Collection Care blog

Behind the scenes with our conservators and scientists

Introduction

Discover how we care for the British Library’s Collections by following our expert team of conservators and scientists. We take you behind the scenes into the Centre for Conservation and the Scientific Research Lab to share some of the projects we are working on. Read more

19 July 2021

Conservation of Thurloe’s State Papers

You may have seen a recent conversation sparked by one of our ‘Before and After’ conservation posts on the Library’s main social media channels. This may have got you wondering how conservators decide on the best treatment methods for collection items. In this blog we are going to dive deeper into the treatment of the volumes pictured in the Before and After images, giving further insight into the many considerations a conservator makes when treating an item.

Conservators at the British Library have to balance the future use of the book with the preservation of historic evidence. In a working library like ours, books are used by readers and our treatments must take this into account. The set of manuscript volumes pictured in the recent social media post are an example of this decision-making process and posed an interesting yet familiar conservation challenge.

The Thurloe State Papers volumes I-VII date back to 1742 and arrived in our conservation studio in poor condition. Each book exhibited similar degrees of damage and deterioration including detached boards, loss of endbands, severely degraded leather on the spines, splits in the textblock with damage to the sewing structure, and very worn and abraded boards.

These are highly requested collection items, and without thorough treatment would no longer be available for reference. Enabling access to readers is one of the BL’s core purposes and our Conservation department works hard to facilitate public access to our national heritage by ensuring that our books are in good condition in order to be handled and read without risk of further damage to the bindings. 

 

The seven volumes photographed with their textblocks (rather than spines) facing us. The pages have a marbled appearance and six of the seven books have cotton string holding the books together.
Thurloe's State Papers Vols I-VII prior to conservation. All the volumes had detached boards with severely damaged edges and corners. In this condition they cannot be issued to readers.
A birds eye view of the top of the books' textblocks.
The top of the volumes showing ingrained dirt on the textblock and the loss of all the leather headcaps and silk endbands apart from a few remaining fragments.

 

Planning a conservation treatment involves a complex range of considerations from different fields including material and chemical science, preservation, historical context, value, ethics as well as the suitability of practical techniques and available time and resources. 

We follow a Code of Ethics which helps inform the process and to ensure that we are asking the right questions. Conservators use their professional judgement in combination with discussions with curators about the context of the items within the Library's historic collections and so it is a collaborative approach.

The most common form of damage that we find in Library collections is board detachment. This prevents books from being issued to readers due to the risk of damage to the textblock or loss of material.  There are a variety of causes of detached boards, including ageing of materials and general wear and tear from use.

Because a book is a physical object with moving parts, the action of opening and closing the boards can put a strain along the joint area, which can cause the covering material and sewing supports to break - resulting in detachment of the boards. 

There are various techniques used to reattach book boards.  Often, a volume needs to be 'rebacked' as part of the process of reattaching the boards; repairs are made to the textblock, sewing structure and endpapers and then new spine coverings are applied and carefully inserted under the existing leather on the boards. This process necessitates the removal of the existing spine coverings as it is often the case that strong and durable repairs cannot be undertaken without access to the spine of the volume.

An ideal conservation treatment would involve the re-use of original material wherever possible in order to minimise any aesthetic change to the item. When rebacking volumes it is our practice to, where appropriate, reattach the original spine pieces back onto the new spine. This retains the visual appearance of the book whilst providing a strong and durable repair. However, if the original material is too degraded to be reattached to the book - as in the case of the Thurloe State Papers - we need to consider other options.

 

An up-close images of the spine showing 'vol 1' on red leather and designs in gold.
The original spine leather was degraded and worn away with splits and cracks around the raised sewing supports as well as up and down the spine.
A close-up of the bottom of a spine of one of the volumes showing wear and tear.
Many of the endbands and headcaps were missing on all seven volumes. 

 

As you can see from the close-up photograph, the original spine leather was very thin, degraded and fragmented. It was also adhered directly onto the spinefolds of the textblock paper as part of the 'tightback' binding structure making them very difficult to remove intact due to their fragility.

If we did reattach these spine panel fragments they would, in a very short time, wear away through use and be completely lost to researchers now and in the future.  So whilst we couldn’t reuse the spine panels, we did carefully remove and store them with the collection item. This way, they are preserved along with the bindings for future reference.

 

The spine fragments have been placed on a piece of card and sealed in a polyester sleeve for protection.
The remaining spine fragments were too fragile to be reattached and have been stored with each volume in its protective box.

 

Sometimes ‘Before and After’ photographs can look like quite a dramatic change to the object, but in this case only the spines of these volumes required replacement. The original boards were reused even though they were severely damaged.  The worn-down board corners were rebuilt and re-covered in new leather. Along the exposed and abraded board edges, the original leather was carefully lifted and new leather inserted underneath in order to preserve as much of the gold tooled edge decoration as possible.

 

A close-up of the edge of a board.
An example of the damaged board corners prior to conservation.
A close-up of the edge of a board after repair--new leather has ben added.
Board corners after rebuilding and covering with archival calf leather.
A side of one volume showing the gold tooling in tact.
Where the board edges were exposed, new leather was carefully inserted underneath the existing leather whilst retaining the gold tooled edge decoration.

 

The materials used in our conservation treatments are selected for their proven archival qualities, strength and durability.  Materials such as linen fabric and threads, handmade paper and wheat starch paste have been long used in traditional bookbinding, as is the ‘rebacking’ process of covering spines with new leather or cloth and decorating with gold leaf.

Whilst considering how to carry out the finishing on the Thurloe State Papers, it was decided to use a simplified version of the gold leaf lettering and decoration. This was partly because we do not have the historic finishing tools used by the original binder to be able to replicate the decoration exactly.  Secondly, this hand craft is highly skilled and very time-consuming - and we have to justify the amount of time spent on decorating individual volumes when there are so many other books needing conservation in the Library.

 

An image of the spine following conservation.
Spine of Volume 1 following conservation treatment
An image focusing on the left board.
Left board of Volume 1 following conservation treatment

 

Conservators take great care to match the colours of new materials added so that they appear sympathetic to the existing material. In this case, the new spine labels were made of red leather and even the endband threads dyed to match the originals.

