Collection Care blog

56 posts categorized "Manuscripts"

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 !

12 April 2023

Preserving Bach’s manuscripts

Two Johann Sebastian Bach manuscripts in the British Library’s music collections - the autograph manuscript of the second book of the Well-Tempered Clavier (BWV 870-893) and of the cantata ‘Wo soll ich fliehen hin?’ (BW 5), recently came into the conservation studio. Treatment was undertaken with generous support from the Leche Trust.

This blog post focuses on the work undertaken on the Well-Tempered Clavier manuscript, which we are pleased to say is now complete.

A musical manuscript showing Bach’s Prelude in C Major. The musical notes have been busily squeezed onto one bifolio. The musical scores have been drawn by hand in a thick dark brown ink on brown paper, which has evidence of being folded previously in half. The bifolio has been mounted in a brown inlay paper which has discoloured over time causing it to darken in colour. The title of the piece is written above the musical scores and it has been signed by J. S. Bach alongside this, his writing is expressive.
Prelude in C Major (before treatment)
This image shows a close up of a brown musical note where the centre of the note is missing, it appears to have dropped out of the page, due to the corrosive and thickly applied ink.
Effects of Iron Gall ink corrosion; Iron gall ink has been used since the middle ages and is found on many of our most treasured manuscripts, including the Lindisfarne Gospels, Beowulf and Magna Carta. The main ingredients of iron gall ink include iron sulphate, tannins from oak galls and water.

 

The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book II

Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier (named after a system of tuning – ‘well temperament’) is one of those musical works that seems to justify the grand claims made about it. On the face of it, it’s a simple series of preludes and fugues in every key, major and minor: 24 in all, with two sets of these (giving the series its nickname ‘the 48’)’. But it’s also a jaw-dropping feat of compositional virtuosity, with Bach using his immense contrapuntal skills to weave together separate musical lines that fit together logically (but never too predictably) and yet also produce inspired music at the same time.

The British Library’s manuscript of the second book of the Well-Tempered Clavier (Add MS 35021 and Add MS 38068) is really a set of individual manuscripts for 21 of the preludes and fugues in the second book (those in C-sharp minor, D major and F minor are unfortunately not preserved here and must have been separated from the others at an earlier date). These were composed between 1739 and 1742.

Each prelude and fugue were mostly written out to (very satisfyingly) fit on a single side of an open folded page, avoiding the need to turn the sheet over – even if this at times means a bit of a squeeze. (No amount of squeezing was going to fit the lengthy prelude and fugue in A-flat major onto one side – this carries on over to the next side). Most of the pieces have been written out by Johann Sebastian Bach himself, apart from four and a bit which are known to be in the hand of his second wife, Anna Magdalena (those in C minor, D minor, E major, G major and the beginning of the prelude in F major).

A musical manuscripts showing Bach’s Prelude in C minor, this has been written in the hand of Anna Magdelena Bach, the second wife of J. S. Bach. The musical scores have been drawn by hand in a thick dark brown ink on brown paper, which has evidence of being folded previously in half. The bifolio has been mounted in a brown inlay paper which has discoloured over time causing it to darken in colour. The title of the piece is written at the top of the piece, A. M. Bach’s writing is much neater than J. S. Bach’s.
Prelude in C minor (BWV 871), in the hand of Anna Magdalena Bach (before treatment)


Planning – what were the issues?

Unfortunately, even in optimal storage conditions, chemical and physical processes that pose a risk to manuscripts like these can, over time, still occur. We minimise threats to the collection as much as possible, by controlling factors like temperature and humidity, by using appropriate housing and by limiting access to, and use of, particularly vulnerable materials. However, even with strict environmental monitoring a common problem that is difficult to halt entirely is one of iron gall ink corrosion. Like much music of this period and earlier, these Bach manuscripts are especially at risk from this due to the make-up of the inks that were used – iron sulphate and acidic tannins in particular, which, over time, oxidise and ‘eat away’ at the paper. There’s an interesting blog post on this here:  https://blogs.bl.uk/collectioncare/2021/06/iron-gall-ink-on-paper-saving-the-words-that-eat-themselves.html.

