THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Collection Care blog

86 posts categorized "Preservation"

29 November 2018

Dealing with computer viruses in digital collections

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Evanthia Samaras, PhD placement - Digital Preservation 

Malware, or ‘malicious software’ such as computer viruses are a significant digital collection care challenge. The British Library collects a large range of digital content, so it is important that we identify any malware that could potentially put the digital collections, or our users, at risk. We also need to properly consider the question: How should we deal with malware-infected materials in digital collections?

Virus_Checking_Blog

How do we identify malware?

The Library has strict processes in place to check for malware in digital collections. For example:

  • As part of our Flashback disk imaging project, we have scanned over 16,000 floppy, CD and DVD discs from the 1980s to 2000s for malware using anti-virus software. Infected items are then moved to a designated ‘quarantine’ area.
  • For websites collected as part of the UK Web Archive, the Library scans every file collected (over several billion files each year!). Website files infected with malware are quarantined and ‘deactivated’ using an encryption tool so that the files cannot be read or opened (see this blog for more information).

Compared to other institutions around the world, we actually do more virus checking than many other libraries (especially for our web archives).

What are the options for dealing with malware?

The four main options for dealing with malware-infected material are:

  • Discard the malware.
  • Put aside and quarantine (then process at a later date).
  • Fix them (try to remove malware).
  • Try to get another clean version from publisher/donor.

There is also another option: Keeping the malware as a collection in its own right.

Should we collect malware?

Scholars such as Jonathan Farbowitz of New York University argue that we should be preserving malware. He suggests that:

Malware is a form of cultural heritage and an important part of the historical record… If malware were not preserved, a significant portion of contemporary computer users’ experiences as well as the “texture” of the internet and of computing itself would be lost (pp. 10, 12).

If the British Library were to start forming collections of malware, how could we ensure they are maintained safely over time?

Computer security and anti-virus software companies collect examples of malware for research and development (see the Anti-Malware Testing Standards Organization’s Real-Time Threat List). Therefore, it is indeed possible to keep malware in controlled environments over time to facilitate study.

But it is less clear whether libraries should take custodianship of such material. Could it jeopardise the ongoing care of our digital collections?

Malware in the future

It is expected that the British Library will have to deal with malware for many years to come. Making sure our collections remain safe and usable for our readers is a priority for the Library. Yet it is also important that we consider what our readers may want to access in the future. Perhaps malware could be a collection in its own right? But for now, we will continue to tread with caution when dealing with malware in our digital collections.

23 November 2018

Conservation Cats: An Exhibition

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Cats on the Page’ is a free exhibition now open in the front entrance hall of the British Library running until Sunday 17 March 2019.

Have you ever wondered how all the items for an exhibition are prepared?

Once the exhibition concept has been approved and the curators have chosen all the items that they would like to display in the exhibition, conservation becomes involved.

We start by examining each item and checking for the following things:

  • Condition: is it in a condition that is stable for display?
  • Treatment: does it require any conservation treatment to make it stable for display? If so, how much?
  • Display: How is it going to be displayed, does it need any special mounting?
  • Vulnerability: Is it particularly sensitive to light or environmental changes?
  • Touring: Is it suitable for display at multiple venues?

Trolley

Any exhibition can have between 100 – 300 items selected for display and are spread over many different departments, so assessing each item can be time consuming.

Orlando  Cat books

Once everything has been assessed anything that requires treatment is arranged to be delivered to the conservation studio, this will usually be about 4-5 months prior to the install of the exhibition (or longer if needed due to high amounts of treatment required).

All items arriving in the conservation studio are brought up on a ticket which has a special code for the conservation department. Not only this, but everything is also entered into our ‘tracker’ book, which allows everything to be signed in and out of the studio.

The types of treatments that we undertake in preparation for an exhibition can range from simple treatments such tear repairs to the opening page or more in-depth treatments such as board attachments and pigment consolidation. Due to the high number of items that need preparation for exhibition, anything that requires more than 10 hours of treatment will generally be removed from the exhibition list and handed over to the Conservation collection care teams for full treatment.

This copy of ‘Puss in Boots’ is a pop-up book that was just one of the items that required treatment prior to going on display.