 

Endband sewing is in progress here, with a needle and orange thread being pushed through in a green, orange, green, orange thread pattern.
Primary endbands were sewn in plain linen thread followed by secondary endbands in silk, dyed pink and green to match the original thread found in the volumes.
The orange and green endband is complete.
The completed endband.

 

We enjoyed reading the range of comments these Before and After photos inspired. It’s great to see that so many people care about the preservation of historical books - and the range of comments show that not only that there are a huge number of factors to weigh up in making treatment decisions, but also that several different approaches could be used to achieve a similar outcome.

Conservators have to consider that books are mechanical objects, not just historic artefacts, and have moving parts that need to function in conjunction with each other in order for the book to be used. This is often dependent on the construction materials and methods used and is one of many other factors, such as historical context and the status of the object, which are taken into consideration when planning conservation treatments at the British Library.

If readers are interested in learning more about books as 'dynamic objects', there was a recent Institute of Conservation talk about this very subject, which you can watch on the Icon YouTube channel.

Keep an eye out for an upcoming blog post which will discuss more broadly the varying approaches to conservation decision-making in the Library’s Conservation department.

 

Volume I after treatment showing the new spine and one of the boards.
One of seven volumes of Thurloe's State Papers now fully conserved and able to be accessed in our Reading Rooms.

 

 

Vicky West ACR, Book Conservator

Nicole Monjeau, Preventive Conservator

03 June 2021

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

Paul Garside & Zoë Miller

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

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

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

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

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

[Figure 2] The effects of IGI corrosion.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

05 May 2021

Conservation for Digitisation: A collaboration with the Palestinian Museum

Amy Baldwin, Book Conservator & Jessica Pollard, Digitisation Conservator

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

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

 

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

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

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

Picture 2: Bara carrying out repairs to a manuscript

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

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

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

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

Picture 4: Piecing together a damaged item

[Picture 4: Piecing together a damaged item]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

07 December 2020

Lotus Sutra Project: Storage Solutions

Paulina Kralka and Marya Muzart

The Lotus Sutra Manuscripts Digitisation Project at The British Library, is a multi-year project aiming to conserve and digitise almost 800 copies of the Lotus Sutra scrolls in Chinese, with a view to make images and information freely accessible on the International Dunhuang Project (IDP) website. These manuscripts come from a small cave in a Buddhist Cave complex near Dunhuang, in Northwest China, where tens of thousands of documents, paintings and artefacts dating from the late 4th to the beginning of the 11th centuries were discovered in 1900. Out of the 800 manuscripts included in this project, a large portion of them need conservation work.

Depending on the scrolls’ condition, treatment can range from surface cleaning and minor repairs, to lengthy mould remediation and intricate infills to ensure that they are safe for digitisation. With manuscripts in varying states of preservation and size, ranging from 10 centimetres to almost 14 meters in length, they have very different housing needs. Addressing these various housing requirements is part of our conservation work. We take into account our existing storage facilities, and come up with solutions that are best suited for long-term preservation of the collection but are also feasible within the time and budget of a digitisation project. This poses an interesting challenge to us as conservators.

The storage facility for scrolls at the British Library consists of white open shelving or glass enclosed wooden cabinets holding individually boxed scrolls.

Picture 1: Our storage.

Here a conservator is placing a scroll into a pigeon hole. Some of the cabinets have individual pigeon holes for each scroll with the shelfmark noted.

Picture 2: Close-up of the pigeon holes where the scrolls are stored.

The majority of scrolls that arrive in our conservation studio have never been treated before. They are usually tightly rolled on their own or around a thin wooden roller attached to the last panel. This causes tensions and leaves the scroll unsupported where it then becomes prone to distortions, creasing and further mechanical damage when handled. Research and practice show that the larger the rolling diameter, the less likely the scroll is to develop creases and cracks. In order to address this, we always place the scrolls on increased diameter cores after treatment has been completed. These cores are made from acid free cardboard tubes with a 5.5cm diameter, that we cover with a layer of xuan paper 宣纸 using wheat starch paste as an adhesive. The cores help reduce the tensions caused by a scroll being rolled too tightly and also provide it with proper support during handling and storage, minimising the risk of further damage. In addition, each scroll is wrapped in a protective layer of xuan paper, which prevents dust accumulation and surface abrasion.

Here a conservator is unravelling a scroll on a red desk with the aid of a scroll core.

Picture 3: A scroll being handled with the help of a core.

When rolled onto the 5.5cm cores, some of the longer scrolls in the project (typically those over 10 metres long) no longer fit into the pigeon holes of our existing storage. In order to enable the scrolls to still be stored in the existing storage facilities on an increased diameter core, whilst having enough space for safe handling, we have successfully developed a technique of hand-making cores with a smaller diameter of 3.5cm, composed of archival grade kraft paper and wheat starch paste.

A comparison of two scroll cores: the core on the left is wider at 5.5cm while the core on the right is 3.5cm.

Picture 4: Left, the 5.5cm core and right, the 3.5cm core which we hand-make for very long scrolls.

And what about the shortest surviving fragments? They are usually severely damaged. To prevent possible dissociation and further weakening of the paper, we encapsulate them in Melinex pockets. Melinex is an archival grade, glass-clear, thin polyester sheet, which not only helps us protect such delicate fragments but also allows them to be stored flat within custom made folders. Scroll fragments in Melinex are safe and easy to handle as both sides can be easily accessed, whether by our imaging staff during digitisation, or researchers wishing to examine the manuscripts in the reading rooms.

A conservator is encapsulating a scroll fragment between two Melinex sleeves so the scroll lays flat.

Picture 5:  Encapsulation of a scroll fragment in Melinex.

