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

27 May 2016

Washing badly degraded silk flags from the India Office collections

Royal East India Volunteer Colours - PDP/F.1068 and PDP/F.1068

 

The fragmentary silk was sandwiched between Reemay® 19gsm for support and filtration purposes during wet cleaning. The Reemay® was kept in place during drying which encouraged the flags to dry perfectly flat.

Washing was a great success with a lot of help from other British Library conservation team members and textile conservators Mika Takami and Eveliina Ojanne from Hampton Court Palace.

IndiaOfficeFlag

Vania Assis - IDP, Eveliina Ojanne - HRP, Mika Takami - HRP and Anna Espanol Costa - Hebraic digitisation programme

Liz Rose, Textile Conservator

05 May 2016

Fragments in bindings

The conservation process is always a very special time for the item under repair. It is a time during which normally concealed elements of the object are exposed offering a unique opportunity to understand the processes involved in the making of the item. This is even more apparent when conserving books. Books are complex three dimensional objects and for this reason the conservator’s decision-making process can be extremely challenging.

The following examples show how important it is to record every step in the conservation process and to be able to discuss findings made along the way with other experts. This enables us to fully understand and consequently be able to retain and share the information uncovered during all stages of the work. For the past three years I have been working as Manager of the Conservation Studio for the British Library Qatar Foundation Partnership. I have worked with a rich and heterogeneous variety of library material ranging from archival files to ancient scientific Arabic Manuscripts. This material has been arriving on our benches for digitisation preparation and for more extensive conservation.

A group of sixteen manuscripts was identified as being relevant for the Qatar Digital Library Portal during scoping for the second phase of the project. This portal is where our project team upload digitised material. The sixteen manuscripts are a small fraction of the so called Delhi Collection; a vast collection of more than 2,900 manuscripts held here at the British Library. The manuscripts are written in various languages and historically thought to have come from the Royal Mughal Library in Delhi.

The manuscripts are in very poor condition and housed in conservation boxes. The books were transported from Delhi to Calcutta and faced many perils on their journey to the India Office Library in London. They were eventually transferred to their current home here at the British Library, but have never been conserved. This is quite a unique situation since in the past few centuries vast campaigns of restoration and re-binding have irremediably transformed much of our library collections. During these campaigns original bindings were often removed. This resulted in a loss of historical evidence relating to the use and provenance of the volumes.

The subject of this piece is the recent conservation work carried out on two of these manuscripts to enable their imminent digitisation.

Figure 1

Left: Delhi Arabic 1902. Right: Delhi Arabic 1937B.

These manuscripts contain collections of mathematical treatises dating possibly to the XIX and have been heavily damaged by insects and centuries of use and abuse. The treatments conservators apply to items of historical value should always follow a series of ethical guidelines that standardise our profession. Those guidelines are based on one main principle called ‘minimal approach’. ‘Minimal’ doesn't mean less time doing the work or small in the sense of the amount of money spent for the treatment; ‘minimal’ refers to minimal intervention.

The conservator must work with great attention to detail ensuring that historically relevant physical features in the binding, sewing and substrate remain intact and undisrupted. Our work in the British Library Qatar Foundation Partnership Conservation studio is primarily preparation for digitisation. This means we focus on making items fit for withstanding the imaging process. This is both to ensure safe handling of the object and to enable the creation of a good quality surrogate.

Books are very challenging items to reproduce digitally and are often tightly bound. Each page needs to be carefully photographed and the text needs to be entirely visible and legible. The aim of a good quality online surrogate is to give users a truthful virtual experience of the item in its entirety, that is, in the case of bound volumes, much more than the mere text written on its pages.

Delhi Arabic 1902 and 1937B required conservation work because they were too fragile to be safely handled. It would have been impossible to achieve full legibility due to the poor state of their pages. Pages laced with insect holes were repaired with very thin toned Japanese tissue paper and the weak sewing of the book block was reinforced. Every piece of the book structure such as the remnants of the threads used to create the end bands or the sewing of the book-block were supported and secured where they were originally.

