Collection Care blog

49 posts categorized "Books"

06 July 2023

Taking the British Library by Storm Scott

In September 2022, I began a yearlong internship at The British Library in the conservation department. Prior to this I studied general conservation at Lincoln University, and whilst I enjoyed learning about all types of materials, once I started treating paper objects I knew that I had found my passion, and hopefully my future career.

My studies took place during the Covid-19 lockdowns, so my access to hands on conservation was limited. Entry-level conservation jobs often require a minimum of two years practical experience post training, so finding this internship felt something like a blessing. During my yearlong internship, I have been learning from expert preventive conservators, object, textile, book and paper conservators in a fully equipped conservation studio. This blog post will give an overview of my time spent during the first six months of my internship, beginning with the Exhibitions and Loans team, and then on the long-term bids team.

A view of the main studio of the British Library Centre for Conservation, showing the large space with high ceiling and natural light. There are many workbenches covered with conservation tools and equipment, including a large book press in the foreground.
Img. 1: The BLCC purpose built main studio

 

Exhibitions and Loans 

The Exhibition and Loans (E&L) team within conservation deal with the treatment and condition checking of objects that have been requested for upcoming exhibitions, either internally at the BL or externally at other lending institutions, including touring exhibitions.

Condition checking and documentation is crucial to the culture of institutions loaning each other objects as record of the exact nature and degree of all damage is important to show that an object has not been further damaged during transit or display. I started on the Exhibitions and Loans team during the install of the Alexander Exhibition, where I was able to watch loan items from other institutions arrive, and to see how different conservators at a variety of institutions described and highlighted different types of damage. I also had the opportunity to assess and record the condition of individual items going out on loan and an entire touring exhibition on its return to the Library. This allowed me to familiarise myself with the specialist vocabulary used in book conservation, the various book structures, and the common types of damage.

I have learnt that putting together an exhibition is a truly collaborative process. During the install many different departments work together to ensure that the final exhibition is educational, contains the most relevant and beautiful objects, is enjoyable for visitors but above all that the objects remain safe, stable and undamaged. The E&L team play a massive role in this: they decide which items are in good enough condition to be displayed, undertake any necessary conservation treatments and decide how best to display objects.

I also worked on the Chinese and British exhibition; I mounted many flat items for display, learning various techniques that ensure each object is displayed at its best whilst being appropriately supported.

Hand-drawn and labelled map, drawn in black ink on beige paper. The map has been mounted onto cream mount board using v-hinges, a mounting technique allowing the hinges to not be visible from the recto. The map is slightly dirty and a previous repair is visible to the bottom right corner but the map is in a good condition.
Img. 2: ink on paper map mounted with V-hinge technique so the hinges aren’t visible
Img. 3 mounted
Img. 3: ink on paper flat work mounted using Melinex corners and sides for additional support

In addition to mounting objects for internal exhibitions I also treated items for internal and external exhibitions, focusing on damage that could increase whilst in transit or on display or aesthetic damage to the display opening. The following are examples of items I have treated for exhibitions and loans.

The front board of volume 10880.d.27 prior to treatment, a half bound green leather volume with marbled paper covers. The leather is in poor condition, it has degraded completely in some areas – the spine the spine has a fluffy texture and large pieces are at risk to flake off it. The board corners are visible and the bottom board corner is scraped. There is also a tear between the spine and the front board at the top edge.
Img. 4: Volume 10880.d.27 before treatment
The front board of volume 10880.d.27 post treatment. The board corners have been covered with Japanese tissue toned to match the leather. The leather has been consolidated darkening the leather but making it stronger. The tear between the spine and the front board has also been repaired using a small piece of leather inserted underneath the spine leather.
Img. 5: Volume 10880.d.27 after treatment, including binding repair, leather consolidation and covering board corners
The head edge of volume 1258.k.5 before treatment. The paper is flaking off the board edges, with areas of complete loss where the board is showing. The leather is very worn at the spine edge and flaking off. The board corners are also bent and starting to delaminate.
Img. 6: Volume 1258.k.5 pre-treatment
The head edge of volume 1258.k.5 after treatment. The covering paper has been re-adhered to the board edges, though the areas of loss where the board is visible remain. The leather has been consolidated. The board corners have been repaired, though the right board corner is still slightly bent.
Img. 7: Volume 1258.k.5 post-treatment: consolidating leather and covering material, repairing delaminating board corners

 

Long-term bids

In the long-term bids team I have been lucky enough to have three different mentors with varied backgrounds leading to their slightly different areas of knowledge and expertise. This has been an amazing way of learning as I get to see a wider range of treatments and processes and different ways of approaching similar problems. I have learnt that there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to conservation, each book is unique and various materials both deteriorate and respond to repairs differently. I explored which approach suited me best and chose the best method and materials for the treatment of every object. I have been able to learn and develop a wide variety of skills this way: tear repairs on flat works, books and scrolls; many applications for different gels; toning tissue; paring, toning  and consolidating leather; repairing board corners; binding repairs; sewing sections of a text block; sewing endbands; removing spine linings and more.  However, for the purpose of this blog I will detail the treatment of 118.e.5, and how I was able to develop the skills required for each treatment step.

Volume 118.e.5 in a wooden book press, with boards protected by just visible mount board on either side, sits atop a studio bench. The spine is upright with the tail-edge in the fore ground so that the endband is visible. The endband is partially detached and hanging by a thread.
Img. 8: Volume 118.e.5 pre-treatment

The tail endband had become partially detached and the endband and spine were dirty. I began with surface cleaning to improve the appearance and to ensure repair materials would adhere sufficiently.

I attended a gels course run by three British Library conservators where I learnt how to make a variety of gels at different concentrations and experiment with their suggested applications.

A variety of gels in individual marked plastic sealed bags sit in rows on top a sheet of Tyvek on top of a trolley. From left to right these gels are: Agarose 2%, agarose 3%, agarose 5%, agarose 10%, agar 2%, agar 3%, agar 5%, agar 10%, LA gellan 1%, LA gellan 1.5%, LA gellan 2%, LA gellan 2.5%, 30:20 xantham:konjac 1%, 50:50 xantham:Konjac, nanorestore peggy 5, peggy gum, nanorestore peggy 6 and Nevek 4.5%.
Img. 9: The different gels tested during the gels course
A sheet of paper lies on a piece of Tyvek with different types of stains: tea, coffee, biro pen, ink, permanent marker and Evacon adhesive. Different gels are being tested on each of these stains, some with a barrier layer of Bondina some without, some with a glass weight on top and some without.
Img. 10: experimenting with a variety of gels to reduce different types of stains
Volume 118.e.5 is held in a wooden book press, protected by mount board on either side. The left board and the spine are visible, including the partially exposed text block at the bottom edge and the endband which is only attached at the right side. The endband is covered in a layer of Konjac and Xantham gel.
Img. 11: Endband during cleaning with Konjac & Xantham
Volume 118.e.5 after gel cleaning is held in a wooden book press, the image is taken from straight above the book meaning only the spine is visible in the image. The exposed text block and partially detached endband are both clean.
Img. 12: Endband and exposed spine after cleaning

I selected Konjac and Xantham gel to clean the spine and endband by applying it as a poultice, leaving for a few minutes and then removing the poultice, which was very effective. The endband was now ready to be reattached!