We are lucky that a large number of scrolls in our collection survive with their original wooden rollers still in place. In order to house the rod safely, whilst simultaneously providing appropriate support for the scroll, we have modified our standard core to create a custom-made clamp which fits the original roller inside and increases the rolling diameter. The cardboard core is cut in half; an intricate system of Japanese paper tabs is then pasted down to allow it to open and close smoothly; and, finally, a small groove is cut out to facilitate accommodating the scroll and rolling it onto the core. This clasp core design is adapted from the traditional Japanese wooden roller clamp, known as futomaki 太巻 or futomaki jiku 太卷轴, used for hanging scrolls, but is much more lightweight and economical!

The clasp core design, which safely houses scrolls with the original rod still attached. The clasp core design, which safely houses scrolls with the original rod still attached.

The clasp core design, which safely houses scrolls with the original rod still attached. Pictures 6, 7 & 8: The clasp core design, which safely houses scrolls with the original rods still attached.

In some instances, the original wooden rod is detached from the scroll, which creates another storage challenge. To avoid any dissociation, we always aim to store the rod together with the scroll. In order to achieve this, we have created small foam inserts that fit the roller in them and placed them inside standard cores. We found that polyethylene pipe insulation tubes are well-fitted for the purpose! Thanks to the Oddy tests carried by our conservation scientist Paul Garside, we know they can be safely used with our collection. The tube is cut in half and hinged on one side with Filmoplast SH cotton tape to allow for smooth opening and closing. The rod, wrapped in a protective layer of xuan paper, is placed inside and secured in place with pieces of cotton tying tape, threaded through small slits cut in the tube. The insert fits inside the core quite snugly, so we place a small tab on the bottom of the tube to facilitate access.

The foam tube which houses the detached original rod with the scroll. This tube is split open showing how the tape is threaded through small slits in the tube.

The foam tube which houses the detached original rod with the scroll. This foam tube is split open to reveal the inside.

The foam tube which houses the detached original rod with the scroll. 

Pictures 9, 10, 11 & 12: The foam tube which houses the detached original rod with the scroll. 

These storage solutions show how our work doesn’t end in the conservation studio. To ensure that the collection is well-preserved for future generations, we have to think beyond just the treatment of the object. This project has enabled us to challenge ourselves in thinking outside the box and approach the various storage issues with innovative solutions. 

25 November 2020

Lotus Sutra Project: Scroll with Blue Cover

Marya Muzart, Digitisation Conservator, International Dunhuang Project

Digitised scroll after treatment showing a blue cover on the scroll.

Picture 1: Close up of digitised scroll after treatment.

The Lotus Sutra Manuscripts Digitisation Project at The British Library, is a multi-year project aiming to conserve and digitise almost 800 copies of the Lotus Sutra scrolls in Chinese, with a view to make images and information freely accessible on the International Dunhuang Project (IDP) website. These manuscripts come from a small cave in a Buddhist Cave complex near Dunhuang, in Northwest China, where tens of thousands of documents, paintings and artefacts dating from the late 4th to the beginning of the 11th centuries were discovered in 1900. Out of the 800 manuscripts included in this project, a large portion of them need conservation work. This blog post covers the treatment of Or.8210/S.3796 which measures over 10 metres long.  

What is particularly striking about this item is the blue cover or protective flap at the beginning. Whilst it bears a few stains from water damage, the colour is incredibly vivid considering the age of the item. It is unusual in this project to see scrolls which are 100% complete, from the front cover to the very last panel, so having the front cover present, in addition to its striking colour, makes this item quite special. In addition, part of the thin wooden stave on the cover is still present, a silk tie would once have been attached to this, however it is now gone. 

The use of blue paper (typically dyed using indigo) for sutras grew in popularity in China from the Tang dynasty (618–907 CE) onwards, it flourished in Korea and Japan around the same time and can also be found in other cultural traditions beyond East Asia. By the end of the Dunhuang period, and in later Chinese tradition it became common to use silver or gold ink on dark blue paper for the finest manuscripts [1]. See this fragment of scroll Or.8210/S.5720, which is part of our wider collection, as an example. 

Re-use and recycling of paper was a common practice carried out by the monks in Dunhuang [2]. It is possible that the cover of Or.8210/S.3796 was sourced from some left-over paper which had previously been used for one of the finer sutras written on blue paper. 

Recto before treatment showing a torn scroll with Lotus Sutra characters

Picture 2: Recto before treatment.

Verso before treatment showing a damaged and torn scroll laid out on a red table.

Picture 3: Verso Before Treatment.

The losses which you can see in the before images were a result of historical rodent damage, when the scroll was examined closely small teeth marks could be seen. As the damage occurred when the scroll was rolled, there is a repetitive nature to the losses which get smaller as we move away from the beginning of the scroll. Due to the presence of these numerous large losses conservation treatment had to be carried out in order to stabilise the scroll for digitisation.  

The first step to treatment was creating a blue repair paper to match the cover. At the IDP conservation studio our usual repair papers are hand dyed in relatively large batches using fabric dye, this is so that we always have lots of different tones and colours at hand. However as blue isn’t a typical colour we come across in this project, some experimentation had to be carried out in order to get the correct blue shade for the repair paper.  Dyeing was tried at first using the usual fabric dye, however the right blue hue still wasn’t accomplished after a few attempts, so I decided to tone the paper using a diluted acrylic paint instead, which was more successful and efficient. 

Some repair samples from experimentation laid out on a table.

Picture 4: Some repair paper samples from experimentation.

Finding the correct colour when custom toning repair paper is typically a matter of trial and error. Once I had found the correct combination of colours, I used a Japanese paper which had previously been dyed a yellow tone and this created the perfect base for applying the diluted blue acrylic wash. As the verso of the cover is lighter, once dry, the blue repair paper was then lined onto a lighter, yellow toned paper using diluted wheat starch paste. My custom toned repair paper was then used to infill the losses present on the cover of the scroll. For the remaining losses throughout the scroll, a yellow toned paper was used, this was a much easier source out of our existing repair paper collection!  

As you can see from the after images, the scroll can now safely be handled and digitised by trained internal staff. It is a unique item in the project, which was a pleasure to work on. All in all, a successful treatment! 

The digitised scroll is available to be viewed via this link thanks to Jon Nicholls.

Close up after treatment showing previously missing areas filled in.
Picture 5: Closeup after treatment.

