THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Collection Care blog

51 posts categorized "Manuscripts"

14 May 2020

The Mahārnava, Conservation of a 19th Century Birch Bark Manuscript

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Elisabeth Randell, Conservator (Books)

IO San 3251 before treatment.

Figure 1: IO San 3251 before treatment.

The British Library has a large collection of birch bark manuscripts. This particular manuscript was flagged for conservation because it was requested for digitisation. Unfortunately, due to its condition it was unable to be safely handled.

This manuscript known as The Mahārnava, from Kashmir, was written in Śārada on birch bark and dates from the 19th Century. The text discusses Hindu religious law (Dharmaśāstra) dealing with practices for removing and healing diseases and bad influences resulting from the deeds in a former life (Karmavipāka).

IO San 3251 front cover.

Figure 2: IO San 3251 front cover.

IO San 3251 back cover.
Figure  3: IO San 3251 back cover.

The text was compiled probably in the 14th century, and so the text isn’t so uncommon, however this manuscript still has its original limp vellum cover, which makes this example quite unique. The treatment plan for this object needed to fit for purpose, dealing with it more as an object rather than a manuscript that would be requested and used as a book.

IO San 3251 fore edge before treatment.

Figure 4: IO San 3251 fore edge before treatment.

Made from the bark of birch trees, each page is made of a laminate of birch bark - in this manuscript laminate of pages vary from 3 to 7 layers of birchbark. Layers of birch bark are held together from the natural resins and gum found in the birch bark, however overtime they naturally dry up and lose their adhesive properties, leaving many pages delaminated.

Detail of IO San 3251 delamination and tearing.

Figure 5: IO San 3251 delamination and tearing.

Almost all pages suffered from large tears and cracks, predominantly following the horizontal grain of the bark. The general fragility from inherent acidic characteristics of birch bark are made worse by the horizontal brown nodes which are more brittle than the surrounding bark due to a higher concentration of lignin, a material that gives off acids as it ages.  

IO San 3251 delamination and tears along nodes

Figure 6: IO San 3251 delamination and tears along nodes.

IO San 3251 old repairs.

Figure 7: IO San 3251 old repairs.

The nature of this material and method of production required a much different repair technique than would be employed for paper-based objects. For paper repairs stabilising a tear with a Japanese tissue on the recto or verso is a common technique. However, with this manuscript being made up of a laminate of organic material, it required a more considered approach.  Keeping in mind a balance of tension, and the many layers making up each sheet, a weaving technique was used to weave the repair tissue between the delaminated and cracked areas, where possible.

Example of repair options: inserting repair tissue between delaminated layers or weaving repair tissue between tears.

Figure 8: example of repair options: inserting repair tissue between delaminated layers or weaving repair tissue between tears.

IO San 3251 tear and delamination before treatment.

Figure 9: IO San 3251 tear and delamination before treatment.

IO San 3251 inserting toned kozo tissue on top of tear and between delaminated layers.

Figure 10: IO San 3251 inserting toned kozo tissue on top of tear and between delaminated layers.

IO San 3251 tear and delamination after treatment.

Figure 11: IO San 3251 tear and delamination after treatment.

Methyl cellulose 4% was chosen as the adhesive for its elastic nature, allowing the repairs and original material to flex naturally, and not become stiff as the old repairs.

Pages that had become loose were reattached to each other, weaving the tissue around original sewing to secure them in place.

IO San 3251 Japanese tissue hinges attached to both pages. Adhesive is applied to the Japanese hinges and attached to one another, repairing the broken spine fold.

Figure 12: IO San 3251 Japanese tissue hinges attached to both pages. Adhesive is applied to the Japanese hinges and attached to one another, repairing the broken spine fold. 

All repairs have been carried out and now the manuscript is able to be safely handled, pages can be turned without risk of further catching and tearing. Digitisation will be the next step for this manuscript so it will be available to a much wider audience, with minimal disruption to the physical object.

IO San 3251 fore edge after treatment

Figure 13: IO San 3251 fore edge after treatment.