Puss in Boots

Pop-up books are inherently fragile because of the moving parts but this book is also made from very poor quality card that has become very acidic and brittle over the years. It required some minor treatment in preparation for its inclusion into the exhibition.

Pop up book  Pop up book open

The Exhibitions team order custom made book supports for each book, specific to the page opening.

Setting up

The book is strapped to the book cradle, using Melinex® strapping to help it stay open during the exhibition. It is then ready to be installed into the showcase by the Exhibitions install team with the other material.

Exhibition

The variety of different books and artworks have highlighted the love of our furry friends, ‘Cats on the Page’ is open for three months and free to visit, so don’t miss this lovely exhibition!

 

Alexa McNaught-Reynolds, Conservation Exhibition and Loan Manager

19 November 2018

What’s in a box?

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Well, mostly books and newspapers, but other objects in the British Library collection too. We do this at our Boston Spa, West Yorkshire site, where the Collection Care North team are based. They make around 15,000 boxes a year.

What do we box?

  • Legal Deposit newspapers, national and regional titles.
  • Damaged books.
  • Books that have received conservation treatment.
  • Fragile and/or valuable books.
  • 3D objects, for example the 3,000 year old Chinese oracle bones, artefacts from the Punch Magazine archive.

IMG_1267

Some of the Chinese Oracle bones in their storage box.

IMG_6198

Repaired book with a phase box.

How do we make boxes?

We have two digital flatbed cutting machines that cut and crease the card for us. The only manual bit is placing a sheet of box board on the machine and taking the cut out board and folding it into the box.

Boxing 1
Six boxes cut out of one sheet of box board, ready for folding.

The machine has three tool heads:

  • A blade to the cut the card.
  • A creasing wheel that marks out the folds.
  • A pen that we can use to write the book or object information on the outside of the box, so no need for sticky labels. 

Zund tool head

Left to right: cutting blade; creasing wheel, pen.

There are a few different designs of box that we use depending on what item the box is for. All of our boxes are made to a bespoke size. If the item is stored/arrived at Boston Spa we measure them on site. If any boxes are requested for items in St. Pancras, then the measurements are sent to us.

Book measurer 2
Book/newspaper measurer.

The boxes have to fit snugly to the item so that it can’t move around inside. This is particularly important for the newspapers that are boxed. Several editions go in one box; a weeks’ worth of one national title, or a months’ worth of a regional paper. If the box is too big and allows the newspapers inside to move about, this will cause them damage, but it will also potentially cause problems in the store. The National Newspaper Building at Boston Spa is home to the National Newspaper Archive. The building is a high density store, with capacity to store 60 million newspapers. To aid fast retrieval of requested items from the shelves, which are 20 meters high, robotic cranes operate in the store. If a box was too big for a bundle of newspapers and they moved about inside as they were being retrieved this could cause the crane to malfunction with the unexpected shift in weight of the box.

Box board

We use four different types of box board. There are two main differences between them; thickness and structural design. We use a solid card in thicknesses of 6.5 mm and 1 mm, and a corrugated card in thicknesses of 1.1 mm and 1.3 mm. The type of box board chosen depends on the size and weight of the item being boxed.

C card
Sample of 1.3 mm thick corrugated box board.

The corrugated card is stronger, so used on very big or heavy books. However it is thicker and will take up more space on a shelf, so we can’t box everything in the strongest card if it doesn’t require it and a thinner card will offer the necessary protection.

Boxing 3
Boxes ready for folding.

Advantages of boxing

  • A large range of designs available to suit all kinds of objects, made to bespoke measurements.
  • Reduces potential physical damage caused by handling and transport.
  • Protects against dust and other contaminants.
  • Buffers against changes in temperature and relative humidity. Incorrect levels of either can lead to chemical and physical deterioration.
  • Quick and efficient option to protect fragile/vulnerable/damaged items.

IMG_3280

Collection Care Support Assistant operating one of the digital flatbed cutting machines.

Disadvantages of boxing

  • By placing an item in a box, we are making the item bigger, even if only by millimetres, so a boxed item will take up more room on a shelf.

So if you ever receive an item in one of the British Library reading rooms or from our remote supply service and it’s in a box, that item is probably fragile - so please handle carefully. Boxes proudly made in Yorkshire!

