Collection Care blog

60 posts categorized "Materials"

26 September 2016

Fingerprints & their potential impact in relation to handling library collections

Back in early 2016, Terry Kent, a consultant specialising in forensic fingerprint analysis, contacted British Library Conservation to learn more about how we assess the impact of handling on our collections with reference to our use (or not) of gloves in the reading room. This was pertinent timing for us since we were on the cusp of refilming and updating our videos that provide instructions to library users about handling collection items. We invited Terry to the British Library to discuss the issue with us in more depth as part of our Continuous Improvement Programme.

In June, Terry Kent gave a presentation about the potential effect of fingerprints on paper artefacts at the ICON (Institute of Conservation) Conference ‘Turn and Face the Change’ in Birmingham. Lively debate ensued. It became clear that there is some perception that the British Library has a blanket policy of no gloves - regardless. Not so, and in this blog post we would like to give brief insight, with Terry’s contribution, into how we assess and mitigate risks to collection items to enable access to and use of a vast and varied collection in a working research library (and how this then helps us form a handling policy).

A view of the Humanities reading room, with a large amount of Readers at tables consulting books.
Humanities reading room in the British Library.

 

By way of background:

  • The British Library has 12 reading rooms; 11 at St Pancras, London and 1 in Boston Spa, West Yorkshire.
  • These have 1200 reader desks and accommodate 400,000 reading room visits per year.
  • Reading rooms are divided into general and special collections, and focus on different subject areas (e.g., Humanities, Maps, Rare Books & Music and Science).
  • To request items readers need to register for a reader pass and sign the conditions of use.

Given this level of use the challenge is to balance the need to make items available to users while at the same time protecting them from further degradation and potential damage in order to ensure their longevity. Collection items are assigned different reading categories, based on factors including their age, condition, and value (historical, religious, cultural, etc.) which affects how and when they can be used, for example:

  • Which reading rooms they can be read in.
  • Whether there is a digital copy (or other surrogate) which should be referred to instead.
  • Whether readers need to provide additional information about why they need particular items before they can be issued.
  • Whether or not the items can be copied.
  • Whether readers need to sit at invigilated desks when they use the items or meet other conditions of use in order to use them. 

Where readers are using original items we encourage them to handle items as little as possible and with care as we know that even with careful handling collection items face risks.

The mat with handling instructions rests on a desk in the Reading Room. The desk has a dark green surface and a lamp.
‘Handling instructions’ place mat on a desk in a reading room.

A range of different factors can damage collections and lead to loss - these are summarised in the figure below.

Of these ten categories, any risks presented by fingerprints due to sweat transfer would be covered by ‘Contamination’ (which also includes aggressive volatiles, pollutants and other damaging chemicals). Any potential risk to an item must be considered in light of a number of factors - the likelihood of it occurring, the extent and nature of damage it will cause if it does occur, the degree to which it will limit how the item can be used, and the measures that can be taken to limit or prevent it.

Risks do not exist in isolation, so responses to risks - such as the use, or not, of gloves - must be based on a comprehensive understanding of the nature of an item, its vulnerabilities and the requirements for its use by staff and readers. Furthermore, solutions to any such problems must not exacerbate other risks or introduce new ones.

An poster with icons that represent the 10 agents of deterioration.
Risk factors.

Terry Kent writes,

A widely referenced paper, in the conservation field, and several forensic references, refer to fingerprint deposits consisting of 'over 98% water'. Recent analytical and theoretical studies of latent fingerprints, demonstrate that this figure is substantially in error. The deposit from a single human finger touch, whilst varying widely between individuals, is likely to contain less than 20% water and on average be about four micrograms of a mixture of amino acids, salts, primarily sodium and potassium chloride, fatty acids, squalene and many other trace compounds.

What is less well researched is the effects such deposits may have over time on substrates such as papers and textiles. We know that body soiling of fabrics will lead to yellow-brown staining, and fingerprint deposits on some papers will darken when heated (accelerated ageing using elevated temperatures); although it is unclear whether this will occur at lower temperatures over longer time periods.

There are other potentially negative effects of fingerprint deposits from a conservation standpoint; again not well researched, these include the effects of microbial or bacteriological activity on such deposits. There is also the potential of the deposit to attract and retain dust and other material from the environment.

The protective effect of hand washing, standard practice for many institutions and effective for the removal of transferred dirt, is less effective for the secretions which lead to fingerprints - it has been shown recently to be negated by natural replenishment of secretions in as little as five to ten minutes. So we need to consider the likely impact of these deposits on various substrates.

A Reader sits at one of the green desks and consults and open manuscript while another Reader pulls a book from a bookshelf in the background.
Rare item being used, open access item being handled on shelf.

