Collection Care blog

05 October 2023

A day in the life of a book conservator

Last month we launched a fundraising appeal to raise vital funds for our conservation work. Discover how donations will support the work of people like Roger, one of our specialist conservators.

What does a day in your life look like, Roger?

There are over 170 million collection items at the Library so each day is different and no books are the same every week.

I usually spend five hours a day working on items. The rest of my time includes discussing solutions to solve problems on items and attending Topic Talks where my colleagues in conservation share their skills or give presentations.

I love the variation. For example, I recently started writing condition reports for exhibition items that go on display. This includes some photography and making notes of existing wear and tear on books.

How long does it take to conserve a book?

Something like rebinding a book could take 45 hours or more. This includes removing old glue from the spine, pulling out text block sections and resewing the binding. Any extra work like washing acidic paper, a type of paper which was widely used from the 1900s which turns yellow and brittle over time, adds hours of work. The greater the damage is on a book, the more work is involved.

What’s the biggest transformation you’ve made on a collection item?

These are my favourite pictures of my bookbinding work. It’s a Sale Catalogue by Southgate Auction Rooms from the 1800s which was in a very poor condition with both covers detached from the pages. The first two pictures show the item before treatment and the third shows the reattached spine and binding.

Spine and cover detached from book Bookspine2 Repaired book spine.

I’ve done many transformations on books, large and small, and these pictures show how a damaged item can get a new lease of life through conservation.

What are some of the challenges you face in conserving an item?

As a conservator, you need to be patient. I remember working on a newspaper with very weak acidic papers. You can see how brittle papers like these are in the picture of the fragments below.

I had to be careful to handle the item as when I lifted it, part of the newspaper cracked and fell off. I managed to restore it with Japanese tissue and wheat starch paste to re-enforce the strength of the paper. This treatment should extend the life of these newspapers so that they can be safely handled, which would not be possible without intervention.

Paper fragments in a plastic bag.

What’s an area you’d love to learn more about?

Cutting tools are really important for bookbinding. It’s important that they remain sharp so that you can cut and trim paper with precision. A book looks much better with nice trimming so I would love to learn more about knife and scissor sharpening, like how to sharpen French paring knives in the correct way.

What’s your favourite thing about working in conservation?

That you are always learning. Every day, I’m gaining more knowledge about all kinds of bookbinding materials and the different skills involved in bringing items back to life.

How to support Roger’s work

As a charity, donations help us make the most of our conservators’ incredible knowledge and talent for their craft.

By making a gift today, you could help Roger and his colleagues deepen their expertise through specialist training, helping them find new ways of bringing books back to life.

Visit bl.uk/appeal to donate now or find out more.

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