I learnt to sew endbands whilst making a sewing model, which furthered my understanding of the structure and purpose of the endband.

A hand holds a text block without boards attached. A bright red and deep burgundy endband has been sewn onto the text block, matching the curvature of the spine.
Img. 13: Sewing model endband

I learnt to reattach endbands by observing my mentor completing an endband repair to a volume where the head and tail endbands were detaching. This enabled me to take photos and make detailed notes before repairing the other endband, giving me enough confidence to carry out similar treatments more independently in the future.

The head edge and top of the spine of volume 118.e.5 are visible. Multiple strips of paper poke out of the head edge of the text block to mark the centre of each section that will be sewed through.
Img. 14: endband fixed into original position and endband markers mark each

I fixed the endband into its correct position using a piece of Japanese tissue adhered with wheat starch paste before marking the centre of each section I planned to sew through. After the first stitch, I tied a knot on the outer side of the spine to secure the thread.

Only the top edge of the spine of volume 118.e.5 is visible. The thread has been poked through the spine, around the top of the endband and tied in a knot on the exterior of the spine.
Img. 15: endband sewn back into original position

I then sewed underneath the endband core, back over the top of the endband and then back through the textblock, with a linen thread that closely matched the original white thread.

The top section of the spine and the head edge of the text block are visible. The repair stitching has been covered with a piece of thin Japanese tissue.
Img 16: The repair stitches

Now secured, the next step was to reform the head cap using archival calf leather.

I had no experience working with leather prior to my internship, but have quickly learnt that each leather is different and that paring leather takes a considerable amount of strength! My first attempts at paring leather were thankfully on strips of off-cut leather as they were not pretty, though I’m assured it’s a skill that requires much practice to perfect.

The endband has been reattached into its original position and the partially exposed spine has been covered with a piece of leather that closely matches the colour of the leather on the spine.
Img 17 : The spine edge and head edge of volume 118.e.5 after treatment

After paring and consolidating the leather, I adhered it to the spine using wheat starch paste.

I loved working on this book, having confidence in my ability to complete each step made me feel like a real, fully-fledged book conservator, and I was really happy with the outcome of the treatment. I am learning more and more by the day and whilst I will be sad to leave the long term bids team, I am excited to join the preventive team before returning to the studio to focus on binding structures. If you’ve found this an interesting read, I will be writing another post detailing my time on future teams so watch this space !

03 May 2023

Whales, horses and zebras—oh my! Conservation work for the Animals: Art, Science and Sound exhibition

In preparation for the Animals: Art, Science and Sound exhibition, Conservation assessed the suitability for display of over 150 BL collection items, of which just over 120 items actually made it into the exhibition. Seventy of these items came into the conservation studio for treatment prior to being displayed. The kind of treatment for each item varied greatly. Some volumes needed intensive treatments because the covers had become completely detached, and others just needed some minor care, such as tidying board edges that had become split and frayed. Some of the paper items needed tear repairs or flattening because they had been stored rolled or folded and many of them needed window mounting so they could be framed or displayed vertically.

The conservation work for all the items was shared between many conservators in the studio. The work started in January, giving team members enough time to complete their treatments prior to the install of the exhibition in March. Conservation play an integral part of the exhibition process and without the support we provide, many of these wonderful items would not make it into the show.

Below, three conservators discuss a few items that came through the studio for treatment ahead of the exhibition.

Amy

I worked on several volumes for Animals.  My favourite was Or.917, which contains very detailed paintings of whales. . My attention was immediately caught by two in particular – as well as being beautifully painted they both have rather evocative facial expressions!

A painting of a killer whale on a cream background. It is shown from the side, with its tail in the air and its flippers held out on either side of its body. The whale is mostly black except for its belly, which is grey and white. The whale’s eye is half-shut and it looks sleepy. Its ear is shown as a little white circle behind the eye. Its mouth is open, showing its pink gums and sharp white teeth. There are eight labels in Chinese characters which are joined to the whale’s dorsal fin, eye, tongue, ear, blowhole, and belly with red lines.
Painting of a killer whale
A painting of a mottled grey whale on a cream background. The whale’s skin has been given a textured appearance on its back and side by manipulating the paint with a circular sponge or fingertip. It is shown from the side and holds its flippers out on either side of its body. There are areas of small white dots on the whale’s back, belly, tail, jaws, and on one of its flippers. This gives the impression that the whale is covered with barnacles. It also has small white whiskers on its chin. The whale’s eye is half shut and the curve of its mouth is like an upside-down smile. There are ten labels in Chinese characters which are joined to the whale’s chin, back and belly with red lines. Below the whale’s head is a picture of a piece of baleen – it is a small white rectangle with long hair-like strands extending from one of the long sides. It is also labelled in Chinese characters with a red line.
Painting of a whale with barnacles

The most badly-damaged book was an early nineteenth-century volume entitled Fishes of the Ganges (Mss Eur E72). When the book came to the conservation studio the paintings themselves were in good condition, but 200 years of usage had taken their toll on the volume’s binding. The green leather of the spine was badly abraded and several pieces of it were missing. This posed a structural risk to the book, as it made it more likely that the boards would become detached at some point in the future. The red-brown paper which covered both boards was also not in a good state, with the pigment faded and rubbed away and pieces missing at the corners and edges of the boards.

A hardcover book against a grey background, photographed showing the front cover.  The book is covered in reddish-brown paper with a blue marbled pattern and a blue-green leather spine. Some areas of the paper are cream-coloured where the reddish-brown pigment has been rubbed away. The leather has split vertically down the edge of the cover and also has cream covered areas where the top layer has rubbed or peeled off. The paper and leather are missing at the corners of the cover, exposing the brown board underneath.
Mss Eur E72 before treatment

As conservators our aim is always to retain as much original material as possible when carrying out treatment. My repairs to the marbled paper were very minimal. Using acrylic paints I toned a piece of Japanese handmade paper to a similar colour to that of the original, which I then used to fill in the gaps on the corners and edges of the boards. The damaged leather required a more interventive approach. After careful consideration I concluded that it was not possible to both keep the original leather and reinforce the binding structure. I therefore replaced the old leather with new green goatskin, but retained the old pieces so that readers can still access these remnants of the original binding. An additional result of this treatment will be that when Fishes of the Ganges returns from exhibition it will be robust enough to be consulted by readers and researchers without (hopefully) sustaining further damage.

The same hardcover book against a grey background after conservation treatment, photographed showing the front cover.  The old damaged leather is gone and the spine is covered in new, dark green leather. The exposed corner areas on the right-hand side of the cover have been covered with reddish-brown paper, a slightly lighter shade than the original.  The paper still has cream-coloured areas where the reddish-brown pigment has been rubbed away.
Mss Eur E72 after treatment

 

Veronica

The animal protagonist of a volume I treated for this exhibition is the horse. ‘The Anatomy of the Horse’, 1766, a printed book by the British painter George Stubbs, includes exquisite etchings engraved by Stubbs itself, which are anatomically accurate and elegant. The binding is a purple quarter leather binding with purple covering cloth on the sides of the boards and parchment reinforcement on the corners beneath the covering material. The leather spine is gold tooled with the author’s name, title and place and date of publication. The numerous plates in the text block were printed on thick laid paper.

