THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Collection Care blog

Behind the scenes with our conservators and scientists

Introduction

Discover how we care for the British Library’s Collections by following our expert team of conservators and scientists. We take you behind the scenes into the Centre for Conservation and the Scientific Research Lab to share some of the projects we are working on. Read more

26 October 2014

Bookbinder Bernard Middleton celebrates 90th birthday

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Born on 29 October 1924, legendary bookbinder Bernard Middleton celebrates his 90th birthday this week. 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.

Bernard Middleton
CC by Bookbinder Bernard Middleton at work. Photo courtesy of Bernard Middleton.

Bernard Middleton was interviewed in 2007 for Crafts Lives* by oral historian Hawksmoor Hughes. Crafts Lives is one of the oral history interview programmes run by National Life Stories, the oral history charitable trust based at the British Library. Bernard spoke about his time at the Central School of Arts & Crafts where he gained a general education and a grounding in bookbinding.

Listen to Bernard Middleton on the Central School of Arts and Crafts

“I was very happy there, I liked it.” recalls Bernard, “I liked the fact that my father had been taught in the same room, 25-26 years previously. And I was taught by his fellow student. It was a very good school – it was regarded really as the sort of Oxbridge of the craft world.”

The Central School of Art and Design was established in 1896 and became part of the London Institute almost a hundred years later in 1986. In 1989 it merged with Saint Martin’s School of Art forming Central Saint Martin’s College of Arts and Design, which today has its campus at King’s Cross, just a ten minute walk from the British Library.

The first thing Bernard was taught was how to fold paper, followed by instruction on how to sew a pamphlet , which he describes as “about the simplest thing one can possibly do in bookbinding”. The class learned the history of the way books developed from the scroll to the codex, and gradually took on more complicated bindings including cloth, leather (half-leather, full-leather), and gold-tooling.

Describing himself as “shy” and “well-behaved”, Bernard recalls the odd mischievous day which included throwing balls of wet cotton wool at the ceiling. “I remember throwing one and it hit the teacher in the middle of the back and stuck on his round coat. I was rather embarrassed when he turned around and saw me.”

When Bernard first came to the Bindery there were about eighty workers there and most of his time was spent making end papers. He quickly gained proficiency by working next to journeymen who taught the apprentices their skills. Bernard learned how to bind both old and new books acquired by the Museum’s Library.

Listen to Bernard Middleton on the British Museum Bindery

It was a hard life, with an initial salary of £1 a week and only a seven minute tea break each day: “We had to stand all day and that was hard work when I first went there. We were allowed to sit down for seven minutes at four o’clock to have tea, not in the morning – you had to stand up to have it then…I think it had been five minutes and then two more minutes were negotiated, and then the deputy foreman would bang with a stick on his press to indicate that we should stand up and get on with our work again.”

Bernard’s subsequent career has included managing Zaehnsdorfs, a large and successful binding firm; establishing his own business; researching and writing on the history of bookbinding and restoration; designing and producing approximately 100 original bindings; as well as receiving many commissions from noted collectors, academic institutions and libraries. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts in 1951 and received an MBE in 1986.

A History of English Craft Bookbinding Technique

CC by Bernard Middleton’s 1965 binding on his book A History of English Craft Bookbinding Technique New York & London, 1963. C.108.d.39

Some examples of his bindings are below:

BL shelfmark C.160.c.17  BL shelfmark C.160.c.17
CC by A 1964 binding on Howard M. Nixon, Twelve Books in Fine Bindings from the Library of J. W. Hely-Hutchinson Oxford, 1953. C.160.c.17

BL shelfmark C.188.b.43  BL shelfmark C.188.b.43
CC by A 2004 binding on Marianne Tidcombe, The bookbindings of T.J. Cobden-Sanderson London, c1984. C.188.b.43

More examples of Bernard’s bindings can be seen at the St Bride Library off Fleet Street in London from 27 October to 14 November, 2014.

“My designs are intended to please the eye, not engage the intellect, principally by the employment of textures, strongly defined shapes and contrasts, and by the play of light on gold, preferably in combination and in a manner which complements the book." Bernard Middleton, Recollections (London, 2000), p.85.

With thanks to Philippa Marks (Curator, Bookbindings) and to Mary Stewart (Curator, Oral History) who edited the audio clips.

*Since the Crafts Lives project started in 1999, over 130 in-depth life stories have been recorded with British craftspeople, exploring both their personal lives and their work in the fields of pottery, glass, metalwork, jewellery, textiles and book arts. In August 2014 over 80 of these interviews were made available to listen to online in their entirety – including 13 craftspeople that work in the area of book arts, bookbinding and letter cutting. Visit http://sounds.bl.uk/Oral-history/Crafts to find out more.