 

Emily Watts, Collection Care North Manager

10 September 2018

Rehousing two 12th century charters

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

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

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

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

Before Pictures:

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

Original frame and condition 

Sealed with tape Frame condition

Charter with Seal of Henry I, in original housing.

Charter with Seal of Henry I Board backing

Charter is fixed directly to board backing.

Original housing

Charter with Seal of Henry II, in original housing.

Backing Removal

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

Backing removal Seal tubes

Cotton wool protection

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

Separating parchment from backing board

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

Backing board removal 1 Backing board removal 2

Backing board removal 3 Backing board removal 4

Backing board removal detail

Tools used for backing removal.

Tools

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

Skim of paper backing

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

Additional writing discovered

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

Grainy texture on seal Consolidation

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

Planned tabs

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

Light Japanese tissue Tissue splints

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

Uniform tabs Tab preparation

Example tab Example tab 2

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

Plastezote slits Plastezote slits 2

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

Within its new mount board:

Charter on foam New mount board

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

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

09 August 2018

Handle Books with Care

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

Risks to books

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

Book supports and weights

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

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

Foam Support  Cradle and Cushion  Cushion
From left to right: A book on foam supports, a cradle with a cushion, and a cushion, with snake weights preventing the pages from springing upwards.

Now let’s discuss specific binding styles.

Flexible tight back books

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

FTB Damage  FTB Partial
Left: Vertical cracking along the spine of a rigid tight back book (please note that this image, along with all others, shows a sample book and not a collection item; books should not normally be placed on their foredge). Right: A partially bound flexible tight back with minimal lining between the text block and the leather covering.

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

Flexible Tight Back

A flexible tight back book on foam book supports with spine support piece.

Rigid tight back

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

Loose Boards  Rigid Tight Back Detail
Left: Whilst not a rigid tight back, this image does show a book with its boards detached—this type of damage is common with rigid tight back books. Right: A partially bound rigid tight back showing a more built up spine: book board is present between the text block and leather, highlighted in the white square.

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

Rigid Back Book on Foam Supports

A rigid tight back book on foam book supports; note the pages springing up rather than lying flat.

Case bindings

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

Case Binding 1  Case Binding 2
Left: Showing the piece of paper adhering the textblock to the case. Right: The text block has split from the case, causing some pages to detach and the textblock as a whole to be loose.

Perfect bindings

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

Perfect Binding 1_Edited  Case Binding 2
Left and right: The pages have detached from the cover of this book.

Safe handling

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

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

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

Happy #NationalBookLoversDay!

Nicole Monjeau

02 July 2018

Unravelling an archaeological silk bundle

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MPhil student Clara Low is studying Textile Conservation at the University of Glasgow. As part of her course she is completing a placement for six weeks between her first and second year, here at the British Library.

The following images were taken by Clara whilst she worked on the unfolding of a silk bundle. The Tangut silk fragment was excavated in Kharakhoto (western Gobi desert) in 1914 by Aurel Stein. Clara used controlled humidification to enable this process. She worked with Vania Assis, paper conservator for the International Dunhuang Project and Liz Rose, textile conservator. See the amazing results below.

Silk bundle

Or 12380/3665 before conservation. 

Silk bundle unravelled

Or 12380/3665 during conservation – revealing a printed design.

Fragment

Or 12380/3665 - Clara working on the fragment.

Silk bundle after conservation

Or 12380/3665 after conservation – reverse showing characters, (bottom left), seams and stitching.

Silk bundle after conservation obverse

Or 12380/3665 after conservation – obverse showing characters and printed stars (bottom right).

Silk character detail

Or 12380/3665 after conservation – detail of characters.

Can anyone tell us what it says?

 

Update: many thanks to Andrew West for a speedy solution:

AndrewWest

Bird design

26 June 2018

Preventive Conservation Work Placement

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My name is Elena Verticchio and I have just completed a 3-month voluntary work placement with the Preventive Conservation team of the British Library. As a recent graduate in Science and Technology for the Conservation of Cultural Heritage at La Sapienza University of Rome, my particular interest lies in preventive conservation, which employs scientific knowledge to minimise the deterioration of collections. The importance of this multi-disciplinary approach to conservation is ever increasing and good expertise in the issues related to preventive activities is an integral part of most of the job specifications in the field.