When it came to planning conservation work, there were two main issues to consider. One was the corroding ink, as mentioned above. This is a particular problem where the ink is applied thickly to a small area, as tends to happen when writing expressive music notation. There were various examples of this on the Bach manuscript, ranging from visible holes to less obvious hairline cracks, making it extremely vulnerable.

The other issue was previous methods of preservation in manuscripts past - the manuscript pages had been bound into a single large volume, with each folio mounted into paper windows. This mounting paper had aged poorly, shown in the image below. Over time, its acidic properties have led to it discolouring and becoming brittle – meaning some were no longer secure in the binding. Tension from the acidic border was also causing stress to the centre of each bifolio of the manuscript, increasing the risk of splitting. It was clear that the time had come to give the manuscript a more appropriate long-term home.

This is a photograph of the previous binding that the manuscript was house within, it is a half leather binding with brownish purple goat skin on the spine and corners and deep purple cloth on the boards. There is two lines of gold tooling along the leather edges at the spine and corners. The edges of the boards and spine are worn and the pages inside the binding are protruding from the edges, implying that the sewing has broken down. The book sits on a plain grey background.
Previous binding for Add MS 35021
This shows the inside of the binding, showing Bach’s prelude in C Major (the same manuscript is shown in Image 1), it is sitting inside the binding surrounded by the discoloured and acidic inlay paper which has gone from cream to brown.
Manuscript folios mounted in paper inlays inside (before treatment)



Conservation over time

Something that really made an impression in the course of this project was the changing approach to conservation over the years – understandable given evolving knowledge, the emergence of new technologies and shifting emphasis in professional standards. However, while treatment undertaken decades ago might appear questionable now, we are mindful that it was done with the best intentions given the tools and knowledge available at the time.

A good example is in relation to iron gall ink. There are very few ways to fully halt the corrosive effects of the ink and limiting the damage is often the only approach. However, one treatment that emerged in the mid-1990s involves an aqueous treatment, using a calcium phytate solution to neutralise the acidic iron content in the ink.

In recent years, the British Library has established processes for this treatment, but still it is not something to be undertaken lightly. While extensive testing prior to treatment ensures that both the structure of the paper and the ink will remain secure, nonetheless the process has the effect of washing the paper. Therefore, this results in the removal of dirt and accretions but also, potentially valuable but less obvious, evidence of historical use.  

The decisions are not easy, as weighed against the potential risk of sometimes losing potential sources of historical evidence, such as staining on the paper, is the risk of the manuscript deteriorating to such an extent that any kind of study becomes impossible.

Decisions

Given the iconic status of this manuscript, many people were involved in the decision-making and the project was a collaboration between curatorial and conservation teams. One objective that was clear was the new housing needed for the folios of the manuscript, which would keep them more secure.

In terms of treatment of the iron gall ink, we decided to take a cautious approach for now, and only apply the calcium phytate treatment to two folios, which suffered from different and more pressing issues from the others. These (which contained the A-flat major prelude and fugue, ff. 13 and 14), had been removed from the bound volume more than a century ago. At different points since then they had received conservation work of differing levels of invasiveness, including a coating of transparent heat set tissue applied to one side of the fugue and repairs along the fold of that page too. The aim in focusing a higher level of treatment on these particular folios was to stabilise the corrosive properties of the ink on one of the most problematic examples among the Well-Tempered Clavier manuscripts, and also to reduce some of the ill effects of previous treatments. This work would also make it possible to safely rehouse these folios in the same way as the others, removing them from their unsuitable temporary storage.

