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38 posts categorized "Bindings"

19 August 2014

Eighteenth-century Country-house Guidebooks: Tools for Interpretation and Souvenirs

A print of Wilton House, showing a large home surrounded by grass and trees. The print is in colour.
J. Buckler, South East View of Wilton House, 1810. (Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection)

During the eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries, country houses in Britain emerged as significant tourist attractions. There was already a long tradition of expecting country houses to offer travellers hospitality, and by the middle of the eighteenth century, part of being a polite landowner was allowing tourists to visit your house and grounds. In theory, this standard applied to all houses, but only a handful, such as Wilton House (Wiltshire), were sites which routinely attracted hundreds of visitors. At houses like these, the huge increase in visitor numbers led to formal opening hours, standardized tours (typically given by housekeepers), inns which catered to tourists and the publication of guidebooks. The guidebooks published during this period are the best records of what an ideal visit to a house was intended to be like: they indicate what you were expected to appreciate and to ignore. Guidebooks were typically published only after a house had established itself as a popular site, and so in effect, they codified visiting practices that were already in place.

Plans from A Guide to Burghley: a series of rooms are outlined and numbered.
Illustration from Thomas Blore, A Guide to Burghley [abridged version], Stamford: John Drakard, 1815. (British Library, 10358.ccc.3)

Guidebooks’ content was typically organized to maximize convenience for visitors as they toured a property. This is a set of schematic plans which was bound near the beginning of one of the Burghley House (Lincolnshire) guidebooks, and these plans are numbered according to the order tourists typically viewed rooms in – beginning with the great hall, room 1, then the saloon, room 2, and so on – they are linked to a key, but the numbering is also linked to the subheadings in the text itself. Not all guidebooks were illustrated in this way, but a room-by-room organization was common, presumably because this made it easier to carry, read and view at the same time.

In this colour print, two boats meet on a lake which is surrounded by greenery. It appears to be nearing sunset with the cloud-filled sky shifting from blue in the top left toward pink in the top right.
John Emes, The Lake, Hawkstone Park, Shropshire, 1790. (Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection)

Guidebooks had tremendous potential as interpretive tools in that they could make a site more accessible and legible to its visitors. One of the main reasons people published guidebooks was to catalogue the art collections: this was not only a gracious gesture towards tourists, it was a clear signal that visitors were expected to carefully examine the individual works on display – many guidebooks, such as those describing Wilton, include entries about each painting and/or sculpture, directing readers to appreciate specific qualities. Outside the house, guidebooks were no less instructive: the guidebook to Hawkstone (Shropshire), for example, a house famous for its garden (and well-known for the comfort of its inn), provided information about the various views and spaces tourists would encounter as they toured the site and indicated what was to be admired at each stage.

As objects, guidebooks were designed to be functional, and book reviewers were very invested in how they were convenient for tourists. To that end, guidebooks are usually small, octavo volumes; and, while many of them are quite long, they are usually bound in paper covers, making them lightweight and inexpensive. Many, in fact, might reasonably be labelled pamphlets rather than books. Yet at the same time, guidebooks could function as mementos for tourists as well as practical aides.

This print shows Corsham House surrounded by trees.
Illustration of the frontispiece from John Britton, An Historical Account of Corsham House, London: Printed for the Author, 1806. (British Library, 796.e.19)

A guidebook’s appeal as a souvenir could be heightened by the addition of an illustrated frontispiece. The most common type of image was a view of the house itself, surrounded by the landscaped grounds, but it also depended on the particular attractions of the property. A number of the guides to Wilton, for example, illustrated one of the house’s sculptures on the frontispiece; that of Duncombe Park (North Yorkshire) displayed the ruins of Rievaulx Abbey, a site visible from the estate’s terraces.

Two people, a man and woman, are at the foreground of this print of Blenheim Palace. Just behind the figures is a lake with a small island filled with trees. At the background sits the palace.
Illustration from William Mavor, New Description of Blenheim, 8th edn, Oxford: J. Munday, 1810. (British Library, 10351.f.6)

The most elaborate guidebooks included series of illustrations. Some editions of the guide to Blenheim Palace (Oxfordshire), for example, incorporated a fold-out map of the gardens (often with hand-coloured details) and a set of views of the house, one each from the north, south, east and west.

Considered as a group, these guidebooks, many of which were available in London bookstores as well as near the houses themselves, might be said to be appealing to readers as texts which might be read for their own sake, after the visit to the house was over. In doing so, they were in effect claiming a greater relevance for their content, and for the cultural significance of information about country houses, their art collections and their gardens.

Jocelyn Anderson

Jocelyn Anderson holds a PhD from The Courtauld Institute of Art, where she wrote a dissertation entitled 'Remaking the Country House: Country-House Guidebooks in the Late Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries'. She recently completed a postdoctoral fellowship at The Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art.

You can see more images from the country-house guidebooks discussed here on the British Library's Flickr page:

29 July 2014

Collection Care Top Ten

The Collection Care blog is a year old this week! It has been a wonderful 12 months for the blog, due largely to you, our loyal readers. Since fluid, food and flames are generally considered our nemeses, we'll hold off on the champagne and birthday cake. Instead, to celebrate, we have compiled a list of the top ten most popular posts. Boy, do we know how to party!

10. A-a-a-choo! Collection Care's Dust Busters: In this post we shared the work of our dust busting team who monitor dust in order to protect our collections. We took a look at what exactly dust is, and how to balance the benefits and risk of dust minimisation programs. Who you gonna call? Collection Care! 

The tops of two rows of various-coloured books are shown with ample dust visible on top of the textblocks.


9. Goldfinisher: He's the man, the man with the Midas Touch: Doug Mitchell is our book conservator and gold finisher extraordinaire. Doug demonstrated the blind tooling technique and showed us the variety of tools involved in the process.

A conservator picks up a piece of gold foil. Next to him is a book in a wooden press, with the spine facing upwards.

8. Sea Snails & Purple Parchment: Did you know that the colour purple found in many of our manuscripts comes from sea snails? The snails are essentially "milked" to extract a gland secretion in a very labour intensive process. 

A variety of small snails in shades of brown, tan, and white on top of a rock.

7. A Guide to BL book stamps: You've seen them on our collections and online, but what do they mean? Library stamps are generally divided into four types according to when they were in use, ranging from 1753 to the present day.

Two British Museum stamps: one in blue and one in red. The stamp features a circular crest in the middle with a crown on top. On the left side of the crest is a lion and on the right side is a unicorn. Below the crest and animals is a banner and above is text which reads BRITISH MUSEUM.

6. Digitisation as a preservation tool; some considerations: This post by Qatar Project conservator Flavio Marzo confronted the growing public expectation for online access. Marzo challenged the conservation community to use mass digitisation as an opportunity for the long term preservation of historical items and their features.

A screenshot of Microsoft Sharepoint. This shows various items arranged by shelfmark, and what stage in the conservation workflow each item is at.