IO San 3251 fore edge before treatment.

Figure 14: IO San 3251 fore edge before treatment.

IO San 3251 post treatment.

Figure 15: IO San 3251 after treatment.

23 April 2020

Saved from the fire: conserving Charlotte Canning’s burnt diaries

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Amy Baldwin, Book Conservator

The British Library’s India Office Records acquired the papers of Charles Canning and his wife Charlotte in 2013. While most were in a fit state to be catalogued and made available to the public, five volumes of Charlotte Canning’s personal diaries had been badly damaged by fire and were too vulnerable to be handled without extensive conservation work (curator Lesley Shapland has provided a vivid account of the fire in Charlotte’s tent which damaged the diaries on the Untold Lives blog).

Charlotte Canning's burnt diary showing a darkened binding and missing edges. F699 2/2/2/3 before treatment

F699 2/2/2/3 before treatment

The primary aim of treatment was to make the diaries available for consultation by curators and researchers. But because the fire which caused the damage is an integral part of the diaries’ histories, and because it sheds light on the wider context of the Cannings’ lives in India, it was desirable that the evidence of the burn damage also be preserved. The conservation treatment therefore had to offset the risks posed by the burn damage while making sure the damage itself remained intact - an intriguing challenge!

The first stage of treatment was to consolidate the burnt edges of the diaries’ pages. This was done by applying a Japanese kozo paper weighing only 4gsm/m² on top of the badly burnt areas. As well as being very lightweight this paper has long fibres, and therefore provides strength and support to the brittle page while being almost transparent.

Burnt page edge from Charlotte Canning's diary after consolidation with kozo paper

Burnt page edge after consolidation with kozo paper

The kozo paper was attached to the pages with a gelatin adhesive. This was specifically chosen because it is compatible with the iron gall ink with which Charlotte Canning wrote the diaries.

Charlotte also used her diaries as scrapbooks and many oversized newspaper clippings had been burned in the areas where she had folded them to fit them into the diary. These were repaired with Japanese papers of various weights.

F699 2/2/2/3 from Charlotte Canning's diary before treatment

F699 2/2/2/3 from Charlotte Canning's diary after treatment

F699 2/2/2/3 before and after treatment

In some cases, where areas of the spine had been burned away, the paper folds of the diary were rebuilt using Japanese paper, so that it could be sewn back together and could continue to function as a volume. Care was taken to recreate the exact original sewing style, so that the diary would continue to open in the same way. This also helped to preserve the historical integrity of the item as a Victorian notebook.

Spine of Charlotte Canning's diary F699 2/2/2/4 after sewing repair

Spine of F699 2/2/2/4 after sewing repair

In the case of one diary, the burn damage was so extensive that the conservation work required to return the fragments of pages to the format of a book would have obscured much of the fire damage. It would also have posed a risk to the fragments, as they were so brittle that they could not flex without cracking, as they would need to in order to survive being turned as pages in a book.

The pages of this diary were therefore encapsulated between sheets of polyester surrounded by rigid frames made from acid-free mount board. This allows the text on both sides to be read without the vulnerable pages being flexed, or indeed handled directly at all.

Charlotte Canning's diary F699 2/2/2/6 before treatment showing extensive damage and losses to the pages

F699 2/2/2/6 after treatment with pages of the diary encapsulated between sheets of polyester surrounded by rigid frames made from acid-free mount board

F699 2/2/2/6 before and after treatment

The diaries were stored in acid-free mount board wrappers to protect the page edges from being abraded. Each diary was then placed in a purpose-made box. The diaries still need to be handled with care, so the wrappers have been labeled with instructions for readers on how to use them safely.

Charlotte Canning's diary F699 2/2/2/3 after treatment showing much improved binding

Charlotte Canning's diary F699 2/2/2/3 after treatment and in its protective wrapper

F699 2/2/2/3 after treatment and in its protective wrapper

This was a major project, taking two conservators nearly 400 hours, and the fact that Charlotte Canning’s diaries are now accessible in the reading rooms is a source of great satisfaction for curatorial and conservation staff. 

