Living Knowledge blog

24 November 2021

Behind the scenes at the British Library: Heather Murphy, Conservation Team Leader

In our monthly blog series we go behind the scenes at the Library to introduce you to our people and the many ways they work to bring our collection to everyone. This month we meet Heather Murphy, Conservation Team Leader.

Heather murphyHeather Murphy

Tell me about your role?

Heather is a Conservation Team Leader working on the British Library Qatar Project, a partnership with the Qatar Foundation and Qatar National Library to create the Qatar Digital Library. This free online portal aims to improve our understanding of the Islamic world, Arabic cultural heritage and the modern history of the Gulf.

This is a bi-lingual project in both Arabic and English and the variety of materials Heather works with span hundreds of years. These include books, archival documents, maps, photographs and Arabic manuscripts.

Heather’s team of three conservators are responsible for carrying out any conservation work required prior to digitisation. The practical work of the conservation team includes assessing the condition of materials, repairing papers and stabilising book structures. Heather also trains and advises staff on how to store and handle collection items.

‘We spend a maximum of five hours conservation work on collation materials unless a specific need is identified by curators and conservators. Then we will discuss and agree a treatment approach for these more unique cases.’

How did Covid-19 change the way you work?

Conservation is a very hands-on practical job. During lockdown, Heather and her colleagues were unable to physically work with collection materials.

‘It forced us to focus our attention on the wider elements of conservation and collection care such as research and tools to help people access and understand our collection. It also enabled us to work more collaboratively.’

One of Heather’s lockdown research projects led her to study the history of watermarks. Whilst working with a series of ship’s journals, Heather and her colleague Camille Dekeyser-Thuet noticed interesting examples of early watermark design. Curious about the potential information these could provide, they undertook research to learn more about the date and provenance of the papers, the trade and production patterns involved in the paper industry of the time, and the practice of watermarking paper. Read more about the Watermarks Project.

‘Now that we are back in the studio, we are trying to extend this work to the Arabic manuscripts and contribute to the resources available for their study.’

ArabicWatermark in Arabic Manuscript

How did you get into this field?

Heather studied Fine Art at the University of the Arts in Wimbledon. She has a love of drawing and has always worked with paper. She initially worked at a picture-framers and was introduced to conservators there.

‘I was fascinated to hear more about their work. I liked how it combined my love of paper-based art with this delicate, intricate practical work and also elements of history, research and knowledge of materials.’

She went on to do an MA in Conservation at the University of Arts in Camberwell and worked in conservation roles at private practices, the BFI and the National Archives before joining the Library in 2018.

What do you love about the Library?

Heather appreciates the opportunities for collaboration and the variety of expertise and knowledge she has access to.

‘It’s exciting to work with such skilled people with a wide variety of talents and perspectives.’

What’s your favourite object in the collection?

Pushed to pick one object from the collection, Heather opts for the ships logs she is poring over as part of the Watermarks Project. These journals are from two India Office Records series; IOR/L/MAR/A (dated 1605-1705) and IOR/L/MAR/B (dated 1702-1856) and relate to the East India Company’s voyages

RookeA sketch of the ship Rooke (or Rook) in a storm off Cape Bonesprance (the Cape of Good Hope) (IOR/L/MAR/A/CXXXIII, f. 16v)

‘The records for crews contain fascinating information and insights into daily life at sea, as well as doodles – not to mention the almost hidden watermarks which tell the stories of the paper.’

Any book recommendations for our readers?

Heather is currently reading Dust: The Archive and Cultural History by Carolyn Steedman, a collection of short stories related to archives and writing history.

‘My favourite chapter talks about the physical effects suffered by workers from the dust generated by making processes of paper and books, and also the effect of dust generated by degrading materials of books and paper on later users. She kind of parallels these physical ‘fevers’ with Derrida’s concept of ‘archive fever’. It’s really interesting and unusual – I’d recommend it to anyone with an interest in history and archives.’

Follow the British Library Qatar Project on Twitter

Find out more about the Watermarks Project  

Read our Collection Care blog

Find out about Heather’s other paper conservation work