THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Collection Care blog

33 posts categorized "Bindings"

21 November 2016

The Conservation and Spectroscopic Analysis of a Burmese Concertina Binding

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Background

Last year I was asked to conserve a high profile, yet highly degraded late 18th century Burmese Concertina binding (OR.3591). Almost everything that could go wrong with a paper-based manuscript had gone wrong with this. It was mouldy, it had pest damage, the media was coming off the paper, and there were significant losses of the paper substrate which had compromised its handling and legibility. Consequently the item was deemed ‘unfit’ for use by the British Library, and was in desperate need of conservation.

Concertina Bindings

A concertina binding, also known as an accordion binding, is a binding method that sits somewhere between a modern sewn book and an ancient scroll. Concertinas are customarily a long sheet (see Diagram 1), or multiple adhered sheets (see Diagram 2), folded vertically into panels, which can then either be displayed as a continuous sheet, or picked up and read like a book (making it far easier to handle than the often cumbersome scroll).

A hand-drawn diagram of a concertina binding using one continuous sheet of paper.
Fig. 1 A concertina binding like OR.3591, formed of one continuous sheet of paper.

 

A hand-drawn diagram of a concertina binding showing how multiple pieces of paper are folded and adhered together to create the binding.
Fig.2 A concertina binding formed of multiple sheets adhered together.

 

A bird's eye view of the book showing the wooden boards with geometric carvings.
Fig.3 OR.3591 The carved relief wooden end board.

 

A close-up view of the folded pages which are deteriorated and torn.
Fig.4 OR.3591 Stratified, highly deteriorated concertina folds.

 

OR.3591

This concertina was formed of one continuous sheet of handmade light brown long-fibred eastern paper (see Diagram 1), folded into 24 panels, between two dark wood boards with carved relief designs. Coloured paint and inks on a white ground adorned both sides of the paper. Side A illustrated Buddhist cosmology and side B illustrated fortune telling. The manuscript was acquired from a collector by the British Museum in 1888. The accompanying letter reads:

This book was found by me in the Laywun hut at Thatwé which is about 20 miles S.E of Yamethin in upper Burmah. Thatwé was occupied on the 10th December 1886 by a column of the 3rd Brigade under the command of the Brig. Gen W.S.A Lockhart.

The Burmese interpreter informed me that the pictorial side represents the progress of a saintly man from the nethermost regions to the acme of all goodness. One man shown upside down is the supposed after reaching an exalted position, to have led an immoral life for which he was sent down.

The tables on the reverse are those from which the horoscopes are worked out- every Burman always carries a horoscope."

P.D Jeffreys Lt. Col.
The Connaught Rangers
Late Brigade Major
3rd Brigade Burmah Field Force

The first page of the letter written on white paper with dark ink.
Figs. 5 & 6 OR.3591 Accompanying letter from L t. Col Jeffreys.
The second and third page of the letter.
Figs. 5 & 6 OR.3591 Accompanying letter from L t. Col Jeffreys.



Condition: the paper

The two halves of the concertina manuscript. The pages show a shrine drawn in red and yellow in the centre, with text on either side. The pages are severely damaged.
Fig.7 OR.3591 Manuscript torn into two parts.

 

The paper was soft, weak and fragile to handle, distorted, holey and creased. The manuscript was in two parts, having torn down one of the fold-lines. There were also extensive losses on each panel, due in part to rodent damage.

The manuscript had also obviously been exposed to water at some point in its lifetime as there were clusters of black spots, which were identified as inactive mould. The water had also stuck the folded panels together, which had later been forced apart, skinning (or tearing off) the top layers of the paper, leaving them stuck to the opposing panels.

A close-up showing damaged pages.
Fig.8  OR.3591 Skinned, creased and torn panel edge with off-set accretions and media.
A close-up of a water damaged page.The text is smudged and a darkened tideline is visible.OR.3591 Water damaged media and inactive vegetative mould.


Condition: the media

Water damage had also solubilised the media, causing it to smudge and offset again onto apposing panels. When examined under microscopy the paint was powdery or ‘friable’ and was coming off the paper, suggesting the paint’s binder was exhibiting stronger cohesive rather than adhesive properties, and had ultimately failed in its utility.

The image on the left shows a tear in the page and powdery media, while the image on the right shows media with has off-set.
Left: Fig.10  OR.3591 Friable powdery pigment media. Right: Fig.11  OR.3591 Example of visually obstructive off-set media on opposing panels.

 

Pigment Analysis via p-XRF Spectroscopy

Portable X-ray Fluorescence (p-XRF) Spectroscopy is a non-destructive elemental analysis technique for quantification of nearly any element from Magnesium to Uranium, which enables conservation professionals to identify pigments. Precisely identifying pigments governs the succeeding conservation treatment as some pigments can be adversely affected if treated incorrectly - for example some discolouration if exposed to some solvents. Identifying the pigments also gives invaluable insight into the history, materiality and manufacture of the manuscript.

The manuscript sits below a p-XRF during testing.
Fig.12  OR.3591 Analysing pigments via use of p-XRF spectroscopy.

 

P-XRF analysis was carried out using a Bruker ‘Tracer-III SD’ portable device, and the resulting data was then compared against suitable reference data to determine the identities of the pigments. Four pigments from the manuscript were examined: red, white, yellow and green. In addition, the composition of the underlying paper was also assessed, and this datum was used as a ‘background’ so its influence could be removed from the results.

The data suggested that the four pigments are: red - vermilion; white - lead white; yellow - orpiment;
green - orpiment plus an organic blue (possibly indigo).

* Elements given in parentheses are present in minor quantities.

A table of the results from p-XRF testing.
Fig.13  OR.3591 p-XRF spectra.

 

Treatment

The manuscript was first photographed, and then the media cross-sectionally solubility tested with deionized (D/I) water, ethanol and a 50:50 mix. All media was soluble in water and 50:50.

Mould reduction

The dry surface mould was brushed gently with a sable brush into a HEPA filtered vacuum according to COSHH standards. Extreme care was taken during this process to limit loss of original media. To ensure absolute mould deactivation, the recto and verso of mould damaged areas were treated via local application of ethanol using a fine brush.

Humidification

The manuscript was humidified in a controlled environment using a blotter, Bondina and Gore-Tex stack covered with a polythene sheet. This process relaxed the paper and reduced its distortions, enabling me to accurately realign the fibres, creases and tears using tweezers.

The manuscript lies unfolded on a table on top of humidified Gore-Tex and under polythene sheeting during humidification.
Fig.14  OR.3591 Humidifying the manuscript.

 

Media consolidation

Straight after humidification the media was consolidated. Jun-Funori, a pure Japanese algae-based consolidant was made up to a 1.4% and inserted into a nebulizer. The nebulizer, which dispersed the consolidant in a fine mist, was then passed cross-sectionally over each panel on each side. The process was repeated twice until friable pigment was sufficiently consolidated, and the manuscript was left to dry. Jun-Funori was selected for the consolidant because it has documented success at consolidating friable media and it has a low refractive index so it is suitable for matte pigments. When emitted via nebulizer the particles penetrated between the friable pigments, adhering them to the paper.

The manuscript lies on a table while a conservator uses a nebulizer with a fine tip to spray a consolidant to preserve the friable media.
Fig.15  OR.3591 Consolidating the friable media with Jun-Funori emitted in a fine mist via nebulizer.

 

Structural consolidation

A Japanese kozo paper ‘Nao 2.2’ was selected for infills and repairs due to colour, weight and availability. The paper was not toned as this would have taken up a large amount of time, and its likely inconsistency would have been more visually distracting than the selected paper.