09 April 2019

Consider the cover: conserving a Chinese book

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The British Library's next major exhibition, Writing: Making Your Mark, opens 26 April and runs until 27 August 2019. In preparation for the exhibition, conservator Rebecca D'Ambrosio has been working on the conservation of one of the items which will be on display.

The story of a book through its binding

What does the cover and structure tell us about the story, provenance, use and journey of a book? Do they add value to the information it contains? The history of book binding has gone hand in hand with the history of writing. So, what happens if a covering is changed? Has anything been lost or gained? These are some of the questions we ask ourselves as conservators as we try to understand a book and consider how best to repair it.

The front cover of a book, bound in black leather with a design of a gold crown in the centre. The book opened to a page displaying Chinese characters in columns.

The lost original binding: A Chinese and Western book

The book, titled Zi bu ji jie (Explanation of the Radicals of Chinese characters), introduces the concept of how Chinese writing works. It was made in a Chinese style binding in Macao, China in 1840, commissioned by an American man, Issachar Jacox Roberts as a gift for Walter Medhurst who was translating the bible into Chinese at the time.

An inscription page which reads, 'L.J. Roberts Presents this page with his kind regards to Mr. Walter Medhurst. Macau, China, Oct 13th, 1840. The book opened to the first page. The back of the front cover has Chinese characters, and the titled page has an inscription stating, 'Roberts (Issachar Jacox)'

The broken second binding: The British Library style

Many years ago the book was dis-bound from its Chinese-style binding and re-bound into a Western-style binding. The disadvantages of this binding are that it does not respect its original opening direction from right to left, it deforms the structure of the book and new sewing holes were made in the process.

In addition to all this, the western-style binding has become worn around all edges and the back board of the cover is detached.

The back cover of the book, showing the cover has detached from the spine and is now loose.

The new conservation binding: Sympathetic to its origins

Rather than repairing the back board, it was decided with the Curator that this was an opportunity to return the book to a style of binding similar to its original.

Firstly, the spine was removed and the adhesive below was softened with the application of wheat starch paste. The Chinese book was now free of the Western binding but the remaining adhesive residue prevented the separation of the pages.

The book's spine with wheat starch paste applied. The milky adhesive covers the spine in a thick layer to soften the old adhesive. The spine with the wheat starch paste and old adhesive removed.
The original Chinese-style binding, showing a damaged spine.
The tears and losses in the cover were repaired and the spine strengthened with a toned Japanese tissue paper and wheat starch.

The repaired Chinese-style cover with a strip of Japanese tissue adhered down the spine. A close up of the new Chinese-style cover in an off-white cover.

Finally, because of the fragility of the book, new covers of a neutral-coloured Japanese paper were added, folded in the same way as the rest of the textblock pages. The whole was sewn together with linen thread re-using its original sewing holes and following the traditional Chinese binding pattern.

Adding to the story of a book

As conservators, knowledge of the history of the book format inspires every conservation treatment we carry out. We must take into consideration how our decisions will impact aesthetics, use and durability, historical aspect, value and significance. Every treatment will have a certain degree of impact on a book and adds to its story.

It was exciting to return this Chinese book to its original style, and learn more about its story as I added to it. Soon you will be able to see this book for yourself on display in the exhibition ‘Writing: Making your Mark’.

Rebecca D'Ambrosio

10 September 2018

Rehousing two 12th century charters

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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

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

Risks to books

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

Book supports and weights

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

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

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

Now let’s discuss specific binding styles.

Flexible tight back books

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

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

 

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



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

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

 

Rigid tight back

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

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

 

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


 

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

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

 

Case bindings

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

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

 

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


 

Perfect bindings

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

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

Safe handling

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

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

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

Happy #NationalBookLoversDay!

Nicole Monjeau

05 July 2018

Summer workshop: Twined end-bands in the bookbinding traditions of the Eastern Mediterranean

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British Library Centre for Conservation (BLCC) Summer workshops

A close-up picture of a book, placed on its side, displaying a multicolored twined end-band, with blue, red and white.