Conclusion

We are always looking at new evidence to challenge or support our current practices. Clearly fingerprints do have an impact on library and archive materials, although the extent of this is not yet clearly understood. The impact must be considered in light of other risks to the collection items given the context in which we work. Our policy is tailored to the requirements of individual items and the risks they face and the way they can be accessed and consulted. There is no one size fits all. Fragile, rare and significant items are subject to much tighter access and handling controls to minimise risks (including fingerprints) compared with items on open access. A core purpose of the British Library is to allow access to the national collection and our role in conservation is to manage that process as effectively and pragmatically as possible. We hope this blog post generates some thought and debate on the subject of handling and the impact of fingerprints. The collective authors plan to present their thoughts in a longer article in a future ‘ICON News’.

Cordelia Rogerson, Paul Garside, Sarah Hamlyn with thanks to Terry Kent for co-writing this post.

05 September 2016

Growing a thick skin

Camille Thuet, Parchment Intern at the British Library, shares her experiences working at the British Library Centre for Conservation so far this year. Parchment (noun): A stiff, flat, thin material made from the prepared skin of an animal, usually a sheep or goat, and used as a durable writing surface in ancient and medieval times - Oxford dictionary

Camille stands at a desk and starts to unroll a large rolled map.

2 February 2016 - First day

I'm very excited to start my 11 month internship here. The building is impressive and in every corner I feel like something is happening. I am very glad to be the first intern that will focus on a specialised material, in my case: vellum and parchment. The British Library is giving me a great opportunity to fill-in my knowledge and become a specialist. I am expecting to work on a broad selection of items from the collection which will present a range of conservation problems.

3 February 2016 – Meeting the team

Today I've met my two mentors, who will support me with my work: Zoe in the conservation studio and Paul for the science-based research projects. They are both passionate about their work and are keen to learn new things as much as I am. A lively and dynamic atmosphere emanates from the huge conservation studio. About 35 conservators are working there, 35 different personalities from various backgrounds. I feel this internship is going to be fascinating…

9 March 2016 - My first parchment challenge

When used as a book cover parchment needs to be flexible; the joints where cover and spine meet are repeatedly taking tension during handling. When there is material missing or weakness in this particular area, the cover is not protecting the text-block any longer and handling can create damage. The infill material must be flexible, strong, toned to match the original aged hues of the cover, and have a similar surface finish with parchment. Many tests were needed to find a Japanese paper which looks like the perfect answer.

A close-up of Camille holding a conservation pencil in front of the book which is open.  The book rests on a table with its cover now released from the text block.

A close-up of the book showing the cover in the process of being reattached.  The book resting on two foam book supports.
Top left: Using a conservation pencil to release the lace-in. Top right: The cover released and ready for treatment. Bottom left: The cover about to be reattached to the text block. Bottom right: The opening after treatment.

The book spine before treatment--there are areas of loss with much of the spine being gone on the right side.

The spine has been repaired, the losses infilled with new parchment.

The book spine before and after treatment.

18 May 2016 - A big project!

I am thrilled to be working on a book from the 13th century. Its pages are ancient parchment and its cover is a reminder of the volume’s passage through time. Everybody can have access to this seminal text by Cicero online today but particularities of this include the handwritten margin-notes by scholars from various periods in history. The parchment text-block has survived many readers from Italy to England and is heavily damaged: losses, tears, iron gall ink corrosion, and a myriad of previous treatments but to name a few.

This book is holding mysteries: the lower part of the first twenty pages has been cut off for no obvious reason. It is not unusual for an 18th century’s restorator to collect parchment from a book to repair a more valuable parchment document, but 20 pages… really? Could this be an old mould treatment? Or, censorship of Middle-Aged notes or drawings?

A close-up images of a page showing text in red and black, with a decorative C drawing in red and blue. Another close-up showing a series of pages which have been cropped at the bottom.

Left: Detail from a 13th century book. Right: 20 pages mysteriously cropped!

The 18th century binding only allows me to open the book 45° which makes it almost impossible to read, and future handling perilous given its actual condition. One of my tasks is to prepare the fragile book for digitisation so that we can share its mysteries with the world. I have come to the difficult yet essential decision to disband the book and I am supporting the most vulnerable areas before the imaging process by using gelatine remoistenable tissue. The Japanese paper used has been toned with airbrush-sprayed acrylics. Indeed, the result on the image must disrupt the visual appearance as little as possible so as to influence future interpretation as little as possible.

The manuscript sits open on two book supports made of foam.  Camille inserts a scalpel into the spine of the book, starting the disbinding process.