The tears and holes were repaired with the kozo paper, torn and trimmed so the edges were neat but fibrous, and adhered with wheat starch paste (WSP). The losses were infilled with three layers of the paper, needled out along the loss edge, and adhered onto the manuscript again with WSP. This tri- laminate infill was of equal-weight to the manuscripts paper as desired.

The manuscript lies on a table during the infill process.
Fig.16 OR.3591 The manuscript consolidated with Nao 2.2 kozo tri-laminate infills adhered with wheat starch paste.

 

The two halves of the manuscript: one has undergone conservation treatment with its losses infilled, and the other half still showing losses and tears.
Fig. 17 OR.3591 The 2 parts of the manuscript, part 1 post conservation treatment, part 2 pre-conservation treatment. 

 

The infills were trimmed with a straight-edge and scalpel and the manuscript refolded using a bone folder. The manuscript was finally re-housed in its original (cleaned) box.

On the left, a conservator uses a bone folder to make creases in the repaired manuscript, and on the right the manuscript is being folded.
Figs.18 & 19  OR.3591 Folding the conserved manuscript back into its original concertina format.

 

The overall treatment took 113 hours, due to the sheer size of the object and the number of infills that needed to be carried out. The manuscript is now back in use and can be requested by readers - job done!

A birds-eye view showing the conserved item back in its box.
Fig.20 OR.3591 The conserved item having been returned to its original box.

 

A close-up of the volume's foredge showing its repaired pages.
Fig.21 OR.3591 Foredge showing consolidated concertina folds.  



The manuscript is opened to a section showcasing the infills.
Fig.22 OR.3591 A section of the conserved manuscript.

 

Another section of the manuscript following repair.
Fig.23 OR.3591 A section of Side B showing Burmese horoscopes.

 

The manuscript unfolded on a table.
Fig.24 OR.3591 The completed manuscript.

 

Another section of the book.
Fig.25 OR.3591 A section of Side A showing Buddhist cosmology.

 

Another section following repair.
Fig.26 OR.3591 A section of Side B showing the extent of infills that were required.

 

Daisy Todd

31 October 2016

Talk: Fabric of the Library: discovering textile conservation

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Feed the Mind is a series of inspiring lunchtime talks exploring the rich diversity of collaborative research taking place at the British Library. Fabric of the Library: discovering textile conservation takes place on Monday 7 November at 12.30 pm in the Eliot Room, Conference Centre, British Library.

I am Liz Rose, textile conservator at the British Library and I am giving a talk about the textiles I have found in the British Library collections and some of those I have treated. This amazing collection ranges from a contemporary book to a 4th century piece of silk and many beautiful objects in between.

Tickets are £5 and can be booked here.

There will be an opportunity for questions and discussion, all in the space of your lunch-break. I have included a couple of images to whet your appetite but don’t forget the free tea, coffee and cakes!

A book likes open to a page which shows off a blue garment made of fabric.
Or 9430 Image copyright the British Library Board



The cover of a book which is covered in a red velvet covering.
C 24 d 5  Image copyright the British Library Board

 

 

17 October 2016

From West to East: Conservation of the Chinese novel ‘Dream of the Red Chamber’

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By Heather Marshall

Six volumes arrived in the Conservation studio at the British Library. They are all bound in Western style bindings, quarter bound in dark blue leather and marbled paper, and they are very much in the format and style with which you will be familiar when looking at a traditional book.

A volume rests open, showing the Chinese characters of the textblock and the boards with marbled paper on either side.
One of the six volumes, open, showing the restricted opening, detached boards and spine piece.



I discovered that these volumes contain one of the greatest Chinese novels: the Dream of the Red Chamber (in Chinese: Hong lou meng), written by Cao Xueqin in the 18th century. This edition (British Library shelfmark: 15333.a.1) was made during the Qing dynasty, and it is dated 1811. It is a printed item.

The Dream of the Red Chamber is also called ‘The Story of the Stone’ (in Chinese: Shi tou ji) and it is one of China’s greatest classic novels. Written during the Qing dynasty, this work is widely recognised as one of the pinnacles of Chinese fiction. It narrates the story of two branches of a wealthy aristocratic family (the Jia family) and gives us a vivid account of the Chinese culture and society at that time, portraying funerals, rites, cuisine and medicine aspects.

However, it is relatively unknown in the West, despite the fact that the first translation into English was produced in 1812, just one year after the production of this Chinese copy. It is curious that the original item has at some point been rebound in Western style. The size of the novel is remarkable and when bound in Western style it arrived at 23 fascicules in 6 volumes! The current Penguin books edition is longer than War and Peace!

Books and other collection items in libraries often go through several transformations by being put into a number of different bindings in their several hundred year lives. This can vary from complete rebinding from one style to the next or an amalgamation of styles, through different repairs deemed necessary over the years.

Until recent years, when an item from East Asia was ingested in a Western library’s collection, it was usually rebound with Western style technique, including a hard cover with a spine, which usually contained the title in English. It was in fact believed that in this way the items would have been better stored on the shelves and the paper would have been more protected from dust or humidity. The same happened for the British Museum Library’s items from China (now the British Library’s Chinese collection).

The British Library Lead Curator for East Asian Collections, Sara Chiesura, has informed us that more recent and contemporary acquisitions are left with the original binding and put in a custom made box for shelving. This approach goes along with the current conservation trends, which tends to intervene as little as possible on the original items, and to adopt non-invasive techniques to stabilise them.

As a Book Conservator making decisions about the type of repairs needed to a fragile or damaged binding can be very complex and you will always need to consider the evidence which gives the story of the past. Do you keep a book in its current format and make repairs? Sometimes, in fact, even if the Western style binding is not ideal for East Asian items, the binding itself becomes part of the history of the item, and can sometimes reveal information about previous owners or collectors.

Would a new binding be better able to protect the book for the future and honour its history too instead?

The repair work on these Chinese items became therefore a rare case at the British Library. After a discussion with the curators, we decided that the ‘Dream of the Red Chamber’ would have been taken out of its current western style bindings and been put into a Chinese style thread bindings, housed in wrap around ”Tao” cases. Using strong, archival materials, the 6 volumes (23 fascicules in their original format) deserved the sympathy of a return to their origins and a non-Western approach was the best option for the original fragile, thin paper and the need for gentle opening and a secure binding.

As with many Chinese books that have been rebound in Western style, the tight hard binding in contrast to the fragile and this Chinese paper often does not work. In this case, the solid animal glue at the spine created a tight opening and did not allow the bindings to open far enough to see all the text. The detached boards and spines caused much damage as well.

The volume rests on the table, showing the spine stripped of animal glue.
One volume after the animal glue was removed from the spine, clearly showing the divisions into fascicules of the original Chinese book and leaving the evidence of the more recent Western style binding.



Working with the item, I immediately noticed some original holes (in the paper text block), which gave me evidence of where the original Chinese thread sewing was. I could therefore reuse these original holes to recreate the sewing for the Chinese binding, tracing back the binding’s original state.

The so-called “Thread Binding” was the usual Chinese binding format in 1811. It is strong and the sewing rarely breaks. Thread bound fascicules in wrap around cases (known as “Tao” cases) would last indefinitely. They allow the flexible pages of each fascicule (which are double sheets, with the fold where the pages are turned) to open flat under their own weight and not be restricted by the spine.

The treatment stages:

Pages of the book lay open, with a loss evident and Japanese paper cut into the shape of that loss, ready for repair.
Open fascicule showing repairs to be made with Japanese tissue.



The spine of one volume.
Repairs were made (with wheat starch paste, a neutral adhesive and Japanese tissue) to the delicate spine edge which is still partly glued together by the animal glue used on the previous Western binding.