Scroll after treatment with no tears or missing areas, laid out on a red table.

Picture 6: Scroll after treatment.

[1]https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/chinese-buddhist-sutra-on-indigo-dyed-paper 

[2]   Rong, X. (2013) . Eighteen Lectures On Dunhuang. Trans. by Galambos, I. Boston: Brill, p.123 

22 October 2020

On light: conserving material for our exhibition Unfinished Business: The Fight for Women’s Rights

Alexa McNaught-Reynolds, Conservation Exhibition and Loan Manager

Two of the items selected for display in our exhibition: Unfinished Business: The Fight for Women’s Rights appear to be in good condition but have vulnerabilities that may not be immediately obvious. In Conservation we strive to understand every component of an object in order to recommend the best course of action for their long-term care.

Item 1. NEWS.REG170: Daily Mirror front cover: Tuesday 28th March 2017

Vulnerability: newspaper is not made to last

This is an important item in the exhibition, highlighting how strong working women are still sometimes represented in the media today. Newspapers are produced from poor quality wood pulp that is inherently unstable due to something called lignin, and they are not made to last. Lignin makes the paper acidic and when placed in direct sunlight, as many of you will have seen, newspapers turn yellow and become brittle very quickly.

Controversial front page of the Daily Mirror on Tuesday 28th March 2017 showing Theresa May and Nicola Sturgeon. The headline reads 'Never mind Brexit, who won Legs-it!'

Figure 1: Controversial front page of the Daily Mirror on Tuesday 28th March 2017 (NEWS.REG170)

We strive to protect our newspaper collection by storing them in alkaline buffered material, in a stable environment free from exposure to light sources. These actions significantly slow the degradation process.

But what about when one is requested for exhibition? While we are familiar with the vulnerabilities of newspaper generally, we are not sure how stable the media will be under exhibition conditions. The exhibition environment is very stable and the newspaper is subjected to low levels of light. While light level is low, with no UV, and the time is restricted, we are not sure how much of an effect this limited light exposure will have on the media.

In order to get a better understanding of how the media will fair under exhibition conditions, we will be monitoring this item closely. To do this, we are measuring the colour by using simple colorimetry. This is completed with 'Lab*' colour measurements which is a method of representing colour using numerical values, in a similar way to the more familiar RGB or CMYK systems. One of the particular advantages of the Lab* system is that it is based on the way in which the human eye and brain observe colours and determine differences between colours. 'L' represents lightness, from 0 (pure black) to 100 (pure white), while 'a' measures the green-red axis (negative values are green and positive values, red) and 'b' measures the blue-yellow axis (negative values are blue and positive values, yellow). The system is capable of detecting colour changes smaller than the human eye can observe, and so gives us another tool to help us provide the best possible stewardship for the items in our collection.

Controversial front page of the Daily Mirror on Tuesday 28th March 2017 showing Theresa May and Nicola Sturgeon. The headline reads 'Never mind Brexit, who won Legs-it!' This image has been labelled with yellow lines and numbers showing where colour measurements were taken.

Figure 2: Front page of the Daily Mirror with areas marked in yellow indicating where colour measurements were taken.

Highlighted in the image above are the areas where the colours were measured. The same areas will be re-measured at the end of the exhibition. This will detect any colour changes that have happened (hopefully none) and will inform the future display limitations of this item and for other similar contemporary newspapers.

Item 2. Add MS 88899/6/13:  Greenham fence wire from the Angela Carter archive

Vulnerability: highlighter ink loses colour under light exposure

This item is a piece of wire cut from the perimeter fence of RAF Greenham Common Airbase during anti-nuclear protests by the Women's Peace Camp and sent to the novelist Angela Carter who was against nuclear weapons. It was attached to a record card through two punched holes in the centre with typed notes above and below the wire.

Greenham fence wire piercing a white flash card from the Angela Carter archive with high-lighted typed message.

Figure 3: Add MS 88899/6/13:  Greenham fence wire from the Angela Carter archive with highlighted typed message.

Although the item itself is in good condition, highlighter pen was used over the top of the typed message. Highlighter pens contain fluorescent colours which are notoriously light sensitive; they will not retain their colour over extended periods of light exposure. For this reason, we will be displaying this item at our exhibition under low light levels but we will also be limiting future display in order to preserve the bright colour.

At the British Library we aim to make everything as accessible as possible so that everyone can enjoy the collection and see the items in their original condition. However, in order to preserve the collection some items do need to be restricted for various reasons, such as fragile condition, or in these cases, to limit their light exposure and preserve the bright colours for future researchers to see.  Although this means that some items can only be able to be exhibited for short periods, there are alternative solutions for display. For items that were mass produced or have multiple copies, it is possible that a replacement can be found. When an item is unique or other copies are not available, we can suggest a high-quality facsimile be made, this way the viewer can see the uninterrupted exhibition story. In this way, we can maintain the integrity of our collection for as long as possible, as well as finding ways for everyone to enjoy it in the meantime.

Fortunately, both original items will be displayed in ‘Unfinished Business: The Fight for women’s Rights’.

08 October 2020

Learning to Communicate: Before and After Lockdown

Samantha Cawson, Digitisation Conservator

The conservation profession takes skills sharing seriously and so the need to open up channels of communication is essential. This is especially true of The British Library’s Centre for Conservation (BLCC), which has collaborated with institutions all over the world, most recently with China and Palestine. But locally, the BLCC has Deaf members of staff and runs a very popular programme of British Sign Language and audio descriptive tours.  These tours are a great way for our visitors to enjoy our collection items and to get an understanding of the work that goes into preserving them; providing a unique opportunity to ask questions and to sometimes handle conservation tools and materials.

Before

Back in February we invited VocalEyes to the BLCC to run a two-day audio description training workshop in order for our tour guides to gain greater self-confidence and to really perfect their presenting skills for our blind and partially sighted (BPSP) visitors. The training was excellent, and covered topics such as visual awareness training, guiding techniques, guide dog etiquette, and an introduction to Description.