Left: Manuscript with a 45° opening. Right: Disbinding the manuscript.

2 June 2016 – A wall of rolls

A parchment document feels always more relaxed when conserved flat but large documents which can’t fit on shelves would usually be rolled. The British Library has a large collection of scrolls and rolled documents which are in need of some bespoke storage. A tightly rolled skin becomes cockled, distorted and loses its surface coherence which causes severe repercussions on the media. Won’t it be a massive loss if all the gold sheets of an illuminated document are flaking-off? For a roll parchment, the bigger the core, the better! This means items need big cores as support and ingenious storing and boxing systems accordingly. The challenge is to marry this with the constant fight for space under Euston road!

A rack of shelving with various collection items stored in boxes of different shapes, sizes, and colours.

My aims for this project are to assess the collection, prioritising heavily damaged items for conservation treatment and reorganise the collection storage conditions… not too hard then!

26 July 2016 – Half way already!

When I first stepped into the studio I wasn’t a parchment specialist. I am still not quite there, but… I am becoming confident with this complicated material by meeting specialists, attending workshops, conferences and treating a unique collection of parchment objects.

To be continued…

Camille Thuet

28 April 2016

Much Ado About…Possibly Something

Conservator Flavio Marzo reports on his fascinating findings during the conservation of one of the books bearing the presumed signature of William Shakespeare.

As it is now the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare and the British Library has unveiled a major exhibition about the Bard of Avon, I thought it was a good time to share the conservation work I carried out on one of the items currently on exhibition. In 2005 I was given the opportunity to work on an item here at the British Library bearing one of the few surviving (possible) signatures of the poet. The book, possibly part of Shakespeare’s personal library, is a copy of “The Essayes of Morall, Politike and Militaire Discourses” written by Michaell Montaigne and published in London in 1603. The volume was sent to the conservation studio to be treated before being sent out on a loan and presented some very interesting and unusual features.

The Examination

The cover and the book block were detached and the main task was to secure them together ensuring that any treatment was clearly visible and unobtrusive.

Left image: The front cover of the book in a medium brown leather with decorative gold tooling around the edges of the book, and a rectangle with a diamond shaped design at the centre. Right: The book cover has detached from the textblock, with the spine cover and front board resting on the table away from the textblock.
Left: Front cover. Right: Cover and book block detached.

The sewing of the body of the book, most likely the result of a quite recent restoration campaign, was made on five narrow strips of tanned brown leather. Probably at the same time new end leaves were added and secured to the first and last sections through an over-casted stitching. There was no evidence of spine lining or glue applied to the spine. When the cover was removed the original sewing supports remained laced through the boards and the page with Shakespeare’s presumed signature was attached on the inside of the left board.

The detached cover rests open on the table, with laces visible along the spine and handwritten text visible on the left board.
The inside of the detached cover with the signature page and the original supports laced with the cover.

The original sewing supports were made of strips of alum tawed leather with a second layer of tanned brown leather added to give thickness to the raised bands ensuring their visibility on the spine of the book.

Left: a close up of the white alum tawed leather support. Right: A close up of the spine showing the raised area where the leather cord rests behind the brown leather.
Left (viewing from the inside): A strip of alum tawed leather with clear distortions due to the original passages of the thread of the original sewing. Right (viewing from the outside): One of the trimmed tanned leather strips used to create the raised effect on the spine cover.

Areas of the leather cover were missing at the head and tail. After a thorough examination of the cover I realised that the page bearing the signature, adhered onto the inside of the left board, was not originally attached as a paste down, and in fact was never originally placed at the beginning of the book. Careful visual examination revealed that a raised oval was showing through the page.

An image of a page showing the oval at the bottom centre and handwritten text above it.
An image of the page taken with raking light clearly showing an oval shaped imprint from the recto of the page.

Since the page was adhered to the board along the edges only, it was possible to insert a light sheet between the page and the board. Under transmitted light it was possible to capture an image of what became clearly identifiable as a British Museum stamp - proving that this sheet was, until quite recently, still detached. Under transmitted light it was also possible to locate and record the watermark present on this page.

Left: A close up of the British Museum stamp in red. Right: A close up of the watermark.
Left: British Museum stamp imaged with transmitted light. Right: Watermark of the page with the signature.

This watermark was subsequently compared with others found on the pages within the book block. Although no perfect match was found between the watermarks, there was a very strong similarity between them.

A set of three similar watermarks; they appear to resemble a vase with handles and an ornate topper.
Other watermarks found within the book block.

Another detail that immediately caught my attention was the observation that the damages along the edges of this sheet did not match the losses and tears present along the edges of the first page of the book.