5. The Bookie Monster: attack of the creepy crawlies!: Here we delved into the underworld of pesky pests who seek to eat their way through our collections. We identified some of the primary culprits and showed examples of damage to look out for.

A closeup of pest damage on paper. Small holes and tunnels are visible.

4. Cleaning and rehanging the Kitaj tapestry: What happens when creepy crawlies do successfully attack? This year we had to don our hard hats to remove the enormous R.B. Kitaj Tapestry If not, not from the St Pancras Entrance Hall for conservation cleaning. The tapestry was hoovered and frozen to remove all pests and surface dust before rehanging in the hall. It was a major operation and a complete success. We even made a time-lapse video!

Three people in hard hats stand on scaffolding and re-hang the large tapestry.

3. Fail to prepare for digitisation, prepare to fail at digitising!: Digitisation is much more than just taking a picture. With mass digitisation projects being announced every month, we shared what we've learned when it comes to preparation. We listed five main outcomes of pre-digitisation checks, which highlighted the potential risks in each case.

Four images showing books opened at various angles: the top two images are books open at gentle angles on black foam book wedges, the bottom left is a paperback book opened without any supports and the bottom right shows a hardback book being opened with no supports.

2. Books depicted in art: Being surrounded by books everyday is all part of the day job for us here in Collection Care. As you can imagine, seeing books in paintings can be quite thrilling. In this lavishly illustrated post we saw that some historical paintings contain a wealth of information about bindings that were not well-documented in the trade.

On the left is a painting of a man in black with white collars and cuffs in front of a book shelf. He is also holding a book in his hand. On the right is a closeup of some of the books on the bookshelf.

1. Under the Microscope with the Lindisfarne Gospels: Finally, in our most popular post, we shared microscopy images of the Lindisfarne Gospels collected by our team during a condition assessment. At up to 200 times magnification the medieval artistry and attention to detail blew us all away.

A magnified image of ink. Some brown dots sit high on the surface of the parchment. A brown ink shows the lettering with a teal ink resting inside letters (think filling in an o).

Many thanks to all our readers from the Collection Care team. As ever, we are truly grateful for your following and are always keen to hear from you. Do let us know if there are any topics you'd like to read about, and don't forget you can subscribe to the blog at the top of this page, and follow us on Twitter: @BL_CollCare

Christina Duffy (@DuffyChristina)

01 July 2014

Books depicted in art

After a glorious week of studying European Bookbinding (1450-1820) at the London Rare Books School with Director of the Ligatus Research Centre, Professor Nicholas Pickwoad,  it quickly became apparent that works of art have been one of the best methods of recording details of techniques used in bookbinding.

The majority of books throughout history are not the heavily decorated and spectacular versions we tend to hear most about, but instead are plain, and fairly ordinary book blocks (which some people still find quite exciting - author included!). For this reason, the techniques are perhaps not as well understood or documented. Luckily the keen eye of the artist has captured precise details when depicting books throughout history, showing sewing structures, stitch types, supports, covers and even how they were stored. In this post we will look at some examples of books depicted in art.


While we now consider spine outwards as ‘the right way around’ to display books, this was not always the case. In the oil on canvas painting ‘Portrait of Lawyer Francesco Righetti’ by Guercino (1626- 28) we see doctor of laws Fracesco Righetti depicted in his library. His law books are tail-edge outwards showing endband detail with titles written on the volume.

On the left is a painting of a man holding a book. The man has curly hair, a moustache, and a goatee, and he is wearing a black top with a white collar and white cuffs. Behind the man is a shelf of books stacked on their boards (as opposed to shelved spine-out as we typically see books today). On the right is a close-up crop of the books on his shelf.

Figure 1:  Guercino’s ‘Portrait of Lawyer Francesco Righetti’.

The engraved ‘Portrait of William Cartwright’ (from ‘Comedies, tragi-comedies, with other poems’) was printed in London for Humphrey Moseley in 1651. Cartwright is shown wearing a collar and gown leaning on an open book. The books on the wall behind him are shelved fore-edge out; a common practice in the 16th and early 17th century. Gilded-edge books stored spine away would gleam off the shelves quite spectacularly. Many medieval books have their title written in several places such as the spine, tail-edge or fore-edge as storage locations changed over time.

On the left a man sits at a desk with his elbow resting on an open book and his head resting on his hand. Above him sits two shelves on books on the wall. On the right is a closeup of those books.

Figure 2:  ‘Portrait of William Cartwright’. See the full engraving digitised on the British Museum's Image Gallery.


How binderies operated

Hendrik de Haas’s print ‘De Boekbinder’ (1806) shows a bookbinder's workshop. On the left is the beating stone where gatherings were pounded with a mallet for compaction. Second from the left a man is shown bent over a special shaving knife which is drawn along the text block to trim the pages. The shavings are shown on the floor. In the centre on a stool a binder is sewing the gatherings next to a young boy taking a book to a client. The master of the workshop (as determined by his smart attire and rather dashing wig) burnishes the leather by working and smoothing it. The finisher, working for the aristocracy, made more money than the binder – it is unusual to see him wearing Hessian boots. (With tassels? On a binder? The outrage!)

This engraving shows the goings-on at a bookbinding workshop. Five workers are present, doing various tasks related to bookbinding.

Figure 3: Bookbinder’s workshop in print by Hendrik de Haas, ‘De Boekbinder’, Dordrect, 1806.

A closeup of one of the workers who is beating part of a book on a pedastol.. A closeup of one of the workers who is using a tool that resembles a wooden vice with a sharp blade attached. A textblock rests in the vice and the blade is dragged over the edges of the textblock to shave them down to a uniform size.

Figure 4: Left: Beating the gatherings. Right: Shaving the book block.

Books are stacked in a wooden press which is leaning against a wall.

Figure 5: Pressing the books in Bookbinder’s workshop in print by Hendrik de Haas, ‘De Boekbinder’, Dordrect, 1806. 

Leaning against the shelving unit in the far right is a wooden book press where several books are packed tightly. It was possible to apply guilt edges to several books at a time when stored in this way.

Life and social status

Dutch painter Marinus van Reymerswale’s early 16th century oil on canvas painting ‘St Jerome in his Study’ shows St Jerome surrounded by curious objects which represent attributes referring to his life and status. St Jerome was famed for translating the Bible into Latin from Greek and Hebrew. The Vulgate, as his translation was known, became the official Latin version of the Holy Script in the Roman Catholic Church. For this reason he is nearly always depicted around books and in his study.

An expensively bound volume with clasps is shelved behind St Jerome, while on his table are several working copies with various sewing structures and tacketed bindings. A sewn book block is apparent which never had covers, adhesive, or a spine lining. The gatherings are visible with long stitch through separate supports rather than covering the whole spine. There is no adhesive used in long stitch bindings, making them very useful for music manuscripts as the book stays open easily and is very flexible. Long stitch was rare in England but common in the Low Countries as a cheap and quick way to produce almanacs. The variety of books in his study suggest St Jerome was highly-literate with a great depth of knowledge.

St Jerome sits at his desk with an illuminated manuscript open. In front of him rests a skull. Around him are things like other paperwork, a hat, a candle, etc.