This shows Bach’s Prelude in A-flat major which is obscured slightly, appearing fainter to the other images of the musical scores – this is due to a thin layer of heat-set tissue which was previously applied to the manuscript which is unsympathetically covering the music. At the edge of the page a darker brown boarder can be seen, this is the acidic inlay paper which was then removed by conservation.
Prelude in A-flat major, f. 13v, showing coating of heat set tissue.

 

Conservation work begins

All our manuscripts are special and unique of course, and receive due care and attention to ensure their long-term preservation. Often there are particular manuscripts that are so iconic that you find yourself to be quite awestruck in their presence, this was certainly the case here and it was a wonderful moment when the volume containing the manuscripts was unpacked in the conservation studio. We took a moment to listen to the pieces as we looked at the score, we felt humbled in that moment as we contemplated the music that had inspired so many, as the notes on the page seemed to dance before us.

After thorough documentation and testing, treatment began by disbinding the volume and removing the folios from the acidic inlay paper; this was done mechanically using a poultice of sieved gelatine mousse. Whilst removing the old acidic paper mounts we uncovered the edge of the text previously covered by the inlay.

Bach’s Prelude in A-flat major during aqueous treatment. The image shows a close up of the corner of the manuscript under water, a reflection on the water’s surface can be seen. Held in place by the conservators hand, at the top of the image the handle of a metal spatula can be seen gliding under the edge of the cream manuscript, separating it from the brown acidic boarder.
Removing remnants of acidic paper mounts during the calcium phytate bath

Aqueous treatment of the two folios

The treatment of folios 13 and 14 was achieved in three stages: first the documents were washed then treated with calcium phytate and then calcium bicarbonate. This helped stabilise the corrosive properties of the ink and remedy some of the ill effects of the previous treatment. 

Prior to immersion, multispectral images of these folios were taken by our imaging scientist, ensuring we have a clear record of the manuscript prior to treatment. Multispectral imaging captures image data within determined wavelength ranges across the electromagnetic spectrum. It can be used to examine discolourations and staining, by comparing the "spectral fingerprint" of an accretion to a known chemical substance. It can also reveal things that are only visible on different parts of the spectrum and allow us to capture the true colours of the image to accurately assess any ink changes after treatment.

This shows a multispectral image of the manuscript, the image appears black and white. The media appears dark and various stains and accretions are visible and appear lighter.
One of the series of multispectral images

The existing condition of these particular folia made them a priority to treat in this way, but the experience of doing so will allow us to weigh in the balance the benefits or not of undertaking similar treatment on other folios in the future, should the degradation of the corrosive ink progress. For now, fragile inks on the other folios of the manuscript have been supported with a very fine toned Japanese tissue and gelatine using a low moisture technique. This was carried out over a light box to ensure any weakened areas of iron gall ink were spotted.

After Treatment

All the folios have now been housed individually in a more sympathetic, double sided mount. This rigid mount allows each page to be correctly supported and viewed in full and is suitable for both storage and exhibition display, minimising the need for handling or further work. The mounted folios were then stored in several bespoke acid-free phase boxes to offer additional protection on the shelf.

This image is of all the folios, stacked in a pile in their new rectangle cream mounts and cream inlays which have been cut to the exact size of the folios and adhered with a lightweight Japanese tissue along the edges. The mount is double walled, giving the manuscript a layer of rigid protection, and also allowing them to be displayed cleanly within their mounts as the cover/supportive board can pivot on the hinge attaching it to the window mount.
The conserved folios in their new mounts (after treatment)
This shows one of the musical folios inside a cream window mount and cream inlay paper. The inlay paper has been cut to the exact size of the folio, so the uncut edge can now be seen. The window mount has a bevelled window cut which frames the manuscript. The mounted manuscript sits on a plain grey background.
Prelude in G major (BWV , f. 23r, after treatment)

Conclusion

Thank you to the Leche Trust for their generous support which allowed the items to be conserved and ensured that the manuscripts themselves are now better preserved and protected for posterity.