Two sheets of paper side by side to show the inconsistency in staining and damage.
Mapping of the stains and damages show how different and inconsistent they are along the edges of the two sheets.

Remarkably, these damaged areas matched almost perfectly to the last restored original end leaf of the book-block proving that this sheet was originally placed at the back of the book and not at the beginning.

Two sheets side by side which have similar damaged areas.
Matching damaged areas between the signature sheet and the last right end leaf.

The Repairs

The conservation of the volume involved the removal of the leather strip supports. These supports were failing and becoming brittle due to the acidic nature of the tanned leather. The strips were mechanically removed from the sewing thread passages and replaced with new linen tapes so that the book did not have to be re-sewn.

Left: The leather strip is removed with an awl. Right: The new strip has been added.
Removal of the leather strips (left) and their replacement with new linen tapes (right).

The leather of the cover was reinforced and in-filled with dyed Japanese paper and wheat starch paste.

Left: Strips of white Japanese tissue are added to the spine for reinforcement. Right: Toned Japanese tissue to match the brown leather has been added to the leather cover for support.
Japanese paper and wheat starch paste are used because of their strength and reversibility.

A new spine lining made of light cotton fabric was adhered to the spine of the book-block to further secure the sewing. The extensions of this spine lining with the frayed linen supports were then inserted between the leather and the boards and adhered to the boards to secure the book-block back with its cover.

The book lays open to its front page with the cotton strips in the process of being tucked under the front board.
The strips of cotton fabric are adhered between the leather cover and the boards to secure the book-block with the cover.

Conclusions

It is hard to say why this page was tampered with. Possibly it was thought that by attaching this page to the front board it would become more difficult to steal. Sometimes conservation needs some forensic skills, but it always requires great attention to detail. Physical features when correctly interpreted can tell us a lot about the history of an item. It is extremely important when repairing items of historical value that conservators are careful not to inadvertently hide or remove features which may later prove to be significant.

This work, carried out a long time ago, is today still one of my most cherished projects. I am very pleased to be able to share it with you, especially during this year so significant in the history of the Great William Shakespeare.

Flavio Marzo

See this intriguing collection item for yourself at our exhibition: Shakespeare in Ten Acts open until Tuesday 6 September.

14 March 2016

Video: The removal of linen backed paper from a silk scroll cover

Our conservation team were recently tasked with the removal of linen backed paper (a previous repair) from the back of a silk scroll cover. An overview of the item can be found on the International Dunhuang Project website: IOL Khot S 46

Original position of silk cover
Photograph (Photo 392/27(567)) showing original position of the silk cover on the verso of the scroll before its conservation in the India Office Library, when the cover was removed and reattached on a linen backing to the recto of the scroll. 

 

The position of the silk cover following its conservation in the India Office Library can be seen on the IDP website and in the image below.

Verso of the scroll
Verso of the scroll showing original position of silk cover and linen backed paper attached to the scroll in the British Museum. 



The linen backed paper and silk were detached from the scroll and then the silk was removed from the linen backed paper. The rigidity of the linen backed paper and the India Office Library scroll and storage box were causing extensive damage to the painted silk.

Silk cover before conservation
The silk cover before conservation showing the curl caused by the previous repair. 



Silk cover after conservation
The silk cover following conservation. 



More about the scroll can be read here. The scroll and cover will be rehoused and re-photographed and the new images will be made available on the British Library International Dunhuang Project website.

Liz Rose, Textile Conservator

27 January 2016

Torah Mantle Conservation

The Torah is the Hebrew Bible. Torah mantles are sometimes used to cover the Torah scrolls and are constructed in a similar way to a skirt. The ‘skirt’ has a top with two ‘holes’ and these allow the wooden scroll handles to protrude.

A sketch outline of a Torah Mantle, in black on white background. The basic outline is similar to a skirt, adjoined to a circular area with two holes, which is where the scroll handles protrude.
Construction of a Torah mantle.

 

The Mantle before conservation. The Mantle is light coloured silk, with large flowers with green wrapped stems, amongst other flowers and leaves repeated on the fabric. The Mantle is resting on a light grey background.
Before conservation the front of Torah mantle OMS/Or 13027 showed degraded silk - probably caused by light damage.

 

A portion of the Mantle is visible in this photograph, lying on protective wrapping on a grey table. The Mantle is weighed down by a stack of rectangular glass weights, while a steel conservation spatula and other conservation tools are alongside. An air extraction unit is next to the table, with an open square intake.
During conservation solvent activation of adhesive on conservation net was applied to the degraded silk using portable air extraction.



