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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Vicky West ACR, Book Conservator
Nicole Monjeau, Preventive Conservator