The British Library’s responsibility as custodian of these iconic examples of Bach’s creativity involves finding a balance between protecting the physical manuscripts and finding ways for their appreciation by a wide audience. High-quality digital images are a key tool for providing access, but this conservation treatment will also make it possible for researchers to work with the original material where this is necessary – further enhancing our understanding of Bach’s creative practise. It is also now safer to exhibit these iconic collections beyond the reading room, in our gallery spaces, where you can join us and experience the real thing.

Samantha Hare and Chris Scobie

 

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

03 June 2021

Iron gall ink on paper: Saving the words that eat themselves

Paul Garside & Zoë Miller

Iron gall ink (IGI) will be familiar to most of us as the characteristic brown ink that we associate with the authenticity and softly aged aesthetic of historic documents.  It is the most important writing and drawing ink in Western culture, initially emerging in the first centuries AD and continuing in widespread use until the 20th century.  Many thousands of examples of its use on both parchment and paper can be found in the British Library’s historic collections, ranging from Treasures and other important items, such as the Codex Sinaiticus, the Lindisfarne Gospels, Magna Carta, manuscripts penned by Henry VIII and the works of famous diarists such as John Evelyn, to more commonplace letters, notes, musical scores and records. And IGI documents will form a vital part of our forthcoming exhibition Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens .

Figure 1: Three sheets of paper with dark brown iron gall ink.  The ink on the opposite sides of the papers is starting to show through.

[Figure 1] An example of IGI on paper (Walpole Papers 73898).

However, IGI may damage the surface on which it is written, and paper is at particular risk, leading to characteristic haloing, fragility, fracturing and areas of loss. It has been estimated that up to 80% of European archives contain items at significant risk of this problem. The potential to cause damage has been known for a long time: in 1765 the English chemist William Lewis published a treatise on the stability of IGI, and over one hundred years ago the Vatican Library warned about the impending destruction of many precious manuscripts from the effect.  However, the ink remained popular, not least for its durability and permanence (it adheres firmly to the substrate, and resists rubbing and washing, unlike carbon inks), but also because it was easy and cheap to make, using a wide variety of historic recipes.  Most recipes are based around four principal components: gallic acid, derived from oak galls; iron(II) sulphate (often referred to as green vitriol); water or an aqueous medium; and a binding agent, such as gum Arabic.  When these ingredients are mixed, the acid and the iron sulphate react together then oxidise to form iron(III) gallate, which is strongly coloured; the ink is typically a dark slate grey when first formed, turning brown or orange as it ages.

Figure 2: A magnified image of iron gall ink on paper, lit from the back, showing dark haloing around the text and areas of loss from regions of heavy ink.

[Figure 2] The effects of IGI corrosion.

Why does this ink cause damage? There are two main, interlinked processes. Sulphuric acid is a by-product of the reaction which creates the ink, and this can lead to hydrolysis of the cellulose that forms the building blocks of paper. Excess iron(II) ions, from the initial ingredients, can also speed up the oxidative degradation of cellulose. In conjunction, these two effects are often referred to as IGI corrosion, and in extreme cases inked lines can actually crack and drop out of the paper surface. We have found that imbalanced recipes and impure ingredients can complicate the aging process and damaging properties of these inks, resulting in wide visual differences. The Instituut Collectie Nederland (ICN) has developed a four level system to categorise the damage caused by IGI , from 1 to 4 ('good' to 'very poor' condition), as shown in these examples from the BL's collection:

Figure 3: The four ICN condition levels, illustrated with examples from the British Library’s collection.

[Figure 3] The condition of IGI on paper: 1 (good condition - no/light discoluration and stable to handle); 2 (fair condition - dark discolouration around ink, with no immediate mechanical damage, but this could result from handling); 3 (poor condition - some mechanical damage around ink, and handling is likely to cause more damage); 4 (very poor condition - serious loss of substance, which will be exacerbated by handling).