21 October 2014

Paper cuts: small but mighty!

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Hardly noticeable and barely bleeding, paper cuts are the mother of all library injuries. Anyone who deals with paper on a daily basis will have at some point suffered such an affliction. Paper cuts cause a seemingly out of proportion amount of pain due to the anatomy of our skin and the structure of paper. When very thin and held in place, a sheet of paper becomes inflexible and can exert very high levels of pressure – enough to slice through flesh! Yikes! Let’s go under the microscope to see what's happening...

Paper of the night  Paper cut
CC by Left: A single sheet of paper at x30. Right: Paper cut (image source).

Most paper cuts result from new sheets of paper held strongly in place. A rogue sheet may come loose from the pack but remain held in position by the rest of the tightly-knit sheets. In paper, more resistance is felt when a force is applied parallel to a sheet of paper. This has to do with the paper’s tensile strength. Tensile strength measures the ability of a material to resist rupture when force is applied to one of its sides under certain conditions. Held in place, the sheet of paper becomes extremely resistant to buckling, stiffens, and acts as a razor.

Dislocated sheet

CC by A sheet of paper that strays from the pack can cause serious paper cuts!

A paper’s edge may appear to be smooth and flat, but on a microscopic scale paper edges are jagged. Paper cuts leave a wound more like one from a saw than a knife (a miniature papery saw).

Copy book paper

CC by Pages from a copy book at x30 magnification. Fibres at the surface give paper a serrated edge. The black lines are page lines.

Paper cuts are remarkably painful. They usually occur in the fingertips, which have a greater concentration of nerve cells (neurons) than the rest of the body – an evolutionary trait to protect us during the exploration of our environment. Neurons send chemical and electrical signals to our brain, and some of them, called nociceptors, detect potential harm. Paper cuts stimulate a large number of nociceptors in a very small area of the skin. Shallow paper cuts don’t bleed very much so pain receptors are left open to the air resulting in continuous pain as the wound cannot clot and seal. As we continue to use our hands, the wound flexes open, continually distressing these neurons.

Not only do paper cuts part the flesh with a micro-serrated paper edge, but they also damage skin either side of the wound due to the composition of the paper. Pain receptors are continuously irritated by the combination of cellulosic wood pulp, rags, grasses, chemically-coated fibres, and bacteria that make up paper. Paper may also include other additives such as chalk or china clay to make the paper easier to write on. Sizing gives us a great variety of papers to suit the specific type of ink we wish to apply, but involves mixing many additives into the pulp to determine the correct surface absorbency.

Paper cuts from envelopes can be particularly stingy due to the layer of glue along the sealing tab. The glue is made from gum arabic, which although edible to humans, can pack a punch if embedded inside a wound. Gum arabic is the product of hardened sap taken from two species of acacia trees, and is also used as a binder for watercolour painting, and in traditional lithography.

Envelope adhesive x30

Envelope adhesive x200

CC by Gum arabic glue at x30 and x200 magnification coats the paper tab on an envelope. When the gum is moistened it forms a seal with the adjacent paper.

When skin closes around the paper cut these foreign particles become trapped inside causing a great deal of pain. This is why a cut from a razor blade is usually less painful than that from a paper cut: razor blades make clean incisions without leaving behind any foreign particles. It hurts initially, but the pain soon ebbs away. Bleeding caused by a razor cut helps to wash away any infection-causing particles, while paper cuts bleed very little (this also reduces your chances of getting any sympathy!)

Razor at x50

Razor at x200

CC by Razor blade at x50 (upper image) and x200 (lower image). The razor’s edge is smooth allowing a clean incision without introducing foreign bodies.

It might seem strange that sometimes needles for a flu jab require quite a bit of force to pierce the skin, yet paper (PAPER!) can slice through. This is due to the random orientation of collagen fibres in our skin allowing us to withstand pinpoint forces.

Point forces at x20

CC by Human skin feeling the pressure under a sharp pin.

Our skin does not have a comparable strength against shearing forces such as those exerted by paper, and so, we are susceptible to the small but mighty paper cut. Libraries can be dangerous places. Be careful out there!