The right page of the intended display opening, showing an incredibly detailed black and white full body anatomical drawing of a horse, with its head facing right and tail facing left. There are clear plate lines an inch or two away from each edge of the page, showing this image was printed from a plate. Small text at the top right corner, within these plate lines, reads, “Tab IV”. The top and fore-edge of the right board are visible, showing a dark maroon covering material, with gold tooling forming a thin line close to and parallel with the board edges. The covering material has detached from both board corners and the boards are delaminating, this damage is more pronounced in the top corner.
Tab IV. Exhibition opening page.

The binding was in poor state of condition, with both boards detached, delaminated and with missing areas, and the cloth and parchment covering materials on the corners considerably abraded. The leather was split along the spine edges and was heavily worn and coming unattached on the spine, with the grain layer flaking heavily, and some missing areas at head and tail on the endcaps, along the bands and along the edges. The gold tooling on the spine was partially missing.

The left board of a maroon cloth bound volume is partially visible; the fore-edge side of the board is out of frame, the spine edge in frame. The edges of the board are a slightly lighter colour, the covering material visibly detaching from the tail edge. The spine piece is heavily degraded, with the spine leather completely detached from the spine in places and the leather join split almost the length of the spine.
Left leather join split.
A maroon cloth bound volume lies flat on top a grey surface, showing the spine and the left board. The spine is visible in full, lying horizontally across the frame. The spine leather is heavily degraded, only small sections of dark leather can be seen, as the majority of the leather visible is a light brown and appears fluffy in texture. There are six separate spine sections, split by five raised bands, at least two of these raised bands have been lost completely, a further two are heavily abraded and damages and the final band is not visible due to the spine pieces on either side being so detached that they cover this area. The Spine pieces at the head and tail end have also come detached. There are two labels adhered to the head edge of the spine. There is gold lettering and tooling in every section on the spine. The other sections show design/emblems.
Highly degraded leather spine.

The conservation treatment started with the consolidation of the board corners, by reconstructing the missing areas with layers of Japanese paper adhered with a reversible adhesive. Next, we stabilised the parchment board corners with Japanese paper. The boards protected the text block again!

Once the treatment of the boards was completed, we proceeded with the removal of the old spine lining which was acidic and inflexible and caused the volume to not open well. For the lining removal, we used a poultice, locally applied to the spine to soften the lining materials and adhesives used in the past. The new spine lining, made of Japanese paper and aero-cotton, was strong and flexible and has the function to suitably support the text block spine during opening.

For the treatment of the highly degraded leather spine, together with the exhibition and loans manager and the departmental curator, we carefully evaluated the most suitable option.  Considering that the leather spine’s original state was already been lost and had no historic significance, we decided to apply a new leather spine on the book, gold tooled in the design of the original, and to keep the original pieces, consolidated, in a polyester pocket, secured into the box. With this solution, the volume could be safely displayed and handled, while as much as possible of its physical integrity was retained, with the original spine pieces available for research.

The leather reback on the spine was carried out with a goatskin leather that matched the colour and grain of the original one and was worked to the desired thickness. The treated book was finally housed in a phase box.

A maroon cloth bound volume lies flat on a grey surface. The entire left board is visible and the spine piece is partially visible. The covering material does not cover either of the board corners, which are white rather than maroon, though the corners are not bent or delaminating. Gold tooling of a thin gold line is visible along all edges of the left board, other than the board corners. A reddish brown leather covers the spine, with five raise bands visible along the spine. There is a slightly larger gap between the bottom band and the tail edge than there is between the top band and the head edge, with equal spacing between the raised bands.
Left board after treatment.

 

Old spine leather that has been removed from a volume, in six separate pieces, in a long thin melinex pocket. Each piece of leather is heavily degraded, some of the leather a darker brown but the majority a light brown. All sections of the spine have lost their original shape due to loss of leather. Gold letter is still visible on the second piece from the top, reading, “STUBBS ANATOMY OF THE HORSE”. Gold tooling is visible on all other sections. The top and bottom section show the emblem of a crown, whilst the other three sections show the same decorative emblem. The top section has two labels: a blue circular label reading, “460 f13” and a white rectangular label reading, “74/”.
The original consolidated leather spine is attached by means of Western handmade paper strips to a Melinex pocket sealed on all sides and to the box where the volume is housed.
A reddish brown leather spine piece lies on a grey surface. This spine contains five raised bands, which create six separate spine sections, each complete with gold tooling. A double gold line is at the top and bottom of each section, the top section also shows the emblem of a crown and a white rectangular label reading, “…”. The second to the top section contains gold lettering reading, “STUBBS ANATOMY OF THE HORSE”. The bottom section also depicts an emblem of a crown, and lettering reading, “74/460.f.13”. The other sections depict the same decorative emblem.
New leather spine with gold tooling.

Storm

Historia Aethiopica is a beautiful parchment bound volume I helped treat for display in the Animals: Art, Science and Sound exhibition. This volume included three foldout folios that protruded from the text block even when folded in resulting in heavy creases and weakened paper that had led to tears and areas of loss. I surfaced cleaned the display pages and other pages I treated which displayed surface dirt, to prevent moisture from any materials used in the treatment from causing the dirt to further bond to the surface and to improve the overall appearance of the object.

Volume lies open on conservator’s bench, surrounded by different size and shaped weights, clamps and other tools. The left board, together with the majority of the Textblock, is resting on a large triangular plastezote book rest. The right page is an oversized fold-out currently folded in, so the images are not shown in full, a tree is visible as well as the long tail of an animal. The right board and remainder of the Textblock are lying flat on the bench on top a layer of blotter and bondina. The top page on this side is an oversized folio that is folded out; the picture shows the verso but a large Zebra visibly fills the page. This folio is resting on a piece of mount board and bondina with three thick boards underneath right side so the page lies flat. Multiple thin Japanese strips are visible, these are tear repairs drying before the excess is trimmed. Two weights sit on top of a piece of mount board and bondina in the top right corner as an infill repair to the corner is drying under weights.
Verso of opening page during tear repair treatment

I repaired all tears and areas of loss on the display page, and other fold out pages, using toned Japanese tissue so the repairs were subtle and did not draw attention, and wheat starch adhesive, a reversible water-soluble adhesive.

The right page of the intended opening, a large fold-out folio depicting a black and white print of a large Zebra standing on a grassy area with two small trees on his left side and two larger trees on his right. There are clear plate lines showing this image was printing using a plate. Text above the zebra reads, “ZECORA QUADRUPES PULCHERRIMA / Lusitanis Buroodo Matto. Priscis / Oi Oaypr O., Asimus syloestris”, text in the top left corner reads, “Pag. 150. N.LXXIX”. All this text is within the plate lines. The page is noticeably dirty, has two small areas of loss along the right edge, one visible tear at the bottom edge in the centre and is noticeably dirty.
The display page pre-treatment
The same page depicted the black and white print of the Zebra is shown. However here it is noticeably cleaner, some of the heavier creases have been reduced, and the areas of loss and tears have been repaired.
The display page post-treatment

I used a heated spatula, with a barrier layer to protect the paper, to reduce some of the heavier creases and to flatten the corners as they were heavily curled. I also used the heated spatula in combination with some wheat starch adhesive to strengthen the edges of the page as they were extremely thin and weak, therefore were at a high risk of further deterioration.