'Twined end-bands in the bookbinding traditions of the Eastern Mediterranean’

BOOK NOW

Dates: Monday 23rd to Friday 27th July 2018
Times: 9.30–17.30
Full price: £400, no concessions
Location: Foyle Conference Centre British Library Centre for Conservation (BLCC)
Class size: Maximum 12 participants
Level: Our workshop is designed for conservators and bookbinders with good understanding and hands on experience in making/sewing book end-bands.

Course description
Although beautiful to look at and interesting to reproduce end-bands have much more to tell about their provenance, their evolution, their purpose and their relation with other crafts.

Twined end-bands often also called woven end-bands represent a distinct category of rather elaborate compound end-bands commonly found in one variation or the other in virtually all the bookbinding traditions of the Eastern Mediterranean.

The aim of this 5-day practical course is to demonstrate and clarify the characteristics of these end-bands and explain their basic technical and decorative variations. Over the curse of the week participants will be able to make at least five different twined end-bands –a Coptic, an Islamic, a Syriac, a Byzantine, an Armenian, and a tablet woven end-band to be taken away at the end of the course.

An introductory lecture will explain their evolution in time and place, their classification and terminology, their structural and decorative features as well as their relation to fabric-making techniques. Working materials, a hand out with explanatory drawings and some reading material will be also provided.

Tutor
Our workshop is led by
Dr. Georgios Boudalis, Head of Book and Paper Conservation at the Museum of Byzantine Culture in Thessaloniki, Greece.

Day 1
Tea, coffee and registration
Theoretical and technical introduction.

Morning session: Introductory lecture on end-bands, their history and function within the
evolution of historical book structure, with special focus on twined end-bands.
Afternoon session: Hands-on exploring the basic technique of twining and its structural and
decorative variations.

Day 2
The day is dedicated to a very simple Coptic and an Islamic twined end-band, the later representing probably the type of twined end-band most people are familiar with.

Morning session: Coptic split-twined end-band.
Afternoon session: Islamic twined end-band.

Day 3
As participants are becoming more familiar with twining they work on more complicated types of twined end-bands found on closely related binding traditions. Although these end-bands are structurally identical they greatly differ in decorative patterns.

Morning session: Syriac twined end-band.
Afternoon session: Byzantine twined end-band

Day 4
The day is dedicated to what is possibly the most complicated and time consuming twined endband - that found in Armenian bindings.

Morning session: Armenian end-band
Afternoon session: continue

Day 5
The final day is dedicated to the use of the ancient technique of tablet weaving to make a twined end band. This type of end-band, identified only recently and found in 15th-16th-century Russian and Byzantine bindings, is a good example how fabric-making techniques were adapted for making the end-bands in books.

Morning session: The tablet-woven end-band
Afternoon session: continue

Tutor’s biography
Georgios Boudalis is the head of the book and paper conservation laboratory at the Museum of Byzantine Culture in Thessaloniki/Greece. He has worked in various manuscript collections primarily in monasteries such as those of Mount Athos and Sinai. He has completed his PhD in 2005 on the evolution of Byzantine and post-Byzantine bookbinding and has published on issues of bookbinding history and manuscript conservation. His main interests are the evolution of bookbinding techniques in the Eastern Mediterranean and since 2006 he has been teaching courses on the history of Byzantine and related bookbinding both on a historical and practical basis. He is the curator of the exhibition ‘The Codex and Crafts in late Antiquity’ held in Bard Graduate centre, N.Y. between February and June 2018 and has written a monograph with the same title to accompany this exhibition, published by Bard Graduate Centre.

Previous skills, knowledge or experience
The course is addresses to both book conservators and bookbinders, it is meant to be intensive and therefore participants are required to have previous practical experience of the subject.

Equipment and Wi-Fi
All materials and tools will be provided.

Certificate
Certificate of attendance signed by British Library’s representative and course tutor will be issued at the end of the five day workshop.

