THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Collection Care blog

48 posts categorized "Manuscripts"

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:

Original frame and condition: frame has gaps and is sealed with tape on back.

Original frame and condition 

Sealed with tape Frame condition

Charter with Seal of Henry I, in original housing.

Charter with Seal of Henry I Board backing

Charter is fixed directly to board backing.

Original housing

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.

Backing removal Seal tubes

Cotton wool protection

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

Separating parchment from 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.

Backing board removal 1 Backing board removal 2

Backing board removal 3 Backing board removal 4

Backing board removal detail

Tools used for backing removal.

Tools

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.

Skim of paper backing

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

Additional writing discovered

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.

Grainy texture on seal Consolidation

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.

Planned tabs

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

Light Japanese tissue Tissue splints

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.

Uniform tabs Tab preparation

Example tab Example tab 2

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.

Plastezote slits Plastezote slits 2

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:

Charter on foam New mount board

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.

Foam Support  Cradle and Cushion  Cushion
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.   

FTB Damage  FTB Partial
Left: 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). Right: 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. 

Flexible Tight Back

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.   

Loose Boards  Rigid Tight Back Detail
Left: 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. Right: 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. 

Rigid Back Book on 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.   

Case Binding 1  Case Binding 2
Left: Showing the piece of paper adhering the textblock to the case. Right: 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.      

Perfect Binding 1_Edited  Case Binding 2
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

Endbandscourse

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

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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

Rare books textile

Engraving coloured from the reverse with pieces of textile showing through cut-out holes.

Engraving detail

Engraving detail showing texture of textiles.

Reverse detail

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.

Normal light Raking light

Revelation, 2:7 - 3:5, British Library folio: 326. Left: Normal light. Right: 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 (https://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.

Codex Sinaiticus ruled Scraping of the surface
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.       

Letter from Emir Letter from Emir raking light
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’. 

Watermark

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.     

Laid and wove paper Transmitted light India Office Records

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.

Book structure digitisation

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

Qatar conservation work

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.

Three intriguing packages

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.

Package and stamps

Opening package

Unpicking stitches

Careful unpicking of the stitches.

Peeling open

Peeling back the cotton wrap.

Removing cotton wrap

Liz and Zoe removing the cotton wrap.

Opening inner plastic wrap

Zoe opening the inner, black plastic wrap.

Collection of 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).

04 October 2017

Talk: Iron Gall Ink - Conservation challenges and research

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Join Zoë Miller and Paul Garside in a lunchtime Feed the Mind talk at the British Library to find out how conservators are treating manuscripts at risk of being destroyed by their own writing.

Iron Gall Ink: Conservation challenges and research
Mon 9 Oct 2017, 12:30 - 13:30

Full details and booking information can be found here.

So what is the problem with Iron Gall Ink?

IGI4

Conservators caring for the 150 million items in the British Library face many challenges, from crumbling paper to detached book boards. But arguably one of the biggest issues is the conundrum of how to care for one of the most widely used and inherently damaging historic inks - iron gall ink.

You have probably come across this ink with its distinctive brown colour and halo of discolouration. Made from a combination of tannins (from oak gall nuts), iron sulphate (extracted from cave walls or pyritic nodules) and gum Arabic, this ink can become corrosive and thereby damage the writing surface it lies upon. Why was such a damaging substance used so prolifically? Because iron gall ink can be made from readily available materials, and cannot be rubbed or scraped away without leaving a textual stain behind. Thus it was used to write important manuscripts and legal documents for thousands of years. These include such iconic ‘Treasures’ of the Library as Magna Carta and the Lindisfarne Gospels, and range from illuminated manuscripts to personal correspondence and formal maps to impromptu sketches including those of Leonardo Da Vinci.

IGI1

The beauty - and evil - of the recipe lies in its properties of corrosion. When applied to paper or vellum the ink ‘burns’ into it leaving a mark which is insoluble in water or alcohol, and which cannot be erased. Over time it may attack the underlying paper or parchment, weakening the material and causing areas of text to be damaged or lost. In the very worst cases, we can lose the text completely as it drops out of the sheet of paper! The work of conservators is vital in identifying vulnerable items and intervening when necessary.