A close up of pages from one volume.
Detail showing remains of the original paper twists and their holes.



The paper twists are used to bind the loose leaves of each fascicule before it is sewn. They are made from a twist of paper pointed at one end and in this case inserted in two places into each fascicule. The Chinese style binding is very strong and the paper twists are often thought of as an ‘inner binding’. They hold each fascicule together before sewing and can act as a back up to the sewing if it breaks.

A close up of pages of a book, showing paper twists coming through two holes.
Paper twists inserted.

 

A close up of the trimmed paper twists coming through the pages.
Trimmed paper twists.



One volume has had their spine re-stitched.
One stitched fascicule.



Each of the 23 fascicules were re-stitched using the 4 existing sewing holes, using a strong linen thin thread. Extra care was taken to re-use these holes by sewing with a very blunt needle. The needle then finds the hole and eases gently through without causing any damage to the fragile paper.

Four rebound fascicules lay stacked on top of one another.
Traditionally thin silk (lined with paper) is folded around the corner of each fascicule to protect the corners and give another source of strength. In this particular case aero cotton was lined with Japanese paper.

 

A hand holds the stack of four re-sewn fascicules.
Re-sewn fascicules (with corners and covers).



A hand opens one volume to show the pages.
Flexible opening.

 

The four fascicules sit stacked on a table, while some of the first pages of the top volumes are lifted open.
The four fascicules stacked and showing the textblock from the bottom.

Cases (Tao style cases) were custom made to ensure the fascicules have a snug fit and give very good protection to the book. It is a big advantage of the Chinese style of binding that the elements work together but can also be separated. The wrap around case has to be exactly the correct size. If it is too tight the fascicules can bend, if it is too loose fascicules may fall out! These cases were often remade several times in the book’s life. In this case strong, archival materials have been used so correct storage and handling will ensure good protection for the fascicules and cases in the future.

A close up of the case showing the cloth and bone peg.
The wrap-around case is made of board covered in cloth, lined with paper, and then fastened with bone pegs.



Four fascicules in their wrap-around case.

“Chinese Book” is the expression used for the whole object. For this copy of the ‘Dream of the Red Chamber’ 23 individually bound fascicules were encased in 6 wrap around cases (keeping with the format of the 6 western style volumes which arrived in the studio).

The six wrap around cases sitting on a table.

With thanks to Sara Chiesura for input on this post.

Bibliography:

Atwood, Catherine, ‘Japanese folded sheet books: Construction, materials and conservation’ in The Paper Conservator, papers from the 10th anniversary conference, 14-18 April 1986, part 2

Helliwell, David ‘The Repair and Binding of Old Chinese Books’ in The East Asian Library Journal, Spring 1998, Vol. VIII, no. 1

Ikegami, Kojiro, ‘Japanese Bookbinding’ adapted by Barbara B. Stephan, Wetherhill, London, 11th edition 2007

Wood, Michael, ‘Why is China’s greatest novel virtually unknown in the west?, in The Guardian, 12th February 2016

04 October 2016

Conservation code cracking: finding meaning in hidden symbols

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Everyone loves a good puzzle - and this was definitely found to be the case when Flavio Marzo, conservation team lead for the Qatar/British Library Project, sent an email around to colleagues with a series of mysterious symbols attached. What did they mean? The ancient doodles were uncovered by Flavio during conservation work of a manuscript from the Delhi Collection. Could the code be deciphered by British Library experts? Flavio reports.

Digitisation processes can be quite repetitive. Here at the British Library Qatar Digitisation Project we try to achieve the best we can and this means a lot of quality checks to ensure high levels of efficiency through standardised processes.

There is no difference in our approach to the conservation strand of these digitisation projects. Standardised treatments are applied daily to a great number of items that are processed and prepared to enable a good final result and to ensure safe handling of library material. Unsurprisingly, these items are unique and their content extremely fascinating.

Recently, as part of the material scoped for the second phase of the project, I had to repair a manuscript before imaging and uploading onto the Qatar Digital Library.

This manuscript contains two mathematical treaties bound together dating back to the beginning of the XVIII century. It was in need of conservation treatment because the sewing of a previous restoration attempt was impairing the opening making some of the text inaccessible and impossible to be imaged.

The manuscript is one of 36 scoped for the project belonging to the Delhi Collection. The Delhi Collection encompasses more than 2900 manuscripts stored across the British Library. The manuscripts are all that is left of the Imperial Mughal Library that was acquired by the English run Government in Delhi after the final destruction of the Delhi Red Fortress.

Those texts are now finally becoming available to readers for the first time thanks to the surrogates that we are uploading onto the Qatar Digital Library website. They all are in very poor condition and for this reason many of them have never been made available to readers in our reading rooms.

The prime concern for conservation when treating items is to find the right balance between the level of intervention necessary to make a book strong enough to be safely handled while still preserving the unique and invaluable physical features related to its history and use. These concerns are even more apparent for the Delhi Collection manuscripts since their history and the vicissitudes relating to their move to London are still quite confused.

This manuscript and the treatments carried out to conserve it are a very good example of how challenging it can be to decide what to do and where to stop, but also a very unique case of a fascinating discovery. When the little manuscript (measuring just 182 mm high, 120 mm long and only 7 mm thick) was brought to the studio its book block was detached from its cover.

 

The manuscript rests on a table.
At a certain point of its life the manuscript was restored and a new over-casted sewing was made to keep the loose, badly damaged pages together.



 

 

A digitally-drawn diagram showing how the volume was constructed.
Diagram of the construction of the book block and the full leather cover.




This new sewing, even if achieving its purpose, was badly impairing the opening of the book making some of the marginal notes illegible.

 

 

Two side-by-side images show how some of the text had been sewn into the gutter.
Annotation disappearing into the gutter before (left) and after (right) the removal of the over-casted sewing passages.



 

We know from historical sources that these manuscripts were moved from Delhi to Calcutta for evaluation in the view to be then transferred to London; it was during this time that they were left neglected and befell extensive damage. It was most likely around the same time that the manuscripts were crudely restored and the present cover was applied to the text.

Changes are unavoidable during restoration processes, but conservation is committed to keeping this to a minimal level and always trying to preserve evidence of past treatments while keeping detailed treatment documentation.

After consultation with the curators it was decided to remove the over-casted sewing to improve the opening. The passage holes of the sewing thread were left undisturbed and even the passages of thread on the first and last sheets, not causing any harm to the book, were left and secured in place with wheat starch paste.

Unfortunately most of the pages of the two small manuscripts, repaired even before this last restoration campaign, became loose with no clear evidence of the original construction of the sections.

Many of the sheets were attached to each other at the inner joint and it was decided, after discussion with the curators, to keep this arrangement since no other evidence of thread passages was found. New joints were made with Japanese paper to create the bifolia for the quires.

 

A digitally-drawn and colour-coded diagram of the manuscript's construction after conservation.
Diagram of the construction of the manuscripts after conservation.

 

Diagram of the construction of the manuscripts after conservation.

The three sections were sewn together with an unsupported sewing using the holes found in only three conjoint bifolia. This is represented in the previous diagram by continuous black lines.

The different layers of original spine lining were re-adhered as they were originally. The end leaves were re-connected to the book-block by gluing them along the spine edges to the first and last leaves of the book, as they were previously.

Only the front right paste down, originally attached to the inner face of the board was left detached and this was due to a very interesting discovery. During the conservation treatment of the end-leaves some hidden manuscript annotations came to light.