Facilities and refreshments
The British Library offers a variety of options for tea/coffee and food available on site and it is conveniently located within London with easy reach to other facilities.
Food can also be taken into the British Library from home and consumed at the premises.

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11 April 2018

Textile Discovery in the Rare Books Reading Room

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Textiles at the British Library come in many guises. This remarkable book was discovered by a reader in the Rare Books Reading Room last week and was shown to a member of staff. 

The shelfmark is C.70.g.6. and the textile additions are described in the notes field below:

  • Title: [A series of engravings of subjects from the Life of Jesus Christ. Designed by M. de V. Engraved by J. C. Weigel.]
  • Author: Marten de VOS
  • Contributor: Johann Christoph WEIGEL
  • Publication Details: [Nuremberg?, 1725?]
  • Identifier: System number 003817622
  • Notes: The draperies, etc. are cut out, and supplied by pieces of cloth and silk pasted at the back of the engravings.
  • Physical Description: 4º.
  • Shelfmark(s): General Reference Collection C.70.g.6.
  • UIN: BLL01003817622
A page from a manuscript, showing a biblical scene involving Jesus Christ, where the three figures which are brightly colored using textiles.
Engraving coloured from the reverse with pieces of textile showing through cut-out holes.

 

A close up of the previous image, showing the blue and golden-brown textiles which are pasted onto the engraving image of the figure to the fore.Below the image is text in Gothic script, which clearly shows the name of Jesus at the start.
Engraving detail showing texture of textiles.

 

The same image, this time shown from the reverse of the page. The scraps of textiles of various colours including blue and brown, are often superimposed over each other.
Reverse detail showing overlapping textile patches stuck to the page.

 

Our textile conservator Liz Rose is often overwhelmed by the quantity, quality and diversity of the textile objects within the collections. It should be remembered that the British Library is a reference library and many of these wonderful objects can be viewed in the library reading rooms. 

19 February 2018

Digitising books as objects: The invisible made visible

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Book conservator Flavio Marzo explores how the experience for users of online library material surrogates could be easily improved by enhancing invisible physical features of books.

Working as a book conservator within digitisation projects has been my job for many years. I started in 2006, only one year after joining the British Library Conservation team here in London after leaving my country, Italy.

The subject of that digitisation project was the digitisation and virtual reunification of the Codex Sinaiticus, possibly one of the most known and valuable manuscripts in the Western world. The Codex was compiled in the IV century AD and is the oldest surviving and most complete version of the Old and New Testament. Many years have passed since that project and digitisation has become a common work stream within public institutions. This is especially evident within libraries which now compete in uploading material from their own collections to make them available for scholars, students and readers across the globe.

Technology has improved immensely since then and a lot of ‘ink’ has been spread across physical and virtual pages about the remit, the limitations and the advantages of what is offered to the public through the surrogates uploaded onto countless web portals. This piece is just another little drop into this ocean of ink to share some considerations built upon experience and from the perspective of a book conservator who sees, because of his professional background, the limitations of this, but also the exciting challenges to overcome them.

Books are physical objects and the pleasure of opening them, turning the pages, looking at (when decorated) the illuminations and their pigments, or at the accretions of the ink strokes, even smelling them, cannot be recreated on the screen of a home desktop. This does not mean that we cannot improve the experience and possibly further close the gap between the real object and the two-dimensional images.

I now work for the British Library/Qatar Foundation Digitisation Project and for the past 5 years, with a team of two conservators, I have been repairing documents (printed and hand written) and Scientific Arabic manuscripts for the team of scholars and photographers who are doing the real magic by gifting the world with the content now available on the Qatar Digital Library website (https://www.qdl.qa/en).

I have worked with books all my life since I was a 16 year old apprentice in a Benedictine Monastery. I have to admit that I am not an avid reader but I love books as objects and I get very excited about all the different little features and materials they are made from. How is it possible to please someone like me when offering online surrogates of complex items like books?

Books are recognised as 3D items and a lot of work has been done to migrate the content of those printed and manuscript texts into online, easy to access versions, but very little has been done to capture their physicality as objects.