A volume sits on a white surface, only the bottom right corner of the text block is in frame. Text is visible on the top page written in black ink and in Italian, the paper is slightly yellowed at the edges. A heated spatula is being applied to the bottom corner of this page, with a square of blotter beneath the page and a layer of bondina between the spatula and the page
Using a heated spatula to flatten a page’s corner

There was also damage to the binding, a tear at the top edge between the left board and the spine, which would likely have deteriorated further during exhibition, as it would be displayed open causing more stress to this area. I repaired this by inserting a piece of unbleached shirlan cotton adhered with a mixture of EVA and wheat starch adhesive to hold the board and spine together to reduce the risk of it tearing further whilst on display or during future handling.

Parchment bound volume lies on a layer of blotter covered with bondina. Only the top left corner of a the left board and top section of the spine is visible. There is black lettering on the spine, though only part of each word is visible: ‘..OLFI/ ..ariusin /…ICAM”. A piece of acid-free tissue is protruding from underneath the left board. The left board is covered in small scratches and there is a small split at the top edge between the left board and the spine piece. A small piece of white fabric is protruding from this split, having been inserted into the left board side and adhered in place.
The binding repair during treatment
The top left corner of a parchment bound volume is visible, showing the top left corner of the left board and the top section of the spine. The left board is covered in scratches and a small split is visible between the left board and the spine at the top edge, with the left board side of the split overlapping the spine piece.
Damage to binding
The top left corner of a parchment bound volume is visible, showing the top left corner fo the left board and the top section of the spine. The left board is covered in scratches. There is a small split visible but the parchment on either side of the split are almost touching with a small visible white gap between.
Binding repair

Both the head-edge endband and the tail-edge endband had also become almost completely detached from the text block, thus needed to be repaired. As I was unfamiliar with this type of treatment I closely observed as my mentor, Veronica Zoppi, undertook the treatment to the head-endband. This was incredibly educational as I was able to take photos and short videos of each treatment step whilst asking questions, which allowed me to make detailed notes complete with diagrams for future use and to treat the tail-edge endband.

First, I cleaned the endband and spine edge of the textblock using Konjac and Xantham gel, to improve the appearance of the endband but also so the repair materials would adhere properly.

A hollow-back parchment bound volume stands upright on a conservation bench on top of a piece of blotting paper. The volume is opened at roughly the centre, fairly wide, exposing the hollow. A green and white endband is visibly detached from the text block, there is a thin strip of the text block closest to the spine much lighter in colour than the rest, where the endband would have once covered. The endband is lying flat across the hollow, it is attached the volume on the right side but the left side of the endband is detached and the central core is visible. There is gel covering the endband.
Endband with gel on during cleaning

The endband was then fixed in the right position using a strip of Japanese tissue adhered to the bottom edge of the endband and to the spine of the Textblock, this was then left to dry shut.

A parchment bound volume lies closed on a piece of blotter and bondina. Only the spine side of the head edge is visible. A green and cream sewn endband follows the curvature of the spine. There is a small piece of bondina and a small piece of melinex protruding from between the text block and the spine.
Japanese tissue holding endband in position drying

To reattach the endband, I sewed through the text block, around the endband core, passing again through the centre of some sections in the text block, marked by paper markers. Usually when re-attaching endbands a conservator would have access to the spine of the text-block, as the spine piece would have been partially or completely detached. As this was not the case, to allow access to the spine, the volume was held open with weights, and then a curved needle was used to reattach the endband using linen threads that closely matched the original endband colours.

A thick volume is held standing on a conservation bench, on top of a layer of blotter and bondina. Only the head edge of the volume is visible, with the fore-edge out of frame but the endband and spine edge visible. Six paper markers spaced approximately evenly throughout the text block, protrude slightly from the head edge.
Section markers
The head-edge of a parchment bound volume is partially visible, with the fore-edge side and the majority of the head-edge of the volume out of frame. A green and cream endband is visible with a clear gap between this endband and the text block and another gap between the endband and the spine.
The endband pre-treatment
The head-edge of a parchment bound volume is partially visible, with the fore-edge side and the majority of the head-edge of the volume out of frame. A green and cream endband is visible, the endband touches the text block at the very left edge, but a small gap is visible between the endband and the text block, this gap widens from the centre to the right side. There are three very thin threads visible in this gap; this is the repair stitching holding the endband in place.
The endband post-treatment

Conclusion

We hope you’ve enjoyed this glimpse into preparing items for display. All items are now on view in the exhibition. Book your tickets here.

19 July 2021

Conservation of Thurloe’s State Papers

You may have seen a recent conversation sparked by one of our ‘Before and After’ conservation posts on the Library’s main social media channels. This may have got you wondering how conservators decide on the best treatment methods for collection items. In this blog we are going to dive deeper into the treatment of the volumes pictured in the Before and After images, giving further insight into the many considerations a conservator makes when treating an item.

Conservators at the British Library have to balance the future use of the book with the preservation of historic evidence. In a working library like ours, books are used by readers and our treatments must take this into account. The set of manuscript volumes pictured in the recent social media post are an example of this decision-making process and posed an interesting yet familiar conservation challenge.

The Thurloe State Papers volumes I-VII date back to 1742 and arrived in our conservation studio in poor condition. Each book exhibited similar degrees of damage and deterioration including detached boards, loss of endbands, severely degraded leather on the spines, splits in the textblock with damage to the sewing structure, and very worn and abraded boards.

These are highly requested collection items, and without thorough treatment would no longer be available for reference. Enabling access to readers is one of the BL’s core purposes and our Conservation department works hard to facilitate public access to our national heritage by ensuring that our books are in good condition in order to be handled and read without risk of further damage to the bindings. 

 

The seven volumes photographed with their textblocks (rather than spines) facing us. The pages have a marbled appearance and six of the seven books have cotton string holding the books together.
Thurloe's State Papers Vols I-VII prior to conservation. All the volumes had detached boards with severely damaged edges and corners. In this condition they cannot be issued to readers.
A birds eye view of the top of the books' textblocks.
The top of the volumes showing ingrained dirt on the textblock and the loss of all the leather headcaps and silk endbands apart from a few remaining fragments.

 

Planning a conservation treatment involves a complex range of considerations from different fields including material and chemical science, preservation, historical context, value, ethics as well as the suitability of practical techniques and available time and resources. 

We follow a Code of Ethics which helps inform the process and to ensure that we are asking the right questions. Conservators use their professional judgement in combination with discussions with curators about the context of the items within the Library's historic collections and so it is a collaborative approach.

The most common form of damage that we find in Library collections is board detachment. This prevents books from being issued to readers due to the risk of damage to the textblock or loss of material.  There are a variety of causes of detached boards, including ageing of materials and general wear and tear from use.

Because a book is a physical object with moving parts, the action of opening and closing the boards can put a strain along the joint area, which can cause the covering material and sewing supports to break - resulting in detachment of the boards. 

There are various techniques used to reattach book boards.  Often, a volume needs to be 'rebacked' as part of the process of reattaching the boards; repairs are made to the textblock, sewing structure and endpapers and then new spine coverings are applied and carefully inserted under the existing leather on the boards. This process necessitates the removal of the existing spine coverings as it is often the case that strong and durable repairs cannot be undertaken without access to the spine of the volume.

