THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Collection Care blog

46 posts categorized "Books"

28 August 2020

Disaster Response Plans during COVID-19

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

07 February 2019

West Dean College of Arts and Conservation to hold series of courses in collaboration with the British Library

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Press Release: February 6, 2019 from West Dean College.

Two images side by side. On the left is a bookshelf with books leaning to the left. On the right is a stack of three dusty books.

For the 5th year, West Dean College of Arts and Conservation will be holding a series of courses devoted to The Preservation and collection care for libraries in collaboration with the British Library - the national library of the United Kingdom and the second largest library in the world.

These fascinating courses are for professionals, conservation students and those interested in
continuing professional development in this area offering access to relevant training and expertise. The first one takes place on Thursday, February 28, 2019 and focuses on Damaged books and bound archives, this is followed by a new course for 2019 - Writing and using a preservation policy on Friday, March 8, 2019 and then:

• April 23, 2019 - Dust and dirt: Strategies for prevention and management
• May 9, 2019 - Preserving Historic Photographs
• June 6, 2019 - Preventing pests by IPM
• June 19, 2019 - Disaster response and salvage
• July 22, 2019 Understanding bookbindings
• July 24, 2019 - Environment: Effective monitoring and management
• September 16, 2019 - Preservation Assessment Survey Workshop

West Dean College of Arts and Conservation is internationally respected for conservation
education, including MA Conservation Studies, and many alumni go on to work in museums and with collections of global significance.

Lizzie Neville, Head of School of Conservation, commented: “West Dean College is delighted to be able to support the delivery of training in this under-resourced area and the excellent reputation of these courses extends beyond the UK, with participants from Europe and as far afield as California and Argentina.”

Most courses are half a day or a full day and all take place at the British Library in London. Prices start at £143 and more courses will be added to the schedule during the year.

For further information and booking, see: www.westdean.org.uk or phone the Bookings Office: +44 (0)1243 818300.

31 January 2019

Remembering Legendary Bookbinder Bernard Middleton 1924-2019

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We note with great sadness the death of Bernard Middleton, a towering figure in UK bookbinding with close links to the Library. 

Bernard Middleton stands in front of a shelves of gold tooling tools, picking a tool from the selection.

Bernard spent much of his life working with British Library collection items at the Library’s bindery, then known as the British Museum Bindery, following his apprenticeship there.

To see some of his bindings and to hear him talk about his training please see a blog we posted in 2014 to celebrate his 90th birthday:

https://blogs.bl.uk/collectioncare/2014/10/bookbinder-bernard-middleton-celebrates-90th-birthday.html

Our thoughts and best wishes are with his family and friends.

09 August 2018

Handle Books with Care

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To celebrate #NationalBookLoversDay, I’ve decided to write a follow-up blog to my previous post, A Taste of Training. As discussed in my first blog post, one of the activities I am involved with as a Preventive Conservator here at the British Library is training. In this post, I’d like to share some of the information we deliver when providing book handling training sessions, focusing on various binding styles and the tools you can use to help prevent damage. A great way to show your love for books is to handle them with care!

Risks to books

Books may be vulnerable for a number of reasons. A book might be constructed from materials which are poor quality or the book may have been housed in less-than-ideal storage or environmental conditions. The format of the book itself can also cause damage, so it’s important to know how to handle different types of books and account for each format’s weaknesses.

Book supports and weights

Book supports are a great way to minimise damage when using a book. They restrict the opening angle of a book and provide support while the book is being used. This helps to prevent damage to the spine and boards.  Book supports commonly come in the form of foam wedges, but you can also find other styles, including cradles with cushions and cushions on their own.

Weights are another useful tool when using books. Books are, generally speaking, not made to open flat, which can result in pages that want to spring upwards. Rather than pressing down on the pages and potentially causing damage, it’s better to gently lay a weight on the page. Just take care not to place the weights directly on any areas with text or images—these areas may be fragile and susceptible to damage.

A picture of a book, lying open on two black foam supports, with white snake weights running down on the outer edge of the book pages.  The same book as in the previous image, now displayed on a black cushion, which in itself is supported by a cradle underneath. the snake weights are again running down either page on the outer edges.  The book, again lying open, now resting on a black cushion only, with the white snake weights holding the pages open.
From left to right: A book on foam supports, a cradle with a cushion, and a cushion, with snake weights preventing the pages from springing upwards.

