THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Collection Care blog

4 posts from November 2013

26 November 2013

Conservation gets mobile

Conservator Ann Tomalak tells us about the new mobile conservation workstation being trialled at the British Library.

Because we are a library, our books get handled and read. Inevitably, a small number get damaged, either by accident or because the materials degrade as they get older, and fall apart. In order to get items with minor damage back into use as quickly as possible, we have a Running Repairs programme for work that will only take a few hours.

A pamphlet in urgent need of repair

CC by A pamphlet in urgent need of repair

Traditionally, Running Repairs have been done in the conservation studios alongside major conservation projects. Items needing repair are identified by curators, library assistants or readers and join a never-ending list, from where they are delivered in small batches to the Centre for Conservation every few weeks. The paperwork takes time. Every item has to be ordered individually, and security tracked. When the repair is finished, the conservator records the time spent on it, writes a report and attaches photographs. Then the process is reversed to get the item back to store.

The mobile workstation and its contents

CC by The mobile workstation and its contents

Recently, we have been trialling a new method to get running repairs done more quickly, without compromising the quality of the conservation work. A mobile workstation has been kitted out with basic tools and lots of repair materials, so that we can take the conservator to the collection. The workstation is “parked” for a week or two in the collection areas – either in the storage pen or nearby, in curatorial offices. Colleagues are notified and soon come along, clutching damaged items. The conservator takes a quick look and discusses the options. Most running repairs can be done at the trolley, though a few items which need specialised equipment or advanced techniques must still be sent to the Centre for Conservation. A further few need extensive conservation and will be set aside for a full assessment.

A detached board and spine fragments

CC by A detached board and spine fragments. This routine repair can be done quickly, using only basic tools and materials

Taking the conservator to the collection means that we avoid the tedious ordering, tracking and delivery system. We have also greatly simplified the treatment record, simply noting the shelf-mark, work done, materials used and any other essential information, with a link to photographs. Since the conservator often works on several items at a time (for example, allowing one repair to dry while preparing another), the overall time spent on the visit is averaged over the number of items treated.

Conservation in progress

CC by Conservation in progress at the workstation

Considering that a simple paper tear only takes 15 minutes to repair and a loose leaf can be reattached in well under an hour, the paperwork often took far longer than the conservation treatment. We estimate we are saving 30 minutes on ordering and delivery, 15 minutes on security administration and 30 minutes on the treatment report. This time can now be used for more running repairs, meaning items can be returned to use much more quickly.

A detached seal

CC by A detached seal can easily be lost, so this is a priority repair

The curators are delighted. Treatments are completed to the same high standard, but precious books need never leave their sight and are returned to them quickly – often within hours. They can discuss the work with the conservator and talk through options. By watching the conservator at work, they also get a better understanding of what can be done as a running repair and what needs full conservation.

Folded material

CC by Folded material bound into a book is doubly vulnerable – the attachment point can tear from incautious opening and the folds eventually split

All in all, everybody benefits from the mobile workstation; not least our Readers who find damaged collection items return to use more quickly.

Ann Tomalak

19 November 2013

Fail to prepare for digitisation, prepare to fail at digitising!

Planning a digitisation project can be a lengthy process with consideration required for strategic alignment, funding models, workflow, and metadata – all of which should be led by a clear definition of the overall purpose of the digitisation project. What must also be considered are the practical aspects of digitisation bearing in mind the condition and format of items, and identifying what needs to be done to items to make them camera ready.

There are potential risks from digitisation as books become objects when being copied, and therefore may not be handled, positioned or viewed in the conventional way. This increased handling can accelerate the normal process of wear and tear. In order to minimise these risks the items should be checked over before appearing in the imaging studio. These checks are run by our Preventive Conservation team who make initial condition assessments of items to be digitised; recommend any treatments to stabilise or repair items; and advise on handling and transport, camera equipment, lighting and cradles. We are Collection Care after all!

The outcome of pre-digitisation checks fall broadly under five headings which will be covered in this post, and we’ll share some examples of what to look out for.

1. Items that can be digitised in their current state

Good condition, flat, loose leaf items, and bound items where all the content can be seen easily, and that open well, can be digitised.