Feeling that there was limited access to formal preventive conservation training, I was looking for internships to enrich my expertise as well as allowing me to become familiar with a new working environment. I was able to reach my goal thanks to an Italian Call for Proposals supported by EU funds1, which financed my project aimed at defining the role of preventive conservator in libraries and archives.

During my work placement here, I was given the opportunity to work closely with the professionals of one of the most prestigious cultural institutions in the world. The office is based at the BLCC (British Library Conservation Centre), but the Preventive Conservation team carries out varied activities throughout many areas of the main building as well as working with colleagues at the Boston Spa site in West Yorkshire.

Environmental monitor  It's a trap

Shadowing conservators, I have been delivering handling awareness training, environmental monitoring and pest management, as well as practising the craft of bookbinding in the conservation studio. In the science laboratory, I had a taste of the analytical equipment and tools used in the analysis and tests on a range of materials, such as the Oddy testing technique, the A-D strips to detect acetate film deterioration and the use of infrared spectroscopy and portable XRF.

In February, I took part in voluntary activities to engage visitors in the Library at the Harry Potter: A history of Magic family day, where I helped engage children in the crafting of their own little spell books. 

Family day

My tasks included collaborating to keep environmental records updated, collecting thermo-hygrometric sensors for calibration and in the regular substitution of the blunder sticky traps used to monitor pests. Also, I was involved in weekly departmental meetings as well as in team meetings to draft the Work Programme for the year 2018-2019, where I could have a wider insight into the variety of activities carried out and I could learn a lot about planning, time management and how to ensure the workflow as part of the role of a preventive conservator.

More recently, I participated in the installation of the upcoming James Cook: The Voyages exhibition and I got involved in the salvage exercise aimed to alert salvage team members to priority items on display. 

Salvage team plans

Salvage preparation. Left to right: Eszter Matyas, Elena Verticchio and Lorraine Holmes.

As an emerging professional, I was seeking to gain a thorough insight into the job and confidence for my future employability. My experience here at the British Library has proved to be hugely beneficial to me, giving me the opportunity to bridge the gap between my academic studies and my professional career. Once back in Italy, I will begin a new internship at the Institute of Restoration and Conservation of Library and Archival heritage based in Rome (IC-RCPAL). I thoroughly enjoyed this experience and I am really looking forward to using the skills I have learned to share the knowledge of the best practices in preventive conservation. 

This blog post is to thank all the conservators who shared their time and experience with me to make me grow as an emerging professional. A special mention goes to the amazing Preventive Conservation team: Sarah Hamlyn (Lead Preventive Conservator), Karen Bradford (Collection Care Monitoring Conservator), Nicole Monjeau (Preventive Conservator) and Paul Garside (Conservation Scientist). Should you have any questions, you can contact me by email at elenaverticchio21@gmail.com.

Elena Verticchio

1I participated in a Call for Proposals for the Programme of initiatives “TORNO SUBITO 2017” aimed at university students or graduates. The grants are comprised of two phases: the first outside the Lazio region at host locations to carry out training or work experience and the second within the Lazio region at host locations (public or private). My project aimed at defining the role of preventive conservator in libraries and archives, gaining experience in major institutions in the field. The first phase included a shared internship between the British Library and the London Metropolitan Archives; the latter, back in Italy, will be hosted in the Institute of Restoration and Conservation of Library and Archival heritage based in Rome (IC-RCPAL).  

16 April 2018

A Taste of Training

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My name is Nicole Monjeau, and I am a Preventive Conservator here at the British Library. I am new to both preventive conservation and the Library, and I thought I would write my first blog post about one of my favourite aspects of my new role—training.

I come from a paper conservation background, and one of the things I enjoyed most about my previous roles was outreach. I loved sharing information about conservation with the public and with colleagues, and found it fulfilling to have such engaged and interested listeners. Collection care awareness is one of the things which drew me to this role, and I was excited to dive right in.

Nicole Monjeau
Cheesing it up in front of our display table.

One of my first tasks upon starting at the Library was to help carry out handling training during Doctoral Open Days for PhD students. These sessions introduce PhD students to the range of research materials available in the British Library and specialist curators and other postgraduate students from across the UK.