An ideal conservation treatment would involve the re-use of original material wherever possible in order to minimise any aesthetic change to the item. When rebacking volumes it is our practice to, where appropriate, reattach the original spine pieces back onto the new spine. This retains the visual appearance of the book whilst providing a strong and durable repair. However, if the original material is too degraded to be reattached to the book - as in the case of the Thurloe State Papers - we need to consider other options.

 

An up-close images of the spine showing 'vol 1' on red leather and designs in gold.
The original spine leather was degraded and worn away with splits and cracks around the raised sewing supports as well as up and down the spine.
A close-up of the bottom of a spine of one of the volumes showing wear and tear.
Many of the endbands and headcaps were missing on all seven volumes. 

 

As you can see from the close-up photograph, the original spine leather was very thin, degraded and fragmented. It was also adhered directly onto the spinefolds of the textblock paper as part of the 'tightback' binding structure making them very difficult to remove intact due to their fragility.

If we did reattach these spine panel fragments they would, in a very short time, wear away through use and be completely lost to researchers now and in the future.  So whilst we couldn’t reuse the spine panels, we did carefully remove and store them with the collection item. This way, they are preserved along with the bindings for future reference.

 

The spine fragments have been placed on a piece of card and sealed in a polyester sleeve for protection.
The remaining spine fragments were too fragile to be reattached and have been stored with each volume in its protective box.

 

Sometimes ‘Before and After’ photographs can look like quite a dramatic change to the object, but in this case only the spines of these volumes required replacement. The original boards were reused even though they were severely damaged.  The worn-down board corners were rebuilt and re-covered in new leather. Along the exposed and abraded board edges, the original leather was carefully lifted and new leather inserted underneath in order to preserve as much of the gold tooled edge decoration as possible.

 

A close-up of the edge of a board.
An example of the damaged board corners prior to conservation.
A close-up of the edge of a board after repair--new leather has ben added.
Board corners after rebuilding and covering with archival calf leather.
A side of one volume showing the gold tooling in tact.
Where the board edges were exposed, new leather was carefully inserted underneath the existing leather whilst retaining the gold tooled edge decoration.

 

The materials used in our conservation treatments are selected for their proven archival qualities, strength and durability.  Materials such as linen fabric and threads, handmade paper and wheat starch paste have been long used in traditional bookbinding, as is the ‘rebacking’ process of covering spines with new leather or cloth and decorating with gold leaf.

Whilst considering how to carry out the finishing on the Thurloe State Papers, it was decided to use a simplified version of the gold leaf lettering and decoration. This was partly because we do not have the historic finishing tools used by the original binder to be able to replicate the decoration exactly.  Secondly, this hand craft is highly skilled and very time-consuming - and we have to justify the amount of time spent on decorating individual volumes when there are so many other books needing conservation in the Library.

 

An image of the spine following conservation.
Spine of Volume 1 following conservation treatment
An image focusing on the left board.
Left board of Volume 1 following conservation treatment

 

Conservators take great care to match the colours of new materials added so that they appear sympathetic to the existing material. In this case, the new spine labels were made of red leather and even the endband threads dyed to match the originals.

 

Endband sewing is in progress here, with a needle and orange thread being pushed through in a green, orange, green, orange thread pattern.
Primary endbands were sewn in plain linen thread followed by secondary endbands in silk, dyed pink and green to match the original thread found in the volumes.
The orange and green endband is complete.
The completed endband.

 

We enjoyed reading the range of comments these Before and After photos inspired. It’s great to see that so many people care about the preservation of historical books - and the range of comments show that not only that there are a huge number of factors to weigh up in making treatment decisions, but also that several different approaches could be used to achieve a similar outcome.

Conservators have to consider that books are mechanical objects, not just historic artefacts, and have moving parts that need to function in conjunction with each other in order for the book to be used. This is often dependent on the construction materials and methods used and is one of many other factors, such as historical context and the status of the object, which are taken into consideration when planning conservation treatments at the British Library.

If readers are interested in learning more about books as 'dynamic objects', there was a recent Institute of Conservation talk about this very subject, which you can watch on the Icon YouTube channel.

Keep an eye out for an upcoming blog post which will discuss more broadly the varying approaches to conservation decision-making in the Library’s Conservation department.

 

Volume I after treatment showing the new spine and one of the boards.
One of seven volumes of Thurloe's State Papers now fully conserved and able to be accessed in our Reading Rooms.

 

 

Vicky West ACR, Book Conservator

Nicole Monjeau, Preventive Conservator

28 August 2020

Disaster Response Plans during COVID-19

The Conservation Department has a well-established emergency response system with Salvage Teams at both our London and West Yorkshire sites. Team members are on a callout rota and will work alongside other colleagues if we have an incident that threatens our collections.

On 23rd March this year, The UK Government announced a nationwide lockdown in response to COVID-19. We, like many others in the sector, had to re-evaluate our underlying assumptions about how we would respond to incidents affecting our collections. Countrywide we were now discouraged from travelling and asked to remain at home.

We are fortunate that our colleagues in the Estates, Health and Safety and Security teams have continued to work through lockdown, keeping our buildings and collections safe. This reduces the likelihood that the Salvage Team would need to be called out. However, we needed to make sure we understood when, and how, we could effectively respond if either Team were required.

Wet books used as props to train the Salvage Team in sorting and recovery techniques; the books are wet and warped.
A crate of wet and damaged books used in practical Salvage Team response and recovery training

Reviewing procedures

This meant we had to review our procedures in the midst of an unfolding situation. We had limited guidance and prior experience to refer to, and so worked methodically one step at a time. Firstly, we clarified what we were permitted to do under the lockdown restrictions and then considered what changes we needed to make to our procedures. The situation meant that we had to be flexible and we realised that any updates made could be subject to further change at a later stage.

Secondly, we needed to communicate any changes to the Salvage Team and other stakeholders, most of whom were now at home and not necessarily easily contactable.

Close up image of text on page
The aim was to produce clear updates to existing procedures

Team safety

Our primary consideration was the safety of the Salvage Team and other colleagues. We already have risk assessments covering normal salvage operations, so my colleague Emily Watts (Collection Care North Manager) and I began by drafting a COVID-19 specific health and safety risk assessment. The risk assessment covered all aspects of the response, from travel to safe working on site. Considerations included: Under what circumstances could the team travel? Were usual travel methods advisable? Were there personal considerations which meant that people preferred not to be on call at this time? 

Any changes that we made also needed to reflect site differences. For example, in West Yorkshire, most people drive while in London, the majority of the team is reliant on public transport.

Secondly, while we always consider the option of providing advice without being on site, we worked through this in more detail to reduce further the likelihood that anyone would be needed on site. If there was a need to attend, could team members arrange to arrive at the point when they were needed? What practical help could we provide remotely and what did we need to be on site to do?

Risks to collection

At the same time, I was taking part in a separate exercise to assess risks to collections during this period. It is natural to assume that while buildings are closed, risks also increase. However, while some may increase, others reduce. The risk assessment evaluated how the picture had changed and identified any increased risks. The outcomes enabled us to identify any mitigation that was needed, for example, regular on-site checks or closer liaison with colleagues who were on site.

Briefing notes communicated the risk assessment outcomes to the Salvage Team. We also briefed our key stakeholders; this ensured that there was a common understanding of the measures in place should there be an incident during this period.

As time has moved on, the lockdown has eased. We have started to reoccupy and open our buildings, and the risk assessment - as a living document - can be revisited and updated.