Figure 6: Marinus van Reymerswale’s ‘St Jerome in his Study’, 16th century.

Left: A close up of a red book with clasps. This sits above the open illuminated manuscript and next to the candle. Right: A stack of textblocks which haven't been covered yet--the sewing structures are visible along the spine.

Figure 7: Left: Leather bound volume with metal clasps. Right: Visible sewing structures, long stitch and tacketed binding. 

Textblocks could be sold without significant covers, just held together with an "endless cover". Jean Antoinette Poisson (Madame de Pompadour) was the mistress of King Louis XV, as well as a prominent patron of Francois Boucher. In Francois Boucher’s 1756 oil on canvas portrait ‘Madame de Pompadour’ the lady is sumptuously dressed and surrounded by opulent things - apart from the book she holds in her hand. The book has a drawn-on cover – a piece of paper or parchment put around the book-block. It was a cheap and quick way to bind books and there are a lot of French books bound in this way. Madame de Pompadour is displaying a casual relationship with literature, in a sense saying to the viewer ‘Look at me, I read books because they are interesting. If I like it, I will keep it” (and pay more money for the binding!).

In this portrait, a woman in a lavish turqoise dress with peach-coloured roses lounges with a book in her hand. Behind her you can see other elements of the room including a bookcase and grand clock. Next to her is a small table with a candle on it. It's all very opulent!

Figure 8: Francois Boucher’s ‘Madame de Pompadour’, 1756, oil on canvas portrait.

A closeup of the book in the woman's hands--the book is open.

Figure 9: Francois Boucher’s ‘Madame de Pompadour’, 1756, oil on canvas portrait. The book has a drawn-on cover – a piece of paper or parchment put around the book-block.


Street vendors/book peddlers

'Bealux abc belles heures’ is part of the ‘le Cris de Paris’ genre illustrating Parisian street vendors. It is a woodcut engraving ca 1500 showing a moment in time when prayer books, once restricted to the wealthy aristocracy, became affordable to the bourgeois with the advent of the printing press. Thin, printed copies were sold on the streets. In the vendor’s right hand is a Book of Hours showing a limp cover. Underneath his left hand we can see detail of a leather binding.

A print of a man with a box of books wrapped around his shoulders and resting in front of him. He is shown walking on top of a small area of grass and with an open book in one hand. A man holds a basket of books in one hand and an open book out in the other.

Figure 6: Street vendors and book peddlers were often depicted in artworks. Left: Beaulx abc belles heures. Right: Tavolette, e Libri per li putti.

Similarly in Annibale Carracci’s 1646 print ‘Tavolette, e Libri per li putti’ a man is depicted selling books from a basket that he carries over his shoulder. The book in his right hand has a cover which follows the spine when open and is bound using long-stitch.

Evidence-based research

While written documentation of binding styles and techniques is not always available, we can gather a lot of information from paintings, prints, engravings and illuminations. Sometimes they can tell us more than current literature on a subject – for example in Lorenzo Lotto’s oil on canvas ‘Portrait of a Young Man in his Study’ (c. 1530), the sitter is more likely to be a merchant than a student as the volume he is perusing is bound with a fore-edge flap – this style was used for account books and book-keeping, not for great works of literature.

A man sits at a desk with an open book. He is wearing a black jacket with a white shirt just visible underneath. What appears to be a window showing an evening sky (setting sun) is behind him. In general this painting is very dark in colour. A closeup showing the man flipping through the open book.

Figure 7:  Lorenzo Lotto, ‘Portrait of a Young Man in his Study’ (c. 1530), oil on canvas.

Visual depictions can also be useful in filling in missing parts of our understanding. Folio 291v of the great 9th century illuminated gospel manuscript, the Book of Kells, shows Christ holding a red binding decorated with blind twilling. With the original binding of the manuscript now lost, it is possible that this is what it may have originally looked like.

On the left is the full illuminated page which shows Christ holding a red book. Around him is a geometric design. On the right is a closeup of the book in his hands.

Figure 8: The Book of Kells, f. 291v; a 9th century gospel manuscript containing the four Gospels in Latin based on the Vulgate text which St Jerome completed in 384AD. It has been fully digitised by Trinity College Dublin.

While bookbinding may be considered the Cinderella of the bibliographical trade (i.e. given little care or attention) it is a fascinating area of research, based on the logic of commerce – techniques and styles were not varied unless they needed to be. For more information on bookbindings see the British Library Database of Bookbindings or the Ligatus website.

Christina Duffy (@DuffyChristina)

23 June 2014

A book binder for Mr Taylor


Lieutenant Colonel Robert Taylor, the Political Resident in Bussorah (Basra) in 1819 and in Baghdad in 1821, was well known for his personal interest in Arabic culture and for his remarkable collection of Arabic manuscripts and art pieces. Between 1850 and 1860, the British Museum acquired 355 books from his widow.

So far, 129 manuscripts from the British Library collection have been scoped and condition assessed by conservators working for the British Library Qatar Foundation Partnership. This is so they can be digitised for a new digital portal that will be launched at the end of this year as part of the British Library Qatar Foundation Partnership.

The stamp “Purchased of Mrs Tayor 1860” is stamped in black on white paper.
Ownership stamp

Amongst those manuscripts, there was a group of eight that particularly attracted my attention. The content of these manuscripts, all part of the Taylor collection, date from between 1248 to 1605, and have probably been bound or rebound after being acquired by him. Certain features of the bindings point to the same binder having been used, but some of the differences between their constructions are intriguing too. The following is a collection of observations I have made during my assessment of these fascinating items.  This printed annotation was added by the British Museum on each of the manuscripts recording the provenance and the date of the acquisition.


Starting with the most obvious similarity between these eight items, we shall look at the covers, which are all bound in full red goat leather (see images below). The boards have also been decorated with blind tooling. The tools used are often the same and used in similar patterns, for example, single tools repeated and combined to create the patterns that make the central decorations and the frames that you can see in the following images.