During these events, myself and my colleagues spoke with PhD students about the best ways to handle books and other collection items whilst carrying out research at the Library. We showed some tools which can be utilised to make handling easier, such as foam supports to properly support books and snake weights to help hold book pages down gently. The final PhD Open Day in late February provided even more opportunity for outreach. In addition to handling training, we were able to show off some of the conservation tools and techniques we use when treating collection items. This proved to be quite popular, with the PhD students enjoying the opportunity to learn about tear repairs and bookbinding in addition to handling.

These PhD Open Days were a nice introduction to collection care awareness, and a nice way to ease into the training that the Preventive Conservation team does. The Preventive team are now preparing to deliver a series of collection care training sessions to a variety of staff members across the Library, and my experience at the Doctoral Open Days will prove helpful. It’s allowed me to become familiar with our training material and has also helped me to gain confidence in conducting a training session.

Table display
Our table at one of the PhD Open Days.

Carrying out training has also meant that I’ve been involved in a variety of training-related activities. I have been working on creating a poster and pamphlets which can be used during training sessions. The pamphlets will hopefully be a helpful guide which people can use to remind themselves of how best to support and handle collection materials, and the poster will be a nice visual aid during training sessions.

PhD Open Day
Taking new photographs for our training material.

Poster Design

Sketching out the poster design.

It’s also been a pleasure to work with a wide variety of colleagues in the British Library Centre for Conservation. It’s great fun to work with people from different backgrounds, and this only helps our training sessions to be more informative and useful. A big thank you to everyone who has helped the Preventive Team carry out training!

19 February 2018

Digitising books as objects: The invisible made visible

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Raking light

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

Normal light Raking light

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

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

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

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

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

Codex Sinaiticus ruled Scraping of the surface
In the previous images the source of light is now helping us to appreciate this famous manuscript on a completely different level.

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

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

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

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

Letter from Emir Letter from Emir raking light
In this image we see the images of a letter sent by the Emir of Bagdad in 1899 to Lord Curzon when he was appointed Viceroy of India, first taken with normal and then with ‘raking light’. In the first image the letter is just a sheet of paper beautifully arranged and decorated with writing. In the second image the light tells us a completely different story; it shows us the use of this letter, the way it was folded and the number of folds it had.

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

Transmitted light

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

Watermark

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

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

Laid and wove paper Transmitted light India Office Records

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

Visualization of the physical collation of manuscripts

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

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

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

Book structure digitisation

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

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

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

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

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

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

13 February 2018

Conservation Internship in Digitisation (British Library, The National Archives, Bodleian Libraries)

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Salary £21,000 pa
Full Time (36 hours per week over 5 days)
Fixed-Term 2-years (9 months British Library, 9 months The National Archives, 6 months Bodleian Libraries, Oxford)

The link to the vacancies website is here

This is a training internship designed to equip an emerging conservation professional with the skills necessary for developing a career in managing and supporting digitisation work. The internship will be co-hosted by The British Library, The National Archives and the Bodleian Libraries with each institution offering complementary but distinct experience over a 24 month period. It is intended that the internship will present the role of a Digitisation Conservator as a newly emerging discipline and will support a current skills gap in the sector. The internship is funded by the Clothworkers’ Foundation.

The British Library is the national library of the United Kingdom and one of the world’s leading research libraries. The National Archives are the official archive and publisher for the UK government and guardians of over 1,000 years of iconic national documents. Bodleian Libraries provide a world-leading library service to support the University of Oxford in research and education. All three institutions continually digitise collections to enable greater access and preservation for current and future users.

Whilst digitisation involves creating a digital image of an object using a camera or scanner- this is but one element of a complex work flow. Specialist conservation support is also an integral component of the procedure. Condition assessments and surveys, conservation treatment that enables image capture, project planning involving numerous stakeholders and development of methods and equipment to digitise complex and non-standard items all fall into the remit of a Digitisation Conservator.

The internship is available to conservators who have graduated in the last 2 years, have limited work experience in conservation, and who wish to develop their career in supporting digitisation. The successful candidates will have a book or paper conservation qualification(s) (an MA in conservation would be desirable).

At the end of the internship you will be required give a presentation of your work and learning to the internship host institutions.

The internship has a bursary that will be paid on a monthly basis and is subject to tax, and is open to those who have the right to live and work in the UK.