Practical salvage operations

Once on-site, we needed to consider how the Team could work safely. We needed to think about how the requirement for social distancing could be incorporated when, by its nature, salvage operations rely on close physical working with colleagues.

We have a range of PPE available to the team, but rather than this being selected in response to the incident, we now ask that people don specific items from their arrival on site. In terms of revised procedures, we want to maintain flexibility and not be too prescriptive. We are therefore encouraging Salvage Team members to plan the response carefully to limit the need for close working wherever possible. The Team have been encouraged to raise issues and, ultimately, told to cease operations if they have concerns.

Small adjustments to workflows can be made to ensure social distancing, but there is a knock-on impact. For example, we can minimise activities that do require people to work together closely, such as sheeting up with plastic. We can encourage the use of tools, such as trolleys, rather than passing items from person to person or moving them in pairs. However, we need to accept that this will mean that working methods are less efficient and so could take longer. Team members may also need to rotate more frequently and work shorter shifts, and have more breaks.

By contrast, working remotely, we have realised that video calling software creates more options to provide an immediate off-site response or to have a hybrid response with some team members on-site and others providing assistance from home.

Four Playmobil figures, wearing personal protective equipment, are shown using emergency response equipment
It was important to ensure the Salvage Team felt safe if they were called out

Responding to emergencies

By working out what the significant risks were, and combining this with the need to ensure staff safety, we could then look at how this would affect our response.

As an example, our system is based on us using a series of pool phones which contain our salvage manual in a set of small files. This structure enables the user to navigate to the content that they want rather than wading through a long document to find the relevant section. Each week, those on-call pick up their allocated salvage phone and then return it at the end of their duty week. Now the phones were with those who last used them with no mechanism to swap them between us.

A priority for me was to ensure that everyone still had this information in some form when they were on-call. Provided as long-form documents, this reinforced how well the small bite-size files works. I'm currently working with our IT department to investigate options to switch from using the pool phones to using secure collaborative tools. These can be accessed on a range of devices, ensuring easier access to all Salvage Team resources by multiple users. Changing systems also presents an opportunity to save costs on handsets and data contracts.

One thing we did maintain was our usual rota system whereby the Team members on-call that week report in by email every Monday morning. However, during the lockdown, we have been using WhatsApp (a group messaging app). Communications go to all team members at once, which means that there is less chance of missing a notification if someone can't do their duty or needs to call out the whole team. Again collaborative working tools provide more sophisticated messaging options which could simplify this further.

Some short term changes to procedures, introduced to cover the lockdown period and early stages of reoccupation, are no longer needed.  However, if the need arose, we could reinstate them. Remote working has also reinforced those temporary procedures that work well which we want to continue to use.

 Identical information is shown on a phone screen and on a piece of paper to illustrate differences in ease of use
The benefits of short electronic files were clear when compared with long form documents

Staying in touch

One of the on-going risks we identified was the challenge of keeping distributed Salvage Team members in contact. Team cohesion is critical; successful incident response depends on everyone working together as a team and supporting each other. Not all team members typically work closely together, and those that do were now physically separated. We have recently recruited three new team members to the London Salvage Team, one of whom had not begun their induction process. It was important to me that they and their colleagues felt supported in this unprecedented situation and so we started to think about how best to do this.

Over the last 18 months, I have completely revised the Salvage Team induction training. One of the new additions is a module around decision-making. This involved looking back at actual incidents to discuss what had occurred, how people were alerted, who did what and how decisions were made. New team members who have completed this fed back that they felt reassured by this and much clearer about their role in an emergency. An outstanding action was for existing Team Members to attend the same session.

We have also been offering individual training exercises, for induction training and general refresher training alongside as group exercises. Feedback from these had been positive as people could complete them at their convenience and own pace. We realised that offering similar activities, to be completed at home, would deliver a double benefit. It was a way of keeping the Salvage Team in contact while also ensuring that their skills and knowledge are maintained.

A slide from a decision-making training presentation, which outlines key principles, is displayed on laptop screen
A presentation on decision-making is a key part of the Salvage Team induction process

In the next blog, my colleague Nicole Monjeau will explain more about this training programme and how it has developed into something much more valuable than we'd envisaged.

Sarah Hamlyn

Lead Preventive Conservator

29 July 2020

A Book Conservator Without Any Books: Part 1

By Samantha Hare (Book Conservation Intern)

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

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

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

A bit more about me...

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

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

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

Back to the present day...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for reading and stay safe!

14 July 2020

Starting with A Book – A Conservator in the Lockdown

The pandemic took the conservation department in the British Library by surprise along with everybody else! Conservators working on physical objects found themselves transported to digital working overnight. For some it was an easy transition, while others adjusted with a few more hiccups on the way, but all were missing practical conservation and working on objects. Home libraries in need of attention were in luck in the pandemic - mine certainly was, and one such book sent me on a voyage of discovery. The book: Maria, Lady Callcott by Rosamund Brunel Gotch, was a modest looking cloth bound book suitably embellished with a picture of a sailing ship gold tooled on the front cover.

The picture of the front cover before conservation showing a red cover with a gold leaf ship in the lower right hand corner. Some loss is evident on the cover.. The picture of the front cover after conservation showing a red cover with a gold leaf ship in the lower right hand corner. Loss is no longer evident on the cover..
Picture 1: The picture of the front cover before and after conservation.

The book, passed down through generations, must have been tightly squeezed on the shelf at some point of its life, as paper fibers from the adjacent book transferred onto the cover. It didn’t need much work, but it was a pleasure to hold a scalpel in my hand and to take time to remove the paper fibers. A gentle saliva swab dealt with the remaining adhesive residue.

The text block inside the covers was in good condition but with time on my hands, I looked through the contents and was intrigued by the subject of the book; Maria Callcott, a Regency woman who lived and travelled extensively in the days when getting to places took months and a travelling woman was an anomaly rather than a norm!

Title page reading: Maria, Lady Callcott. The Creator of “Little Arthur” by Rosamund Brunel Gotch.

Picture 2: Title page.

My itchy hands, however, would have moved to the next project without delving too much into the contents, had it not been for the gradual release of the lockdown and a prospect of meeting a friend in an open space within easy reach. My friend suggested Kensal Green Cemetery, an unusual choice but quieter than parks in the pandemic. It was also a resting place of many well-known people including Maria and her husband, Sir Augustus Wall Callcott, a notable painter and the Surveyor of the Queen’s Paintings. There was a chance we might locate Maria Callcott’s final resting place during our meeting too.

Before the meeting we checked the coordinates for a few graves we wanted to find and discovered that a number of well-known people had none listed but there were some for Maria’s husband.

The weather throughout the lockdown had been a real tonic, and the sun shone for our meeting too. We had a nice stroll through a very atmospheric place, but finding graves was near impossible. The cemetery lost its original layout and most graves lost their inscriptions. It looked like the story of my book would have ended there had it not been for another twist. The Callcotts’ grave could only be located because of Maria, rather than her more distinguished husband. It was restored 12 years ago by the Chilean embassy with a plaque dedicated to Maria.

Plaque reading: Here lies Lady Maria Callcott formerly Graham 1785 – 1842 A friend of the nation of Chile and her husband Sir Augustus Wall Callcott R.A. 17-86 – 1844 Artist Placed here by the Embassy of Chile

Picture 3: Picture of the plaque on Maria’s grave.