Good condition material
CC by Items in good condition which open well can be digitised easily. Depending on size limits these items may be suitable for scanning

For folded inserts, digitisation is best facilitated through use of a book rest to support the main volume allowing the insert to lie flat. A support can be arranged underneath to provide a flat base for large foldouts. Take note of the format and size of folded inserts as large items may be too big for many scanners, and may need to be photographed instead.

Fold outs and inserts
CC by The value of a good measuring tape cannot be underestimated! This bound book (left) is 260 x 210 mm, but the insert extends to 770 x 500 mm. In guard books (right), the insert may be smaller than the volume in which case a sheet of paper can be placed behind

Guard-books which contain miscellaneous single documents or groups of documents usually open well, and if items are in a good condition then they can be photographed or scanned. If inserts are smaller than the volume then a backing sheet will need to be placed underneath to hide items behind. Size and positioning can vary through the volume so items may have to be repositioned under the camera/scanner. Items with wax or shellac applied seals and vulnerable manuscript items should not be scanned under glass as this can cause damage or make existing damage worse.

Some items may appear to be badly damaged but may still be imaged safely. For example if an item has a broken binding where the boards are off and the sewing has failed, it can be treated like single leaves. If the boards are completely off, but the sewing and text block are still intact then it acts like a bound volume.

2. Items that may need some preparation

It may be possible to photograph rolled items without preparation. If the roll is particularly long then it may need to be photographed in sections with weights positioned to prevent the item rolling up between shots. Where rolled items are distorted and do not lie flat easily (even using weights), they may need some relaxing and pressing first. Bound items which have been rolled need to be relaxed and flattened for digitisation.

Rolls and rolled documents
CC by Some rolled items can be digitised using weights (left), while others (right) may need some care before imaging

Folded items may need to be photographed separately and in sections as they can be much bigger than they first appear. It is important to know how much space is needed as a different location and set up may be needed to capture large items.

Unexpectedly large items

CC by Items may be larger than they seem! This fold out map requires a large working space which imaging studios may not be capable of accommodating

Past stationary remedies such as pins, treasury tags, fasteners and adhesive tapes can damage paper. Rusting induced by a high humidity environment can stain underlying paper. Preparation time may be needed to remove pins, fasteners and threads. Tape removal can be more time consuming involving the work of a conservator. You can read more about tape removal in our Conservation Revealed blog post.

Bad storage and poor housing can cause problems making items difficult to handle and lay flat. These items may need to be prepared for digitisation by relaxing and flattening – this is a relatively simple job, however if there is a lot of material it can be time consuming.

Damaged items
CC by Poor storage (left) and broken threads (right) can make items difficult to handle

In all of these cases, time has to be factored in for preparation of material.

3. Items that may need minor conservation work

Ideally dirty items should be surface cleaned to remove loose dust and dirt before imaging. Ingrained surface dirt is very difficult to remove so the item may have to be imaged as it is, or even excluded if the condition is detrimental to the project. It’s worth keeping in mind that the appearance may be part of the ‘story’ of the material.

Minor conservation work required
CC by Damaged covers (left), and torn pages (right) can be digitised after minimal localised conservation

Outside leaves may be more badly damaged than text blocks, and it may be the case that a few leaves in a text block are torn. These items may be digitised after minimal localised conservation. It may also be possible to place torn loose items into Melinex sleeves to hold flat as an alternative to other preparation/conservation.

Mouldy items can cause damage, losses, staining and weakness to paper. For health and safety reasons, this material needs to be checked by a conservator. It may need to be dried if active and should be cleaned to remove mould spores before being safe to handle.

4. Items that may need more extensive conservation work

Extensive tears and detached sections may need to be repaired. All folds are vulnerable to tearing. If bindings have to be pulled for rebinding, digitisation can take place beforehand – single pages may be easier to handle.

Vulnerable material
CC by Already damaged material such as this torn foldout is vulnerable to further damage. Check if any items are scheduled for conservation work which may make digitisation easier

5. Items needing handling input as an alternative to conservation

Some inks such as iron gall ink can cause degradation of otherwise good quality paper. Where the damage is extensive and the paper is very brittle, it may be quicker to image with a conservator handling and setting up the items with the photographer.