Historically, treatments for paper documents suffering from IGI corrosion were much more invasive than would now be considered acceptable, including processes such as lamination, simmering or aggressive de-acidification.  Greater understanding of the material and developments in conservation science have allowed a more tailored, less invasive range of options. For some documents, aqueous treatments will be the most appropriate choice: the items are immersed in a calcium phytate solution, to bind and isolate damaging iron(II) ions, accompanied by gentle de-acidification, to remove existing acids and provide an alkaline reserve.  For other documents, low moisture repairs (using gelatine adhesive, which resists IGI attack as well as providing mechanical stabilisation) or the more conventional support of physical damage will be better choices.  The following chart gives an overview of our thought-processes when considering the best approach; we developed it to help visualise the process and explain our decision-making to colleagues.  As can be seen, we would consider a wide range of factors, including:

  • The state of the IGI and the damage it has caused, assessed using the ICN categorisation.
  • The overall condition of the item, taking into account any signs of damage to its composition or structure, the presence of vulnerable components such as water-sensitive materials, and its general stability and ease of handling.
  • Our 'risk appetite' for the item.  This represents our willingness to accept risks when treating the object, and is related to factors such as cultural value, historic significance and rarity. This would obviously be very low for Treasures items, but even with objects assigned a higher risk appetite, we would not act recklessly or without planning – we may, however, be willing to consider more interventive or extensive treatments to enable the item to be more widely accessed.

Figure 4: A flowchart indicating the decision-making process for the treatment of iron gall ink on paper.

[Figure 4] Decision-making for the treatment of IGI on paper.

This scheme is not prescriptive, however, and each object would be assessed and treated on its own merits. Furthermore, sometimes the best conservation decision is to carry out no treatment at all, and in all cases our work is underpinned by good preventive conservation, in the form of appropriate storage, suitable environmental conditions and sympathetic handling.

Figure 5: A British Library conservator carrying out immersion treatment of a paper manuscript with iron gall ink.

[Figure 5] Aqueous treatment of poor condition IGI on paper, in the BL’s conservation studio.

Many thanks to the Thriplow Charitable Trust for supporting this research.

05 May 2021

Conservation for Digitisation: A collaboration with the Palestinian Museum

Amy Baldwin, Book Conservator & Jessica Pollard, Digitisation Conservator

In April and May 2019 we had the pleasure of welcoming two members of staff from the Palestinian Museum, Baha Jubeh, Conservation Manager and Bara Bawatneh, Conservator, to the British Library as part of a collaborative Conservation for Digitisation project funded by the Cultural Protection Fund administered by the British Council. Over a six week period we carried out training in conservation methods specifically for digitisation to assist in the successful completion of the project, the aims of which were:

  1. To establish the first paper-based conservation studio in the West Bank
  2. Training and capacity building for staff from the Palestinian Museum
  3. Conservation and Preservation of 3000 paper-based endangered collection items
  4. Education and advocacy activities

 

Picture 1: Welcoming Baha and Bara to the British Library Centre for Conservation. Left to right Baha Jubeh, Roly Keating, Bara Bawatneh, Amy Baldwin, Jessica Pollard, Cecile Communal

[Picture 1: Welcoming Baha and Bara to the British Library Centre for Conservation. Left to right Baha Jubeh, Roly Keating, Bara Bawatneh, Amy Baldwin, Jessica Pollard, Cecile Communal]

The relatively short time period but large amount of information to cover meant an intensive and busy six weeks were spent in the conservation studios. Our priority was to equip them with the necessary skills to complete the project while keeping intervention to a minimum, and although we had to be realistic with the timescale we also needed to be flexible to adapt to their specific needs. The training schedule included, but was not limited to, an introduction to paper conservation; the practicalities of setting up a conservation studio; mould identification and remediation; and developing an understanding of the end-to-end digitisation process.  Time spent with colleagues from imaging and curatorial departments, as well as trips to Windsor Castle and The National Archives conservation studios, complemented this practical training and gave further insight into the complexities of digitisation projects.