IGI3

What can be done? Come and find out at our Feed the Mind talk on Monday 9th October where, using visual examples, we will examine the historic use of this ink, including the influence which different recipes and writing implements can have on its properties. We will illustrate the range of treatments that are currently used in the Conservation department to address this problem, some traditional and some very modern, as well as the ongoing research to develop new approaches. This will demonstrate one of the many ways in which conservation helps to safeguard the collection and ensure its survival for future generations. Book your place now.

IGI2

10 August 2017

Everything you need to know about birch bark book conservation

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From sawdust to gold dust: The conservation of a 16th century birch bark book

Shelfmark: OMS/Or 13300
Curator: Pasquale Manzo
Treatment Time: 113 hrs
Estimated time: 92 hrs

Introduction:
Late 2016 a black acidic shoe box with a note was transferred to the British Library Centre for Conservation for treatment. The note was dated from 1972, reading ‘object is extremely fragile - do not touch’. Inside the shoe box was a mass of tissue, which when carefully lifted out, had thousands of tiny entangled bark fragments entwined in its fibres. Beneath the tissue was the birch bark book.

The following blog is about how the manuscript was conserved so that it could once again be safely requested and handled by the general public.

The Manuscript:
The manuscript is part of the British Library Asian and African collection. It was originally made in Kashmir, is written in Śāradā script and dates to the 16-17th century. It includes three different texts: (A) Nirṇayāmṛta by Allāḍanātha, a work in 4 chapters concerning suitable times for various Hindu religious ceremonies. (B) Narasiṃhaparicayā by Kṛṣṇdāsa son of Rāmācārya, a text on Vaiṣṇava ritual and (C) a fragment of the Padmapurāṇa.

Binding Structure:
The manuscript was formed of 10 sections, each with 8 folios to the centre. The manuscript was sewn with a thick hemp chord in an unsupported Coptic-style. The sewing had a knotted incongruous double loop centrally on the 3rd section.

Spine edge of textblock

Figure 1: Spine edge of the text block showing the 2 central sewing stations and the headband tie-downs at head and tail.

Both the head and tail had headbands, similar perhaps in style to Monastic headbands. However the cores were made of a Mahogany-type wood dowel, looped several times over with chord, then wrapped in a layer of alum-tawed skin and finally a turned-in leather flap extending up from the cover. The headbands were attached to the text block via tie-downs on each section.

Wood-core headbandFigures 2-4: Wood-core headband with alum-tawed and leather wraps secured to text block with chord tie-downs.

The manuscript was covered in thick brown goat leather with an inner parchment wrapper. The limp leather case was attached to the text block by the headband tie-downs.

Limp goat leather

Figures 5 & 6: Limp goat leather cover with parchment wrapper below.

Dimensions: (L x W x H) 190 x 189 x 70 mm

The Text block:
The text block had 231 folios, foliated 27-258. The folios were transcribed with a carbon-based ink. The media was stable. The folios themselves were made from very fine layers of bark from the outer periderm of the deciduous birch tree. The cork cells of the birch bark are compacted in radial rows according to seasonal growth, and the periderm layers were adhered together by pectin as well as physical knots and streaks.

Birch bark

Figure 7 (Left): Tree anatomy diagram showing the periderm layer of the birch tree (Wojtech 2013). Figure 8 (Right): Peeling birch bark off a birch tree to use as a substrate. Image shows inherent knots and streaks (Wojtech 2011).

Condition:
Unfit: Significant risk of damage even under controlled display conditions due to existing damage or extreme sensitivity, inherent vice.