Handling input required

CC by Having a conservator in the imaging studio to handle ink burn through (left) or loose leaves (right) may be quicker and less expensive than arranging full conservation work

Some bound items may be in very good condition but have restricted openings. Tightly bound volumes often result in text disappearing into the gutter of the book. These types of items can be difficult to digitise and adaptations to book cradles using straps and weights may be needed to enable them to be handled. Most books should not be opened wider than 120° unless they do so naturally. Openings throughout the volume should be checked for opening characteristics. Generally books should be positioned so that supports hold the item open at a safe angle for that item. Opening characteristics can change as a book is worked through, and volumes may need to be adjusted regularly to ensure the item is sitting correctly. Angled book rests can be placed on one side to allow the page being imaged to lie flat.

Opening characteristics of books
CC by Opening characteristics of books: Rigid tight back in conventional reading position (top left), hollow backed book in conventional reading position (top right), tight paperback 90° opening (bottom left), tight binding opens to barely 90° (bottom right)

You may decide that highly valuable items should be accompanied and/or handled and set up by a conservator or curator. This time and cost will need to be factored in to the project.

Decisions about preparation sometimes depend on the purpose of the digitisation project, e.g. to publicise the collection or to provide a study source. This may affect the level of preparation needed for digitisation, i.e. whether or not to relax and flatten items. Digital copies may raise awareness of physical items and increase demand to see the original – so decisions about future access need to be addressed. Planning for a digitisation project is vital to ensure the success of your project, with the emphasis on balancing the benefits of producing a digital copy against the risk of damage during the imaging process.

Christina Duffy (@DuffyChristina)
Imaging Scientist

Follow us on Twitter: @BL_CollCare

11 November 2013

Goldfinisher: He’s the man, the man with the Midas touch

An event on gold finishing was held in the British Library Conservation Centre to celebrate a recent antiquarian acquisition of a rare example of an 18th century book cover lavishly decorated with gold. Gold finishing, or gold tooling, is the decorative process of covering the spine and/or covers of a book with gold leaf designs. Visitors including many VIPS such as the Dutch Ambassador got a unique chance to view the acquisition and to watch book conservator and gold finisher Doug Mitchell demonstrate the technique in person.

Goldfinisher Doug Mitchell

CC by Book conservator Doug Mitchell prepares to demonstrate gold finishing

The 18th century acquisition is often referred to as the Binder’s Sample. It is thought that the good condition of the tooling, the high quality leather, and the use of 33 different tools are evidence that the cover was produced to showcase the binder’s skill when seeking new clients. It is a sample book cover (Folio 362 x 249 mm) of limp speckled calf dating to about 1730 and originated in Utrecht or Amsterdam.

Gold finishing designs are impressed onto leather covers using a variety of tools including heated brass letters held in type holders, and decorative tools such as pallets, fillets and rolls. In the Binder’s Sample three rectangular outer frames showcase five different rolling tools. Most distinctive are the hunting roll; depicting a hunting lodge unlike the more traditional hunting roll, and the musician roll; showing harpist, vocalist, triangle player, viol player and organist separated by a stag, bird, lion, hound, gryphon and a crow eating grapes.

The Binder's Sample

CC by The Binder’s Sample, Utrecht or Amsterdam approximately 1730. 33 different tools were used to create this extravagant cover

The musician roll used on the Binder’s Sample was a particularly fine roll and was a reverse cutting of a roll belonging to the Amsterdam Double Drawer Handle Bindery. This particular roll was used from the mid-1720s to 1730s on presentation copies of books for the luxury market. Below are some examples of the rolling tools used at the British Library.

Rolling tools

CC by Rolling tools were used for border designs

Detail on rolling tool

CC by This rolling tool depicts interlacing spirals which create a flowing pattern along the binding when applied

The central field of the Binder’s Sample showcases 27 different tools. In the centre is a coat of arms depicting a man in a loin cloth with the scales of justice in his right hand and a bird of prey in the left hand. Corner pieces include blooms, angels (one with a quill pen), stars, foliage, scallop shells, pomegranates and vases.

Range of tool designs

CC by Variety of tools used to produce different designs

For the demonstration Doug used a goatskin leather dummy book held in a finishing press on the workbench. The leather was size washed with a wheat starch paste and an adhesive made of egg whites, called glair, was applied to the leather where the gold leaf was to be placed. The surface is then smeared with Vaseline. A sheet of 23.5 carat gold leaf was cut into a suitable size for the design and placed onto the glaired area on the spine of the volume. Gold leaf comes in two thicknesses; single and double with the latter used primarily by British Library conservators.