Picture 2: Bara carrying out repairs to a manuscript

[Picture 2: Bara carrying out repairs to a manuscript]

Picture 3: Bara and Baha being introduced to a selection of Arabic collection items by curator Daniel Lowe and head of Asian and African Collections Luisa Mengoni

[Picture 3: Bara and Baha being introduced to a selection of Arabic collection items by curator Daniel Lowe and head of Asian and African Collections Luisa Mengoni]

We made a return visit to the Palestinian Museum in Birzeit, Ramallah in June 2019. The Museum is housed in a stunning award-winning building surrounded by gardens which illustrate the history of agriculture and plants in Palestine, and the paper conservation studio is the first of its kind on the West Bank. At the time of our visit the conservation focus was on the Museum’s Digital Archive project, which digitised thousands of paper items from endangered collections belonging to small institutions and private individuals. These items were loaned to the Museum for the duration of the digitisation process. Many had been kept in private homes for many years, and the condition varied from a light layer of surface dirt to large tears and water damage.

Picture 4: Piecing together a damaged item

[Picture 4: Piecing together a damaged item]

Three volunteers had been recruited to assist with the project, and we were able to collaborate with the Museum’s conservator in providing training for them. We only had four days together, so we had to ensure that the volunteers’ skills were utilised effectively, and we knew that the time available for them to practice their new skills before starting work on loan items would be very short. With this in mind, the volunteers’ training focused on surface cleaning, flattening and simpler paper repairs. This left the Museum’s conservator to concentrate on items with more complex damage, including photographs, which require different treatment to other paper-based items.

Picture 5: Discussing treatment options of a rolled item damaged by mould

[Picture 5: Discussing treatment options of a rolled item damaged by mould]

Picture 6: Assessment of items prior to digitisation with Bara and the three volunteers

[Picture 6: Assessment of items prior to digitisation with Bara and the three volunteers]

The final phase of the project took place in late 2020. Its focus was on those items that were classified as badly damaged and had so far been left untreated, the majority of which were bound manuscripts. Further training was required to assist in completing the treatment of these item, however the global pandemic put a stop to any hope of providing UK based in-person training so we turned our attention to what could reasonably and safely be taught virtually. The original training sessions, largely focusing on wet treatments and simple book repair methods, had to be adapted with a new emphasis on handling and imaging fragile manuscripts safely with limited conservation intervention. Using a mixture of online presentations, pre-recorded demonstration videos and digital handouts we provided training in the following: handling fragile items for digitisation; consolidation and repair of mould-damaged paper; health and safety for conservation; an introduction to book structures; separating pages adhered together; and mould remediation. With no previous experience of carrying out virtual training it was a steep learning curve, especially filming and editing our own videos, and although we had to adapt our initial training proposal and scale-down our expectations, we were incredibly pleased to be able provide training during a difficult period and assist in the completion of a complicated project, which was only made possible due to the enthusiasm, skill and determination of those at the Palestinian Museum.

Picture 7: During filming of a pre-recorded training video for the consolidation of paper

[Picture 7: During filming of a pre-recorded training video for the consolidation of paper]

Picture 8: A still from a training video showing the separation of pages adhered together due to mould damage

[Picture 8: A still from a training video showing the separation of pages adhered together due to mould damage]

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

10 September 2018

Rehousing two 12th century charters

My name is Wanda Robins, and I am studying book conservation at Camberwell College of Arts, in London. A key component of the Camberwell program is to provide students with ample practical work experience in historical institutions to consolidate the theoretic knowledge gained at university. In addition to one-day per week placements throughout the school year, every student completes a four to six-week summer work placement between the first and second year, which is an opportunity to work on more complex projects and experience full time work in a conservation studio.