The Mantle after conservation, lying on protective padding, with the top facing towards camera, where the two open holes can be seen. The black bordering of the silk can be seen more easily in this image.
Post conservation the Torah mantle now shows stabilisation of the degraded silk. This is most evident in the centre front left and right, around the pleats, and around the holes for the wooden scroll handles.



Liz Rose, Textile Conservator

03 December 2015

Magna Carta (an embroidery) - now on display at the Bodleian Library

If you visited the British Library during summer 2015 you may have seen the 13 metre long Magna Carta Wikipedia embroidery conceived by Cornelia Parker. Commissioned by the Ruskin School of Art, the embroidery was an original piece of modern artwork to complement and enrich the British Library Magna Carta exhibition commemorating the 800th year since Magna Carta was sealed. 

Crowds gather around a long display case which showcases the embroidery.
On display at British Library Summer 2015

 

The piece was a recreation of the Wikipedia entry of Magna Carta – an interpretation of its influence in a digital era. Much of the embroidery was completed by Fine Cell Work

The stunning pictorial elements were completed by members of the Embroiderers Guild

Detail of intricate embroidery

Detail of intricate embroidery

Smaller sections were embroidered by named individuals, some notable, Germaine Greer, Alan Rusbridger, Mary Beard to name a few. Others less so – the British Library Head of Conservation, for example, who was privileged to embroider the hallowed words ‘British Library’.

A close-up of the words British Library which partially sewn in a blue thread, and a surrounded by other words mainly sewn in black thread.
Mid-way through embroidery on the Head of Conservation’s desk, December 2014.



Piecing together the many individually embroidered sections and making it ready for display was completed by the Royal School of Needlework (RSN).  Final touches were completed in the conservation studio at the library by the RSN. A 13 metre long textile was an unusual sight in our studios but given the variety of the British Library's collections, including textiles, nothing fazes us.

Three people inspect the embroidery, which is laid out on a table.
Final touches are made prior to display

 

The back of the embroidery shows the reverse of the text in mainly black thread with some words in blue thread.
Detail of the reverse of the embroidery

Sadly the British Library had to say goodbye to the embroidery in late July and it travelled to Manchester for a period of display at the Whitworth Art gallery. Yet the project remains a particular favourite in British Library Conservation from recent years, probably because we assisted in the creation of something new – a departure from our usual line of work.

If you have not had a chance to see this fascinating artwork you can now see it at the Bodleian Library in Oxford for a limited period.

Cordelia Rogerson, Head of Conservation

07 September 2015

The Marriage of East and West: Conservation of a Photographic Album from Burma

One often wonders what treasures can be hidden in a buckram box, and this time was no exception. The box on opening revealed an album covered with brightly coloured textile and leather. The pattern on the boards looked unusual and the use of the silk textile to cover a photographic album did not seem common either. This album housed a collection of 19th century photographs from Burma taken by Felice (or Felix) Beato.

The albums rests on a table. It has a cloth cover with a striped design in the colours red, turquoise, and cream. There is also a white cloth strap to keep the album closed.
The album before conservation.

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At first sight, a cotton band strapped across the boards spelt poor condition and acted as the ‘do not touch’ warning. On closer inspection, my first impressions were confirmed. The leather on the spine was fragmented; sewing exposed and broken, while the boards were only kept in place by the strapping. Most photographs in the album had some distortions caused by water damage and by heavy glue application to corners; with some tears present where the pull of the adhesive was too strong. A large panorama of Mandalay was the most damaged photograph in the album. However, on the whole, the album as a housing medium protected the contents well and the damage inside was less extreme.

The album is open to a page with a panoramic photograph which is folded out to its full size. The photographs is a cityscape in black and white with a yellow tint.
Panorama of Mandalay before conservation.

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A closeup of the photograph showing vertical folds.
A detail of the panorama showing multiple folds and damage to the gelatine layer of the photograph.

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The albumen prints taken by Felice Beato showed excellent quality images of a bygone age. One could not help but be engaged by the faces, buildings and landscapes, and wanting to find out more about the author and the object itself.

A quick search into Felice Beato’s background revealed a dynamic personality moving around the world with ease and covering such historic events as the fall of Sevastopol, the Indian Rebellion of 1857 and the Second Opium War. Beato was one of the first war photographers who reputably produced the first images of corpses. His extensive travels took him all over East Asia, including Japan, and he was also the official photographer of the British forces sent to relieve General Gordon in Khartoum, Sudan. However, Burma was the country he knew best. He lived there towards the end of his life setting up a successful photographic studio and business.

The album broadly dated 1880-1890s was the product of his later years. The silk covering of the album is similar to the clothing worn by the Burmese royalty shown in one of the pictures from the album.