Principal Substrate

In response to fluctuating environmental parameters, the inherently weak pectin adhesive in the birch bark had failed, causing the periderm layers to delaminate. It appeared that each folio was made up of around 7 periderm layers. Each folio was in a different state of delamination. Similarly, as a result environmental fluctuation the natural resins in the birch bark had been drawn to the surface, causing a gentle white blooming on the majority of the birch bark folios.

Changes in the birch bark’s moisture equilibrium over time had caused dimensional changes, forcing tangential curling and making the bark stiff and extremely brittle. This had resulted in each folio having significant tears extending from the foredge. Some of the folios had even degenerated into piles of fragmentary leaves. There were vertical cracks on most folios towards the spine, due to the stress induced by turning the pages.

White blooming and delamination
Figure 9 (Left): White blooming from natural resins on the surface of the birch bark. Figure 10 (Right): Delaminating periderm layers of embrittled birch bark.

Binding Condition

The leather and the parchment wrapper beneath were stiff and distorted and subsequently did not effectively cover or protect the text block. The cover was only partially attached to the text block by the headband tie-downs at the head of the spine. As such, when fully opened some of the text block spine was exposed. The sewing had broken at multiple points, however disparately the sewing structure was relatively stable. The opening angle of the manuscript had been compromised by the brittle substrate, so could open to around 60 degrees in a section or 160 degrees between the sections. Two sections at the back of the manuscript had detached and four pages were sitting loose in the back cover.

Distorted leatherFigure 11: Distorted leather no longer covers and protects the text block.

Detached tie-downsFigure 12: Showing detached tie-downs, exposed spine and broken sewing at the spine tail.

Evidence of Previous Repairs:

Previous repairs were carried out in 1972. There appeared to be a white bloom on the surface of the leather cover, suggesting the possible previous use of wax or oil based leather coatings.

Two folios, f.211 and f.212, were coated on both sides with a texacryl 13-002 adhesive (at various strengths) and nylon tissue, with Japanese paper borders. This conservation process was discontinued as the result is visually distracting (sharp contrast in tone and light refraction) and had irreversibly changed the nature of the original birch bark.

The areas of loss, of around twenty of the most fragile folios at the front of the volume, had been infilled with hand-transcribed western paper. Similarly heavy-weight cream paper repairs had also been crudely adhered to multiple folios along edge tears.

Crude paper repairsFigure 13: Showing the crude paper repairs at the foredge of multiple folios

Fragmented sectionsFigure 14: Showing the crude texacryl-adhered nylon lining on 2 birch bark folios.

Texacryl-adhered nylon lining

Figure 15: The fragmented first two sections with annotated western paper infills.

Analytical Adhesive Testing

The decision was made to identify the adhesive used to adhere the paper patch repairs and the annotated infills. This would not only provide more information about the history of the object, but would inform the treatment decision-making process.

A microsample of adhesive residue was removed from beneath the distorted and lifting paper infills. The microsample was then analysed via use of FTIR-ATR to identify and characterise the present adhesive. The results suggested the adhesive used in previous repairs was a protein-based animal glue.

Subtraction spectrumFigure 16: Image of the subtraction spectrum suggesting the adhesive residue was a protein based animal glue.

Micro-sampling locationFigure 17: Adhesive residue visible on birch bark folio. Highlighted area shows micro-sampling location.

Conservation Treatment:

The choice of treatment for any object of historical or cultural significance must reflect its artifactual value, uniqueness and the accessibility of the information it holds. It was decided a minimally interventive treatment would be carried out with the aim of preserving the original and rare binding structure, whilst stabilising the folios for digitisation.

Repair Method Selection

Due to the laminar structure of the birch bark, it was decided that traditional paper-patch repairs would not suffice, as they would only encourage the delamination of the top layer. After experimentation, it was decided that thin strips of toned Japanese tissue, woven in between the stratified layers of each folio would act as an effective repair method.

Inter-woven toned Japanese tissue repair

Figure 18 & 19: An inter-woven toned Japanese tissue repair.