 

The manuscript is open to the right board, showing the signatures and scribbles.
The right board of the cover was made from reused manuscript material. A couple of signatures (now under investigation) appeared, accompanied by what looked like a series of squiggles almost entirely hidden by the leather cover.



 

After a more careful examination it became clear that these symbols were actually much more than simple doodles. I decided to figure out how to decode them.

Two images which show arrows pointing to the scribbles and the leather lifting away to reveal more.
The line of symbols emerged partially obscured by the turn in of the leather cover on the fore edge of the inner right board.

An email was written with images attached and it was sent to all colleagues working here at the 6th floor within the British Library/Qatar Partnership: an open invitation to participate in the decoding. Less than an hour later the mystery was solved. The squiggles were in fact a rebus - a puzzle where words are represented by pictures and letters, and its translation came out as: I see you but you cannot see me

The breakdown is shown below:

The scribbles are a code which reads: I see you but you can not see me.
What an incredible and exciting discovery!



This really is the most appropriate motto to what I am always saying about conservation and the challenges in preserving evidence of historical clues: they are there, they look at you, but we are not necessarily able to see them.

The curator of the Arabic manuscript strand of the project, Bink Hallum, was the person who cracked most of the code. This demonstrates how tasks can be resolved through collaboration and sharing of expertise.

So many invisible pieces of information, during our careers, look at us from the items we handle everyday. We don't always have the necessary knowledge to see them, but surely we have the responsibility to preserve and convey them for posterity.

Flavio Marzo

05 September 2016

Growing a thick skin

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Camille Thuet, Parchment Intern at the British Library, shares her experiences working at the British Library Centre for Conservation so far this year. Parchment (noun): A stiff, flat, thin material made from the prepared skin of an animal, usually a sheep or goat, and used as a durable writing surface in ancient and medieval times - Oxford dictionary

Camille stands at a desk and starts to unroll a large rolled map.

2 February 2016 - First day

I'm very excited to start my 11 month internship here. The building is impressive and in every corner I feel like something is happening. I am very glad to be the first intern that will focus on a specialised material, in my case: vellum and parchment. The British Library is giving me a great opportunity to fill-in my knowledge and become a specialist. I am expecting to work on a broad selection of items from the collection which will present a range of conservation problems.

3 February 2016 – Meeting the team

Today I've met my two mentors, who will support me with my work: Zoe in the conservation studio and Paul for the science-based research projects. They are both passionate about their work and are keen to learn new things as much as I am. A lively and dynamic atmosphere emanates from the huge conservation studio. About 35 conservators are working there, 35 different personalities from various backgrounds. I feel this internship is going to be fascinating…

9 March 2016 - My first parchment challenge

When used as a book cover parchment needs to be flexible; the joints where cover and spine meet are repeatedly taking tension during handling. When there is material missing or weakness in this particular area, the cover is not protecting the text-block any longer and handling can create damage. The infill material must be flexible, strong, toned to match the original aged hues of the cover, and have a similar surface finish with parchment. Many tests were needed to find a Japanese paper which looks like the perfect answer.

A close-up of Camille holding a conservation pencil in front of the book which is open.  The book rests on a table with its cover now released from the text block.

A close-up of the book showing the cover in the process of being reattached.  The book resting on two foam book supports.
Top left: Using a conservation pencil to release the lace-in. Top right: The cover released and ready for treatment. Bottom left: The cover about to be reattached to the text block. Bottom right: The opening after treatment.

The book spine before treatment--there are areas of loss with much of the spine being gone on the right side.

The spine has been repaired, the losses infilled with new parchment.

The book spine before and after treatment.

18 May 2016 - A big project!

I am thrilled to be working on a book from the 13th century. Its pages are ancient parchment and its cover is a reminder of the volume’s passage through time. Everybody can have access to this seminal text by Cicero online today but particularities of this include the handwritten margin-notes by scholars from various periods in history. The parchment text-block has survived many readers from Italy to England and is heavily damaged: losses, tears, iron gall ink corrosion, and a myriad of previous treatments but to name a few.

This book is holding mysteries: the lower part of the first twenty pages has been cut off for no obvious reason. It is not unusual for an 18th century’s restorator to collect parchment from a book to repair a more valuable parchment document, but 20 pages… really? Could this be an old mould treatment? Or, censorship of Middle-Aged notes or drawings?

A close-up images of a page showing text in red and black, with a decorative C drawing in red and blue. Another close-up showing a series of pages which have been cropped at the bottom.

Left: Detail from a 13th century book. Right: 20 pages mysteriously cropped!

The 18th century binding only allows me to open the book 45° which makes it almost impossible to read, and future handling perilous given its actual condition. One of my tasks is to prepare the fragile book for digitisation so that we can share its mysteries with the world. I have come to the difficult yet essential decision to disband the book and I am supporting the most vulnerable areas before the imaging process by using gelatine remoistenable tissue. The Japanese paper used has been toned with airbrush-sprayed acrylics. Indeed, the result on the image must disrupt the visual appearance as little as possible so as to influence future interpretation as little as possible.

The manuscript sits open on two book supports made of foam.  Camille inserts a scalpel into the spine of the book, starting the disbinding process.

Left: Manuscript with a 45° opening. Right: Disbinding the manuscript.

2 June 2016 – A wall of rolls

A parchment document feels always more relaxed when conserved flat but large documents which can’t fit on shelves would usually be rolled. The British Library has a large collection of scrolls and rolled documents which are in need of some bespoke storage. A tightly rolled skin becomes cockled, distorted and loses its surface coherence which causes severe repercussions on the media. Won’t it be a massive loss if all the gold sheets of an illuminated document are flaking-off? For a roll parchment, the bigger the core, the better! This means items need big cores as support and ingenious storing and boxing systems accordingly. The challenge is to marry this with the constant fight for space under Euston road!

A rack of shelving with various collection items stored in boxes of different shapes, sizes, and colours.

My aims for this project are to assess the collection, prioritising heavily damaged items for conservation treatment and reorganise the collection storage conditions… not too hard then!

26 July 2016 – Half way already!

When I first stepped into the studio I wasn’t a parchment specialist. I am still not quite there, but… I am becoming confident with this complicated material by meeting specialists, attending workshops, conferences and treating a unique collection of parchment objects.

To be continued…

Camille Thuet

05 May 2016

Fragments in bindings

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The conservation process is always a very special time for the item under repair. It is a time during which normally concealed elements of the object are exposed offering a unique opportunity to understand the processes involved in the making of the item. This is even more apparent when conserving books. Books are complex three dimensional objects and for this reason the conservator’s decision-making process can be extremely challenging.

The following examples show how important it is to record every step in the conservation process and to be able to discuss findings made along the way with other experts. This enables us to fully understand and consequently be able to retain and share the information uncovered during all stages of the work. For the past three years I have been working as Manager of the Conservation Studio for the British Library Qatar Foundation Partnership. I have worked with a rich and heterogeneous variety of library material ranging from archival files to ancient scientific Arabic Manuscripts. This material has been arriving on our benches for digitisation preparation and for more extensive conservation.

A group of sixteen manuscripts was identified as being relevant for the Qatar Digital Library Portal during scoping for the second phase of the project. This portal is where our project team upload digitised material. The sixteen manuscripts are a small fraction of the so called Delhi Collection; a vast collection of more than 2,900 manuscripts held here at the British Library. The manuscripts are written in various languages and historically thought to have come from the Royal Mughal Library in Delhi.

The manuscripts are in very poor condition and housed in conservation boxes. The books were transported from Delhi to Calcutta and faced many perils on their journey to the India Office Library in London. They were eventually transferred to their current home here at the British Library, but have never been conserved. This is quite a unique situation since in the past few centuries vast campaigns of restoration and re-binding have irremediably transformed much of our library collections. During these campaigns original bindings were often removed. This resulted in a loss of historical evidence relating to the use and provenance of the volumes.