One of the practical exercises was to consider some of the challenges that arise when describing spaces, objects and techniques.  We gave individual presentations to the rest of the group who listened with their eyes closed, exploring terms and vocabulary to get a better sense of how the Tours and BLCC experiences might be received.  This brought up some interesting findings. The first was that it isn’t always obvious what something is just by naming it. This was the case when I began talking about my trusty Teflon bone-folder (pictured and described below). I began by describing the material and size, however didn’t clarify why it was called a bone-folder, which to someone who has never seen or used one, the name itself sounds rather gruesome. It was suggested that this tool required further explanation; for some practical items description becomes easier to comprehend if you include what it is used for, how it works and perhaps a little historical context…something I’ll take into account next time!

A hand is holding a white teflon bone-folder. In the background there is an 18th century manuscript.

Figure 1: This is my Teflon bone folder. I use it to flatten my repairs as it doesn’t burnish or stick to my repair tissue. Original bone folders would’ve been made using cattle bone, hence the name, and is used by bookbinders and conservators for making strong sharp creases in paper. Both styles are used within the studio today and are considered a must have tool. You see, not so grim with a little additional information!

Another interesting topic discussed is how to describe colour. Some blind or partially sighted people are born with some sight, and will retain some memory of colour. Many will be able to see colours and shapes; some will have central or peripheral vision. Even those who were born blind are likely to understand the cultural significance of colour, and so during our training we were encouraged to embrace it within our descriptions, as well as to use a vivid, varied and memorable vocabulary in general. For instance, red may signify passion, richness or heat. Green might indicate freshness, jealousy or decay. This topic made me rather nervous at first, however over time I’ve enjoyed the challenge of creating interesting colour descriptions, which can really bring an object to life. I’m now excited to try and describe the pigments and pages of the library’s collection, some of which are still so vivid and exciting even after hundreds of years!  I’ve included a photograph of a particularly colourful illuminated manuscript which was part of the Pre-1200 digitisation project. How would you describe the colours? They remind me of a bag of mouth-watering sweets!

The left hand page of a highly pigmented illuminated manuscript. There is an illustration of a saint with a golden halo, wearing vibrant draping robes in a variety of pastel shades. There is a soft, pond green border.

Figure 2: Add MS 46487 Digitised as part of the Pre-1200 project.

Another area of the training that I was looking forward to was identifying objects which could be handled and passed around the tour group, allowing someone to get a better understanding of the weight, texture and shape of something being discussed. We explored a variety of different possibilities that could be utilised. Here are a few examples:

Japanese Repair Tissues

Japanese repair tissue comes in many different weights and textures, which a conservator will choose accordingly to be as sympathetic to the original weight and look of the damage area being treated. Over the years I have accumulated a scrap box full of tissue. In the future I hope it will be a great resource to pass around a group, whilst explaining why and how we use them!

A small box overflowing with different types of scrap pieces of Japanese repair tissue. The tissues differs in thickness, colour and texture.

Figure 3: My box of scrap pieces of Japanese tissue.

A hand holds a very fine piece of Japanese tissue. It is so thin and delicate that the hand is fully visible through the matrix of the tissue.

Figure 4: You can just about feel the texture of this very fine kozo tissue!

Finishing Tools

Another great example presented itself during a gold tooling demonstration. This experience not only has the benefit of visitors being able to hold and feel the weight and shape of a finishing tool (and we have so many exquisite examples of them!) but also provides the smells of tools being heated, and the great sizzling sound that identifies when the tool is hot enough to be used. This made for an excellent multi-sensory experience.

A hand holds a heavy metal finishing tool. The tool has the words British Library in a large font type fitted within it. The tool looks well used.

Figure 5: A finishing tool (not heated!).

Binding Examples

And of course a British Library conservation tour wouldn’t be complete without describing different binding styles. We have various binding examples specifically made to present the different sewing techniques, supports and materials utilised when creating a book. It’s a great resource to pass around a group as the ridges and materials of the sewing structure can be easily felt and identified; A great tool for most tours, and a way to appreciate the behind the scenes structure of a book. 

 conservator is holding an example book, which doesn’t have a cover or spine so that the sewing is exposed. The image focuses on the variety of different sewing supports and sewing techniques that could be utilised when binding a book.

Figure 6: A binding with examples of sewing on a variety of tapes and cords that could be used to construct a volume.

On the whole this workshop was a great learning experience. It provided us with new knowledge and confidence, and a greater sense of understanding of how important our presentation skills are to perform a coherent and pleasurable experience for all. But honestly, this course taught me how to describe and achieve the ‘WOW factor’ when bringing to life our beautiful and interesting collections, as well as giving a sense of the passion and expertise that the staff have at the BLCC.

After

One effect of the Covid19 lockdown has been the increased awareness of how important communication is to our well-being. For me and others this has been an interesting and sometimes creative process, as well as highlighting how communication needs to be responsive and inclusive. Having just completed the VocalEyes training and with an unknown amount of time working from home stretched out before me, I decided to continue working on my communication skills and began an online British Sign Language (BSL) course.

A laptop is on a small table in a working from home environment. The laptop screen shows a BSL teacher signing the word 'librarian'. Next to the laptop are two small boxes labelled 'BSL test cards'.

Figure 7: First things first, how to sign ‘library’!

The course covered a whole range of topics such as greetings, numbers, rooms and furniture in the home, colours, weather, travel and jobs. Despite this I still have a long way to go before having a fully coherent conversation using BSL with Deaf colleagues in the conservation studio, or with Deaf and hard of hearing tour visitors. But as the library staff slowly begins to occupy our sites, I look forward to being able to continue the learning process through informal everyday practice (perhaps I’ll even learn how to sign bone-folder!), and hopefully once our tour programme resumes I can put all of these new communication skills to the test!

10 September 2020

Joining the British Library Salvage Team

This is the third and final blog post in a series about the British Library Salvage Team and the impact of COVID-19. Previously, my colleagues Sarah Hamlyn and Nicole Monjeau discussed changes made to the Disaster Response Plans and team training in reaction to the evolving situation and types of risk. In this post, I reflect on my experience as a relatively new member of the Salvage Team, both prior to and during the lockdown.  