Photographers, like any other professional, follow strict professional standards defined by general rules and specific project boundaries. Those standards are built to assure that the best possible result is achieved consistently and the meter to measure this result is the quality of the final product i.e. the image to be uploaded. Those images are supposed to reproduce as faithfully as possible the text and the carrier of the content of a book. Very rarely attention is given to the substrate or to the physical features of the object.

Lights for digitisation are carefully positioned to avoid shadows and they help to reduce surface irregularities and anomalies. This is all to the benefit of the written text and/or of the decorations, but with much loss for the lovers of the book as an object!

Here I want to describe some very practical ways to achieve different results and show some ‘behind the scenes’ of items I have been working on and how these very interesting results can be achieved with simple straight-forward techniques that do not require any high-tech equipment.

Raking light

I have mentioned the Codex Sinaiticus and I would like to start with it.

An image from the Codex Sinaiticus showing the page as viewed under normal light conditions.
Revelation, 2:7 - 3:5, British Library folio: 326. This image: Normal light.
The same image from the Codex Sinaiticus showing the page as viewed under raking light conditions, which shows as a much darker image..
Revelation, 2:7 - 3:5, British Library folio: 326. This image: Raking light.

 

All the available remaining pages of the Codex from the different geographical sites where they are presently held (The British library, The Library of the University of Leipzig, The National Library of Russia in Saint Petersburg, and the Holy Monastery of Saint Catherine’s) were digitised and uploaded onto the purposely created website (http://www.codexsinaiticus.org/en/). Contrary to common practice, all the pages were imaged both with normal and ‘raking light’. 

When imaging pages of books with normal light the attention is placed primarily to achieve the full readability of the text. Lights are placed and conditioned to radiate evenly over the surface of the page making sure no shadows are created and paying great attention to colours and tones to ensure they are as close as possible to the real appearance of the object reproduced.

What ‘raking light’ does is very different and the resulting image reveals a completely new landscape. Placing the source of light horizontally relative to the page results in an enhanced texture of the substrate which highlights and brings to life all the physical features present on the surface of the pages. These interesting and unique features can relate to the preparation of the writing surface or more generally to the specific material the substrate is made of e.g. papyrus, parchment or paper.

Here are some details of pages of the Codex Sinaiticus taken with raking light.

A page of the Codex Sinaiticus cast with raking light. This light has revealed the ruling lines, both horizontally and vertically, used to keep the text in place. An image of the Codex Sinaiticus as viewed from the top of the page looking down, under raking light conditions. The light has revealed the scraping of the surface of the parchment. The image also shows pricking holes, circled in red, which was done as an aide for ruling the page as an aide for the scribes.
In the previous images the source of light is now helping us to appreciate this famous manuscript on a completely different level.

Horizontal and vertical lines, holes pierced through the page, and scratch marks now appear clearly. They are traced on the surface of the pages for a purpose; those are features related to the page preparation that happened before the text was traced onto it.

The ‘bounding lines’ (vertical) and the ‘writing lines’ (horizontal) are impressed with a blind (not too sharp) tool onto the parchment sheets. The holes, highlighted with red circles in the second image, are used as a reference. This is known as pricking holes for the ruling of the page to provide the scribes with a guide for writing.

The scratches visible on the surface of the page are most likely the marks left by the pumice stone. The pumice stone was commonly used to prepare the surface of the abraded parchment sheet to make it more absorbent and therefore improve the grasp between the grease substrate and the writing ink.

Thanks to this lighting system it is also possible to see the direction of the indentation of those lines and holes. This information can help codicologists, even from the comfort of their homes, to understand from which side of the folio they were traced and pierced and so recreate the step by step process of the creation of an ancient manuscript.       