The Job Role

You will work as part of existing teams of Digitisation Conservators, Imaging specialists, Project Managers, Curatorial and subject specialist staff to plan and undertake digitisation of collection items at the British library, The National Archives, Bodleian Libraries.

The projects will vary in size, from individual items to thousands of items and will cover a range of formats from books, archives, manuscripts and objects. Projects may be commercially funded, philanthropically funded or funded by the institution. You will work to agreed miles stones and deadlines for the projects.

Main Tasks

To complete, under supervision, treatments on books, manuscripts and paper based items from the Collections at the host institutions selected for digitisation. This will include:

  • Assessment of items to determine their suitability for digitisation.
  • Developing and undertaking treatment to ensure the improved condition, longevity and accessibility of collection items to enable digitisation.
  • Making decisions about appropriate procedures to use on each item, and therefore self-management to plan and organise work effectively in order to meet wider project timescales and workflows.

Update project documentation, including databases and spreadsheets.

Order collection items from storage areas to the imaging studio for assessment, preparation and digitisation, liaising with library assistants for delivery.

Assist imaging colleagues with queries regarding the collection care aspects of digitising collection items. Assist imaging colleagues when scanning or photographing fragile material.

To role model collection security at all times and ensures collection items are stored securely.

Liaise with the project managers and conservation managers to give regular updates on project progress and highlight any issues.

To take responsibility for own continuous professional development and monitor own learning against an agreed learning plan.

To keep accurate written records detailing treatments undertaken on each individual job, time spent, recording methodology, techniques and results of treatments.

Assist in administrative work as/when required. Attend project meetings when required.

The post holder will be required to participate in Conservation and project related public programmes, talking to members of the public and to represent the work of their studio or area, when required.

Ensure that they have knowledge of and observe the appropriate COSHH (Control of Substances Hazardous to Health) regulations, and follow the recommendations for the safe handling and use of chemicals, materials and equipment and general health & safety controls in all areas of their work and to participate in/co-operate with the risk assessment process.

Expected to demonstrate a willingness to take on a range of tasks and to develop new skills, as appropriate, in own or other departments/directorates to support the delivery of the institutions services as required by line management.

Essential Criteria for the Internship

Must have graduated in the last 2 years with a degree in book conservation or in paper conservation. Be able to demonstrate relevant conservation skills, including diagnostic, remedial and research skills.

Be able to demonstrate the benefits of the internship to their professional development and interest in conservation for supporting digitisation.

Good written and verbal communication skills, including the ability to communicate preferred treatment options and implications of these options, ability to write reports and to produce clear documentation.

Good time management skills in order to prioritise workloads and meet tight project deadlines.

An understanding of, and ability to apply the professional code of ethics to practical conservation projects.

Able to work in a team with other professional staff within communal studio space, contributing to the maintenance and management of shared equipment and space.

The right to work in the UK.

Good computer skills in Microsoft Word, PowerPoint and Excel.

Additional Information

The time spent in each institution will be divided as follows and in this order:
British Library – 9 months
The National Archives - 9 months
Bodleian Libraries – 6 months

A mentor who is involved with digitisation conservation projects and is experienced in the subject will be assigned to the intern in each institution, working closely with the intern and to monitor and evaluate progress. The intern will have regular 1:1 sessions with the mentor. An overall plan of work and major learning objectives will be agreed with the intern and 3 mentors at the outset but with detail of exact projects per institution to be decided more locally.

The intern will be expected to use any annual leave due to them during their time at that particular institution and cannot carry it over.

Candidates should note that the internship is for the period specified and does not lead to a permanent position at any of the host institutions.

How to Apply

Please email cordelia.rogerson@bl.uk attaching the following:

1. A letter of interest, which should include how the internship will benefit you and what skills and experience that you will bring to the British Library reflecting the list of criteria for the internship as stated in the Internship Profile.

2. An up to date CV.

3. Two or three examples from your portfolio for items you have worked on.

4. Name and contact details of two referees.

5. A statement indicating that you are able to work in the UK. Official documentation will be required if you are short listed for interview.

The closing date for applications is midnight on Sunday 4th March 2018.

Dr Cordelia Rogerson

Head of Collection Management South

If your application is short-listed, you will be invited for interview to take place around Mid-March 2018.