I joined the British Library Salvage Team in late 2019 as an additional aspect to my role as a Digitisation Conservator. I had previous experience of developing salvage plans at a National Trust property, so I was interested to build on this and compare the approaches of the different organisations. I also considered how joining the team would be a beneficial way of developing my knowledge of the Library and its collections, and working more closely with colleagues in the conservation department and from across the organisation. Becoming a member of the Salvage Team requires going through an application process because, in addition to experience of working with collections, members must demonstrate that they are able to remain calm in an emergency, adapt to diverse situations and make decisions under pressure.

Close up view of part of the first page of the induction checklist.
Copy of the induction checklist.

Acceptance to the Salvage Team is followed by a thorough period of induction. It is essential that team members become familiar with the site, existing procedures and the location of emergency supplies and equipment. My main concern upon joining was my limited knowledge of the building, due to its size and complexity and because, as a relatively new member of staff, I had not yet gained the familiarity that develops with time. Some of the most useful training activities for me, therefore, were orientation exercises conducted within the different storage areas. As well as independent induction tasks, I joined the regular team training programme (For more information on training, see the second blog post in the series.) I found the induction process to be positive, detailed and methodical, with a checklist to ensure that each area of activity had been completed. The content of the training served as a reminder that, despite thorough planning, incidents are unpredictable and response must be adapted to each case; which the current situation exemplifies.  

Three people looking at a floor plan of an exhibition together.
Team members taking part in an exhibition orientation exercise.

I had not yet finished the full course of induction training when lockdown came into place. My immediate concerns were accessing information, (the shared phones containing the salvage manual were with those who were last on call), and travelling to site.  However, both of these areas were rapidly attended to. Team members were issued with written authorisation to travel in an emergency and instructions of how to book a contracted taxi. We then received copies of the salvage manual and briefing notes detailing revised procedures, which I found particularly important for understanding what was expected of me during this time. A positive outcome is the change to using WhatsApp in place of email for reporting in for duty and general communications. I have found it reassuring that I receive a reminder of who is on call, and the group contact has aided team cohesion. As the lockdown progressed, I grew mindful about further potential challenges, such as managing a salvage response with the requirements for social distancing, navigating the building with the new one-way system in place and responding efficiently having had a long break from my usual work routines. However, the provision of a remote training programme and the regular interaction and feedback sessions that resulted from this, have been constructive and valuable factors in remaining connected and reducing uncertainty.  

Feedback shared during a remote training session.
View of a computer screen displaying written training feedback.

The combination of reading, videos, elearning, written exercises and discussions that comprised the remote training proved an effective learning method. This supported different learning styles and enabled subject areas to be considered from multiple perspectives, providing a more complete picture. Due to the variety of the sources, I learned about incidents and organisations that I was not previously aware of, which were often international examples in which priorities differed to those of the UK. A particularly relevant case for conservators is the Florence Flood of 1966, which is known as a pivotal event in the development of conservation as a profession, but which I had not studied in detail before. I found the discussion sessions especially helpful not only for confirming that others shared the same thoughts, but for filling the gaps in my knowledge and highlighting aspects that I had not considered. It has also been interesting to hear team members’ suggestions and contribute new ideas prompted by study. In the absence of being able to carry out physical practices, this remote training programme has maintained motivation, engagement and skills development.   

Two ©Playmobil figures, wearing personal protective equipment, are shown carrying a miniature book between them.
Team work

The response to the unprecedented impact of COVID-19 has necessitated flexibility and ability to adapt to an unfolding situation, which are fortunately qualities that members of the Salvage Team already possess. Though this time has been a steep learning curve for all, it has felt that the Salvage Team has become more resilient and creative as a consequence, with this difficult period resulting in a re-focusing of our purpose and approach.

Lizzie Fuller, Digitisation Conservator

03 September 2020

Salvage training during lockdown

This is the second of three blog posts in a series about the British Library’s Salvage Team, and the adjustments made to the Team during the COVID-19 lockdown. In a previous post, my colleague Sarah Hamlyn discussed how our Salvage Team normally operates and shared changes we’ve made during lockdown. Below, I am going to tell you about how our training for the Team has changed.

Pre-lockdown training

In order to ensure the Salvage Team is not only up-to-date in their knowledge of our salvage procedures but also confident and capable if they are called out during an incident, regular training for the team is a must. Pre-lockdown, our training programme involved a variety of exercises which touched on a range of aspects related to salvage and emergency preparedness.

When a new member is appointed to the Salvage Team, they go through an induction period with a number of different training exercises. This includes information on how the Salvage Team works, an exercise to get new members used to our salvage phones and the documents on them, a series of exercises that help acquaint us with various areas of the building, and a series of practical exercises so we get a sense of what it’s like to pick up wet collection items, how to freeze items, how to vacuum freeze items, and how to vacuum seal items. 

Nicole is dressed in a white Tyvek suit, face mask, and blue Nitrile gloves. She is placing a bagged book in the vacuum sealing machine.
Vacuum sealing training during my induction to the Salvage Team

In addition to induction training for new team members, we also implement a regular programme of refresher training for the whole team throughout the year. Some of these exercises follow a very regular pattern. For example, we carry out an exercise prior to the opening of each exhibition, so our team members are familiar with the exhibition itself as well the priority items which need to be salvaged first in the event of an incident. 

The team members stand close together to fill out a paper document.
Two team members work together to complete an exhibition salvage exercise

There are also exercises to refresh our minds about other aspects of salvage. Some recent examples include:

A salvage exercise to remind team members how the phones work – The team was instructed to answer a variety of questions, the answers to which were found in various documents on our phones. 

Two questions which ask: 1) On which colour phone screen do you find a map of floor 1? and What does EMS stand for and in what phone document do you find this answer?
The first part of the phone refresher exercise.

A salvage trolley restock exercise - Team members were given the task of locating one salvage trolley, which tested our navigation skills around the building. We then brought this back to a sorting area, which was set up with a variety of new materials that the salvage trolleys were restocked with. This exercise helped in two ways—it allowed us to replace old salvage materials with new, up-to-date items, and it also gave each team member first-hand knowledge of what each trolley contains. This would help us remember the type of materials found in each trolley. 