The subject of this piece is the recent conservation work carried out on two of these manuscripts to enable their imminent digitisation.

The two manuscripts side by side before treatment. The manuscript on the left has dark brown leather cover which has degraded at the edges. On the right is a manuscript with a marbled cover in orange and yellow colours, with a brown leather around the edges that is quite degraded.
Left: Delhi Arabic 1902. Right: Delhi Arabic 1937B.

These manuscripts contain collections of mathematical treatises dating possibly to the XIX and have been heavily damaged by insects and centuries of use and abuse. The treatments conservators apply to items of historical value should always follow a series of ethical guidelines that standardise our profession. Those guidelines are based on one main principle called ‘minimal approach’. ‘Minimal’ doesn't mean less time doing the work or small in the sense of the amount of money spent for the treatment; ‘minimal’ refers to minimal intervention.

The conservator must work with great attention to detail ensuring that historically relevant physical features in the binding, sewing and substrate remain intact and undisrupted. Our work in the British Library Qatar Foundation Partnership Conservation studio is primarily preparation for digitisation. This means we focus on making items fit for withstanding the imaging process. This is both to ensure safe handling of the object and to enable the creation of a good quality surrogate.

Books are very challenging items to reproduce digitally and are often tightly bound. Each page needs to be carefully photographed and the text needs to be entirely visible and legible. The aim of a good quality online surrogate is to give users a truthful virtual experience of the item in its entirety, that is, in the case of bound volumes, much more than the mere text written on its pages.

Delhi Arabic 1902 and 1937B required conservation work because they were too fragile to be safely handled. It would have been impossible to achieve full legibility due to the poor state of their pages. Pages laced with insect holes were repaired with very thin toned Japanese tissue paper and the weak sewing of the book block was reinforced. Every piece of the book structure such as the remnants of the threads used to create the end bands or the sewing of the book-block were supported and secured where they were originally.

A close-up of a page being lifted to show the insect damage--small holes and losses where the pest has eaten through the paper.
Damage due to insect infestation of Ms Delhi Arabic 1902.

 

Japanese tissue which has been toned in shades of brown to math the paper have been adhered around the book's edges to provide support.
Reinforced areas along the edges of the pages.

The leather covers proved to be a completely different challenge on their own. As soon as they were closely examined it became clear that the boards for both the books were created with layers of reused manuscript fragments.

The detached cover rests on a table showing that both boards are made of waste material--text is visible on both boards.
Inside the detached cover of Ms Delhi Arabic 1902 with evidence of the reused manuscript fragments.

The layers constituting the boards in manuscript Delhi Arabic 1902 were already delaminating and the adhesive used to stick them together was failing. During discussions with the curators it was decided to completely separate the layers forming the boards and to not re-use the leather cover any more due to its fragility.

Each layer of the newly found manuscript was easily lifted with the help of a spatula before re-housing in Melinex folders. Numbering was applied to each envelope recording the sequence of the original layering, and subsequently all envelopes were housed in two separate four flap folders to identify the left from the right board. The writing style and content of these manuscript fragments is currently under study and has not yet been identified. It will add interesting information about Delhi Arabic 1902 and help to date the cover and possibly to identify the geographical area where it was made.

On the left, a hand lifts some of the separated pages. On the right, the separated pages have been placed in polyester sleeves.
Layers of manuscript fragments are easily lifted and housed in Melinex numbered envelopes.

New conservation boards were prepared and inserted into the now “empty” leather cover. A piece of Plastazote was cut to size and used as a substitute for the now removed book-block in order to hold the leather. The leather cover was wrapped in Melinex to protect it during future handling.

The cover rests on a table--it has been wrapped in polyester and a support made of foam has been inserted to mimic the measurements of the original textblock.
The leather cover with the transparent Melinex wrap and the Plastazote support.

A new light board limp cover was created for the book-block after all the pages had been repaired and the sewing reinforced.

The manuscript with it's new cover lays open on a table.
Book block with new limp paper cover.

 

The now separated parts of the manuscript were housed together in a drop back spine box made to size.

All parts of the repaired book sit in a bespoke box covered with brown buckram.
All the separated parts of the manuscripts are housed together in the box.

 

The cover of the second manuscript, Delhi Arabic 1937B, also showed evidence of fragments (from possibly the same manuscript) used to make its boards, but in this case a different method was devised for the overall conservation of the book.

A closeup of the damaged book cover, showing missing leather and torn marbled paper.
Heavily damaged cover of Ms Delhi Arabic 1937B.

 

An image of both book boards--the left board has columns of text.
Fragment of reused manuscript used to reinforce the board of MS Delhi Arabic 1937B.

 

In this case only one layer, on both of the boards, transpired to be made of reused written paper. For this reason it was decided that the boards and the cover, also detached and delaminating, would not have to be dismantled. Instead they would be imaged and later re-composed to be re-attached, as originally was, with the book-block.

Images of both boards after conservation treatment: the leather has been repaired and infilled, and the marbled paper has been repaired.
Right (front) and left (back) boards of the fully restored binding.

 

The losses of leather on the spine and on the edges of the boards were filled with new goat archival leather and all the fragments of the old leather and the decorated paper were re-adhered where they were originally. Interesting features were in this way preserved for posterity, for example the covering leather that was applied to the spine, along the edges, and on the corners of the boards in thinly pared pieces retained its overlapping appearance.

Two close-up images showing different types of leather overlapping one another.
Details from the spine and one of the corners clearly showing different pieces of leather overlapping.

 

Small remnants of strips of blue decorative paper were consolidated and adhered along the perimeters of the decorative marbled paper.

An image of the book cover showing small pieces of blue paper dotted around the edges.
The arrows indicate small remnants of decorative blue paper strips that were originally forming a frame, now overlapping the decorated marbled central piece.

 

Our meticulous method of working enables us to provide scholars who are interested in all aspects of the volume, not just the content, with as much information as possible. This attention to detail potentially protects clues to a past we can only imagine.

Flavio Marzo

18 April 2016

Play your part in preserving our heritage

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Every year we conserve approximately 2,200 items, taking hours of skilled work, but there are many more items in need of repair. As the Library’s collection continues to grow and age, so do the number of items that need our attention.

In this post, book conservator Zoe Miller describes the work carried out to conserve Sloane Manuscript 1006, Astronomical Scheme after Henricus Khunrath.

This unusual and unique late 17th century manuscript came to conservation in a very poor condition. It was thought to have been produced by Dr Heinrich Khunrath (1560-1605), a physician, hermetic philosopher and alchemist who travelled Europe working as a court physician. He met John Dee, one of several alchemists who heavily influenced his famous work Amphitheatrum Sapientiae Aeternae [The Amphitheatre of Eternal Wisdom].

The binding, with its covering of sprinkled calf skin with green paper had broken, much of the original leather and paper covering had worn away and the spine and sewing were split in many places. It was foxed (a form of age-related chemical degradation of paper which causes reddish-brown spots) with ingrained surface dirt and many folds and stresses to the contents through inappropriate handling.

Two images show the condition of the volume prior to conservation treatment. On the left, the book rests on a table, showing a generally degraded and dirty appearance. On the right is a close-up of the spine, showing cracked brown leather.

Much of the damage is a result of its physical uniqueness. The text block consists of heavy weight single folios sewn on cords, onto which are stitched 181 paper objects with hand drawn geometrical diagrams and deconstructions of an astronomical model.

