Almost every visitor (nearly 700 last year) to the Centre for Conservation asks the same question: How do you decide what to conserve?
Given that the library holds around 150 million items, this is a pertinent question and one that we have to consider carefully. With limited resources we simply cannot treat everything and yet there is a great deal that needs some attention.
That isn't to say that we don’t look after our collection. Our onsite storage in both St Pancras and Boston Spa (Yorkshire) is carefully monitored and managed to give the best conditions possible for long term preservation. Handling training for staff and readers is a key priority for our Preventive Conservation Team.
Rather, an historic collection that has had past use, is currently used and is ageing will show signs of deterioration. Inherent vice or component materials that self-destruct, sometimes rapidly - such as machine made paper containing lignin and impurities - also strongly influences how a collection fares over time.
A system for prioritising which items receive conservation treatment is used to create an annual programme of work. We call this the ‘bidding system’ and in October each year the subject specialist curators are invited to put forward suggestions for projects or ‘bids’ needing conservation. Information about the items is entered into a database and some priority questions are answered during this process.
These questions include:
- Is the item unique?
- Does a surrogate exist?
- What is the level of demand for this item?
The questions are weighted – and carry a numbered score which is automatically calculated by the database. Hence each ‘bid’ has a priority score allocated to it. By analysing the scores it is possible to determine the highest priority items from the clutch of suggested bids based on the current agreed criteria.
Items with higher scores are examined by the conservators to create a treatment proposal and an estimate of the number of hours needed to complete the work. The number of available treatment hours for bids, or our capacity for the year, is calculated concurrently. A work programme is created that matches the number of hours available and hours needed for treatment.
An obvious flaw in the system is that it depends on the curators knowing their collection and putting forward items that are pertinent. Fortunately curators take this system seriously. They are very supportive of the conservation process and throughout the year conservators work closely with the curators to discuss treatment requirements and also possible future bids.
The annual conservation work programme is given final approval by the Preservation Board – an internal governing body designed to oversee the process and confirm that resources are allocated appropriately and strategically. Ensuring both preservation of and access to the collection are some of the core purposes of the Library.
Head of Conservation