THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Collection Care blog

91 posts categorized "Preservation"

10 May 2019

All sewn up: British Library colleagues work together to ensure the survival of 100 embroidered and textile bookbindings

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Mary

Mary Horrell, Conservation Support Assistant, and Mark Oxtoby, Collection Care Workflow Coordinator

Ever wondered how centuries old textiles have endured whilst today’s t-shirt only lasts a season? Library colleagues from different departments have been working together to develop new ways to protect fragile embroidered and textile bookbindings.

The Felbrigge Psalter’s decorative 14c covers (pictured below) are the oldest known examples of English embroidery on a book and a prime example of the type of binding this project is working to protect. 

Felbrigge

Felbrigge Psalter

Although faded with areas of lost stitching the design is clearly visible. Luxury bookbindings like this have covers of fragile silk, satin, and velvet and are often decorated with pearls, sequins and gold and silver embroidery threads, all of which may require different approaches to conservation but should all be stored in a similar way.

The project to re-box collection items with ‘at risk’ embroidered and textile bookbindings has been ongoing since 2016 and has involved colleagues from various teams including; Conservation, Western Heritage Collections, Basements, Collection Care North and Reader and Reference Services.

Prayer book

C.108.aa.7: 17c English prayer book.  The design has a stunning trompe l’oeil effect which can still be seen despite the loose threads.  The spine piece has also been lost.

The first step of the project involved Maddy Smith, Curator Printed Heritage Collections, and Philippa Marks, Curator Bookbindings, selecting around 100 bindings which needed attention and preparing a preservation bid. Traditionally these items were boxed to resemble leather bindings on a library shelf, stored in sometimes abrasive slipcases, or in tight drop-back boxes lined with woollen fabric.

Maddy Smith

Maddy Smith (left) and Philippa Marks (right) reviewing some embroidered bindings.

Philippa says: ‘The Library’s collection of textile bookbindings is so rich that the problem regarding selection was not what to include, but what to exclude! An important first step was to identify the books which had been boxed in the past or were not protected at all. Boxing provided an effective and practical solution historically, but we now know some elements of the construction can put bindings at risk. Today conservators have a choice of modern materials, all of which have been tested by Paul Garside, Conservation Scientist, and will remain stable and protect the textile and embroidered surfaces’.

Zoom in

C.183.aa.6: enlargement of 16c English binding shows red and green embroidery threads, metallic coils and sequins which have oxidised (blackened).

At this point it was down to the Library’s Textile Conservator Liz Rose to devise storage solutions to protect these fragile bindings. Liz was invited to attend an embroidered books rehousing workshop at the Herzogin Anna Amelia Bibliothek in Weimar, Germany, where conservators from Germany, France and Austria discussed storage and handling solutions for these delicate structures to both prolong their lifecycle and enable access.

Liz says: ‘It was a privilege to be the only textile conservator invited to attend the workshop. The organiser, Jonah Marenlise Hölscher, from the Anna Amelia Bibliothek had visited St Pancras in early 2016.’

Late 16thc

C.23.a.26: enlargement of late 16c binding design comprising pearls.

Following this workshop Liz pursued her idea of using standard sized phase boxes (these are archival storage boxes) lined with Plastazote®. The new boxes were made by Mark Oxtoby, Collection Care Workflow Coordinator in Boston Spa and then lined with removable Plastazote®, a type of foam. The bookbindings were wrapped in Bondina® (a smooth polyester tissue used for conservation).

Embroidery

C.65.k.9; enlargement of centrepiece of 16c Italian embroidered prayer book.

During the following period Liz and her colleague Mary Horrell, Conservation Support Assistant, consulted with colleagues from other Library departments to ensure that the change from 18c methods to the new approach was approved by all. Prototype phase boxes and bespoke inserts were constructed.

Peter Roberts, Basement 2 Manager, says: ‘The main consideration from the Operations side was how much extra storage space and what sort of storage would be needed when the items returned in expanded, padded boxes.'

‘We got an estimation of the expected dimensions, numbers and configuration of the new boxes from BLCC. We have begun moving four ranges of Case books (rare printed books) to provide enough shelf space to accommodate the new boxes and to ensure each item can be safely shelved. We recently attended a demonstration of the padded boxes so I will be able to brief my team on how to assemble the boxes and what to look out for if any parts go missing/get damaged with use.’

Wear

C.130.a.11; note the wear around the edges of the velvet covers of this 17c Danish binding and the raised decoration (called stump work).  The clasps (in the shape of a face) would cause damage to neighbouring books if not boxed.

The consultation stage of the project is now almost complete and a collection handling morning has taken place where Liz and Mary demonstrated the new storage solution to colleagues across the Library.

Philippa concludes: ‘I was so impressed by the way colleagues worked together, each using their individual skills and experience to ensure that these items, some of them 400 years old, last another 400 years ... at least!’

French binding

G.6319 19c French binding by Louis Janet. Enlargement shows the raised nap on the velvet covers at risk of abrasion.

09 April 2019

Consider the cover: conserving a Chinese book

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

The story of a book through its binding

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

Lost binding Chinese and Western book

The lost original binding: A Chinese and Western book

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

IJ Roberts Roberts title

The broken second binding: The British Library style

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

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

New conservation binding

The new conservation binding: Sympathetic to its origins

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

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

Binding tears Binding separation
Separation of binding
The tears and losses in the cover were repaired and the spine strengthened with a toned Japanese tissue paper and wheat starch.