The front board of a book bound in decorated red leather. The decoration has all been stamped (“tooled”) on to the book and is “blind”, meaning it is not coloured. The board is decorated with a border of lines and small five-petalled flowers. There is a double vertical line down the centre of the board. At the top, middle and bottom of the line it is broken up by four diamond-shaped motifs created from four shamrock-shaped stamps with a small five-petalled flower in the middle. There are single five-petalled flowers tooled on the line between the top and middle and middle and bottom diamonds.
Add Ms 23393


The front board of a book bound in red leather. It is decorated with a border of lines and small five-petalled flowers. There are also five-petalled flowers arranged in a cross in the middle of the board, and one five-petalled flower in each corner of the border.
Add Ms 23391

CC by Left board Add. Ms 23393                 CC by Left board Add. Ms 23391

The front board of a book bound in red leather. The leather is creased and scratched. It is decorated with a border of lines and small five-petalled flowers. There is a double vertical line down the centre of the board. In the centre of the board a diamond shape has been created from five-petalled flowers.
Add Ms 23390


The front board of a book bound in red leather. The leather is creased and scratched and the corners of the board have been bashed with use and small areas of the leather are missing from them. The book is much narrower than it is tall.The board is decorated with a border of lines and small five-petalled flowers. There is a double vertical line down the centre of the board. In the centre of the board a diamond shape has been created from five-petalled flowers, with further small diamonds positioned on each of the four points.
Add Ms 23430

CC by Left board Add Ms. 23390                       CC by Left board Add. Ms 23430

A detail of a section of board decoration, stamped onto red leather. A double line runs vertically down the leather. At the top of the line is a diamond motif consisting of four shamrock shapes with a five-petalled flower in the centre. In the middle of the line is a single five-petalled flower. At the bottom of the line is a diamond motif consisting of four five-petalled flowers with a single five-petalled flower just beneath it.
Add Ms 1523


A detail of a section of board decoration, stamped onto red leather. The leather is darkened by dirt and has diagonal scratches running downwards from left to right. A double line runs vertically down the leather. At the top of the line is a five-petalled flower. In the middle of the line is diamond motif consisting of four shamrock shapes with a five-petalled flower in the centre. At the bottom of the line is a a five-petalled flower.
Add Ms 23407

CC by Central decoration on left board of Add. Ms 1523 vs decoration of Add Ms 23393

A detail of the decoration of the lower right corner of the back board of a book. It is covered in red leather, onto which the decoration is stamped. The decoration consists of a border of lines and small five-petalled flowers. In the left hand side of the photo is a double vertical line coming down to meet the border. At the bottom of the line, above the border, is a diamond motif consisting of four five-petalled flowers with a single five-petalled flower beneath it.
Right board of Add Ms 1523


A detail of the decoration of the lower left corner of the back board of a book. It is covered in red leather, onto which the decoration is stamped. The decoration consists of a border of lines and small five-petalled flowers. In the right hand side of the photo is a double vertical line coming down to meet the border. At the bottom of the line, above the border, is a triangle consisting of four five-petalled flowers.
Right board of Add Ms 23407

CC by Decorated frame on right board of Add Ms 1523 vs decoration on right board of Add Ms 23407

The bindings also present other similarities within the structural features such as end band style and the style of sewing which I will discuss in the following sections.


The sewing of Islamic style bindings, the style these bindings largely correlate to, is commonly characterised by the absence of supports. This means that the book block is not sewn around supports, which in Western bindings consist, in the main, of strips of leather or linen cord. The book block is held together with the thread alone. Strangely, in this case, four of these eight manuscripts would appear to be have been sewn on supports as visible on the following image. This does not correspond to the ‘rules’ of binding styles, creating a type of hybrid.

A volume bound in red leather lying on a white background. Black arrows point towards three bumps on the spine where the leather is abraded.
Leather cover

CC by The rows are pointing to the protruding areas on the spine where the supports, possibly strips of leather, bulge under the leather cover

Diagram of the spine of the book beneath the leather which shows the sewing structures of four of the books, with three sewing stations sewn around supports.
Sewing diagram

Diagram indicating the sewing structures of four of the books, with three sewing stations sewn around supports, a traditionally Western feature.

This diagram, drawn after careful examination of the sewing only accessible from the inside of the book-blocks, shows a possible description of this unusual sewing technique. The head and tail chain-stitches (A) are most certainly supported with the sewing thread passing around the support. The sewing on the central support (B) has been done like it is normally, on tape with the sewing thread passing behind the support.

Cover leather overlapping on the spine

Three of these eight manuscripts exhibit the peculiar feature of overlapped cover leather on the spine. This feature consists of the leather covering the boards left longer at the inner joint. The extending parts of the leather are attached to the spine of the book block by overlapping them. This can be seen clearly in the following image that shows the detail, at the head edge, of the overlapping of the two layers of leather on the spine of manuscript Add.23387.

A view from above of the top edge of a book. The book is bound in maroon leather, two layers of which overlap on the spine. The book has a flat endband with a zigzag or chevron pattern endband woven in blue, grey, purple and yellow silk.
Cover construction

CC by The following drawing shows the construction of the cover where the two boards are prepared separately and attached to the spine of the book block by overlapping the two extensions of the covering leather.

A diagram showing that both boards are attached to the book by the overlapping pieces of leather on the spine.
Overlapping spine

In another manuscript, Add. Ms 23393, this feature initially appears identical, but is in fact the result of a completely different technique. By looking at the book carefully it is possible to see that the two pieces of leather, even if overlapping (see image below) on the spine, are not attached to the spine one on top of the other, but they have been attached together separately to create a fully formed case cover. Once formed, it was attached to the spine of the book-block.

A volume bound in red leather lying on a grey background. On the spine are three black leather labels with the title and shelfmarks tooled in gold. Black arrows point out a ridge in the spine leather where the two pieces covering the spine overlap.
Overlapping spine layers in raking light

CC by In the picture, taken in raking light, the line of the overlapping layers of leather is highlighted by the black arrows.

The shadow, indicated by arrows in the image below, shows that the piece of leather covering the right board is actually extending under the piece of leather covering the left board. The two separate pieces of leather are not only overlapping on the spine as previously recorded for this specific style, but they are used here to form a cover that had to be fully prepared separately before being attached to the book. This is an interesting twist on a well-documented style.

The front board of the same volume. Black arrows show a vertical ridge and shadow approximately one centimetre away from the left-hand side of the board, where the overlapping leather from the spine has been adhered underneath the leather covering the board.
Shadow on overlapping covers

CC by The cover of Add. Ms 23393 was fully prepared before being attached to the book.

Further evidence that the cover was completed separately is that the leather from the left board at head and tail, where it forms the caps, has been turned in on top of the other piece. This can only be done before the cover was attached to the spine of the book because the folded leather is now pinched between the spine of the book and the spine leather of the cover.

The area at the top of the spine of the same book. A black arrow shows a bump running beneath the leather at the spine of the spine. This is where the overlapping leather from the left board has been folded in over that of the right board to form a headcap.
Tail cap

CC by The arrow indicates the overlapping of the leather disappearing in the turn to form the tail cap.

End bands

In manuscript Add.Ms 23390 the end band (only the one at the head has survived) is actually made in a western style (see image below) whereas the other 7 manuscripts have end bands executed following techniques and aesthetics of ‘Islamic style’ bindings.

A view from above of the top edge of a red leather-bound book. The leather is cracked and abraded. The endband is made from pink, yellow and green silk threads wrapped around a cylindrical core in a striped pattern.
End band

CC by In this image of manuscript Add.Ms 23390 the technique used to make the end band is ‘western’ with the coloured silk threads (Pink, Yellow and Green) passed around a cylindrical core possibly made of cord.

A view from above of the top edge of a red leather-bound book. The endband is flat with a zigzag or chevron pattern woven with blue and white silk threads.
Head band

CC by In this image showing the head of Ms Add. 23407 we can see a detail of a typical Islamic style end band. The secondary, extremely elaborated sewing has been created with cream and blue silk threads.