Now let’s discuss specific binding styles.

Flexible tight back books

A flexible tight back is a book which has the covering material (often leather) adhered directly to the spine. This means that the covering material flexes as the book is opened and closed. This can cause cracking along the spine, and will worsen as the leather and paper degrade.   

A book, with green leather binding, displaying the damage done to it's spine, as evidenced by cracking running down the length of the spine.
Vertical cracking along the spine of a rigid tight back book (please note that this image, along with all others, shows a sample book and not a collection item; books should not normally be placed on their foredge).

 

A book, displaying the spine facing up, showing a partially bound spine, displaying underneath the leather covering, with minimal space between the text block and the cover.
A partially bound flexible tight back with minimal lining between the text block and the leather covering.



When using a flexible tight back book, place the boards on foam wedges. You may also find it beneficial to use a spine support piece--a thin strip of foam placed in the centre to help support the fragile spine, as seen below. 

A book lying open, resting on two foam book supports. The spine of the book is also supported by a wedge of the same material.
A flexible tight back book on foam book supports with spine support piece.

 

Rigid tight back

A rigid tight back book has more material covering the spine, which makes the spine rigid and more robust. This rigid spine causes the book to have a restricted opening, and the pages of the book will spring upward when opened. The rigid spine can also cause a weakness in the joint--the area where the book boards meet the spine--and may lead to the boards detaching.   

A book in disrepair, showing a complete detachment of the boards (the hard cover of the book, while the spine has disappeared, exposing the text-block.
Whilst not a rigid tight back, this image does show a book with its boards detached—this type of damage is common with rigid tight back books.

 

A partially bound example book, showing the spine partially exposed. an area is highlighted in a white square, showing the bookboard between the leather cover and the textblock.
A partially bound rigid tight back showing a more built up spine: book board is present between the text block and leather, highlighted in the white square.


 

Rigid tight back books do not need a spine support piece. Instead, the focus should be on supporting the boards with wedges and leaving space in the centre for the spine. 

A Rigid Back Book lying open on Foam Supports. The spine of the book is snugly perched within the gap of the two foam supports.
A rigid tight back book on foam book supports; note the pages springing up rather than lying flat.

 

Case bindings

Now let’s get into a couple of the more common types of bindings, which everyone is likely to have on their bookshelf. A case binding, or hardback book, features a textblock which is adhered to the case (or boards) by pasting a piece of paper to the textblock and the case. Over time, the case can split away from the textblock, causing pages and/or the textblock to come loose, and possibly detach completely. To prevent damage to your hardbacks, we recommend restricting the opening angle so as to not cause too much strain to that single piece of paper holding the textblock to the case.   

An image of a book with its cover open, with a hand lifting up the first page, showing how the page paper is attached directly to the textblock and the book case.
Showing the piece of paper adhering the textblock to the case.

 

An image of a book, displaying the damage caused by the text-block splitting away from the case, creating loose and detached pages.
The text block has split from the case, causing some pages to detach and the textblock as a whole to be loose.


 

Perfect bindings

Perfect bindings, or paperback books, are made by glueing the textblock directly to the cover. They are not made to be long-lasting, and as a result, are often made from poor quality materials. As the adhesive fails, pages will detach and come loose. Paperback books are also not very flexible, so they won’t open well. To keep your paperbacks in the best condition possible, restrict the opening angle so you’re not causing a stress point where the adhesive can fail easily.      

A paperpack book, lying down, showing the detached text-block from the cover.  A book with its pages open, showing the detaching of pages from the text block and case.
Left and right: The pages have detached from the cover of this book.

Safe handling

Finally, I’d like to share some general best practice tips to help you safely handle your books:

  • Ensure your hands are clean and dry when handling books
  • Be aware of long jewellery or loose clothing which can catch
  • Lift books instead of sliding or dragging them
  • Don’t carry too many books at one time
  • Handle your books with care and be sure to take your time

If you’re using our reading rooms and do not see any book supports or weights around, simply ask Reading Room staff and they will provide them for you. The more time you take to ensure you’re using best practice when handling books, the longer your favourite books will survive!

Happy #NationalBookLoversDay!

Nicole Monjeau