Figure 2

Damage due to insect infestation of Ms Delhi Arabic 1902.

Figure 3

Reinforced areas along the edges of the pages.

The leather covers proved to be a completely different challenge on their own. As soon as they were closely examined it became clear that the boards for both the books were created with layers of reused manuscript fragments.

Figure 4

Inside the detached cover of Ms Delhi Arabic 1902 with evidence of the reused manuscript fragments.

The layers constituting the boards in manuscript Delhi Arabic 1902 were already delaminating and the adhesive used to stick them together was failing. During discussions with the curators it was decided to completely separate the layers forming the boards and to not re-use the leather cover any more due to its fragility.

Each layer of the newly found manuscript was easily lifted with the help of a spatula before re-housing in Melinex folders. Numbering was applied to each envelope recording the sequence of the original layering, and subsequently all envelopes were housed in two separate four flap folders to identify the left from the right board. The writing style and content of these manuscript fragments is currently under study and has not yet been identified. It will add interesting information about Delhi Arabic 1902 and help to date the cover and possibly to identify the geographical area where it was made.

Figure 5

Layers of manuscript fragments are easily lifted and housed in Melinex numbered envelopes.

New conservation boards were prepared and inserted into the now “empty” leather cover. A piece of Plastazote was cut to size and used as a substitute for the now removed book-block in order to hold the leather. The leather cover was wrapped in Melinex to protect it during future handling.

Figure 6

The leather cover with the transparent Melinex wrap and the Plastazote support.

A new light board limp cover was created for the book-block after all the pages had been repaired and the sewing reinforced.

Figure 7

Book block with new limp paper cover.

The now separated parts of the manuscript were housed together in a drop back spine box made to size.

Figure 8

All the separated parts of the manuscripts are housed together in the box.

The cover of the second manuscript, Delhi Arabic 1937B, also showed evidence of fragments (from possibly the same manuscript) used to make its boards, but in this case a different method was devised for the overall conservation of the book.

Figure 9

Heavily damaged cover of Ms Delhi Arabic 1937B.

Figure 10

Fragment of reused manuscript used to reinforce the board of MS Delhi Arabic 1937B.

In this case only one layer, on both of the boards, transpired to be made of reused written paper. For this reason it was decided that the boards and the cover, also detached and delaminating, would not have to be dismantled. Instead they would be imaged and later re-composed to be re-attached, as originally was, with the book-block.

Figure 11

Right (front) and left (back) boards of the fully restored binding.

The losses of leather on the spine and on the edges of the boards were filled with new goat archival leather and all the fragments of the old leather and the decorated paper were re-adhered where they were originally. Interesting features were in this way preserved for posterity, for example the covering leather that was applied to the spine, along the edges, and on the corners of the boards in thinly pared pieces retained its overlapping appearance.

Figure 12

Details from the spine and one of the corners clearly showing different pieces of leather overlapping.

Small remnants of strips of blue decorative paper were consolidated and adhered along the perimeters of the decorative marbled paper.

Figure 13

The arrows indicate small remnants of decorative blue paper strips that were originally forming a frame, now overlapping the decorated marbled central piece.

Our meticulous method of working enables us to provide scholars who are interested in all aspects of the volume, not just the content, with as much information as possible. This attention to detail potentially protects clues to a past we can only imagine.

Flavio Marzo

28 April 2016

Much Ado About…Possibly Something

Conservator Flavio Marzo reports on his fascinating findings during the conservation of one of the books bearing the presumed signature of William Shakespeare.

As it is now the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare and the British Library has unveiled a major exhibition about the Bard of Avon, I thought it was a good time to share the conservation work I carried out on one of the items currently on exhibition. In 2005 I was given the opportunity to work on an item here at the British Library bearing one of the few surviving (possible) signatures of the poet. The book, possibly part of Shakespeare’s personal library, is a copy of “The Essayes of Morall, Politike and Militaire Discourses” written by Michaell Montaigne and published in London in 1603. The volume was sent to the conservation studio to be treated before being sent out on a loan and presented some very interesting and unusual features.