These manuscripts, all with contents dating from different periods (from 1248 until 1610) appear to have been bound or re-bound when acquired by Mr Taylor. If this is the case it would justify the very striking similarities and the consistency in the materials used for their construction and their appearance.

A systematic assessment of this group of manuscripts to collect more information about their bindings would be necessary to draw a better picture of the collection and of the similarities and unexpected differences between their physical features. This could lead us to identify the binder who executed them, giving an insight into the rich history of bookbinding. Further research about Lieutenant Colonel Taylor’s activity during his work as Political Resident could also be carried out within the India Office Records to find records relating to payments made during the acquisition process and possibly the re-binding of these manuscripts. The digitised images will become available online later this year, along with a short article on Taylor, researched by Jo Wright, Content Development Curator for the Qatar Partnership.

Flavio Marzo

Update (July 2017): See this Royal Asiatic Society blog post describing a bookplate suspected to be owned by Col. Robert Taylor. It depicts thirteen different renderings of "Robert Taylor" suggesting he had at least some knowledge of a variety of Indian and other languages.


09 June 2014

Know Your Yellow!

This rather ancient looking Qur’an is deceptively young. In fact, it is thought to date back to the early 18th to late 19th century. The style is typical of African manuscripts originating south of the Sahara, and was presented to Lt. Heygate of the British Army, in Nigeria in 1916.

A book in a rectangular dark brown leather wrapping lies on a grey background. The picture is sideways, so that the head edge of the book is on the right-hand side. The wrapping is decorated with concentric rectangles of dots and lines imprinted onto the leather. A triangular leather flap folds over the front of the book from the spine edge, which is at the top of the photo. A leather thong is threaded through the point of the triangle. The leather is faded and is splitting at the spine edge.
The unbound textblock lies in the middle of the open wrapper, with a dark brown leather board on top of it. The leather of the underside of the wrapper is much paler leather of a light orange-pink colour. There is an old repair on the right-hand side of the wrapper, where a tear has been repaired with white thread.
Front Open

CC by Above: Manuscript in its wrapper. Below: Manuscript sandwiched between its boards with the wrapper open

It has a number of components; starting from the inside, there is an unbound textblock with thick tanned, haired goatskin boards on top and bottom. This in encased in a goatskin wrapper, which then fits into a goatskin satchel. This multi-faceted construction is similar to other 19th-century Qur’ans from West Africa, south of the Sahara.

A rectangular satchel with a triangular flap lies on a background of dark grey foam. The main body of the satchel is made from an orange-brown leather, and is decorated with square and diamond-shaped motifs of red-brown leather. The edge of the flap has a dark brown leather trim and the top edge of the satchel has a wide strip of the same, decorated with vertical and horizontal lines. The strap of the satchel is made from plaited strips of leather.

CC by Satchel lying on inert grey foam, with acid-free tissue padding to retain shape

The manuscript lies open to its first page, on a grey background. The pages are a creamy-brown colour and have rounded corners, with creases and small tears to the page edges. A piece of paler paper with black handwriting on it lies on top of the first page. To the right of the textblock is the top board, with its underside facing upwards. This is still covered with animal hair, which has a black and white spotted pattern.
First page

CC by Left: Manuscript open at first page with the letter detailing its origin inserted

As exciting as it is to have this fascinating object in the studio, it is responsible for some real headaches as a result of one particular element of its composition. Before an object comes to the studio to be worked on, a conservator will often carry out an assessment of its condition and write a treatment proposal, estimating the time and materials likely to be used. In this case, when my colleagues carried out the assessment, a large proportion of the textblock was ‘blocking’. This simply means pages were sticking together, which meant that most of the book was unreadable.

Strangely, in the period of time between the book arriving in the studio and the point where I took it out of the safe to work on, around a third of the textblock had released itself. This is not something conservators are trained to expect; most things get worse over time, so to see something improve without our intervention was exciting!

The only conclusion we can come to is that the studio’s environment is slightly different to the one the manuscript came from. The difference in the moisture levels in the air is the most likely culprit. 

A page of the manuscript showing Arabic writing in red and black ink. The picture is sideways, so that the text flows from the bottom to top of the photo. There are yellow dots placed throughout the areas of text.
Pigment detail

CC by Detail of yellow pigment, orpiment

On closer inspection the ‘sticky element’ was discovered to be yellow dots painted intermittently within the text areas. These were tested by our Conservation Science team, and found to be orpiment (a poisonous, arsenic-based yellow pigment) mixed in a medium of gelatine. It is the gelatine that is fairly hydrophilic, which would have softened in a humid environment and stuck to anything in direct contact with it.

So the obvious solution to this is to change the humidity levels around the volume further, to release all of the sticky dots. If only it were simple! The brown ink you can see in the image is most likely iron gall ink, which has been used as a writing medium since ancient times. Its main characteristic is that once it’s a few years old it turns from purplish-black to brown. Another, less innocuous ageing property, is its potential to ‘burn’ through the paper it sits on. The extent of the damage can depend on the recipe the scribe followed to make the ink; some are more acidic than others. But it can also depend on the level of humidity the ink has encountered in its lifespan. The introduction of medium to high levels of moisture, even in vapour form, can solubilise ions contained in the ink, which can catalyse the oxidative degradation of the cellulose fibres of the paper. This leads to weakened paper and potentially a severely damaged collection item.

A page from the manuscript, featuring an illustration. The picture is sideways, so that the head edge of the book is on the right-hand side. The illustration lies across the centre of the page and consists of a rectangle divided into three panels. The two outermost panels are subdivided into smaller squares and triangles, coloured in white, yellow and red. The central panel has a pattern of red and yellow stripes interwoven with each other. There is also a small circular motif in black, yellow and red in the left margin. The text above the main illustration is in black and red ink.

CC by Detail of one of the illustrations amongst the text

So keeping it dry is the best option for the ink, but pulling apart the pages without moisture could lead to skinning off the top layer of fibres, or even tearing paper.

We’re still deciding what to do about this sticky dilemma, but as ever with conservation decisions, we will have to balance our need to enable access by our readers to collection items with the wellbeing of individual items. Never a dull moment!

Jo Blackburn

20 May 2014

Discovery of a watermark on the St Cuthbert Gospel

A watermark of a post horn surrounded by a shield was recently discovered on the rear pastedown of the St Cuthbert Gospel (Add. MS 89000). The finding has just been published in the Electronic British Library Journal. The St Cuthbert Gospel is a late seventh century parchment volume and is the oldest intact European book. This Anglo-Saxon pocket gospel belonged to St Cuthbert of Lindisfarne (c. 635–687) and was discovered in 1104 in his tomb.

The pastedown, which is the endpaper attached to the inside cover board of a book, records the donation of the St Cuthbert Gospel (then known as the Stonyhurst Gospel) to the British Province of the Society of Jesus from the Reverend Thomas Philips, S. J. in 1769.


