THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Collection Care blog

4 posts categorized "Rare books"

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 Horrell, Conservation Support Assistant, and Mark Oxtoby, Collection Care Workflow Coordinator stand in front of the enclosure system they have created.
Mary Horrell, Conservation Support Assistant, and Mark Oxtoby, Collection Care Workflow Coordinator

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. 

The Felbrigge Psalter cover featuring faded embroidery that illustrates The Annunciation, with the Virgin Mary on the right and another figure, thought to be St. John, on the left.
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.

The prayer books cover which features green, white, pink and blue thread. The thread is embroidered in a plaid-like pattern, which each square having an optical illusion giving the impression that the square gets smaller and moves further back in space.
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.

Curators Maddy Smith and Philippa Marks look at a book with an embroidered cover featuring imagery of deer and plants.
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’.

A close up of a 16th century embroidered binding.
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.’

A closeup of a 16th century embroidered binding showing pearls, metallic thread and a dark green background.
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).

A close up featuring a figure's head in profile surrounded by a circular frame of gold thread against a red background.
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.’

A Danish embroidered binding from the 17th century featuring 3-D floral motifs embroidered in a silver thread against a red velvet background.
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!’

A close up of an embroidered binding featuring an image of an angel surrounded by foliage.
G.6319 19c French binding by Louis Janet. Enlargement shows the raised nap on the velvet covers at risk of abrasion.

 

31 January 2019

Remembering Legendary Bookbinder Bernard Middleton 1924-2019

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We note with great sadness the death of Bernard Middleton, a towering figure in UK bookbinding with close links to the Library. 

Bernard Middleton stands in front of a shelves of gold tooling tools, picking a tool from the selection.

Bernard spent much of his life working with British Library collection items at the Library’s bindery, then known as the British Museum Bindery, following his apprenticeship there.

To see some of his bindings and to hear him talk about his training please see a blog we posted in 2014 to celebrate his 90th birthday:

https://blogs.bl.uk/collectioncare/2014/10/bookbinder-bernard-middleton-celebrates-90th-birthday.html

Our thoughts and best wishes are with his family and friends.

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.

A picture of a book, lying open on two black foam supports, with white snake weights running down on the outer edge of the book pages.  The same book as in the previous image, now displayed on a black cushion, which in itself is supported by a cradle underneath. the snake weights are again running down either page on the outer edges.  The book, again lying open, now resting on a black cushion only, with the white snake weights holding the pages open.
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.   

A book, with green leather binding, displaying the damage done to it's spine, as evidenced by cracking running down the length of the spine.
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).

 

A book, displaying the spine facing up, showing a partially bound spine, displaying underneath the leather covering, with minimal space between the text block and the cover.
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. 

A book lying open, resting on two foam book supports. The spine of the book is also supported by a wedge of the same material.
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.   

A book in disrepair, showing a complete detachment of the boards (the hard cover of the book, while the spine has disappeared, exposing the text-block.
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.

 

A partially bound example book, showing the spine partially exposed. an area is highlighted in a white square, showing the bookboard between the leather cover and the textblock.
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. 

A Rigid Back Book lying open on Foam Supports. The spine of the book is snugly perched within the gap of the two 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.   

An image of a book with its cover open, with a hand lifting up the first page, showing how the page paper is attached directly to the textblock and the book case.
Showing the piece of paper adhering the textblock to the case.

 

An image of a book, displaying the damage caused by the text-block splitting away from the case, creating loose and detached pages.
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.      

A paperpack book, lying down, showing the detached text-block from the cover.  A book with its pages open, showing the detaching of pages from the text block and case.
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

11 April 2018

Textile Discovery in the Rare Books Reading Room

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Textiles at the British Library come in many guises. This remarkable book was discovered by a reader in the Rare Books Reading Room last week and was shown to a member of staff. 

The shelfmark is C.70.g.6. and the textile additions are described in the notes field below:

  • Title: [A series of engravings of subjects from the Life of Jesus Christ. Designed by M. de V. Engraved by J. C. Weigel.]
  • Author: Marten de VOS
  • Contributor: Johann Christoph WEIGEL
  • Publication Details: [Nuremberg?, 1725?]
  • Identifier: System number 003817622
  • Notes: The draperies, etc. are cut out, and supplied by pieces of cloth and silk pasted at the back of the engravings.
  • Physical Description: 4º.
  • Shelfmark(s): General Reference Collection C.70.g.6.
  • UIN: BLL01003817622
A page from a manuscript, showing a biblical scene involving Jesus Christ, where the three figures which are brightly colored using textiles.
Engraving coloured from the reverse with pieces of textile showing through cut-out holes.

 

A close up of the previous image, showing the blue and golden-brown textiles which are pasted onto the engraving image of the figure to the fore.Below the image is text in Gothic script, which clearly shows the name of Jesus at the start.
Engraving detail showing texture of textiles.

 

The same image, this time shown from the reverse of the page. The scraps of textiles of various colours including blue and brown, are often superimposed over each other.
Reverse detail showing overlapping textile patches stuck to the page.

 

Our textile conservator Liz Rose is often overwhelmed by the quantity, quality and diversity of the textile objects within the collections. It should be remembered that the British Library is a reference library and many of these wonderful objects can be viewed in the library reading rooms.