Collection Care blog

08 October 2020

Learning to Communicate: Before and After Lockdown

Samantha Cawson, Digitisation Conservator

The conservation profession takes skills sharing seriously and so the need to open up channels of communication is essential. This is especially true of The British Library’s Centre for Conservation (BLCC), which has collaborated with institutions all over the world, most recently with China and Palestine. But locally, the BLCC has Deaf members of staff and runs a very popular programme of British Sign Language and audio descriptive tours.  These tours are a great way for our visitors to enjoy our collection items and to get an understanding of the work that goes into preserving them; providing a unique opportunity to ask questions and to sometimes handle conservation tools and materials.

Before

Back in February we invited VocalEyes to the BLCC to run a two-day audio description training workshop in order for our tour guides to gain greater self-confidence and to really perfect their presenting skills for our blind and partially sighted (BPSP) visitors. The training was excellent, and covered topics such as visual awareness training, guiding techniques, guide dog etiquette, and an introduction to Description.

One of the practical exercises was to consider some of the challenges that arise when describing spaces, objects and techniques.  We gave individual presentations to the rest of the group who listened with their eyes closed, exploring terms and vocabulary to get a better sense of how the Tours and BLCC experiences might be received.  This brought up some interesting findings. The first was that it isn’t always obvious what something is just by naming it. This was the case when I began talking about my trusty Teflon bone-folder (pictured and described below). I began by describing the material and size, however didn’t clarify why it was called a bone-folder, which to someone who has never seen or used one, the name itself sounds rather gruesome. It was suggested that this tool required further explanation; for some practical items description becomes easier to comprehend if you include what it is used for, how it works and perhaps a little historical context…something I’ll take into account next time!

A hand is holding a white teflon bone-folder. In the background there is an 18th century manuscript.

Figure 1: This is my Teflon bone folder. I use it to flatten my repairs as it doesn’t burnish or stick to my repair tissue. Original bone folders would’ve been made using cattle bone, hence the name, and is used by bookbinders and conservators for making strong sharp creases in paper. Both styles are used within the studio today and are considered a must have tool. You see, not so grim with a little additional information!

Another interesting topic discussed is how to describe colour. Some blind or partially sighted people are born with some sight, and will retain some memory of colour. Many will be able to see colours and shapes; some will have central or peripheral vision. Even those who were born blind are likely to understand the cultural significance of colour, and so during our training we were encouraged to embrace it within our descriptions, as well as to use a vivid, varied and memorable vocabulary in general. For instance, red may signify passion, richness or heat. Green might indicate freshness, jealousy or decay. This topic made me rather nervous at first, however over time I’ve enjoyed the challenge of creating interesting colour descriptions, which can really bring an object to life. I’m now excited to try and describe the pigments and pages of the library’s collection, some of which are still so vivid and exciting even after hundreds of years!  I’ve included a photograph of a particularly colourful illuminated manuscript which was part of the Pre-1200 digitisation project. How would you describe the colours? They remind me of a bag of mouth-watering sweets!

The left hand page of a highly pigmented illuminated manuscript. There is an illustration of a saint with a golden halo, wearing vibrant draping robes in a variety of pastel shades. There is a soft, pond green border.

Figure 2: Add MS 46487 Digitised as part of the Pre-1200 project.

Another area of the training that I was looking forward to was identifying objects which could be handled and passed around the tour group, allowing someone to get a better understanding of the weight, texture and shape of something being discussed. We explored a variety of different possibilities that could be utilised. Here are a few examples:

Japanese Repair Tissues

Japanese repair tissue comes in many different weights and textures, which a conservator will choose accordingly to be as sympathetic to the original weight and look of the damage area being treated. Over the years I have accumulated a scrap box full of tissue. In the future I hope it will be a great resource to pass around a group, whilst explaining why and how we use them!

A small box overflowing with different types of scrap pieces of Japanese repair tissue. The tissues differs in thickness, colour and texture.

Figure 3: My box of scrap pieces of Japanese tissue.

A hand holds a very fine piece of Japanese tissue. It is so thin and delicate that the hand is fully visible through the matrix of the tissue.

Figure 4: You can just about feel the texture of this very fine kozo tissue!

Finishing Tools

Another great example presented itself during a gold tooling demonstration. This experience not only has the benefit of visitors being able to hold and feel the weight and shape of a finishing tool (and we have so many exquisite examples of them!) but also provides the smells of tools being heated, and the great sizzling sound that identifies when the tool is hot enough to be used. This made for an excellent multi-sensory experience.

A hand holds a heavy metal finishing tool. The tool has the words British Library in a large font type fitted within it. The tool looks well used.

Figure 5: A finishing tool (not heated!).

Binding Examples

And of course a British Library conservation tour wouldn’t be complete without describing different binding styles. We have various binding examples specifically made to present the different sewing techniques, supports and materials utilised when creating a book. It’s a great resource to pass around a group as the ridges and materials of the sewing structure can be easily felt and identified; A great tool for most tours, and a way to appreciate the behind the scenes structure of a book. 

 conservator is holding an example book, which doesn’t have a cover or spine so that the sewing is exposed. The image focuses on the variety of different sewing supports and sewing techniques that could be utilised when binding a book.

Figure 6: A binding with examples of sewing on a variety of tapes and cords that could be used to construct a volume.

On the whole this workshop was a great learning experience. It provided us with new knowledge and confidence, and a greater sense of understanding of how important our presentation skills are to perform a coherent and pleasurable experience for all. But honestly, this course taught me how to describe and achieve the ‘WOW factor’ when bringing to life our beautiful and interesting collections, as well as giving a sense of the passion and expertise that the staff have at the BLCC.

After

One effect of the Covid19 lockdown has been the increased awareness of how important communication is to our well-being. For me and others this has been an interesting and sometimes creative process, as well as highlighting how communication needs to be responsive and inclusive. Having just completed the VocalEyes training and with an unknown amount of time working from home stretched out before me, I decided to continue working on my communication skills and began an online British Sign Language (BSL) course.

A laptop is on a small table in a working from home environment. The laptop screen shows a BSL teacher signing the word 'librarian'. Next to the laptop are two small boxes labelled 'BSL test cards'.

Figure 7: First things first, how to sign ‘library’!

The course covered a whole range of topics such as greetings, numbers, rooms and furniture in the home, colours, weather, travel and jobs. Despite this I still have a long way to go before having a fully coherent conversation using BSL with Deaf colleagues in the conservation studio, or with Deaf and hard of hearing tour visitors. But as the library staff slowly begins to occupy our sites, I look forward to being able to continue the learning process through informal everyday practice (perhaps I’ll even learn how to sign bone-folder!), and hopefully once our tour programme resumes I can put all of these new communication skills to the test!

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