This image features three figures. On the left is a young woman, possibly a younger teenager, resting her arm against a chair. In the middle, an older teenage girl sits in the chair. And on the right a young boy sits on the floor looking up at the figure in the chair. All three wear white long-sleeve shirts and long skits with a geometric striped design. The photograph is in black and white.
Burmese Princess in traditional garments.

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The Burmese textile depicting a series of wave patterns in green, yellow and white threads is known as Luntaya Acheiq pattern or the flowing water of the Irrawadi River. The textile is traditionally woven on looms using an interlocking tapestry weave and 100-200 small shuttles¹.

A closeup of the album's textile cover. There are vertical stripes of red, turquoise, and white with s-shaped flourishes.
The detail showing the pattern on the textile cover.

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Beato’s other claim to fame is his mastery of the photographic medium. Like other early pioneers in photography before and after him, Beato experimented with the new technology and stretched the medium more suited to studio work rather than photojournalism to its limits. Silver albumen prints produced from wet collodion glass plate negatives, were not easy to process and the glass negatives must have been heavy to carry in the precarious war circumstances he was often working in. He is also credited with pioneering the hand colouring of photographs and the making of panoramas. One such excellent example of the latter is the panorama of Mandalay. Due to the damage sustained while in the album, a decision was taken not to fold the panorama back into the album. After conservation, it was placed in a Melinex sleeve and housed in a custom made folder.

The photograph now sits in a white folder.
The panorama of Mandalay after conservation.

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A closeup showing the flattened folds.
Flattened and repaired fragment of the panorama.

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The album itself must have been produced for one of the wealthy ex-pats or influential locals. The paper used for the text block was imported from the US. It bears the watermarks of L.L. Brown Paper Co. mill from Adams in Massachusetts. The top quality of the Advanced Linen Ledger paper chosen for the text block ensured that the photographs survived to this day in reasonably good condition.

It is not surprising that Beato’s business was successful. In this beautiful album, Beato combined together the attractive Eastern textile covers and Burmese content, with Western binding and handmade paper; producing a high quality object proving irresistible even when in poor condition! Beato’s photographs shaped the Western notions of several East Asian societies for many years and now after the conservation they will continue to be a rich source for further research.

The treated album rests on a table after conservation. The spine has been repaired with a red leather.
 The album after conservation.

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Iwona Jurkiewicz

1. Slyvia Fraser-Lu, ‘Burman textiles’ in ‘Textiles from Burma’ edited by Elizabeth Dell & Sandra Dudley, published by The James Henry Green Centre for World Art in 2003, ISBN 1-58886-067-1.

07 May 2015

Public event - Magna Carta: Under the Microscope

We’re delighted to announce that the conservation team behind the work done on the British Library collections in our latest exhibition Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy will be speaking at a public event on Friday 26 June 2015 18:30 - 20:30 to share their findings. Speaking on the night in the British Library Centre for Conservation will be Head of Conservation Cordelia Rogerson, conservator Gavin Moorhead, conservation scientist Paul Garside and imaging scientist Christina Duffy. Book your place here.

A set of four images. Top left: A conservation scientist cuts white foam on a green cutting board. Top right: A customer inspects the frame which lays on a table. Bottom left: A conservator uses a knife to prise open two layers of a mount board with the Magna Carta inside. Bottom right: An imaging scientist inspects the Magna Carta under magnification. The Magna Carta rests on a flat surface with a microscope above it; the magnified image appears on a computer screen.
Join our project team of conservators and scientists on 26 June 2015.

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The project spanned over three years in preparation for this year’s 800th anniversary of the 1215 Magna Carta and involved the reframing and scientific analysis of all of the Magna Carta charters held in our collections, including the two 1215 original versions.

The item rests on a soft surface while Gavin inspects it. The charter is house in cream mount board.
Conservator Gavin Moorhead works on the 1215 Articles of the Barons (Additional MS 4838).

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The team undertook an initial examination of the original frames to determine their structure and composition. At the event you’ll hear how probes were manually inserted into the frames to take samples of the air inside in order to determine what kind of micro-environment the charters were living in! The stability and compatibility of new materials, which would be used for mounting in the new frames, was ensured using infrared spectroscopy, pH tests, and lignin tests.

A pile of folded red and blue textiles rests on a table.
Mounting materials were tested before incorporation into the new frames. Join us to find out what the blue and red colours indicate.

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With the frames removed the team had a rare opportunity to investigate the condition of the manuscripts using near-infrared spectroscopy and high resolution digital microscopy. Unpublished images of the ink and parchment at up to 200 times magnification will be shared with the audience.

A up-close shot of the Magna Carta under a magnifier. Part of the charter is visible in the image along the wax seal.
What does 800-year-old ink look like at 200 times magnification? 