The passage of time has righted a historical wrong. Maria, the wife of Sir Augustus Wall Callcott became Maria, a woman in her own right, a friend to the Chilean nation, an intrepid traveller, an author and an illustrator of her travel, art and children’s books, and a governess to a Brazilian princess. I feel I should now try to find more about her by not putting the book back on the shelf and reading Maria’s biography.

Iwona Jurkiewicz-Gotch

P.S. After the above blog had been completed I came across another blog about Maria posted on the V&A website, which might be of interest.

14 May 2020

The Mahārnava, Conservation of a 19th Century Birch Bark Manuscript

Elisabeth Randell, Conservator (Books)

IO San 3251 before treatment.

Figure 1: IO San 3251 before treatment.

The British Library has a large collection of birch bark manuscripts. This particular manuscript was flagged for conservation because it was requested for digitisation. Unfortunately, due to its condition it was unable to be safely handled.

This manuscript known as The Mahārnava, from Kashmir, was written in Śārada on birch bark and dates from the 19th Century. The text discusses Hindu religious law (Dharmaśāstra) dealing with practices for removing and healing diseases and bad influences resulting from the deeds in a former life (Karmavipāka).

IO San 3251 front cover.

Figure 2: IO San 3251 front cover.

IO San 3251 back cover.
Figure  3: IO San 3251 back cover.

The text was compiled probably in the 14th century, and so the text isn’t so uncommon, however this manuscript still has its original limp vellum cover, which makes this example quite unique. The treatment plan for this object needed to fit for purpose, dealing with it more as an object rather than a manuscript that would be requested and used as a book.

IO San 3251 fore edge before treatment.

Figure 4: IO San 3251 fore edge before treatment.

Made from the bark of birch trees, each page is made of a laminate of birch bark - in this manuscript laminate of pages vary from 3 to 7 layers of birchbark. Layers of birch bark are held together from the natural resins and gum found in the birch bark, however overtime they naturally dry up and lose their adhesive properties, leaving many pages delaminated.

Detail of IO San 3251 delamination and tearing.

Figure 5: IO San 3251 delamination and tearing.

Almost all pages suffered from large tears and cracks, predominantly following the horizontal grain of the bark. The general fragility from inherent acidic characteristics of birch bark are made worse by the horizontal brown nodes which are more brittle than the surrounding bark due to a higher concentration of lignin, a material that gives off acids as it ages.  

IO San 3251 delamination and tears along nodes

Figure 6: IO San 3251 delamination and tears along nodes.

IO San 3251 old repairs.

Figure 7: IO San 3251 old repairs.

The nature of this material and method of production required a much different repair technique than would be employed for paper-based objects. For paper repairs stabilising a tear with a Japanese tissue on the recto or verso is a common technique. However, with this manuscript being made up of a laminate of organic material, it required a more considered approach.  Keeping in mind a balance of tension, and the many layers making up each sheet, a weaving technique was used to weave the repair tissue between the delaminated and cracked areas, where possible.

Example of repair options: inserting repair tissue between delaminated layers or weaving repair tissue between tears.

Figure 8: example of repair options: inserting repair tissue between delaminated layers or weaving repair tissue between tears.

IO San 3251 tear and delamination before treatment.

Figure 9: IO San 3251 tear and delamination before treatment.

IO San 3251 inserting toned kozo tissue on top of tear and between delaminated layers.

Figure 10: IO San 3251 inserting toned kozo tissue on top of tear and between delaminated layers.

IO San 3251 tear and delamination after treatment.

Figure 11: IO San 3251 tear and delamination after treatment.

Methyl cellulose 4% was chosen as the adhesive for its elastic nature, allowing the repairs and original material to flex naturally, and not become stiff as the old repairs.

Pages that had become loose were reattached to each other, weaving the tissue around original sewing to secure them in place.

IO San 3251 Japanese tissue hinges attached to both pages. Adhesive is applied to the Japanese hinges and attached to one another, repairing the broken spine fold.

Figure 12: IO San 3251 Japanese tissue hinges attached to both pages. Adhesive is applied to the Japanese hinges and attached to one another, repairing the broken spine fold. 

All repairs have been carried out and now the manuscript is able to be safely handled, pages can be turned without risk of further catching and tearing. Digitisation will be the next step for this manuscript so it will be available to a much wider audience, with minimal disruption to the physical object.

IO San 3251 fore edge after treatment

Figure 13: IO San 3251 fore edge after treatment.

IO San 3251 fore edge before treatment.

Figure 14: IO San 3251 fore edge before treatment.

IO San 3251 post treatment.

Figure 15: IO San 3251 after treatment.

23 April 2020

Saved from the fire: conserving Charlotte Canning’s burnt diaries

Amy Baldwin, Book Conservator

The British Library’s India Office Records acquired the papers of Charles Canning and his wife Charlotte in 2013. While most were in a fit state to be catalogued and made available to the public, five volumes of Charlotte Canning’s personal diaries had been badly damaged by fire and were too vulnerable to be handled without extensive conservation work (curator Lesley Shapland has provided a vivid account of the fire in Charlotte’s tent which damaged the diaries on the Untold Lives blog).

Charlotte Canning's burnt diary showing a darkened binding and missing edges. F699 2/2/2/3 before treatment

F699 2/2/2/3 before treatment

The primary aim of treatment was to make the diaries available for consultation by curators and researchers. But because the fire which caused the damage is an integral part of the diaries’ histories, and because it sheds light on the wider context of the Cannings’ lives in India, it was desirable that the evidence of the burn damage also be preserved. The conservation treatment therefore had to offset the risks posed by the burn damage while making sure the damage itself remained intact - an intriguing challenge!

The first stage of treatment was to consolidate the burnt edges of the diaries’ pages. This was done by applying a Japanese kozo paper weighing only 4gsm/m² on top of the badly burnt areas. As well as being very lightweight this paper has long fibres, and therefore provides strength and support to the brittle page while being almost transparent.

Burnt page edge from Charlotte Canning's diary after consolidation with kozo paper

Burnt page edge after consolidation with kozo paper

The kozo paper was attached to the pages with a gelatin adhesive. This was specifically chosen because it is compatible with the iron gall ink with which Charlotte Canning wrote the diaries.

Charlotte also used her diaries as scrapbooks and many oversized newspaper clippings had been burned in the areas where she had folded them to fit them into the diary. These were repaired with Japanese papers of various weights.

F699 2/2/2/3 from Charlotte Canning's diary before treatment

F699 2/2/2/3 from Charlotte Canning's diary after treatment

F699 2/2/2/3 before and after treatment

In some cases, where areas of the spine had been burned away, the paper folds of the diary were rebuilt using Japanese paper, so that it could be sewn back together and could continue to function as a volume. Care was taken to recreate the exact original sewing style, so that the diary would continue to open in the same way. This also helped to preserve the historical integrity of the item as a Victorian notebook.

Spine of Charlotte Canning's diary F699 2/2/2/4 after sewing repair

Spine of F699 2/2/2/4 after sewing repair

In the case of one diary, the burn damage was so extensive that the conservation work required to return the fragments of pages to the format of a book would have obscured much of the fire damage. It would also have posed a risk to the fragments, as they were so brittle that they could not flex without cracking, as they would need to in order to survive being turned as pages in a book.