A detail of a drawing: geometric shapes, mainly circled, overlap one another and are drawn in a dark ink.

These paper objects—often annotated in iron gall ink—have been carefully arranged on each folio and freely hang from the page as it is turned, posing a significant risk during handling and consultation.

Two images showing pages of the volume with geometric drawings. On the left a page has multiple drawings inserted in varying sizes, and on the right is a close-up of smaller drawings hanging from a page.

Very little detail was known about the provenance of this volume, its creator, or the scholarly importance of the curious contents. This posed a problem. With all objects I am responsible for conserving, I aim to build a detailed conservation treatment proposal from an understanding of the cultural, historical and intellectual context of an object and its past use and ownership. This is to ensure that important historical evidence is preserved and that its scholarly value is not inadvertently diminished.

Working together with collection specialists we arranged to meet a previous reader of this book, a university professor whose expertise could help us make informed decisions for treatment. As the conservator, I was able to add to the body of knowledge of this item through my physical examination of the materials and processes used to construct the book and by contributing my understanding of patterns of deterioration and damage.

As a result of this interesting discussion it was decided to digitise the manuscript in order to preserve the exact state and positioning of the contents for scholarly study. This also will allow us to restrict access to the original in order to preserve it.

In preparation for digitisation, the manuscript was cleaned and dis-bound, removing broken threads and degraded binding materials which were causing further vulnerability.

One page with a series of circles and a start in the middle which is in the middle of being surface cleaned--the bottom half of the image is dirtier than the top.
Surface cleaning showing before and after cleaning

The astronomical objects were then stabilised using repair techniques which respected delicate inks and pigments to enable high quality images to be taken.

Two images showing the spine being cleaned. On right left, three panels of Japanese tissue protect the degraded leather, and on the right, a poultice is used to remove adhesive from the spine using a metal spatula.

Following digitisation, the volume was returned to the Centre for Conservation to undergo further treatment. After recreating the original sewing structure the book boards were consolidated to prevent further loss of fragile materials and reattached to the text block.

The textblock of the book sits on a sewing frame with six sewing stations as the book is resewn.
Resewing the volume.

A flexible, low adhesive method was chosen to repair the spine using layers of Japanese tissue and wheat starch paste to recreate the original appearance of the binding as a tight-back (where the spine covering is adhered directly to the spine folds and sewing supports) while in reality creating a hollow-back, which serves to protect both the spine folds and the original spine labels which were adhered to the new covering leather.

Two images showing the spine being repaired. On the left, a lining of tissue is adhered to the spine, and on the right brown leather is added to the spine.

Finally the delicate remnants of gold finishing from the degraded leather spine, which had been carefully removed before treatment, were encapsulated, to be stored with the volume for future consultation. Wherever possible we will aim to keep valuable evidence of a previous binding if it cannot be re-used.

Two close-up images of the spine before and after conservation. Before treatment, the spine's leather is cracked and degraded.
Before and after conservation.

Treatment of this unique object has not only stabilised it physically for future generations but through digitisation we have been able to make its contents available to scholars within this niche area of study. Conservation has enabled and contributed to a growing body of knowledge on this manuscript.

Zoe Miller

Every item that comes into the Centre for Conservation receives this kind of care and attention, because to us every item is a treasure in its own way. It’s our high standards and level of expertise that means conserving items is a timely process and we will not compromise on the quality of the work that we do.

Your can play your part in preserving our heritage by making sure we have the resource to play ours, together we can make it last for generations to come.

Donate online by visiting: www.support.bl.uk/conservation

30 November 2015

Farewell to all that

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Preparing for retirement, I inevitably revisited the exciting projects and beautiful objects I worked on during my time at the British Library. The conservator’s role has seen many changes, even in a decade. Limited resources are increasingly focused on preserving whole collections by reducing the risks of damage and deterioration, rather than treating single items. But to make those collections more available both in the Reading Rooms and digitally to users across the world, some repairs are essential so items can be handled safely. Minimal intervention helps to retain evidence of the item’s history and past use.

One page from the St Cuthbert Gospel, featuring text on parchment with a few holes in the parchment present.
 The St Cuthbert Gospel (Add Ms 89000) f.1r The damage records the ways the book was used and stored through the centuries and will be preserved.

My first project was the conservation of Alexander Fleming’s papers (Add Ms 56106-56225), including those relating to his discovery of penicillin – not perhaps the most suitable job as I am highly allergic to it. The repaired notebooks were housed in plastazote, laboriously cut to shape by hand. Eventually, I would learn to “drive” a Zünd cutter, which did the same job in minutes.

Beryl Bainbridge’s papers followed, and it was a surprise to discover that she had been to art school as a teenager and illustrated her early work. However, she used a poster paint with very little binder, so the surface was often powdery. The paintings were treated with a weak solution of JunFunori, misted on with a nebuliser repeatedly over a week or more.

A close-up of artwork which features two figures. They are both wearing black berets, are smoking, and one has a blue shirt while the other has a red shirt.
A double page image from a volume of fragments 1951-3 (Add Ms 83745 ff.5v-6).

 

Immediately after World War II writing paper was scarce, so Bainbridge often used poor quality scraps held together with pressure sensitive tape. This was all degrading and had to be removed with heat and solvents – very carefully, where there was text nearby. Modern inks can run in both water and solvents, making conservation more difficult.

Varying scraps of paper rest on top of one another, with poems written on them. The papers are in generally poor condition with Selloptape present and the top edges crushed and torn.
The same volume showing different papers and typical edge damage (Add Ms 83745 ff.33-41).

Edgar Mansfield’s working archive for his designer bindings gave me much delight, and more challenges. First seen packed tight in two box files, after conservation and proper housing they filled a shelf and a half. Early on we agreed to preserve evidence of how the design process developed, and how the final tooling patterns used folds and excisions to fix the paper to the book leather temporarily. Loose overlays needed careful hinging to secure them in precisely the right position. The British Library has two of Mansfield’s finished bindings.

Varying stages of the final design, which is an abstract representation of a figure dancing, are laid out on a table. This includes a tracing, a drawing in colour, and the final design on leather.
Valery’s Dance and the Soul bound by Mansfield (C130c6) with his final design and the tooling pattern used to transfer it to the leather cover.

 

Eventually I moved into digitisation projects (Harley Scientific Manuscripts, Greek manuscripts and finally Hebraic manuscripts). As I gained experience, I also got the more difficult one-off jobs. The largest item, the Moutier-Grandval Bible (Add Ms 10546), more than half a metre high, needed a special cradle and team of people to handle it safely (read more here).

Three people stand around the large volume helping during the digitisation process.
Two people turn the leaves while a third adjusts the cradle.

For the Brontë miniature books I had to make tiny “fingers” to hold the leaves flat for imaging (more on that here.

A hand holds a tiny book.
Blackwood’s Young Men’s Magazine, First Series, No. 6, f.6v (Ashley Ms 157)

Through the years, a stream of running repairs have come my way; simple tasks for the most part, but letting me handle many beautiful items: the Theodore Psalter (Add Ms 19352), Cruciform Lectionary (Add Ms 39603), Chinese Qur’an (Or Ms 15256/1), Queen Mary Psalter (Royal Ms 2.B.VII), Macclesfield Alphabet Book (Add Ms 88887), Prayer Roll of Henry VIII (Add Ms 88929), Guthlac Roll (Harley Roll Y 6), charts of Cook’s voyages (Add Ms 31360), a suffragette prison diary (Add Ms 49976) and many hundred more, most recently the Leonardo Notebook (Arundel Ms 263). To increase efficiency, a mobile workstation took me out of the studio to work in the storage areas, eliminating the transportation of books to the Conservation Centre and the associated security and paperwork.

