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

20 April 2015

Making Islamic-style paper

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The British Library Centre for Conservation recently hosted a professional course on Traditions of Papermaking in the Islamic World, organised by The Islamic Manuscript Association, in association with the Thesaurus Islamicus Foundation.

Add Or 1699

Add Or Ms 1699: A 19th c. watercolour from Kashmir shows the preparation of the pulp and papermaking. (Add Or Ms 1699)

The week began with a day of presentations covering every aspect of traditional Islamic hand papermaking, including early descriptions of the process, bibliographies, the characteristics of papers manufactured in different eras and different parts of the Islamic world, and the materials and tools used. We looked in some detail at the raw materials (mainly flax and hemp) and at the construction of the mould and screen on which the paper is formed. The process has continued in India into modern times, and we viewed films of traditional workers either squatting to work or standing in a pit.

Katharina Siedler

Katharina Siedler shows the screen and supporting frame while Timothy Barrett explains the paper-making process

For the next three days the small group of participants made paper – though fortunately using smaller vats, so we could stand at a table. Two excellent instructors, Timothy Barrett (Director, University of Iowa Center for the Book) and Katharina Siedler (historian and papermaker, who has her own studio in Berlin) guided our efforts. The hemp and flax pulps had been prepared in a Hollander beater at the University of Iowa in both long and short fibred versions to give a sense of the characteristics of each. In addition, participant Jacques Brejoux (Moulin du Verger, France) brought linen pulp, prepared with a medieval-style stamper at his mill.

Timothy Barrett

Tim makes the first sheet of paper

Islamic-style paper is made on a flexible screen made of grass, reeds or split bamboo held together with horsehair (think of a much finer version of a sushi rolling mat.) This is placed on a wooden frame, and removable side-pieces hold it flat. The mould is dipped into the vat of fibre suspended in water. It can then be floated, and gently moved to aid the formation of an even sheet of paper. Watch the process here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9HdUXD-RhcI (start at 7:15). The mould starts to drain as it is lifted from the vat. The side walls are removed and the screen lifted. The sheet of new paper can then be rolled onto a flat board (couching).

Couching

Katharina couches newly made paper

Gavin Moorhead

British Library conservator Gavin Moorhead has a go

The next sheet is usually placed directly on top, though we interleaved with Reemay®, because of space and time limitations. When a good stack (post) has built up, another board is placed on top with weights to squeeze out more water. In warmer countries, the sheets are brushed out on walls to dry. We used a drying rack.

Pressing the post

Jacques Brejoux presses the post while John Mumford (Thesaurus Islamicus Foundation) makes linen paper

By next day, our papers were ready to continue the processes of sizing them, allowing them to dry again, then flattening and burnishing them.

Separation for drying

Tim separates the post of paper for drying

Everyone was able to take away some sheets of paper they had made themselves, plus good reference samples made by our instructors and, equally important, examples of common vat faults, so that we learn to recognise these when we find them in Islamic books.

Kristine Rose

Kristine Rose (Chester Beatty Library) sizes paper

Burnishing

Katharina makes burnishing look easy

On the final day a much larger group assembled for a symposium, summarising many of the topics and themes we had discussed in previous days and setting them in context. Librarians, conservators and historians introduced recent work and research in collections as diverse as the University of Michigan and the British Library. Those who had not been present the whole week stayed for a demonstration of paper-making at the end of the day.

The week was most enjoyable, but intensive and with serious purpose. Those of us who work with oriental collections now feel more confident to explain the marks or flaws in the paper that we encounter. We better understand the history of such items, and can use compatible materials and techniques if we have to treat them.

Ann Tomalak

09 April 2015

The House Of Lords, Commoners, And Everybody Else

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Rob Sherman is the Interactive Fiction Writer-in-Residence for the current British Library exhibition Lines in the Ice. Part of his project involved inventing a new false history for a fictional explorer named Isaak Scinbank. With the help of our Conservation team, Rob created a journal which contained Scinbank's writings during his fictional voyage to the Arctic in 1852. Here Rob reflects on his time at the British Library.