Gold leaf cutting

CC by Doug Mitchell carefully cuts a sheet of gold leaf using a knife

Gold leaf placed onto spine

CC by The gold is placed on top of the greased area of the volume

A heated tool is then used to press the gold leaf permanently into the leather using a combination of heat, dwell and pressure, leaving an impression dictated by the shape of the tool. The remaining gold leaf is rubbed away revealing an intricate design.

Gold leaf pressed with heated tool

CC by The heated tool is pressed perpendicularly onto the gold leaf which is on the spine of the volume

Doug also demonstrated tooling onto cloth using a Type holder tool. In this case the word LIBRARY (my favourite word!) was pressed onto real gold foil.

Type holder tool used for text application

CC by Larger tools can be used to apply text to the spine and is applied in the same way as smaller designs

The gold doesn’t tarnish and has an affinity to the leather such that it is very difficult to remove.

Gold finishing result

CC by When the excess gold is removed the spine is left beautifully decorated

Doug had previously prepared a British Library version of the Binder’s Sample, copying the format to display just some of the extensive collection of finishing tools here at the conservation center, shown to the right in the image below, which was on view for visitors to compare to the original.

Examination of Binder's Sample

CC by The Binder’s Sample is examined by Nicholas Pickwoad (left) and was displayed next to the replica (right)

A sheet of Vivak was placed behind the Binder’s Sample by our conservators to allow readers to view the reverse side, which would be obscured if mounted on opaque material.

Transparent mounting

CC by The Binder’s Sample as viewed from behind showing the Vivak reverse mount 

Although the popularity of gold finishing has declined in recent years, tooling is an important part of any conservator’s skillset. An exhibit showing the vast  array of tools available is on display in the Conservation Centre.

Display of bookbinding tools

CC by A display of bookbinding tools inside the Conservation Centre showing an example of the huge range of equipment available

Demonstration of tools used in conservation

CC by Visitors were shown a display and given a demonstration of tools used in conservation 

Gold leaf is nearly always used for this type of decoration due to its lasting qualities. Other varieties include white gold leaf which gives a silver appearance, or pigment foils (red, green blue etc.) which can be used on cloth and paper bindings. The British Library uses gold finishing on all its leather bound books. Generally gold finishing is done to re-produce the design that was on the original, but some of our collections such as Sloane, Egerton, Harley and Cotton manuscripts have an existing format. When no reference is available designs are based on the year of the book by choosing the tools that were appropriate for that time period.

The skill of gold finishing is very difficult to master and requires precision,
patience and perseverance!

Christina Duffy (@DuffyChristina)
Imaging Scientist

Follow us on Twitter: @BL_CollCare

Further Reading:

For more about the musician roll see Storm van Leeuwen’s pamphlet Dutch
Decorated Bookbinding in the Eighteenth Century r III in C55, C 61, C 66 & C 72
-3 (1727 – 38) and I pp 234, 237, 239 & 252-3

Bookbindings in the British Library

Database of Bookbindings

07 November 2013

Read All About It! Preserving the National Newspaper Collection

You may have heard that we are moving the national newspaper collection from its current home of the Newspaper Library in Colindale North London to a brand new storage facility on our Boston Spa site in Yorkshire. Want to know why? Then read on!

The end of Colindale

 Cc-by The dust of another day’s research settles as the sun sets over Colindale

In a series of Read All About It! blog posts we’ll take you behind the scenes of the Newspaper Collection. We’ll tell you a little bit more about it and share some Stop Press! fascinating facts. We’ll explain exactly what newspapers are made of and what makes them so vulnerable. We’ll share with you the collection care challenges we’ve faced in managing the newspaper collection and the ground-breaking steps we’re taking to preserve it and keep its content available.

We’ll show you why we’re moving it, where we’re moving it to, and let you have a little insight into the massive logistical challenge that this involves. And we’ll give you a little taster of what you can expect from the forthcoming News and Media Reading Room at St Pancras...so watch this space! Follow us on Twitter to keep an eye open for new blog posts.

Sandy Ryan