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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 !