Christina Duffy (@DuffyChristina)

 

Further learning:

Paper May Be the Unkindest Cut, Scientific American, Volume 306, Issue 3 , Mar 1, 2012 |By Steve Mirsky 

Why Do Paper Cuts Hurt So Much? Scientific American - Instant Egghead #25

 

09 October 2014

Burnt Cotton Collection survey enables digitisation prioritisation

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With the recent multispectral imaging of the burnt Magna Carta hitting the headlines following our blog post on the 800 year old Magna Carta revealing its secrets, there has been a lot of interest in the conservation work required to protect such items. The so-called “burnt” Magna Carta (Cotton charter xiii 31a) suffered fire damage in Ashburnham House in Westminster on 23 October 1731. This 1215 exemplification formed part of an exquisite library assembled by English antiquarian Sir Robert Cotton during his lifetime (1571-1631). Cotton’s library forms the basis of our collections at the British Library today, and a recent conservation survey of the burnt material has allowed us to categorise items based on their relative condition, enabling us to immediately identify items suitable for digitisation. This has vastly improved our workflow allowing digital access to a wider audience in a shorter time. 

This piece includes material from an article published by Taylor & Francis Group in Journal of the Institute of Conservation on 29 November 2013, available online at: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/19455224.2013.815122#.VFDzZvmsWtB.

Burnt Magna Carta

Burnt Magna Carta seal

CC by The burnt 1215 Magna Carta suffered fire damage and subsequent interventive treatment. The vulnerable wax seal of the charter melted and distorted in the intense heat. 

In the Ashburnham House fire a quarter of the manuscripts were either damaged or destroyed in the blaze, and attempts to extinguish it exacerbated that damage. The documents suffered shrinkage and distortion, bindings were carbonised, ink was lost, soot and dirt was ingrained, tide marks formed on the leaves, and parchment (animal skin) gelatinised. Gelatine is the brownish end-product of a rapid degradation of parchment collagen. Remedial work caused further damage with many of the manuscripts broken up and rebound during salvage. Incorrect reassembly impacted on the codicological history of many of the manuscripts. The darkened gelatinous material which formed along the edge of the parchment was trimmed away from some manuscripts. Unidentified fragments were gathered and put into drawers.

The collection was untouched until the establishment of the British Museum in 1753, where over the coming years invasive treatments were recorded. To separate the leaves which had glued together by gelatinisation, about 40 manuscripts were immersed in a hot aqueous solution (likely to be ethanol in water). Incisions along the parchment edges were made to allow the leaves to dry flat under pressure. Despite the efforts, leaves remained brittle and fragile. Inlaying of parchment fragments into paper was completed in 1856, but a huge number of fragments remained loose and unidentified. While the edges of loose fragments were protected by this inlaying method, over time the degradation of materials caused further concern. The brittle fragments were susceptible to break with every page turn, and acidic paper in heavy volumes tended to cockle preventing the volumes from closing.

Cotton Tiberius A XII

CC by Cotton Tiberius A. XII. Parchment fragments were attached to paper in the ninteenth century and incisions were cut along the sides to allow the leaves to lay flat.

Our conservators surveyed 243 items from the Cotton Collection, including 21 paper manuscripts. Items were graded on their physical, chemical and overall conditions based on an assessment of the state of the binding and parchment substrate, and thus rated for treatment priority.

Grade

Condition

CC by From Figure 2 and 5 in The conservation of the burnt Cotton Collection in the Journal of the Institute of Conservation, 2013. Top: Results of the survey of 243 Cotton Collection volumes. Bottom: Pattern of damage where D (High degree of damage) accounts for 61% of the total items examined.

The nineteenth century treatments have been fundamental to the preservation of the Cotton Collection, and many items thought to be lost have since been rediscovered. The condition survey enabled us to quantify the damage and develop a strategy for the long-term preservation of the burnt Cotton Collection. Items identified as being fragile were immediately withdrawn from library use, while research to determine the best methods of stabilising and housing the items was undertaken. The use of analytical techniques such as near-infrared (NIR) spectroscopy for assessing the deterioration or parchment has enabled a better awareness of the nature and condition of these manuscripts. This information has helped to support the choice and realistic scope of conservation methods. In the case of the burnt Cotton Collection, the future project is now directed towards a preservation approach, including digitisiation and multispectral imaging, rather than an interventive conservation one.

Christina Duffy (@DuffyChristina), Imaging Scientist

 

Further reading

The conservation of the burnt Cotton Collection, Mariluz Beltran de Guevara and Paul Garside, Journal of the Institute of Conservation, 2013. Vol. 36, No. 2, 145 –161, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/19455224.2013.815122

Collection Care fired up for BBC Four appearance, Christina Duffy: http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/collectioncare/2013/08/collection-care-fired-up-for-bbc-four-appearance.html

Crisp as a Poppadom, Ann Tomalak: http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2013/02/crisp-as-a-poppadom.html

‘Their Present Miserable State of Cremation' the Restoration of the Cotton Library, Andrew Prescott: http://www.uky.edu/~kiernan/eBeo_archives/articles90s/ajp-pms.htm