I was fortunate to have my placement at the British Library Conservation Centre (BLCC) and had an opportunity to work on an exciting project to rehouse two 12th century parchment charters that were gifted to the British Library from Abbey College, Ramsey.

Ramsey Abbey was a Benedictine abbey founded in AD 969 in what is now Cambridgeshire. The two charters bear the seals of Henry I (king from 1100 – 1135) and Henry II (king from 1154-1189) and grant the surrounding land to the Abbey.

The curators and the conservation team determined that the charters should be rehoused due to the acidic mount board and the frame was not well sealed. It was also apparent that the charters were pasted down to board, which constricts the natural movement of parchment, and would ultimately be detrimental to the charters.

Before Pictures:

 

The charters as shown in their original housing, with in a wooden-framed glass mounting. The two charters sit on the top, with the description of each charter below.
Original frame and condition: frame has gaps and is sealed with tape on back.

The back of the framing, showing black industrial tape running along the join of the frame and backboard. a closeup of the wooden frame corner, showing the frame edges pulling away from each other. the Glass cover edge is also now exposed.

Charter with Seal of Henry I, in original housing.

an image of the Charter with the Seal of Henry I. The charter itself appears mostly white in colour, with a cutout area around the seal, which is a light brown, but has been chipped and damaged, reveaing a white underlying layer.  a closeup of the seal, revealing a warrior holding a spear and shield, mounted on a striding horse.

Charter is fixed directly to board backing.

A close up of the Charter with Henry II's seal, in its original housing. The charter has writing in fairly gothic script, in a faded red on the pale parchment. There are two seals, in a red colour. The left hand seal is slghtly larger than the right.
Charter with Seal of Henry II, in original housing.

 

Backing Removal

Taking the charters out of the original housing proved to be a bit of a challenge – it turns out that someone took a great deal of time to engineer a safe way to mount the seals so they could be set safely within the mount. The seals were set within tubes with cotton pads and cotton wool.

An image of the charter in its original mounting, with one item in the bottom right removed, exposing the backing frame. A metal ruler is lying lengthwise across the mountboard in the middle, and a metal scalpel is also lying lengthwise on the mountboard on the bottom edge.  Underneath the original mounting, showing two tubes packed with cotton wool, to protect the seals that would be lying atop the mount board.

A closeup of one of the tube seals. a hand is lifting the cottonwool out of the tube, revealing the card and paper and the back of the red seal within. the second smaller seal is on the right, with no tube above it.

To lift the parchment off the backing board, we tested with an 80/20 solution of isopropanol to water, which proved effective.

The backing board being gently lifted away from the parchment and the backing board.

Once we had this worked out, I worked from the back and removed layer after layer of the backing board, moistening with a damp sponge. Once I reached the back of the parchment, I used the isopropanol/water solution to reactivate the animal glue so I could remove it with a micro-spatula.

A closeup image showing the peeling away the brown backing board from the pale parchment from around the back of the seal of Henry I Another image, this time zoomed out, of the brown backing board being peeled away from the parchment. A large swathe has been removed, exposing the back of the parchment.

Another view of the backing board removal, this image is zoomed out a little more, showing the charter lying face down on a protective white sheet which in turn is also on a table. to the left of the parchment are scraps of backing which have been removed from the parchment.   A closeup view of the second charter, showing the brown backing board being removed, with the area around the two seals protective tubes as yet unremoved.

A very close close-up of the Backing board removal, showing the paper backingwhich was underneath the card backing board, being slowly eased away from the parchment.

Tools used for backing removal.

a picture of the variety of tools utilised in the charter rehousing. On a grey table rests two small metal spatulas, next to a shiny small sharp ended tweezer, and a small white-handled paintbrush, resting on a china paintbrush holder. To the right of the tools is a clear glass open box, with a small clear empty beaker, and a very small bottle of the chemical mixture which is clear in colour.