 



Salvage exercises in lockdown

Prior to lockdown, we had just appointed a new member to the Salvage Team, and they needed to continue with induction training. So one of the first tasks was to consider how to take training around salvage trolley locations which usually happens on-site, and turn it into an exercise that could be done from home. We ended up utilising the maps and trolley content information that is normally housed on the phones, and stored on the Library’s computer drives in pdf files, and asked questions that could be answered by referencing these documents. This would at least get the team member acquainted with what types of materials are found in our salvage trolleys, and they’d also have a general awareness of where the trolleys were found. In addition, they would be aware that these documents are found on the salvage phones, and if an incident were to occur they could use the phone to help them locate the nearest trolley. 

Two questions which ask: 1) What does the Salvage Trolley contain that could help you transport a selection of wet books to the freezer? and 2) Where is the freezer?
Part of the trolley induction exercise.

We also knew we needed a way to maintain a regular salvage training programme during lockdown for the whole team. There is risk that without being in the building regularly, you might not only forget what used to be everyday things about the Library, but salvage procedures could be forgotten as well. If you’re called out, you may find yourself feeling even more flustered than usual.  Additionally, as mentioned in Sarah’s blog post, our salvage phones which contain guidance on how to respond to an incident were with the people who had them last before lockdown, so this guidance would not be easily accessible for most of us should we be called out. So we decided to create a series of exercises which could be done from Salvage Team members’ homes.

But how to carry out an exercise from home? Well, we utilised what would be readily available to most people: material which is available online, including articles, videos, and eLearning modules.

We decided to send fortnightly exercises that walked the team through all the stages of emergency planning and the salvage process. This started at the very beginning with planning, and we sent the team links to the Museum of London Introduction to Emergency Planning elearning tool and the Collections Trust Emergency planning for collections webpage. We then asked them to answer the following question: In planning for emergencies, it’s recommended to mitigate risks to collections. Can you think of ways we have done this at the Library? Our exercises carried on in that vein, with topics including fire and flood case studies, decision making, and types of damage caused during a salvage incident, with a series of questions being asked relating to the resources in each exercise. 

With every two exercises complete, we gathered the team for Zoom meetings. Prior to these meetings, I collated all responses to the exercises, and decided how to present that information in a meeting, starting with simply sharing my screen and going through a Word document and eventually moving to making a more visual PowerPoint presentation. These meetings allowed team members to hear what other people thought and confirmed that on the whole we are considering the same issues. It was also a forum to raise questions and make suggestions. 

A computer monitor displaying a slide which says, 'What are some of the techniques in the videos that we might need to adapt if we were dealing with an incident at the Library? what would work for us and what wouldn't?' The text is white on a pink background and to the right of the monitor is a panel of participants in the Zoom meeting.
A slide from our feedback session via Zoom.

One highlight for me was a question where we asked people to tell us about incidents they’ve been involved in as well as lessons learnt when responding to these incidents. We got such great insights in these responses that we decided the responses should form their own exercise. This was a great way to share information with fellow team members and learn from one another.

Lessons learnt and next steps

In addition to this being a useful way to continue to train the team and to share knowledge, it was also a useful way for us to consider what might be missing from our plans and from the way the team operates. 

Throughout these training sessions, we’ve asked team members what would be useful to have in our own emergency plan and on our salvage phones. This has resulted in a number of suggestions which can indeed be implemented and will only improve our plan and responses to an incident. Some of these suggestions include: more training and involvement across the wider Library, particularly with other teams who would likely be responding to an incident; communicating with Salvage Teams from other institutions to compare notes; and visual aids like flow charts being added to the information stored on our phones. There were also a lot of requests for more team building through things like wash-ups after incidents and off-site exercises to get to know one another better.

The next step is to take all suggestions that have been made and to create an action plan. From there we can start to prioritise items and form our goals for the next year and beyond. We intend to involve the whole Salvage Team in putting together many of these objectives. Being one of the people who puts together training for the Team, I understand just how useful it is to create the training yourself. You form a better understanding of how our policies work, which will hopefully translate into making you a better responder should an incident happen. So by involving the whole team in future training and policy adjustments, we can all become better acquainted with our procedures. Additionally, it gives people ownership over the training they have requested.

Two Playmobil figures: one is pushing a trolley and the other holds BL-branded paperwork. They are set up to simulate a salvage scene.

Final thoughts

Overall this training has been a great way to learn from one another and to also push our own boundaries with regards to what we consider training. We are constantly looking to refresh and improve our training programme—after all, the better trained we are the better responders we will be—and this has shown us that we can adapt and be creative, and come up with exercises that suit not only a variety of learning styles but also a variety of working patterns.

Stay tuned for a blog post from Digitisation Conservator Lizzie, who will be sharing information about the Salvage Team from a perspective of someone who has been somewhat recently inducted.

Nicole Monjeau

Preventive Conservator

28 August 2020

Disaster Response Plans during COVID-19

The Conservation Department has a well-established emergency response system with Salvage Teams at both our London and West Yorkshire sites. Team members are on a callout rota and will work alongside other colleagues if we have an incident that threatens our collections.

On 23rd March this year, The UK Government announced a nationwide lockdown in response to COVID-19. We, like many others in the sector, had to re-evaluate our underlying assumptions about how we would respond to incidents affecting our collections. Countrywide we were now discouraged from travelling and asked to remain at home.

We are fortunate that our colleagues in the Estates, Health and Safety and Security teams have continued to work through lockdown, keeping our buildings and collections safe. This reduces the likelihood that the Salvage Team would need to be called out. However, we needed to make sure we understood when, and how, we could effectively respond if either Team were required.

Wet books used as props to train the Salvage Team in sorting and recovery techniques; the books are wet and warped.
A crate of wet and damaged books used in practical Salvage Team response and recovery training

Reviewing procedures

This meant we had to review our procedures in the midst of an unfolding situation. We had limited guidance and prior experience to refer to, and so worked methodically one step at a time. Firstly, we clarified what we were permitted to do under the lockdown restrictions and then considered what changes we needed to make to our procedures. The situation meant that we had to be flexible and we realised that any updates made could be subject to further change at a later stage.