A close up of a drawn image which shows two men in a boat greeting two men on land.
Life of St Guthlac (Harley Roll Y 6) f.15r The spectacles and feather were added by an earlier owner.

I also did exhibition work, mostly condition reporting and checking loan items. But one job in Durham had the local newspaper asking “How many people does it take to turn a page and how long does it take them to do it?” Since the book was the Lindisfarne Gospels, it did take a while.

Visitors sometimes asked about my favourite collection item and most often I chose whatever I was currently working on and making discoveries about. But the book that lingers in my memory is Thomas Osborne’s Treatise on Arithmetic (Harley Ms 4924). If I had had such an attractive textbook as a child, I would have been a more eager student. It is now too frail to be issued in the Reading Room, but is available to everyone in digital form.

One page which shows multiplication tables surrounded by cherubs, a maritime scene, a classroom setting, and more which are all hand drawn.
Treatise on Arithmetic (Harley Ms 4924) f.6r Note the schoolroom scene in the lower left corner.

I plan to revisit the British Library eventually to research historic binding structures, but meanwhile I shall be following the blogs and keeping an eye on the latest uploads to Digitised Manuscripts.

Ann Tomalak

 

25 June 2015

A CT Scan of the St Cuthbert Gospel

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A CT scan of the St Cuthbert Gospel – the earliest intact European book dating to the early eight century - has been published in a ground-breaking new book launched this week: The St Cuthbert Gospel: Studies on the Insular Manuscript of the Gospel of John, edited by Claire Breay, Head of Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts at the British Library, and Bernard Meehan, Head of Research Collections and Keeper of Manuscripts at Trinity College, Dublin. Colleagues from Collection Care and Medieval Manuscripts took the pocket gospel to the Natural History Museum for CT analysis to understand the structure of the ancient gospel, which was found inside the coffin of St Cuthbert in 1104.

On the right, three BL staff members stand. On the left is a computer, and in the centre is the scanner.
The British Library project team at the Natural History Museum. From left to right: Claire Breay, Flavio Marzo and Christina Duffy.

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X-ray computed tomography (CT) is a non-destructive technique which creates 2-D cross-sectional images from 3-D structures. The St Cuthbert Gospel was scanned using a Metris X-Tek HMX ST 225 CT scanner with an operating voltage of 225 kV at the Natural History Museum.

To protect the gospel during scanning it was placed inside a custom-made phase box and then secured upright in a bespoke piece of polyethylene foam.

Two images stitched together. Left: someone places the volume into the box. Right: The closed phase box stands upright surrounded by a piece of grey foam.
The St Cuthbert Gospel was placed in a phase box which was secured in a piece of foam.

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A facsimile of the gospel produced by Jim Bloxam and Kristine Rose was generously made available to the team during the CT scan. This enabled a direct comparison of materials known to be used in the facsimile with those unknown in the original St Cuthbert Gospel. Both volumes were placed inside the CT chamber on a precision rotation stage between an X-ray source and a detector.

Two images stitched together. Left: The actual volume and its facsimile are placed side by side and held together with a cord. Right: The two volumes enter the scanner.
The two copies were placed side-by-side in the CT chamber.

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As the volumes rotated on the stage through 360⁰ a conical beam of X-rays took digital projections in 0.5⁰ increments. The CT image pixels are displayed in terms of their relative radiodensity allowing us to scroll through the image slices revealing the materials underneath the leather binding.

Two images stitched together. Left: Four people sit in office chairs surrounding a desktop computer, looking at the results on the monitor. Right: An image of the computer monitor showing a couple black and white images--results from the scanning.
The results were poured over in the lab. From left to right; Christina Duffy, Claire Breay, Nicholas Pickwoad and Dan Sykes.

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The results were initially examined by the British Library team and Professor Nicholas Pickwoad, whose chapter in the new publication draws on the CT scan results and discusses how the central motif on the binding appears to have been made using a clay-like material, rather than gesso or cord as previously thought.

Two images stitched together. Left: The cover of the St Cuthbert Gospel, in a dark red leather with a raised floral motif in the center surrounded by a frame of Irish designs. Right: A magnified view of the raised floral motif.
The St Cuthbert Gospel with raised plant-motif decoration examined under high magnification.

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The scan of the heads of the actual Gospel and the facsimile. Scans of the raised floral motif of both the original and the facsimile. The material in the facsimile which creates the raised area is a starker white than the material of the facsimile. Scans of the original volume's boards and leather covering.

CT datasets contain vast amounts of information and samples can be visualised in many ways using various software tools. Drishti, which stands for vision or insight in Sanskrit, is an open source volume exploration and presentation tool. It allows volumetric data sets to be both explored and used for presentation of results.

The image of the Gospel in the software in an ivory tone.
A screen shot of the St Cuthbert Gospel as visualised in Drishti.

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CT scanning can provide tremendous amounts of information on the condition and construction of books and their bindings. This level of detail is unavailable through visual examination and can often lead to speculation. More information about the project can be found over on the Medieval Manuscripts blog. The new publication, The St Cuthbert Gospel: Studies on the Insular Manuscript of the Gospel of John, can be bought in the British Library shop or ordered online.

Christina Duffy (@DuffyChristina)

09 April 2015

The House Of Lords, Commoners, And Everybody Else

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Rob Sherman is the Interactive Fiction Writer-in-Residence for the current British Library exhibition Lines in the Ice. Part of his project involved inventing a new false history for a fictional explorer named Isaak Scinbank. With the help of our Conservation team, Rob created a journal which contained Scinbank's writings during his fictional voyage to the Arctic in 1852. Here Rob reflects on his time at the British Library.

An image of a sewn textblock in a book press. The curve of the spine is visible along with the cords of the sewing structure.

Not many visitors to the British Library realise that the institution's political fulcrum lies hidden at the very rear of the St. Pancras complex, just past the staff restaurant and the windy, suntrap terrace.

This powerhouse is low-slung and decidedly shy for such an important building. Entering through the double glass doors at its front, a visitor is presented with a small museum to the work done inside.

During my time at the Library as writer-in-residence I was one of the few who could descend into the Conservation Centre, perhaps the most important cabinet in the Library's governance.

It is in this building, far away from the readers and the meeting rooms full of priceless paintings and the baize-carpeted hall of the executive suite that the real debate occurs. These are debates with the most incorrigible and old-fashioned of politicians; time.

An image of the Conservation Centre. A handful of conservators sit at their benches, treating objects.

Entering the private corridors of the Centre for the first time last year, I was accompanied by the closest to a party Whip that the conservators have; Dr. Cordelia Rogerson, the Centre's Head of Conservation and a specialist in plastics and textiles (two areas which I have barely any space or knowledge to consider here). She was giving me a tour to show me what it was that the conservators did. With relatively few exceptions, every unit of knowledge, discourse, history and artistry that the archives contain, every book and pamphlet and poster and tome, is slowly degrading. We have so abstracted these bricks upon which we build a culture that we easily forget what they are, materially; globsters, monsters, amalgams of different corpses.

Bookbinding has always used glue made from boiled bones, mashed trees and the skins of goats, whose unassuming little frames still dictate the standard sizing of our trade hardbacks. From the moment the book is bound it is dying a second death. The 'old book smell' is so fetishised that there are now colognes available which emulate it. Frankenstein and his monster are no more tortured than the vellum in which their first edition was published in 1818. Thinking this way, it is perhaps easier to imagine the Rooibos towers of the Library, so stately and sterile and civic from the surface, resting on a strata of almost-endless decay, a medicine cabinet full of slow-drying herbs, aging adhesives and mummified flesh.