One of two images of a letter sent by the Emir of Baghdad to Lord Curzon in 1899. This image is taken under normal light conditions, with clear neat Arabic script contained in two borders, underneath a decorative image heading in red and gold.  The same letter from Emir to Lord Curzon as taken under raking light conditions. This image has revealed how the image was folded, and the number of folds that can now be seen, that were not visible under normal light conditions.
In this image we see the images of a letter sent by the Emir of Bagdad in 1899 to Lord Curzon when he was appointed Viceroy of India, first taken with normal and then with ‘raking light’. In the first image the letter is just a sheet of paper beautifully arranged and decorated with writing. In the second image the light tells us a completely different story; it shows us the use of this letter, the way it was folded and the number of folds it had.

How incredible that it is possible to see all these different insights by just slightly moving a lamp!

Transmitted light

Another technique to read paper from a different perspective is using ‘transmitted light’. 

This image of the same letter from the Emir of Baghdad to the Lord Curzon, is now revealed under transmitted light, another technique of reading paper, to have a watermark, with a Lion holding a flag bearing the word 'Reliance' within a circular sigil entitled around the inner edge as 'The Lion Brand, Croxley number 693, London. some watermark text is obscured by the overwriting Arabic script.

Simply by placing the same sheet of paper onto a light table (i.e. illuminating from below) it is possible to bring a completely new scenario to life. In this image for example we can clearly see the watermark impressed onto the sheet of paper of the previous letter, detail impossible to be seen only looking at the image taken under normal light.

Paper can be hand or machine made, and sheets can bear chain and wire lines or possess watermarks or not. These details can be of great interest to scholars and add valuable information to the understanding of documents in relation to their use and circulation.     

A page manufactured using laid and wove paper, which is revealed distinctively by transmitted light, showing the chain and wire lines on the paper. On the page itself can be seen a large central watermark of a Sphinx like creature with a crown between it's wings. On the left hand side of the page is arabic script in red, with text in black handwriting on the right hand side of the page.   a comparison to the left hand image of  laid and wove paper, this image of a machine-wove page from the India Office Records, shows the difference in paper, with no chain and wire lines and a clearer paper. The Page itself has again, a large watermark underneath the text, of the words 'Government of India'. Superimposed is flowing cursive handwriting in black ink.

Here are some more examples of sheets of laid and wove paper taken from different files from the India Office Record material, some showing again the characteristic chain and wire lines (except the last one which is actually a sheet of machine made wove paper) and some very distinctive water marks highlighted and made visible thanks to the used of transmitted light. 

Visualization of the physical collation of manuscripts

Books are made of folios and pages and those folios are ‘bound’ together. How the bindings are made is one of the real wonders of books. The variances are numberless and the materials and details of execution not only delight nerds like myself, but more importantly they inform researchers about the history of those books, giving insights into the objects that open doors to sometime unexpected cultural landscapes through links between different craftsmanship and cultures.

To describe a book structure is a very delicate and laborious process, but one that conservators are trained to do and that they automatically do many times when conserving those books as they record the treatments being carried out.

A lot of work has been done during recent years to create tools able to easily make this complex information sharable with the wider audiences. One I wish to mention here is VisColl, developed by Dot Porter at the Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies at the University of Pennsylvania (https://github.com/leoba/VisColl) in collaboration with Alberto Campagnolo at the Library of Congress, a friend and colleague.

A image capture of a page from the University of Pensylvania, of a program called VisColl. The image, with a muted blue background, shows four images of a digitised manuscript, with a section on the left hand side showing the structure of the book and the pages digitised, in white.

In this image we have, additional to the images of the digitised pages, diagrams (on the left) of the structure of the section where those pages are located and, highlighted in white, the specific pages shown on the screen.

Those diagrams, surely more easily understandable than many wordy descriptions, can help researchers to step into a completely new level of understanding for the manuscript, providing vital information about the history of those items, the way they were put together and possibly evidences of late alterations or even forgeries which may have occurred throughout the centuries.

Digitisation has opened new ways to look and make use of books and, I believe, the improvement of understanding of physical features is the next step that should be consistently and widely taken to enhance the online user experience.