The front board of a book bound in dark brown leather. A rectangular decorated panel is in the middle of the board - it features a raised pattern in the shape of an interlacing vine, above and below which are rectangular panels of interlacing knot designs. The leather has deposits of dirt and small areas on the right-hand side of the board have become abraded.
St Cuthbert Gospel
A piece of cream paper pasted inside the back board of the book, covered with ten lines of Latin writing in dark brown ink. The paper is torn and folded in on the edges and at the corners. The number 91 is written in red crayon at the top of the piece of paper, above the first line of writing. The paper has some old dirt ingrained into its surface, which show the contours of the board and folds of the covering leather beneath.
Rear pastedown
A white representation of the piece of paper on the back board, showing only the outline of the watermark. The watermark is in the bottom right-hand corner. It consists of a cloud, inside which is an item in the shape of a hunting horn. A small tentacle or vine is coming out of the top of the cloud. Next to the cloud is a small design in the shape of a shoe with a high heel.
Watermark location

CC by Left: Front cover of the St Cuthbert Gospel. Centre: The rear pastedown showing a record of the donation: ‘Hunc Evangelii Codicem dono accepit ab Henrico Comite de Litchfield, et dono dedit Patribus Societatis Iesu, Collegii Anglicani, Leodii, Anno 1769; rectore eiusdem Collegii Ioanne Howard: Thomas Phillips Sac. Can. Ton.’ which translates to: ‘This Gospel Book was received as a gift from Henry, Earl of Litchfield, and given to the Fathers of the Society of Jesus, of the English College, Liège, in the year 1769, the rector of the college, John Howard, Thomas Phillips Canon of Tongres.’ Right: The watermark is located in the lower right hand corner

What are watermarks?

Watermarks are created by manipulating a piece of wire into a recognisable shape and fixing it to a paper mould such as the Japanese papermaking bamboo screen below.  Here the bamboo has been cut into strips and arranged into parallel lines called laid lines. The bamboo strips are held together by sewing thread at one inch intervals, which form the chain lines on a sheet of paper. Chain lines, laid lines and watermarks are visible when held up to a light source. Light can pass through watermarks easily because the paper thickness is reduced where wire is present in the mould.

The papermaking screen consists of two dark wood rectangular frames one on top of the other with a screen between them made from parallel strips of bamboo. A thin dark wood dowl bisects the top frame horizontally. The bamboo screen has lines of white stitching crossing it horizontally at regular intervals.
Paper mould

CC zero A Japanese papermaking bamboo screen

We typically notice watermarks on paper when they are held up to the light revealing a motif, initials or a date relating to the original paper mill. Watermarks are therefore useful in determining the provenance of paper and can help to identify its intended function. Watermarks can be difficult to image because they are often obscured by print on the page, or are located in the gutter (the space between the printed area and the binding).

An example of a partial watermark from a woodblock reprint dating to about 1476 is shown below. The reprint is of the Astronomical Calendar first published by Johann Müller (Regiomontanus) in Nuremberg in 1474 (British Library shelfmark IA.7). The watermark is found in the gutter with the other half located several folios later due to the ordering and cutting of the folios.

The gutter area of a book is shown horizontally. Grids of numbers are printed in black ink on both pages, and are coloured with yellow and red pigment on the top page. The watermark is in the margin of the top page, below the printed grid. It consists of a clover shape with three circular leaves. Two more circles like those of the leaves are positioned on each side of the central clover motif. Some of the watermark is obscured by the lower page.
Partial watermark in book gutter

CC by Watermark in the gutter of BL IA.7 when viewed through a light sheet 

When the page is adhered to a board on one side, such as the rear pastedown of the St Cuthbert Gospel, it is impossible for light to transmit and watermarks can remain undetected. A pastedown conceals the raw edges of the covering material and forms a hinge between the board and the text block.

A book bound in green leather with the front board open. The first page, the endpaper, is made from a single folded piece of cream paper, double the size of one of the book’s pages, the left hand side of which (the pastedown) is stuck to the inside of the board.
Pastedown example

CC zero An example of a front pastedown where one side of the endpaper is adhered to the front cover. Since the endpaper is fixed to the board it is difficult for light to penetrate and illuminate potential watermarks

The St Cuthbert Gospel watermark

A high resolution digital image of the pastedown was processed using ImageJ, an open source image processing software package. An image is comprised of a variety of layers or textures which can be separated. This allows pixels of interest to be isolated which may include faded writing, obscured text or watermarks. The watermark was revealed by converting the image from the standard RGB (red green blue) colour space into another space where tiny contrast differences were enhanced. The process of colour space analysis is fully explained in the publication: The Discovery of a Watermark on the St Cuthbert Gospel using Colour Space Analysis

The bottom right hand section of the rear pastedown, showing parts of the bottom six lines of writing in dark brown ink on cream paper.
No watermark observed
The same image, but with the colours reversed. The cream paper is now grey and black and the dark brown writing is shown in white. The watermark is shown in faint black lines.
Watermark visible

CC by Left: An image of the rear pastedown of the St Cuthbert Gospel where no watermark is observed. Right: The same image reveals a watermark in the lower right hand corner of the pastedown when processed into another colour space

Non-destructive science

Colour space analysis is being used at the British Library to enhance faded designs on binding covers, disclose watermarks and hidden inscriptions and to reveal text which has been chemically treated or erased. In many cases applying colour space analysis to certain multispectral images has proven successful.

Digitisation projects generate large amounts of high-resolution images which can be manipulated to discover hidden information without the need to access the item. This has significant implications for the long-term study and preservation of cultural heritage collection items. The rear pastedown in the St Cuthbert Gospel was formerly numbered f. 91 and is available to view on the internet as part of the Digitised Manuscripts website.

Christina Duffy (@DuffyChristina)

10 March 2014

“Islamic/Western” features in three India Office Records manuscripts

Flavio Marzo, Conservation Studio Manager for the British Library/Qatar Foundation digitisation project reports on the conservation of three manuscripts from the India Office Records.

A new conservation studio has been set up at the British Library to support a digitisation project as part of the British Library Qatar Foundation Partnership programme. The Library’s Arabic material has been scoped for the creation of a new web portal where, in a year’s time, around 500,000 images will be made available online to the general public.

The font cover of a manuscript, in poor condition. The leather applied to the board has degraded significantly. The first layer of leather appears to have peeled off leaving a random pattern of darker brown-orange and lighter  brown-orange colouration of the leather layers. There is a large white label positioned towards the top, with text faintly reading “Old Index from January 1846 to December 1846. The white label is worn with all edges and corners suffering losses, leaving tattered and jagged edges. There is a modern blue sticky label towards the bottom reading “Not for direct photocopying copies may be ordered from IOR NEG 9300”
Front left board of MS IOR/R/15/1/105

CC by 

The majority of material identified for digitisation comes from the India Office records. Many of the files that form this collection are related to the Gulf area, and so are deeply connected to the history of Qatar and its neighboring countries.

The India Office Records are a very large collection of documents relating to the administration of India from 1600 – 1947, the period which spans Company and British rule in India. The archive is held here at the Library and is publicly accessible.