Paper and Adhesive Selection

Kozo 2 Japanese tissue was selected as the repair material. It was chosen as it was semi-opaque and thus not visually obstructive; weaker than the primary substrate; and had a degree of stiffness that enabled it to be inserted and woven between bark layers. The tissue strips were adhered with a low concentration of methylcellulose (2%) in water. Methylcellulose was chosen as adhesive firstly because of its cellulosic similarity to birch bark, secondly its refractive index was similar to birch bark, and lastly it had a greater water retention capacity and flexibility than wheat starch paste.

Tears and areas of delamination repaired

Figure 20 & 21: Tears and areas of delamination were repaired and reinforced with toned Kozo 2 tissue adhered with 2% methylcellulose.

Tissue Preparation

The Kozo 2 tissue was toned using an airbrush, with dilute burnt umber and raw sienna Golden heavy body acrylic paints. The tissue was toned in a colour-range of tones so that the repairs match the multi-tonal folios. The tissue was then cut into thin strips using a scalpel. The widths of the strips varied from about 3-6 mm.

Tonal variation
Figure 22: Tonal variation of different birch bark folios.

Repair

A strip was selected, woven through the delaminated layers using tweezers, adhesive applied with a paintbrush (size 001), and the joint gently pressed into place using a cotton swab. The swab also removed any excess adhesive. The repair was then pressed gently under weights. Pressure-light weights were used due to the brittle nature of the substrate. Large areas of delaminated layers were re-adhered to their folio similarly, using a thin application of methylcellulose and gentle pressure.

Delaminated corner repairs

Figure 23-25 (Left): Applying toned Kozo 2 to delaminated corner. Centre: applying methylcellulose with a fine brush. Right: Applying gentle pressure to the join using a cotton swab.

The folios were conserved systematically, one by one, starting from the back of the volume (as these were in better condition than those at the front). Each folio took around 15-20 minutes to repair depending on the extent of its damage.

The crude previous paper repairs and the annotated infills were lifted from the birch bark using tweezers, and the dry powdery adhesive carefully scraped off the surface of the folio using a scalpel. The repair’s locations were documented prior to removal.

The four loose pages at the back of the manuscript were stripped up with Japanese tissue and adhered into the two detached sections according to their foliation. The texacryl-coated pages were trimmed to remove the Japanese paper border, and likewise stripped up and attached into these sections.

The final repairs were made to the outer spine folds of the sections. These were carefully repaired in-situ using slightly wider strips of toned tissue.

Treated folios stripped up and sewn into their section
Figure 26: The trimmed texacryl 13-002 and nylon coated folios, stripped up and sewn into their section.

Re-sewing Loose Sections

The two detached sections at the back of the volume were attached at the head-edge sewing station via Coptic chain stitch. An extra Coptic stitch was attached to the 3rd section to reinforce the attachment. The decision to not attach the section at two sewing stations was due firstly to the fragmented state of the sewing on the tail-edge station, secondly because the minimal sewing sufficed, and lastly because the purpose of the attachment was solely to prevent loss and disassociation.

Repaired spine edge of textblock
Figure 27 & 28: Showing the repaired spine edge of the text block and the three chain stitches at the head of the volume.

Cover Decisions

SC6000 leather treatment was rubbed lightly into the leather cover to reduce the white blooming.

The sewing, despite being broken, was remarkably stable post treatment, . This is perhaps because the chords were consolidated in place by the Japanese tissue repairs. The relative stability of the binding enabled the decision to not interfere with the original sewing, and to leave the binding, as well as the cover, as it was. The object post treatment was stable enough to digitise and even stable enough to be handled and viewed by researchers.

It was noted also that by leaving the leather cover attached only at the head, it facilitated the viewing of the sewing structure and spine. As the rare binding style is as much of cultural value as the textual content of the object, the fact that it was left exposed was regarded positively.

Volume post treatment
Figure 29 & 30: Showing volume post treatment with limp leather cover left in its original state.

Re-housing Fragments

Adhesive labels and condition reportsFigure 31 & 32: Showing adhesive labels and previous condition reports re-housed in Melinex sheaths.