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You will also delve deep into the exciting world of multispectral imaging and see versions of the charters and their seals under ultraviolet and infrared light. The incredible results of the text recovery project on the damaged 1215 Canterbury Magna Carta, from which much of the ink was lost, will be shared.

Once our tests were complete it was time to rehouse the charters – you’ll hear from our conservator Gavin Moorhead about the challenges and decisions required to mount for display one of the most recognised manuscripts in the world which would feature as the dramatic finale to the exhibition.

The Magna Carta in its frame sits in a displace case in the exhibition.
The British Library's London Magna Carta at our exhibition, Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy.

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Don’t miss out on this great event and book your place now! We look forward to meeting you!

Christina Duffy

20 April 2015

Making Islamic-style paper

The British Library Centre for Conservation recently hosted a professional course on Traditions of Papermaking in the Islamic World, organised by The Islamic Manuscript Association, in association with the Thesaurus Islamicus Foundation.

The top half of the watercolour depicts two men with pulp in a sheet and a hammering machine to make pulp. The bottom half of the watercolour shows the pulp in a vat, a man with a screen, sheets of paper drying, and various tools used in papermaking.
Add Or Ms 1699: A 19th c. watercolour from Kashmir shows the preparation of the pulp and papermaking. (Add Or Ms 1699)

The week began with a day of presentations covering every aspect of traditional Islamic hand papermaking, including early descriptions of the process, bibliographies, the characteristics of papers manufactured in different eras and different parts of the Islamic world, and the materials and tools used. We looked in some detail at the raw materials (mainly flax and hemp) and at the construction of the mould and screen on which the paper is formed. The process has continued in India into modern times, and we viewed films of traditional workers either squatting to work or standing in a pit.

Katharina stands holding a papermaking frame: a wooden frame with a screen made from grass, reed, or split bamboo. To the right of Katharina stands Tim who is speaking.
Katharina Siedler shows the screen and supporting frame while Timothy Barrett explains the paper-making process

For the next three days the small group of participants made paper – though fortunately using smaller vats, so we could stand at a table. Two excellent instructors, Timothy Barrett (Director, University of Iowa Center for the Book) and Katharina Siedler (historian and papermaker, who has her own studio in Berlin) guided our efforts. The hemp and flax pulps had been prepared in a Hollander beater at the University of Iowa in both long and short fibred versions to give a sense of the characteristics of each. In addition, participant Jacques Brejoux (Moulin du Verger, France) brought linen pulp, prepared with a medieval-style stamper at his mill.

Timothy holds the screen with a sheet of paper attached above a plastic tub of water and paper pulp.
Tim makes the first sheet of paper

Islamic-style paper is made on a flexible screen made of grass, reeds or split bamboo held together with horsehair (think of a much finer version of a sushi rolling mat.) This is placed on a wooden frame, and removable side-pieces hold it flat. The mould is dipped into the vat of fibre suspended in water. It can then be floated, and gently moved to aid the formation of an even sheet of paper. The mould starts to drain as it is lifted from the vat. The side walls are removed and the screen lifted. The sheet of new paper can then be rolled onto a flat board (couching).

A piece of paper is laid on a piece of felt--the paper is placed on the felt from the screen. Next to the couching process a green plastic shallow tub has water and a screen soaking in it.
Katharina couches newly made paper.
Gavin pulls a screen from the water and pulp bath, and a sheet of paper rests on the screen, made from the pulp.
British Library conservator Gavin Moorhead has a go

The next sheet is usually placed directly on top, though we interleaved with Reemay®, because of space and time limitations. When a good stack (post) has built up, another board is placed on top with weights to squeeze out more water. In warmer countries, the sheets are brushed out on walls to dry. We used a drying rack.

A man dressed in a black beret and black dungarees stands on top of the stack of felt, sandwiched between boards, to press them. A while plastic bin is there to catch and excess water. In the background and to the right, another participant has dipped his screen into the paper pulp and water.
Jacques Brejoux presses the post while John Mumford (Thesaurus Islamicus Foundation) makes linen paper

By next day, our papers were ready to continue the processes of sizing them, allowing them to dry again, then flattening and burnishing them.

Tim lifts a piece of paper from the stack.
Tim separates the post of paper for drying

Everyone was able to take away some sheets of paper they had made themselves, plus good reference samples made by our instructors and, equally important, examples of common vat faults, so that we learn to recognise these when we find them in Islamic books.