Secondly, we needed to communicate any changes to the Salvage Team and other stakeholders, most of whom were now at home and not necessarily easily contactable.

Close up image of text on page
The aim was to produce clear updates to existing procedures

Team safety

Our primary consideration was the safety of the Salvage Team and other colleagues. We already have risk assessments covering normal salvage operations, so my colleague Emily Watts (Collection Care North Manager) and I began by drafting a COVID-19 specific health and safety risk assessment. The risk assessment covered all aspects of the response, from travel to safe working on site. Considerations included: Under what circumstances could the team travel? Were usual travel methods advisable? Were there personal considerations which meant that people preferred not to be on call at this time? 

Any changes that we made also needed to reflect site differences. For example, in West Yorkshire, most people drive while in London, the majority of the team is reliant on public transport.

Secondly, while we always consider the option of providing advice without being on site, we worked through this in more detail to reduce further the likelihood that anyone would be needed on site. If there was a need to attend, could team members arrange to arrive at the point when they were needed? What practical help could we provide remotely and what did we need to be on site to do?

Risks to collection

At the same time, I was taking part in a separate exercise to assess risks to collections during this period. It is natural to assume that while buildings are closed, risks also increase. However, while some may increase, others reduce. The risk assessment evaluated how the picture had changed and identified any increased risks. The outcomes enabled us to identify any mitigation that was needed, for example, regular on-site checks or closer liaison with colleagues who were on site.

Briefing notes communicated the risk assessment outcomes to the Salvage Team. We also briefed our key stakeholders; this ensured that there was a common understanding of the measures in place should there be an incident during this period.

As time has moved on, the lockdown has eased. We have started to reoccupy and open our buildings, and the risk assessment - as a living document - can be revisited and updated.

Practical salvage operations

Once on-site, we needed to consider how the Team could work safely. We needed to think about how the requirement for social distancing could be incorporated when, by its nature, salvage operations rely on close physical working with colleagues.

We have a range of PPE available to the team, but rather than this being selected in response to the incident, we now ask that people don specific items from their arrival on site. In terms of revised procedures, we want to maintain flexibility and not be too prescriptive. We are therefore encouraging Salvage Team members to plan the response carefully to limit the need for close working wherever possible. The Team have been encouraged to raise issues and, ultimately, told to cease operations if they have concerns.

Small adjustments to workflows can be made to ensure social distancing, but there is a knock-on impact. For example, we can minimise activities that do require people to work together closely, such as sheeting up with plastic. We can encourage the use of tools, such as trolleys, rather than passing items from person to person or moving them in pairs. However, we need to accept that this will mean that working methods are less efficient and so could take longer. Team members may also need to rotate more frequently and work shorter shifts, and have more breaks.

By contrast, working remotely, we have realised that video calling software creates more options to provide an immediate off-site response or to have a hybrid response with some team members on-site and others providing assistance from home.

Four Playmobil figures, wearing personal protective equipment, are shown using emergency response equipment
It was important to ensure the Salvage Team felt safe if they were called out

Responding to emergencies

By working out what the significant risks were, and combining this with the need to ensure staff safety, we could then look at how this would affect our response.

As an example, our system is based on us using a series of pool phones which contain our salvage manual in a set of small files. This structure enables the user to navigate to the content that they want rather than wading through a long document to find the relevant section. Each week, those on-call pick up their allocated salvage phone and then return it at the end of their duty week. Now the phones were with those who last used them with no mechanism to swap them between us.

A priority for me was to ensure that everyone still had this information in some form when they were on-call. Provided as long-form documents, this reinforced how well the small bite-size files works. I'm currently working with our IT department to investigate options to switch from using the pool phones to using secure collaborative tools. These can be accessed on a range of devices, ensuring easier access to all Salvage Team resources by multiple users. Changing systems also presents an opportunity to save costs on handsets and data contracts.

One thing we did maintain was our usual rota system whereby the Team members on-call that week report in by email every Monday morning. However, during the lockdown, we have been using WhatsApp (a group messaging app). Communications go to all team members at once, which means that there is less chance of missing a notification if someone can't do their duty or needs to call out the whole team. Again collaborative working tools provide more sophisticated messaging options which could simplify this further.

Some short term changes to procedures, introduced to cover the lockdown period and early stages of reoccupation, are no longer needed.  However, if the need arose, we could reinstate them. Remote working has also reinforced those temporary procedures that work well which we want to continue to use.

 Identical information is shown on a phone screen and on a piece of paper to illustrate differences in ease of use
The benefits of short electronic files were clear when compared with long form documents

Staying in touch

One of the on-going risks we identified was the challenge of keeping distributed Salvage Team members in contact. Team cohesion is critical; successful incident response depends on everyone working together as a team and supporting each other. Not all team members typically work closely together, and those that do were now physically separated. We have recently recruited three new team members to the London Salvage Team, one of whom had not begun their induction process. It was important to me that they and their colleagues felt supported in this unprecedented situation and so we started to think about how best to do this.

Over the last 18 months, I have completely revised the Salvage Team induction training. One of the new additions is a module around decision-making. This involved looking back at actual incidents to discuss what had occurred, how people were alerted, who did what and how decisions were made. New team members who have completed this fed back that they felt reassured by this and much clearer about their role in an emergency. An outstanding action was for existing Team Members to attend the same session.

We have also been offering individual training exercises, for induction training and general refresher training alongside as group exercises. Feedback from these had been positive as people could complete them at their convenience and own pace. We realised that offering similar activities, to be completed at home, would deliver a double benefit. It was a way of keeping the Salvage Team in contact while also ensuring that their skills and knowledge are maintained.

A slide from a decision-making training presentation, which outlines key principles, is displayed on laptop screen
A presentation on decision-making is a key part of the Salvage Team induction process

In the next blog, my colleague Nicole Monjeau will explain more about this training programme and how it has developed into something much more valuable than we'd envisaged.

Sarah Hamlyn

Lead Preventive Conservator