It took me several days to get the backing off and in the end, I couldn’t remove everything. There was a notable difference in the two charters, as the older one was much more degraded, so we decided that we would leave a skim of the paper backing and not risk damaging the parchment further.

The back of the parchment, showing the remnants of the paper backing, which looks akin to a white fuzz, which is still present in some areas of the parchment.

Once all the backing was removed we found additional writing on the verso of the charter.

An image of the rear of one of the charters. the removal of the paper and card backing has revealed previously hidden text running vertically down the charter.

During the cleaning process, we noticed that the seal of the older charter, though likely wax, has a grainy texture, and was shedding bits and granules. One of the senior conservators recommended that we consolidate it with a synthetic adhesive, Paraloid B72.

A close-up of one of the seals. This seal, of Henry I, shows clearly the image of a mounted rider, bearing spear and shield. The Grainy texture of the seal, with its browny exterior in contrast to the white underlaying color, where the seal has been damaged or or broken away. A conservator, wearing a brown apron, is slowly stirring a glass beaker atop a hotplate.

Finally, to work out a new mount and storage for the charters, we discussed various ways of tabbing the charters to fix them to a mount board. We planned the tabs first.

A plan of the rehousing, as drawn on paper. The image consists of a large rectangle, with two circles where the seals would lie, and a cut above the seals in line with the charter itself.

Using a light Japanese tissue, we attached small splints to the verso to keep the various strips of parchment in place and protected.

Two pieces of Japanese tissue paper, as seen up close, on a green cutting board, lying next to a set of tweezers. The two pieces of tissue paper are off-white in colour, with very long fibrous edges.   The two pieces of Japanese tissue paper, now attached to the rear of the parchment, where there is a large designed-split to accomodate the seals.

We cut uniform sized tabs of Japanese tissue with a water pen and attached these to the verso with a light application of wheat starch paste. This can easily be removed in the future, if needed.

A series of tabs made of Japanese tissue paper attached to the rear of one of the charters. A black weight, sitting on a light board, is keeping the parchment flat. A blue water pen being used to cut the tissue paper, which is held in place using a clear ruler. Two strips of japanese paper are lying to the side, already eased away from the main sheet.

a example picture of a tab of Japanese paper sticking out underneath the parchment. The flwoing script of the charter can be seen, albeit faded in the light. A hand is uplifting the charter, showing the tissue tabs sticking out from all sides of the parchment, afixed underneath. The Charter is resting on white plastazote.

Once the tabs were adhered to the verso of the charters, we cut slits into a sheet of Plastazote foam and pushed the tabs through the Plastazote so that they would not be visible from the recto.

A hand holding a slim green metal conservation spatula, in a similar size to a small paintbrush, is gently pushing the tissue tabs down into cut slits of the white plastazote base which the parchment is resting on. The tab being eased into the cut slit is at the bottom left of the of the parchment.  Underneath the white plastazote base, the tabs which are attached to the parchment resting atop, can be seen dangling down, after being pushed through cut slits into the material.

The effect was a bit like the charter is floating on top of the foam. The charters are secure and they cannot move around. The Plastazote could also accommodate a small indentation cut into it to support the wax seals

Within its new mount board:

The charter of Henry I, with the brownish seal, is pictured on the new white plastazote base, with the edges of the parchment lying flat against the base.  The same charter, still resting on its new white plastazote base, is now seen with a new conservation-friendly mountboard, which has framed the charter. The mountboard is slightly offwhite in colour.

I was able to get both charters and the two descriptive labels all housed and ready for a new box. It was a really exciting and interesting project to learn about and get to experience. I am so grateful to the various staff that supported me and helped me through it.

During my month at the BLCC I was given the opportunity to share this project with three different public tours. This was really fun and also meant a lot to me as I as I had first become interested in conservation by attending a public tour of the BLCC in 2015.

09 August 2018

Handle Books with Care

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

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