Maps and views blog

Cartographic perspectives from our Map Librarians

12 July 2013

Have trolley, will travel

I'm delighted to introduce this guest blog post from British Library conservator Ann Tomalak. Maps, like all works on paper, are potentially fragile, but larger-than A4 size and unprotected by the covers of a book, sheet maps are particularly vulnerable to wear and quite literally tear.  The map doctor writes:

Many people take maps on their travels, but a new initiative at the British Library has conservators travelling to bring their skills to our map collections. The aim is to streamline the process of running repairs, so as to get items back into use as quickly as possible.

We have been trialling a conservation trolley, a self-contained work station filled with tools and all the most commonly used repair materials. This can be moved to any part of the building where it is needed (but generally close to collection storage areas) and remain there for a few days or weeks. The Map Library was chosen as the first area that might benefit from the new system.

Image 1
Above: The board folder containing this rare map on parchment [Herman Moll's two-sheet world map of 1707] had become damaged, putting the item at risk. The conservator was able to re-use the existing hinge to secure the map in a new folder. 

Traditionally, damaged items are withdrawn from use. They must be assessed and an estimate prepared, then they are ordered and delivered to the conservation studios in the British Library Centre for Conservation and slotted into the work-flow. While there, they are thoroughly checked. The damage is photographed and information about each item and its treatment is recorded on a database. This is all very well for material that needs intensive treatment, but many items have low level damage, merely wear and tear. A simple repair might take just 15 minutes, but the ancillary tasks take several hours. Meanwhile, non-priority items get pushed further down the list and can be unavailable for many months.
Image 2
[This map is a little bit poorly - TH]

With the new system, the conservator uses a kind of triage on damaged items. A few will not need treatment and can be returned to use immediately. This category includes recently acquired items that just need a condition check, but also damage that can safely be left, as it will not get worse.  For example, parchment sometimes starts to cockle if it is taken too quickly from a cool storage area to the warmer Reading Room, but we know it will relax again naturally back in the store.

Image 3
Previously used maps may be bundled together in storage before coming to the British Library.  This results in crumpling, folds and tears.

The second category consists of items that either need lengthy and intensive conservation, or their treatment requires specialist equipment only available in the conservation studios.  These can quickly be separated out and will eventually be delivered to the Centrer for Conservation in the old way.

Image 4
A small nick at the edge can quickly develop into a longer tear right across the image which is much more difficult to repair invisibly, so it is important to catch minor damage quickly.

This leaves the items that can be repaired at the conservation trolley. For maps, the majority have tears, damaged corners, are splitting along folds or are crumpled and creased. If they were to continue in use, this damage would get worse and eventually require major conservation, but if we catch it early a quick and simple repair is sufficient. All interventions are recorded, but on a very simple spread-sheet that simply identifies the item, says what was done to it and what materials were used. Rather than describe the damage in detail, we photograph it. Additional notes can be added if necessary.

Image 5
Oversized material that has been bound often has distinctive edge damage where it has protruded from the text block.

The trial in the Maps Library went very well. Over a fortnight, 43 items were completed and a number more set aside for full conservation. We were able to identify further tools and materials to carry on the trolley; some, such as task lighting, that will be useful in all collection areas and some specific to maps, like oversized boards and blotting paper for pressing large items, plus a stash of heavier weights. By actually testing the system we discovered minor problems (the amount of drying space needed when several items are being worked on each day, and the nearest place to wash paste brushes) and are well on our way to refinements that will make the conservator’s task easier. 

Image 6
Fit for use again: the corner of this map [Philip Lea's map of Kent, dated 1730] had been torn off and was reattached at the conservation trolley.

The trolley has now moved on, first to Western Manuscripts and then to Print History to continue the trial. But one thing is for sure. The conservation trolley will be back in the Map Library!