The Examination

The cover and the book block were detached and the main task was to secure them together ensuring that any treatment was clearly visible and unobtrusive.

Front cover

Left: Front cover. Right: Cover and book block detached.

The sewing of the body of the book, most likely the result of a quite recent restoration campaign, was made on five narrow strips of tanned brown leather. Probably at the same time new end leaves were added and secured to the first and last sections through an over-casted stitching. There was no evidence of spine lining or glue applied to the spine. When the cover was removed the original sewing supports remained laced through the boards and the page with Shakespeare’s presumed signature was attached on the inside of the left board.

Detached cover

The inside of the detached cover with the signature page and the original supports laced with the cover.

The original sewing supports were made of strips of alum tawed leather with a second layer of tanned brown leather added to give thickness to the raised bands ensuring their visibility on the spine of the book.

Leather strips
Left (viewing from the inside): A strip of alum tawed leather with clear distortions due to the original passages of the thread of the original sewing. Right (viewing from the outside): One of the trimmed tanned leather strips used to create the raised effect on the spine cover.

Areas of the leather cover were missing at the head and tail. After a thorough examination of the cover I realised that the page bearing the signature, adhered onto the inside of the left board, was not originally attached as a paste down, and in fact was never originally placed at the beginning of the book. Careful visual examination revealed that a raised oval was showing through the page.

Signature page

An image of the page taken with raking light clearly showing an oval shaped imprint from the recto of the page.

Since the page was adhered to the board along the edges only, it was possible to insert a light sheet between the page and the board. Under transmitted light it was possible to capture an image of what became clearly identifiable as a British Museum stamp - proving that this sheet was, until quite recently, still detached. Under transmitted light it was also possible to locate and record the watermark present on this page.

Transmitted light
Left: British Museum stamp imaged with transmitted light. Right: Watermark of the page with the signature.

This watermark was subsequently compared with others found on the pages within the book block. Although no perfect match was found between the watermarks, there was a very strong similarity between them.

Watermarks
Other watermarks found within the book block.

Another detail that immediately caught my attention was the observation that the damages along the edges of this sheet did not match the losses and tears present along the edges of the first page of the book.

Damage comparison
Mapping of the stains and damages show how different and inconsistent they are along the edges of the two sheets.

Remarkably, these damaged areas matched almost perfectly to the last restored original end leaf of the book-block proving that this sheet was originally placed at the back of the book and not at the beginning.

Damage comparison
Matching damaged areas between the signature sheet and the last right end leaf.

The Repairs

The conservation of the volume involved the removal of the leather strip supports. These supports were failing and becoming brittle due to the acidic nature of the tanned leather. The strips were mechanically removed from the sewing thread passages and replaced with new linen tapes so that the book did not have to be re-sewn.

Leather strip removal
Removal of the leather strips (left) and their replacement with new linen tapes (right).

The leather of the cover was reinforced and in-filled with dyed Japanese paper and wheat starch paste.

Leather cover
Japanese paper and wheat starch paste are used because of their strength and reversibility.

A new spine lining made of light cotton fabric was adhered to the spine of the book-block to further secure the sewing. The extensions of this spine lining with the frayed linen supports were then inserted between the leather and the boards and adhered to the boards to secure the book-block back with its cover.

Secured book-block
The strips of cotton fabric are adhered between the leather cover and the boards to secure the book-block with the cover.

Conclusions

It is hard to say why this page was tampered with. Possibly it was thought that by attaching this page to the front board it would become more difficult to steal. Sometimes conservation needs some forensic skills, but it always requires great attention to detail. Physical features when correctly interpreted can tell us a lot about the history of an item. It is extremely important when repairing items of historical value that conservators are careful not to inadvertently hide or remove features which may later prove to be significant.

This work, carried out a long time ago, is today still one of my most cherished projects. I am very pleased to be able to share it with you, especially during this year so significant in the history of the Great William Shakespeare.

Flavio Marzo

See this intriguing collection item for yourself at our exhibition: Shakespeare in Ten Acts open until Tuesday 6 September.