One of the issues digitisation has brought to the attention of conservators and professionals involved in the care and preservation of library material is the fact that by enhancing the ‘fame’ of objects we can cause an increase in how much those same objects are requested for access.

To justify restriction in handling objects, which for the most part are very fragile and extremely valuable, we need to improve the online metadata and the amount of information available with the surrogates. Those presented here are just some examples in how, quite easily, this can be done.

Obviously the smell will stay within the walls of the libraries, but those are pleasures to be experienced in situ, and alone (almost..!) at the table of the reading rooms. No surrogate can replace that for the lovers of books. 

18 January 2018

Job Opportunity: Conservator, Gulf History and Arabic Science

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Description: Part time (0.6 FTE / 21.6 hours per week), fixed term contract to 31 December 2018

The full job description and application process can be found here.

Caring for the world’s knowledge

A book in the process of being bound, is held in place in a wooden vice on a desk.

The British Library leads and collaborates in growing the world’s knowledge base. We have signed a major partnership to make thousands of digitised historic documents and ancient manuscripts – relating to centuries of history of the Gulf – available online to researchers, scholars and the general public across the Gulf region and around the world. The Collection Care department, which comprises some 40 people, is responsible for the care of one of the largest, richest and most diverse research collections in the world.

This is an opportunity for an experienced conservator to work in a small, busy team. You will be carrying out conservation and preparation treatments on a wide range of collection items relating to the Gulf region that are being digitised as part of this project. You’ll operate with minimal supervision and have the skills and knowledge to plan, manage and track your work to ensure that deadlines are met. You must be able to communicate effectively with people at all levels, and be able to keep clear, consistent and accurate records of all treatments undertaken.

You need to have either a degree in conservation or equivalent knowledge and skills sets, and practical hands-on experience in conservation of library materials for digitisation and/or large-scale conservation projects; a broad knowledge of available conservation treatments within the field of book conservation together with the ability to diagnose conservation problems and to develop and evaluate options for solutions. You should also have a high level of manual dexterity and the ability to treat fragile and delicate materials, together with knowledge of materials chemistry and the properties, behaviours and interaction of a wide range of organic and inorganic materials. A good knowledge of preventive conservation issues is also required with the ability to deliver training on the handling of library material to support and implement best practices within the British Library/Qatar Foundation partnership project and collaboration with the colleagues in the main British Library Conservation Studio (BLCC).

For an informal discussion about the role, please contact Flavio Marzo, Gulf History Arabic Science Project Conservator on 0207 412 7740.


Closing Date: 11 February 2018

Interview Date: 22 or 23 February 2018

06 November 2017

Unpicking the parcel! What we did on Friday 13 October in the British Library Centre for Conservation

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Arrangements were made by Liz Rose, textile conservator, to remove the contents of three intriguing packages from the Ruth Prawer Jhabvala archive. The packages were sent from New Delhi to New York in 1976 and were wrapped in cotton and stitched closed.

Curators look on as textile conservator Liz Rose inspects one of three parcels.
From left to right: Zoë Wilcox, Curator Contemporary Performance & Creative Archives, Contemporary Archives and MSS; Ava Wood, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's daughter; Pauline McGonagle, Collaborative Doctoral student working on the Prawer Jhabvala archive with the University of Exeter and Liz Rose, Textile Conservator.

 

A close-up of one parcel showing the shipping address and stamps.

Liz Rose starts to unpick the stitches and open the parcel.

More of the stitches have been unpicked, starting to reveal the content of the parcel.
Careful unpicking of the stitches.

 

The cotton wrapping is partially peeled away on each side, revealing a black wrapper tied with string.
Peeling back the cotton wrap.

 

The parcel, wrapped in black and tied with string, being removed from the cotton wrapper.
Liz and Zoe removing the cotton wrap.

 

One of the curators beings to undo the black plastic wrap.
Zoe opening the inner, black plastic wrap.

 

A curator looks through one of the notebooks.
Two hours later and only one package opened! Inside a collection of notebooks including some original hand-written first drafts for her novels Esmond in India (first published 1958) and A Householder (first published 1960).