The pages of this diary were therefore encapsulated between sheets of polyester surrounded by rigid frames made from acid-free mount board. This allows the text on both sides to be read without the vulnerable pages being flexed, or indeed handled directly at all.

Charlotte Canning's diary F699 2/2/2/6 before treatment showing extensive damage and losses to the pages

F699 2/2/2/6 after treatment with pages of the diary encapsulated between sheets of polyester surrounded by rigid frames made from acid-free mount board

F699 2/2/2/6 before and after treatment

The diaries were stored in acid-free mount board wrappers to protect the page edges from being abraded. Each diary was then placed in a purpose-made box. The diaries still need to be handled with care, so the wrappers have been labeled with instructions for readers on how to use them safely.

Charlotte Canning's diary F699 2/2/2/3 after treatment showing much improved binding

Charlotte Canning's diary F699 2/2/2/3 after treatment and in its protective wrapper

F699 2/2/2/3 after treatment and in its protective wrapper

This was a major project, taking two conservators nearly 400 hours, and the fact that Charlotte Canning’s diaries are now accessible in the reading rooms is a source of great satisfaction for curatorial and conservation staff. 

09 April 2019

Consider the cover: conserving a Chinese book

The British Library's next major exhibition, Writing: Making Your Mark, opens 26 April and runs until 27 August 2019. In preparation for the exhibition, conservator Rebecca D'Ambrosio has been working on the conservation of one of the items which will be on display.

The story of a book through its binding

What does the cover and structure tell us about the story, provenance, use and journey of a book? Do they add value to the information it contains? The history of book binding has gone hand in hand with the history of writing. So, what happens if a covering is changed? Has anything been lost or gained? These are some of the questions we ask ourselves as conservators as we try to understand a book and consider how best to repair it.

The front cover of a book, bound in black leather with a design of a gold crown in the centre. The book opened to a page displaying Chinese characters in columns.

The lost original binding: A Chinese and Western book

The book, titled Zi bu ji jie (Explanation of the Radicals of Chinese characters), introduces the concept of how Chinese writing works. It was made in a Chinese style binding in Macao, China in 1840, commissioned by an American man, Issachar Jacox Roberts as a gift for Walter Medhurst who was translating the bible into Chinese at the time.

An inscription page which reads, 'L.J. Roberts Presents this page with his kind regards to Mr. Walter Medhurst. Macau, China, Oct 13th, 1840. The book opened to the first page. The back of the front cover has Chinese characters, and the titled page has an inscription stating, 'Roberts (Issachar Jacox)'

The broken second binding: The British Library style

Many years ago the book was dis-bound from its Chinese-style binding and re-bound into a Western-style binding. The disadvantages of this binding are that it does not respect its original opening direction from right to left, it deforms the structure of the book and new sewing holes were made in the process.

In addition to all this, the western-style binding has become worn around all edges and the back board of the cover is detached.

The back cover of the book, showing the cover has detached from the spine and is now loose.

The new conservation binding: Sympathetic to its origins

Rather than repairing the back board, it was decided with the Curator that this was an opportunity to return the book to a style of binding similar to its original.

Firstly, the spine was removed and the adhesive below was softened with the application of wheat starch paste. The Chinese book was now free of the Western binding but the remaining adhesive residue prevented the separation of the pages.

The book's spine with wheat starch paste applied. The milky adhesive covers the spine in a thick layer to soften the old adhesive. The spine with the wheat starch paste and old adhesive removed.
The original Chinese-style binding, showing a damaged spine.
The tears and losses in the cover were repaired and the spine strengthened with a toned Japanese tissue paper and wheat starch.

The repaired Chinese-style cover with a strip of Japanese tissue adhered down the spine. A close up of the new Chinese-style cover in an off-white cover.

Finally, because of the fragility of the book, new covers of a neutral-coloured Japanese paper were added, folded in the same way as the rest of the textblock pages. The whole was sewn together with linen thread re-using its original sewing holes and following the traditional Chinese binding pattern.

Adding to the story of a book

As conservators, knowledge of the history of the book format inspires every conservation treatment we carry out. We must take into consideration how our decisions will impact aesthetics, use and durability, historical aspect, value and significance. Every treatment will have a certain degree of impact on a book and adds to its story.

It was exciting to return this Chinese book to its original style, and learn more about its story as I added to it. Soon you will be able to see this book for yourself on display in the exhibition ‘Writing: Making your Mark’.

Rebecca D'Ambrosio

18 February 2019

Condition Surveying British Library on Demand

British Library on Demand (BLoD) is the document supply service from The British Library. Items are purchased specifically for the purpose, in addition to the legal deposit collection, to provide remote access to over 42 million items. Users include libraries, higher education institutions, individuals and commercial customers across the UK and internationally. Launched in 1962 as the National Lending Library, with a focus on Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM), at its peak in the mid - late 1990s, four million requests were received a year. Items can be supplied as scanned digital copies that are e-mailed or physical copies are sent by post.

A screenshot of the British Library on Demand webpage.
BLoD webpage



The material in BLoD ranges in age and format. We have items that are over 100 years old, pamphlets with a few pages to directories that are five inches thick! Some items are fragile because they are older and the paper and/or structure of the item is naturally deteriorating with some damage accelerated through use. Others are new items where modern day mass production of publishing books means they do not always last very long before damage occurs.

The spine of the The Post Office London Directory.
The Post Office London Directory 1922
The foreedge of the The Post Office London Directory 1922 with a ruler indicating the volume is 5 inches thick.
The Post Office London Directory 1922

Collection Care North carry out conservation repairs to the collection, which can include tear repairs, repairing the sewing of bindings, re-attaching boards and many other repairs. It is currently unknown what the overall condition of the BLoD collection is. Collection Care North are in the planning stages of a collection wide condition survey. This will not mean surveying every book, but we will end up with a snapshot overview of the collections condition.

We will sample 400 items from each of the stores that BLoD is stored in. We will place out shelf markers so we know which shelf to take an item from to assess. The 400 shelves are chosen by dividing the number of shelves with collections on them by 400.

For example, if we had 10,000 shelves:

10,000/400 = 25

So we would need to choose an item from every 25th shelf.

A red piece of paper cut in a long, thin strip with the number 400 listed on each side.
Shelf marker
A red piece of paper with text stating 'Please do not remove this shelf marker. Condition surveying in progress.'
Shelf marker

We are going to start in Building 3, where Official Publications are stored. It is one of the smaller stores, to ease ourselves in to the task and to check our methodology works how we want it to. There are over 3,500 occupied shelves in this store.

The survey will record:
•     Object type, e.g. hardback, paperback, monograph, serial, cartographic material, mixed format
•     Storage, e.g. is the item in a box; is there environmental monitoring; is the shelving adequate?
•     Condition, we use a set of four condition codes (see below)
•     Damage – physical, chemical, biological, previous repairs. E.g. Physical –torn pages, detached boards; chemical – brittle paper, light damage; biological – mould or pest/insect damage

A screen shot of the traffic light system used when surveying. Green is good, no evident damage. Yellow is fair, slight damage. Amber is poor, damaged with risk of further damage. Red is unfit for use, significant risk of further damage.

We hope to start surveying before the end of February. Watch this space to find out about our progress!

Emily Watts

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