Sewn book block

Not many visitors to the British Library realise that the institution's political fulcrum lies hidden at the very rear of the St. Pancras complex, just past the staff restaurant and the windy, suntrap terrace.

This powerhouse is low-slung and decidedly shy for such an important building. Entering through the double glass doors at its front, a visitor is presented with a small museum to the work done inside.

During my time at the Library as writer-in-residence I was one of the few who could descend into the Conservation Centre, perhaps the most important cabinet in the Library's governance.

It is in this building, far away from the readers and the meeting rooms full of priceless paintings and the baize-carpeted hall of the executive suite that the real debate occurs. These are debates with the most incorrigible and old-fashioned of politicians; time.

Conservation Centre

Entering the private corridors of the Centre for the first time last year, I was accompanied by the closest to a party Whip that the conservators have; Dr. Cordelia Rogerson, the Centre's Head of Conservation and a specialist in plastics and textiles (two areas which I have barely any space or knowledge to consider here). She was giving me a tour to show me what it was that the conservators did. With relatively few exceptions, every unit of knowledge, discourse, history and artistry that the archives contain, every book and pamphlet and poster and tome, is slowly degrading. We have so abstracted these bricks upon which we build a culture that we easily forget what they are, materially; globsters, monsters, amalgams of different corpses.

Bookbinding has always used glue made from boiled bones, mashed trees and the skins of goats, whose unassuming little frames still dictate the standard sizing of our trade hardbacks. From the moment the book is bound it is dying a second death. The 'old book smell' is so fetishised that there are now colognes available which emulate it. Frankenstein and his monster are no more tortured than the vellum in which their first edition was published in 1818. Thinking this way, it is perhaps easier to imagine the Rooibos towers of the Library, so stately and sterile and civic from the surface, resting on a strata of almost-endless decay, a medicine cabinet full of slow-drying herbs, aging adhesives and mummified flesh.

The Library is a sarcophagus of knowledge.

From this organic perspective we may lend the conservators another role; that of the court embalmer, of Lenin's apparatchik, Mao's physician, keeping the cadavers moist and public for as long as possible so that those who come after can venerate them, divine what they need, and be able to say that they had been there, just like tourists.

Conservation Centre

Cordelia took me deeper into the building, past displays of golden tooling seals immortalised in cabinets like butterflies. We walked past labs full of test tubes and near-baptismal fonts of strange chemicals. Between the staff they possess every tool, modern and ancient, that they could need to help slow the inevitable degradation. They repair split spines, suture wounds in leather, and reconstruct text and gold leaf from almost nothing. I met one conservator, Maria, at her desk in the vast main room of the Centre, a cross between a surgery and a railway shed. She was attempting to resuscitate a Hebrew text from the 1400s which had, at some point in its ignominious existence, been submerged in water. Maria worked on that book with quiet, intricate confidence, and told me that she could save it, and it would be read again.

Her work, and the work of her colleagues, will never finish. With hundreds of millions of items in the archives in various states of decrepitude, some so advanced that they are at risk of being lost altogether, it is all the conservators can do to keep up. Work is allocated not in terms of books to save or projects to complete but in terms of hours spent; attempts are made, the best is done in some cases, and then they must move on to the next.

Cordelia introduced me to the two conservators with whom I would be working; Zoe and Royston both were as quiet and assured as Maria, with keenly open minds. Royston had worked at the Library for over 30 years and retired only a month or two ago, taking his incomparable, irreplaceable knowledge with him. It was after this meeting that I started to lay out exactly why somebody like me was there, and what it was that I wanted.