Annotated infills and birch fragmentsFigure 33 & 34: Showing annotated infills and birch bark fragments spot-welded into Melinex sheaths.

After treatment there was varied ephemera to re-house and to keep with the object:

1. The old adhesive labels on the old box
2. The previous condition reports
3. The annotated infills
4. Three unplaceable birch bark fragments.

The old adhesive labels and the condition reports were placed in independent inert polyester Melinex © sheaths. The top edges of the sheaths were left open so the items could be removed, unfolded and read in the future.

The annotated infills and the birch bark fragments were secured in place in their independent Melinex sheaths using an ultrasonic spot-welder. Both sets of sheaths were hole-punched and secured together in the top left hand corner using an archival snap-ring.

Re-housing the Manuscript

To impede the likelihood of potentially harmful physical or environmental damage, it was decided that a custom made drop-back box would be made. It was decided that a shelved compartment would be included in the design in which to store the sheathed ephemera. A four flap wrapper was also made for the volume from Kraft paper, to further impede the potential of damage and to facilitate future handling.

Finally the shelfmark of the item was gold tooled onto the spine of the box.

Drop-back box
Figure 35 & 36: Showing Kraft paper 4 flap folder and buckram-covered drop-back box with shelf compartment.

Gold tooling

Figure 37 & 38: Gold tooling the manuscript shelfmark onto the box.

Before and After Treatment Photographs:

Before and after treatmentBefore and after treatment 2Before and after treatment 3

By Daisy Todd

Image References

Wojtech, M 2013, The Language of Bark, American Forests, article: https://www.americanforests.org/magazine/article/the-language-of-bark

Wojtech, M 2011, Getting to know bark, Northern Woodlands, article: https://northernwoodlands.org/articles/article/getting-to-know-bark

Further Reading

Agrawal, OP & Bhatia, SK 1981, Investigations for preservation of birch bark manuscripts, ICOM committee for conservation, 6th triennial meeting, Ottawa, September, pp. 21 – 25.

Batton, S 2000, Seperation Anxiety: The Conservation of a 5th Century Buddhist Gandharan Manuscript, WAAC Newsletter, Vol. 2, No.2

Florian, ML, Kronkright, DP, Norton, RE 1991, The Conservation of Artifacts Made from Plant Materials, Getty Trust Publications, Getty Conservation Institute.

Gilberg, MR 1986, Plasticization and forming of misshapen birch-bark artifacts using solvent vapours, Studies in conservation, Vol. 31, No. 4, pp. 177-184.

Gilroy, N 2008, The Stein birch-bark collection in Oxford: Thirty years of developing treatment options for our most fragile manuscripts, ICOM Committee for Conservation:15th triennial meeting, New Delhi, 22-26 September, Delhi: Allied Publishers, Vol. 1, pp. 264-269.

Suryawanshi, DG, 2000, An ancient writing material: Birch-bark and its need of conservation, Restaurator: International journal for the preservation of library and archival material, Vol. 21, No. 1, pp. 1-8.

24 July 2017

Do more together than we can ourselves: The unique partnership between curator and conservator

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Zoë Miller and Peter Toth

curator, n. Traditionally, a curator or keeper of a cultural heritage institution (e.g. gallery, museum, library, or archive) is a content specialist charged with an institution's collections and involved with the interpretation of heritage material.

conservator, n. A person employed in the conservation of artefacts or sites of archaeological, historical, or cultural significance. Cf. conservation n. 1f.

The British Library is the custodian of thousands of manuscript treasures and it is a shared duty of its curators and conservators to care for and interpret them. I’m inviting you to share this meeting of minds and how it brings our collection to life through the rediscovery of a unique fourteenth century manuscript; Egerton MS 2516.

Once part of the library of bibliophile friar Leonardo Mansueti of Perugia (d.1480), this fragile selection of writings from Cicero and the famous African magician and philosopher Apuleius was brought to our conservation studio by curator Peter Toth for assessment and treatment advice.  