The Library is a sarcophagus of knowledge.

From this organic perspective we may lend the conservators another role; that of the court embalmer, of Lenin's apparatchik, Mao's physician, keeping the cadavers moist and public for as long as possible so that those who come after can venerate them, divine what they need, and be able to say that they had been there, just like tourists.

Two images side by side: One the left, an image showing the conservation work benches along the length of the room. Metal book presses rest at each bench. On the right: The windows which allow lots of natural light in.

Cordelia took me deeper into the building, past displays of golden tooling seals immortalised in cabinets like butterflies. We walked past labs full of test tubes and near-baptismal fonts of strange chemicals. Between the staff they possess every tool, modern and ancient, that they could need to help slow the inevitable degradation. They repair split spines, suture wounds in leather, and reconstruct text and gold leaf from almost nothing. I met one conservator, Maria, at her desk in the vast main room of the Centre, a cross between a surgery and a railway shed. She was attempting to resuscitate a Hebrew text from the 1400s which had, at some point in its ignominious existence, been submerged in water. Maria worked on that book with quiet, intricate confidence, and told me that she could save it, and it would be read again.

Her work, and the work of her colleagues, will never finish. With hundreds of millions of items in the archives in various states of decrepitude, some so advanced that they are at risk of being lost altogether, it is all the conservators can do to keep up. Work is allocated not in terms of books to save or projects to complete but in terms of hours spent; attempts are made, the best is done in some cases, and then they must move on to the next.

Cordelia introduced me to the two conservators with whom I would be working; Zoe and Royston both were as quiet and assured as Maria, with keenly open minds. Royston had worked at the Library for over 30 years and retired only a month or two ago, taking his incomparable, irreplaceable knowledge with him. It was after this meeting that I started to lay out exactly why somebody like me was there, and what it was that I wanted.

A sketch of the fictional explorer Isaak Scinbank. He has a long nose, scruffy hair, and a tall collar.

My project at the Library has been a petulant one, in which I essentially try to throw stones at the bedroom windows of history to get its attention. My artistic interests lie in how knowledge and rumour and rhetoric are transformed into unimpeachable historical record just by being written down, and what role the Library plays in storing and displaying such records for access. I was exploring these themes by attaching myself to the current exhibition at the Library, a diorama of Arctic exploration called Lines In The Ice, and inventing a new false history with all the attendant paraphernalia. I invented a polar explorer, and wrote songs about him, reams of false conjecture and essay, and drew maps of the journeys that he never took, parallel-parking him into the real stuff of the exhibition. It seems inevitable, then, that such an explorer needed a book of his own to legitimise him completely. I had come to the Conservation Centre to manufacture him one.

I wanted to make from scratch the journal that my explorer, Isaak Scinbank, would have written during his fictional voyage to the Arctic in 1852. My time at the Library has already impressed upon me the corporeality and authority of books, how very much the physicality of them affects how we interact with the information they contain. Because of this, I wanted the blank diary with which I was beginning to be as much a part of the story as Isaak's account written inside it. I described what I wanted to Zoe and Royston in the form of a 'biography' of the book, recounting not only its fictional creation but also its fictional journey through time to reach us in the present day. I designated it as a sort of fisherman's ledger, a present to Isaak from his father; clad in salmon-flesh leather, and embossed with the mark of its fictional publisher ('Thomas Whiflick, of Derby'). I described a large notch in its top edge, designed to be a rest for a gentleman's rods as he relaxed on the riverbank. More than this, I described the life of the book once its primary purpose was over; its existence since Scinbank had returned from the Arctic and died, passing through the hands of various collectors and dealers. I told of the times it had been forgotten and neglected, left to sit in the damp dark of a cellar, sat on and even used as a chopping board for a joint of beef. From this story Zoe and Royston began a complete reversal of their usual jobs as battlefield doctors, as undertakers and temple attendants; together we made Isaak's book, stitching and binding it, and then we began to simulate the infinitesimal, gradual torture which time enacts over hundreds of years. We had a few weeks.

Rob Sherman stands at a sewing frame, sewing a textblock together. The sewing frame is made of wood.

I thought initially that the conservators would think me a bit kooky, or at the worst flippant about the difficult realities of their work. However to their credit they were as excited by the possibilities as I was, rejuvenated by this brief diversion from the Sisyphean task of patching, plastering and repairing. They took on the role of their nemesis with enthusiasm and began to pick apart what it was that made a book elderly or antique, where the beauty, rather than the nuisance, lay in that, and what stories they could tell separate from mine in the wrinkles, stains and folds of this old-not-old book. As every child everywhere knows, and we rediscovered, the best way to make a page look old is to dab it with a wet teabag; we didn't spare an inch of the book from the ministrations. The only element that we could not craft was that ambrosial, deathly smell of old paper. Apparently, the alchemy of that was beyond our skills.

The construction of the book took me to every corner of the Conservation Centre, and every facet of its work; from the handbinding cradles which made me feel as if I was lacing up somebody robust in a corset, to the storage rooms for the marbled paper which, when I went around opening the drawers and finding the ranked, swirling colours, seemed to me like a catalogue of oceans and explosions and nebulae. I met so many other talented artisans fighting the good fight, including Christina, the resident multispectral imaging minister. Her lab, a warm, silent sliver of a room filled with the always-drawn curtains, lamps and banks of machinery, has the air of an engine compartment, a police interrogation room and a disciplinary hearing in Westminster. It is here that the deepest, darkest corruptions of the Library's collections are revealed, at a microscopic detail that the Chilcot Inquiry can only dream of.

A close up of one of the edges of The Salmon Book. The top corner has a burnt appearance, the pages seem worn and well-used, and a blue cloth bookmark sticks out.

As I finish my time at the Library, and I grudgingly return my pass which got me through so many of the Centre's doors, I return to being a member of the public, a 'user' of the Library, with a realisation. As you can see, Zoe and Royston's work on my book is unequivocally art, not merely conservation. On display in the Lines In The Ice exhibition until the middle of April, our book sits alongside the 'true' artefacts of polar exploration almost imperceptibly, tricking the public without malice and camouflaging its story, its biography, amongst the degradation upon which the Library is built. In doing so it hijacks a small, respectful amount of the value, respect and meaning which the very old are due. The loveliness of this deception will be amplified when I finish Isaak's story, some day; then, the book will accessioned into the Library's archives, where it will begin to truly disintegrate rather than than just playing at it. One day even further in the future, the book will come back to its birthplace in the Conservation Centre, that squat building full of silent discourse and argument with the past, and plead its case.

It is in this way that I see the importance of the Centre's role at the Library taking on almost-legislative proportions. It is no secret that the public sector, of which the Library is a part, must now make do with less and less money as time goes on, even as the archives grow and the doddery old celebrities that they contain require even more work. The Conservation Centre is where such decisions on resources are made; it must be determined which books are to be rescued, where the hours will be spent and which items must, inevitably, wait until it is too late to save them. That book of Hebrew scripture was lucky, but in one hundred years Isaak's diary may not be as fortunate. It is a minor work, by three unheard-of artists. Who knows how difficult the choices that Cordelia's successor faces will be?

These thoughts are frightening ones, especially to those who believe in the immutability and the permanence of such collections. However, my time amongst the Conservation Centre's work has convinced me that such choices about what knowledge we shall retain and what shall be lost, and what will form the truth of the future, is being undertaken by the best people for the job. No matter how difficult time is to negotiate, how unbending and bullying, I know that the conservators will fight to make sure as much is saved as possible.

Even, I hope, those dog yoga books that I found in the archives, one bored Wednesday.

Rob Sherman