further updates about that in Part 2.

In the meantime if you wish to see more please follow my instagram @samanthahareconservation.

Thanks for reading and stay safe!

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