Ownership note

Ownership note by Leonardo Mansueti in Egerton MS 2516, f. 162r.

The volume had been rebound in the nineteenth century in a style and design typical of the collection of Francis Henry Egerton. The very small script was written in iron gall ink on thin parchment to save money, and decoration was kept to a minimum. This book was destined to be a scholarly study text and it is an early and important manuscript of the works of the second-century Apuleius.

Original spineTight opening

Original spine and tight opening in Egerton MS 2516.

Peter is able to read and interpret the ancient text and marginalia and to provide this crucial contextual and historical narrative. When he presented us with this book we could immediately see the problem. Its materials had aged so much that it couldn’t be opened beyond forty five degrees! It was so tight that we could not see the text in the gutter. The pages were fragmented, mutilated and corroded by the chemical action typical of this ink. Like leaf skeletons they were incredibly fragile and impossible to turn.

Damaged foliosCut marks

Damaged folios and cut marks in Egerton MS 2516.

As conservators, our first sight and handling of an object can play like a movie of its life. We experience the ageing character and material signs of use and damage known so well of leather, parchment, threads and paper. Even the smells and stains, the cuts, marks and tears of a hundred scholars thumbing the pages are brought to life as we hold it in our hands. There were mysterious cuts to the tail of many folios, which suggested a purposeful extraction. Could this have been to remove mould, mistakes or secret text? Perhaps the parchment was stolen for love notes by a fifteenth century student? 

The existing book boards with a gold crest and inscriptions are part of the unique provenance of this object, and yet the re-binding destroyed evidence of the manuscript’s original shape and sewing. Peter explained that its hard work as an academic ‘set text’ contributed to the patterns of deterioration we see today. We therefore tailored our treatments to preserve evidence of this damage and limit our repairs and intervention to safeguard the narrative. We created a new binding from calfskin replicating the Egerton tradition to respect this significant part of its history.

Removing sewing

Removing sewing from Egerton MS 2516.

The old leather, glues and overcast sewing threads were painstakingly removed by parchment specialist intern Camille Thuet. Once the delicate folios had been released, medieval manuscript cataloguer Laure Miolo was able to access and identify hidden marginal notes. She found fifteenth and sixteenth century comments and a Greek quotation from Euripides which had been added by early readers of the text and reveal how it was used and interpreted. 

Quotation

Quotation from Euripides in the lower margin of Egerton MS 2516, f. 123v.

With the help of conservation imaging scientist Christina Duffy, Camille analysed dark stains across areas of script which were speculated to be early attempts at revealing hidden text. Multi-spectral imaging was also useful in enhancing faded marginalia.

Chemical damage

Historical chemical damage on Egerton MS 2516 f. 4r in an attempt to improve legibility of corroded iron gall ink.

Multi-spectral imaging

Multi-spectral imaging of Egerton MS 2516, f. 116r.

The treatment proposal had two clear aims: 

Enabling access and digitisation through repair of the delicate and damaged folios to ensure they continue to exist for future generations

Preserving and protecting historical evidence so that as much of the past is accessible to the future reader.

A new guard book structure means that the original parchment text block is protected from adhesive and the necessary mechanics of the binding’s spine. This allows every part of it to be viewed, and no part to be constricted. Parchment likes to breathe!

New guard structure

New guard structure.

New flat opening

New flat opening.

New binding

New binding.

Gold finishing

Gold finishing on Egerton MS 2516.

The books in our rich collection inspire both for the intellectual information they carry and as artefacts of craft. We were able to make complex conservation decisions to preserve this manuscript through collaboration with curators. We must together protect what our collection will represent in the future where respect for such treasured objects only grows in this changing digital age.

Thanks to Camille Thuet for her observant eye and parchment knowledge, and to Peter Toth, Andrea Clarke, and Laure Miolo for their historical expertise. The manuscript has now been restored and completely digitised and is available at the Library’s Digitised Manuscripts site here.