As the formal document of British presence in the Persian Gulf, IOR/R/15 is a fascinating series within the India Office Records, giving a unique insight into a colonial encounter between European imperial power and tribal shaikhdoms on the Arabian Peninsula coast.

One of the most striking features of these Records is the variety and mixture of formats and features related to different manufacturing techniques. These range from bound printed or manuscript volumes to folders containing loose leaves, folded maps, photographs, miscellaneous textile offcuts and samples of products sold in the colonies during the English occupation. In many cases these records were produced by a local workforce in the countries where the IOR officers were stationed.

This mixture of local craftsmanship and foreign taste (and in some cases even foreign materials) has produced very interesting objects which carry a fusion of western appearance and “Islamic” manufacturing techniques.

In this post I want to present some features of three bound manuscripts from the India Office Records: IOR/R/15/1/105, IOR/R/15/103 and IOR/15/1/161.

Front board of a manuscript, with a large discoloured cream-white paper label, with faint brown text reading “Book No.246 from January1857 to December 1857” and below in bright red text reading “Nothing of importance.” The label is in okay condition with no losses or abrasion, but quite stained, possibly from the adhesive  layer below. The leather covering the board is in poor condition, with patches left of lighter orange-brown are the result of peeling and lifting leather. There is a large area of leather loss by the bottom left of the white label, exposing the mill board below.
Front left board of MS IOR/R/15/1/161

CC by 

A front cover to a manuscript, completely detached, sitting askew on top of the textblock, with a damaged white paper label towards the middle, and a modern blue sticky label towards the bottom. The board itself is in poor condition, pearing blotchy with varying pale and dark orange-brown colours. The board is in extremely poor condition, cracked from the top right corner down to the lower left side. The crack has caused significant loss to the white paper label, also in poor condition and discoloured, with faint brown text. The blue label is in good condition and reads “Not for direct photocopying copies may be ordered from IOR NEG 9299”
Front left board of MS IOR/R/15/1/103

CC by 

These manuscripts were produced in the middle of the 19th century and contain collections of letters sent from the British Political Residency in the Persian Gulf stationed at Bushire (or Bushehr) on the south western coast of Iran.

Many of the features of these volumes are traditionally considered to be Western. They were all bound in full leather and decorated with similar finishing tools without the use of gold (blind tooled decoration).

Detail of the blind tooling that decorates the border of the cover. Blind tooling is the impression of design left by a heated metal tool without the addition of gold leaf. The blind-tooled design used on This cover is a small pattern in the shape of an S, and where one S ends, another begins in a continuous design.
Detail of the tool used to decorate the cover of two of the manuscripts


Detail of the blind tooling that decorates the border of the cover. Blind tooling is the impression of design left by a heated metal tool without the addition of gold leaf. The blind-tooled design used on This cover is a small pattern in the shape of an S, and where one S ends, another begins in a continuous design.
Detail of the tool used to decorate the cover of two of the manuscripts

CC by 

They are written in English on western handmade paper. The countermark in the image below indicates that the paper was produced in 1843 in Stowford Mill, which continues to make paper to this day.

A manuscript sits flat on a desk with the spine facing us. The front board is missing, and the  first page of the manuscript is being held up at a 90 degree angle. There are losses, small tears and creases along the edges. Light is shining through the page from the back, illuminating the features of the sheet. We can visibly see the laid lines, and the watermark in the centre of the sheet reading “STOWFORD MILL 1813.” The watermark and laid lines are lighter than the surrounding paper due to the manufacturing process. Paper is produced by a screen being dipped into and lifted out of a slurry of paper fibres suspended in water. The construction of the screen has raised lines, and sometimes a watermark, a design from wire and attached to the screen. These raised areas result in a thinner layer of fibres than the rest of the sheet, and visible with illumination.
Page from one of the volumes, photographed in transmitted light to reveal the countermark

CC by 

Other aspects of these books have been produced using ‘Islamic’ style binding techniques. For example, the textblock sections are secured with ‘unsupported sewing’. The Western binding technique of using a material (vellum or cord) to sew around, attaching the sections to it using the thread, is absent here meaning that it is only the thread itself securing the sections together.

Another example is the execution of the endbands that you see in the images below. These are typical of Islamic bindings as commonly recognized in the field of the history book by the way they are sewn and by the final pattern and appearance.

The endband is presented vertically and at a slight angle and left of the spine. The endband is made from white string, and resembles a braid. It is in quite poor condition, the internal leather chord of the end band is visible, as the threads of it are worn and falling off. The bottom edge of the manuscript to the right of the endband is stained and discoloured. The orange leather of the spine and backboards wrap around the image.
Islamic style endband
The head of the text block is shown, vertical, and almost directly on, with the orange-brown leather spine on the right hand side out of focus and going away from us. The end band is made of white string and is in good condition. The anchor stitching is to the right of the endband, descending into the spine folds of the textblock.
Islamic style endband

CC by 

It is clear from this mixing of binding influences that these volumes were not produced in a Western bindery! It is likely that the materials were provided by the India Office, along with specific requests regarding the appearance, which tie in with traditional Western tastes. The rest was down to the knowledge and expertise of the local binders, and what an exciting interesting fusion of styles it has resulted in!

An open book sits on a blakc table. The book is on an angle, cutting off all four corners of the manuscript in the picture. The colour of the sheets of paper have a green off-white tinge to them. The text is written in brown ink, and is neat tidy cursive, written on blank sheets, but still keeping the writing in neat even lines. The page on the right is guarded into the book, meaning it has a long tab of paper attached to the latter, the tab is then used to secure the sheet within the book structure. In this opening, the writing butts up right to the edge of the guard. The sheet on the left side is not guarded, however the writing goes right into the tight gutter, which would be very tricky if not impossible to write after being bound. It could indicate that the volume was bound after the letters were written and not produced as a blank notebook.
The writing close to the gutter of the book can make it difficult for digitisation.

CC by 

In these specific cases, we re-housed the books in custom made archival boxes and repaired enough of the damaged paper and boards to stabilise it for future handling.

They will soon be fully digitized and available online on the Qatar National Library web site. The process of digitisation gives conservators the opportunity to assess large numbers of items in a short period of time, enabling them to more fully understand the collection. In this case, it allowed me to appreciate the fusion of binding styles that make these items so interesting. Their content will be made available and their peculiar and unique features will be preserved.

An open box made of a single piece of board which folds to cover a book, with paper tabs to secure it closed into slots on the fore edge of the box when closed. Made of a thin board white on the inside and blue on the outside, it is known as a phase box. There is a manuscript sitting inside of the open box on a green table. The manuscript has a white label towards the top of the front board, and a blue label towards the bottom. The front board is mottled with dark orange brown to light orange-brown patches due to leather loss and damage.
The final product!

CC by 

Flavio Marzo

13 January 2014

Read All About It #2 - Building a Future

This is the second in a series of blog posts discussing the challenges of caring for the national newspaper collection - how we’ve worked to preserve it and keep it accessible in the past and how we are going to do so in the future.