Kristine has a sheet of paper in front of her, which she is added size to by added size with a ball of white cloth which resembles a large cotton ball.
Kristine Rose (Chester Beatty Library) sizes paper
Katharina stands at a table and burnishes a piece of paper: she uses a tool and rubs it around the paper. Behind her pieces of paper hang on a line to dry.
Katharina makes burnishing look easy

On the final day a much larger group assembled for a symposium, summarising many of the topics and themes we had discussed in previous days and setting them in context. Librarians, conservators and historians introduced recent work and research in collections as diverse as the University of Michigan and the British Library. Those who had not been present the whole week stayed for a demonstration of paper-making at the end of the day.

The week was most enjoyable, but intensive and with serious purpose. Those of us who work with oriental collections now feel more confident to explain the marks or flaws in the paper that we encounter. We better understand the history of such items, and can use compatible materials and techniques if we have to treat them.

Ann Tomalak

02 April 2015

Rusty Rusalka

There are some binding styles that are inherently sound and will protect the texts within for centuries. In the West, generally they include sewing gatherings of bifolia through the fold with linen thread onto supports such as hemp cords, linen tapes, or slips of alum-tawed leather. Unfortunately, these methods tend to be expensive in time and materials. So the industrialisation of printing in the 19th century led also to new and varied means of holding the leaves together, most of them emphasising speed and cheapness over longevity.

The lowest-priced books had the crudest “sewing” – often stabbing holes through the entire textblock away from the spinefold to oversew the edge, or to pass through fasteners like staples or ties. One problem with this was that the leaves could not open conventionally at the spinefold, and quickly became damaged around the stab holes as readers tried to access text near the gutter.

Around 1880, a compromise was invented in Germany by which wire staples were inserted from inside through the spinefold onto supports such as tapes or cloth. This “wire sewing” seemed a fast and strong method, well suited to books that had to open well, such as music. Development of mechanised through-the-fold book-sewing machines began at about the same time, but took much longer to become economically viable. Thus wire sewing continued in use right through to the first half of the 20th century. Unfortunately, wire sewing has one serious flaw: the wires quickly rust and corrode both the book paper and the spine support. Eventually, they disintegrate and the book falls apart.

The front cover of Rusalka. The title, Rusalka, is written in the Russian alphabet and appears in a royal blue text. The cover is finished in a dove grey cloth. Some of the edges are degraded, and there is generally surface dirt is visible.
Photo 1: Rusalka (I.339.nn) as received in the conservation studio

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Among the British Library’s printed music collections is a vocal score of Rusalka (I.339.nn), published in Moscow in 1937 – not the more familiar opera by Dvořák, but a lesser-known work in Russian by Alexander Dargomyzhsky (1813-1869). This was sent for conservation because the joints had split and the spine-cloth was detaching, but it was quickly apparent that it was wire sewn and much greater intervention was required.

The spine covering has fallen away, showing the text block with rusty staples adhere white cloth to the textblock.
Photo 2: a close-up of the damage to the spine

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First, the wires had to be removed. The tines or legs of the staples were gently eased up on the outer spine. Fortunately, the cloth beneath them, though damaged, was intact enough to protect the spinefolds.

A close-up showing the legs of the staples which have been lifted.
Photo 3: lifting the wires

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Next the spine was gently rolled onto a length of plastazote (R) which the tines could sink into, both to stabilise the spine and protect the work-surface from scratches. The staples were then slowly worked out from the centre of each section, and the cloth forming the “sewing support” detached easily.

A close-up of the spine, which has had the staples and cloth removed. Holes and rust stains are still visible where the staples were originally used.
Photo 4: spine after cleaning, showing staggered holes left by the wire staples

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Rust treatment was considered, but this is a lengthy and invasive action and it was found sufficient to brush out loose fragments from the sections. Minor tears to the textblock were repaired. The holes left by the wires were undamaged and could be used for resewing the textblock with linen thread. However they had been staggered on the spine to avoid bulking it at just a few points. One option was to sew through a textile spine lining, replicating the original support for the wires, but it was felt that triple linen tape supports at each station would better control the opening and eventually offer a stronger board attachment. Once this was done, a light spine lining was added.

A close-up of the textblock which has now been resewn Thread has been sewn into the staple holes around cloth cords, and this all has been covered with Japanese tissue.
Photo 5: resewn textblock detail

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The old case was repaired, supporting the worn spine cloth and split joints. The corners also needed some attention to strengthen the soft, brittle boards and reform the split cloth covering them. Old marks and stains were left as they would not cause further damage and are part of the history of the item. Then textblock and case were rejoined.

The cover (both boards and spine) have been repaired. White repair paper is visible in small areas where the cover was previously degrading.
Photo 6: the repaired case, drying

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The final result is a music score that sits securely in its original case binding, with leaves that turn well and open flat should it ever be required for performance again.

Ann Tomalak

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