RepairsJapanese paper repairs

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

Adding to the story of a book

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

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

Rebecca D'Ambrosio

18 February 2019

Condition Surveying British Library on Demand

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British Library on Demand (BLoD) is the document supply service from The British Library. Items are purchased specifically for the purpose, in addition to the legal deposit collection, to provide remote access to over 42 million items. Users include libraries, higher education institutions, individuals and commercial customers across the UK and internationally. Launched in 1962 as the National Lending Library, with a focus on Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM), at its peak in the mid - late 1990s, four million requests were received a year. Items can be supplied as scanned digital copies that are e-mailed or physical copies are sent by post.

On Demand
BLoD webpage

The material in BLoD ranges in age and format. We have items that are over 100 years old, pamphlets with a few pages to directories that are five inches thick! Some items are fragile because they are older and the paper and/or structure of the item is naturally deteriorating with some damage accelerated through use. Others are new items where modern day mass production of publishing books means they do not always last very long before damage occurs.

BindingPost Office London DirectoryThe Post Office London Directory 1922

Collection Care North carry out conservation repairs to the collection, which can include tear repairs, repairing the sewing of bindings, re-attaching boards and many other repairs. It is currently unknown what the overall condition of the BLoD collection is. Collection Care North are in the planning stages of a collection wide condition survey. This will not mean surveying every book, but we will end up with a snapshot overview of the collections condition.

We will sample 400 items from each of the stores that BLoD is stored in. We will place out shelf markers so we know which shelf to take an item from to assess. The 400 shelves are chosen by dividing the number of shelves with collections on them by 400.

For example, if we had 10,000 shelves:

10,000/400 = 25

So we would need to choose an item from every 25th shelf.

Shelf Marker

Shelf Marker SurveyingShelf markers

We are going to start in Building 3, where Official Publications are stored. It is one of the smaller stores, to ease ourselves in to the task and to check our methodology works how we want it to. There are over 3,500 occupied shelves in this store.

The survey will record:
•     Object type, e.g. hardback, paperback, monograph, serial, cartographic material, mixed format
•     Storage, e.g. is the item in a box; is there environmental monitoring; is the shelving adequate?
•     Condition, we use a set of four condition codes (see below)
•     Damage – physical, chemical, biological, previous repairs. E.g. Physical –torn pages, detached boards; chemical – brittle paper, light damage; biological – mould or pest/insect damage

Condition survery

We hope to start surveying before the end of February. Watch this space to find out about our progress!

Emily Watts

07 February 2019

West Dean College of Arts and Conservation to hold series of courses in collaboration with the British Library

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Press Release: February 6, 2019 from West Dean College.

WestDean

For the 5th year, West Dean College of Arts and Conservation will be holding a series of courses devoted to The Preservation and collection care for libraries in collaboration with the British Library - the national library of the United Kingdom and the second largest library in the world.

These fascinating courses are for professionals, conservation students and those interested in
continuing professional development in this area offering access to relevant training and expertise. The first one takes place on Thursday, February 28, 2019 and focuses on Damaged books and bound archives, this is followed by a new course for 2019 - Writing and using a preservation policy on Friday, March 8, 2019 and then:

• April 23, 2019 - Dust and dirt: Strategies for prevention and management
• May 9, 2019 - Preserving Historic Photographs
• June 6, 2019 - Preventing pests by IPM
• June 19, 2019 - Disaster response and salvage
• July 22, 2019 Understanding bookbindings
• July 24, 2019 - Environment: Effective monitoring and management
• September 16, 2019 - Preservation Assessment Survey Workshop

West Dean College of Arts and Conservation is internationally respected for conservation
education, including MA Conservation Studies, and many alumni go on to work in museums and with collections of global significance.

Lizzie Neville, Head of School of Conservation, commented: “West Dean College is delighted to be able to support the delivery of training in this under-resourced area and the excellent reputation of these courses extends beyond the UK, with participants from Europe and as far afield as California and Argentina.”

Most courses are half a day or a full day and all take place at the British Library in London. Prices start at £143 and more courses will be added to the schedule during the year.

For further information and booking, see: www.westdean.org.uk or phone the Bookings Office: +44 (0)1243 818300.

16 January 2019

Course on Asian Papers and their Applications in Paper Conservation

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Instructor: Minah Song, independent paper conservator (www.minahsong.com)
Date: 18th, 19th and 20th June (Tue - Thu), 2019- 3 days
Place: The British Library, 96 Euston Road, London NW1 2DB
Enrollment limit: 12
Registration fee: 480 GBP (materials included)

Paper

This three-day intensive workshop is designed to provide both emerging and established conservation professionals with the theoretical and practical foundation for understanding Asian papers and their applications in paper conservation. The workshop consists primarily of hands-on activities with a lecture, group discussions and examinations of various Asian papers.

Participants will familiarize themselves with history and characteristics of Chinese, Korean and Japanese paper-making, including an overview of contemporary Asian paper production. Each participant will be presented with a set of different paper samples and will study the papers first hand and examine the fibers, sheet formation, alkali content and the results of different manufacturing processes and drying methods. Different Asian paper fibers will be compared with the help of microscopic images.

In a practical session, participants will make small-sized paper samples using simple tools with paper mulberry fibers and formation aid. They will also use cotton fibers as a comparison. Participants will make modern equivalent of drying board (karibari) using a honeycomb board and mulberry paper.

Participants will study and share details of various methods of repair and lining techniques using different Asian papers, depending on their opaqueness, texture, and strength, appropriate for specific objects. For example, participants will try double-sided lining with thin mulberry tissue, drying a lined object on a drying board, and making pre-coated tissue with different adhesives. Useful tips in toning techniques with acrylic paints for mulberry paper will be discussed.

Paper conservation

For further details and online registration see:
www.minahsong.com/workshop

Contact the instructor: minahsongstudio@gmail.com

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