The national newspaper collection is on the move. Its current home at Colindale is no longer fit for purpose – either as a repository able to offer long term sustainability to the collection; or as a facility for readers to experience the modern, dynamic newspaper and news service that we want to offer. This recent BBC News report paints a vivid picture.

We know the collection is vulnerable, and if we don’t act now to move it into better conditions, we risk more of it falling into such bad condition that we will be unable to issue it without increased damage or loss, if at all.

Our survey says…

In 2001, as part of a three year project to survey all of the Library’s collections on all of its sites, we surveyed the newspaper collections at Colindale using the PAS (Preservation Needs Assessment Survey) methodology. The results showed that the newspaper collection is the most vulnerable of all of the Library’s collections and gave us a statistically sound picture of the state of this national collection. Our results showed that 34% of the collection at Colindale was unstable – 19.4% in poor condition, 14.6% unusable.

We know that improved storage is the best way of preserving the whole collection for the long term, and our new Newspaper Storage Building (NSB) is undergoing its final testing as I type.

However, this is just the latest – and most ambitious – effort to strike a balance between the long-term preservation needs of the collection and our duty to make it available to users.

The ties that bind

To the bindery workshop!
Wooden sign directing to the bindery workshop on the 3rd floor in gold lettering

When reader facilities were added to the original Colindale repository in 1932, a bindery was also created on the 3rd floor. Here, new legal deposit intake was bound, and older papers were conserved – pulled down, de-acidified, repaired and re-sewn and re-bound. Treatment and binding styles varied depending on the age, type and size of newspaper - machine sewn; hand-sewn on tapes or cords, buckram and leather, half and quarter; finished in foils, mostly, but occasionally gold leaf.

As the conservation and binding of newspapers proved to be less and less cost and time effective over the years, benefiting only a small part of a vast collection, the bindery was closed in 2001. However, because of the work that was done, there are many thousands of volumes in perfectly good condition today that otherwise wouldn’t be.

Below, the bindery at Colindale in full production in the 1980s.

Colindale in the 1980s
Image showing the binders working in the Colindale in the 1980s

CC by Newspapers ready for sewing, by machine and by hand

Colindale in the 1980s
Image shows workers in the bindery preparing newspapers for sewing

CC by Forwarding and finishing

Lights! Camera! Microfilm!

We know that not everyone is a massive fan of microfilm. From a user point of view it has few of the advantages of digital and it’s not the real thing. But for the long term preservation of content it has proved its worth and without the large-scale microfilming programmes undertaken in the 1970s and onwards, a significant portion of our content would simply be unavailable today in any form.

A worker in Colindale microfilming a large volume. The book is on a stand and there are lights above
A worker in Colindale microfilming a newspaper

CC by Microfilming at Colindale began in the 1950s. In 1971 a dedicated microfilm unit was completed. At its height the unit operated 20 cameras and the BL produced (internally and externally) approximately 13 million frames of newspaper content annually

For we are living in a digital world, and I am a digital girl...(sorry, Madonna)

We still copy newspapers today, to increase access to content and to preserve the originals, but the format tends to be digital rather than microfilm. For instance the Library is working in partnership with DC Thompson Family History to digitise 40 million pages of 19th and early 20th century newspapers and make them available on the British Newspaper Archive website. Interestingly, where we can’t scan the original newspapers, the microfilm we created over the last 50 years is proving an invaluable alternative scanning source.

“What are you able to build with your blocks? Castles and palaces, temples and docks.” (from Block City by Robert Louis Stevenson)

New storage building
Image of new storage building, the building is a mixture of greys and blues, it has a yellow door and railings along the front of the building

CC by The new storage building, with the main void at the back and the support building in front

Well, what we’ve been able to build with our blocks is a brand new storage facility for the national newspaper collection at Boston Spa, known lovingly as NSB – Newspaper Storage Building (we love to tell it like it is!). This state-of-the-art building will secure the long term future of the collection. In a complete (improved) reversal of storage fortune for the collection, it will be stored in the dark which will protect it from the damaging light levels that were unable to be controlled at Colindale.

The temperature will be 14⁰C and relative humidity 55%, a vast improvement on what was able to be achieved at Colindale. More importantly, it will be maintained at a steady level which overall will provide an environment for the collection that will slow down the rate of deterioration. Crucially, the oxygen level is purposely low at 14-15%, eliminating the risk of fire (ignition is impossible). The ingest and retrieval of newspapers is automated, which means in turn that the storage can be high density.

Lying down on the job

Not us – the collection! If you read our first post, you’ll know that the collection varies in size enormously, from volumes no bigger than a pocket diary to volumes weighing nearly 20 kg. Storing these large and heavy volumes vertically is causing physical damage, particularly where the boards are no longer attached and providing support, so in the new building the collection will be stored horizontally in stacks which will ease the pressure on the bindings and stabilise the text block. A ‘stack’ consists of a bottom board, a stack of volumes, and a top board. The boards and the stack are secured by straps. The stacks are stored on huge carrier trays in the storage racking, each holding various permutation of stack sizes.

It all stacks up

We’ve set a maximum stack height of 400 mm for each stack. Volumes will be grouped together by condition and stacked by size, with bound volumes being alternated spine to foredge to provide a stable stack with an even weight distribution. In order to do this, we’ve undertaken a massive data gathering exercise, determining the size of every item in the collection and assigning a condition rating of good, poor, or unusable.


Footprint plot
Graph showing the seven sizes or footprints, relating to the board sizes on which items will be stacked

The collection was divided into seven sizes or footprints, relating to the board sizes on which items will be stacked. Footprint 1 is any volume up to 380 mm (h) x 310 mm (w), while footprint 7 caters for volumes between 820-1012 mm (h) x 680-770 mm (w) – we have several hundred of these. 

It’s a wrap

Knowing the condition of each item in the collection is important if we are to direct our resources appropriately and effectively. For this project, it was even more crucial because of the handling and transport logistics involved in moving from one building to the other. To protect items that are particularly vulnerable, we are shrink-wrapping those in poor and unusable condition.

Shrink-wrapped volumes
A pile of shrink-wrapped volumes being tested for stability

CC by A stack of three shrink-wrapped volumes, being tested for stability

Three images showing the construction of the building from the beginning and throughout the building process
The installation of a giant crane inside the building

CC by One of the giant cranes is lifted into place. These will run up and down each aisle delivering carrier trays through a sealed air lock to the work stations in the support building

Another image of the giant crane inside the building, this image also has several site workers in it which highlights the vast size of the crane and space
Image of the light grey and yellow work stations with fencing behind them

CC by The workstations in the support building

Building stacks
Two workers building stacks inside the test facility. With many large half leather bindings with brown spines in two piles

CC by Stacks being built in a dedicated test facility

It’s no small undertaking to move such a large and vulnerable collection half way up the country, so in our third post on this topic we’ll spend some time with Moves Manager Sarah Jane Newbery to find out what the challenges are – and how it’s all progressing.

For more information on the newspaper moves see: and follow us @BL_CollCare.

Sandy Ryan

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