Fictional explorer Isaak Scinbank

My project at the Library has been a petulant one, in which I essentially try to throw stones at the bedroom windows of history to get its attention. My artistic interests lie in how knowledge and rumour and rhetoric are transformed into unimpeachable historical record just by being written down, and what role the Library plays in storing and displaying such records for access. I was exploring these themes by attaching myself to the current exhibition at the Library, a diorama of Arctic exploration called Lines In The Ice, and inventing a new false history with all the attendant paraphernalia. I invented a polar explorer, and wrote songs about him, reams of false conjecture and essay, and drew maps of the journeys that he never took, parallel-parking him into the real stuff of the exhibition. It seems inevitable, then, that such an explorer needed a book of his own to legitimise him completely. I had come to the Conservation Centre to manufacture him one.

I wanted to make from scratch the journal that my explorer, Isaak Scinbank, would have written during his fictional voyage to the Arctic in 1852. My time at the Library has already impressed upon me the corporeality and authority of books, how very much the physicality of them affects how we interact with the information they contain. Because of this, I wanted the blank diary with which I was beginning to be as much a part of the story as Isaak's account written inside it. I described what I wanted to Zoe and Royston in the form of a 'biography' of the book, recounting not only its fictional creation but also its fictional journey through time to reach us in the present day. I designated it as a sort of fisherman's ledger, a present to Isaak from his father; clad in salmon-flesh leather, and embossed with the mark of its fictional publisher ('Thomas Whiflick, of Derby'). I described a large notch in its top edge, designed to be a rest for a gentleman's rods as he relaxed on the riverbank. More than this, I described the life of the book once its primary purpose was over; its existence since Scinbank had returned from the Arctic and died, passing through the hands of various collectors and dealers. I told of the times it had been forgotten and neglected, left to sit in the damp dark of a cellar, sat on and even used as a chopping board for a joint of beef. From this story Zoe and Royston began a complete reversal of their usual jobs as battlefield doctors, as undertakers and temple attendants; together we made Isaak's book, stitching and binding it, and then we began to simulate the infinitesimal, gradual torture which time enacts over hundreds of years. We had a few weeks.

Rob Sherman

I thought initially that the conservators would think me a bit kooky, or at the worst flippant about the difficult realities of their work. However to their credit they were as excited by the possibilities as I was, rejuvenated by this brief diversion from the Sisyphean task of patching, plastering and repairing. They took on the role of their nemesis with enthusiasm and began to pick apart what it was that made a book elderly or antique, where the beauty, rather than the nuisance, lay in that, and what stories they could tell separate from mine in the wrinkles, stains and folds of this old-not-old book. As every child everywhere knows, and we rediscovered, the best way to make a page look old is to dab it with a wet teabag; we didn't spare an inch of the book from the ministrations. The only element that we could not craft was that ambrosial, deathly smell of old paper. Apparently, the alchemy of that was beyond our skills.

The construction of the book took me to every corner of the Conservation Centre, and every facet of its work; from the handbinding cradles which made me feel as if I was lacing up somebody robust in a corset, to the storage rooms for the marbled paper which, when I went around opening the drawers and finding the ranked, swirling colours, seemed to me like a catalogue of oceans and explosions and nebulae. I met so many other talented artisans fighting the good fight, including Christina, the resident multispectral imaging minister. Her lab, a warm, silent sliver of a room filled with the always-drawn curtains, lamps and banks of machinery, has the air of an engine compartment, a police interrogation room and a disciplinary hearing in Westminster. It is here that the deepest, darkest corruptions of the Library's collections are revealed, at a microscopic detail that the Chilcot Inquiry can only dream of.

The Salmon Book

As I finish my time at the Library, and I grudgingly return my pass which got me through so many of the Centre's doors, I return to being a member of the public, a 'user' of the Library, with a realisation. As you can see, Zoe and Royston's work on my book is unequivocally art, not merely conservation. On display in the Lines In The Ice exhibition until the middle of April, our book sits alongside the 'true' artefacts of polar exploration almost imperceptibly, tricking the public without malice and camouflaging its story, its biography, amongst the degradation upon which the Library is built. In doing so it hijacks a small, respectful amount of the value, respect and meaning which the very old are due. The loveliness of this deception will be amplified when I finish Isaak's story, some day; then, the book will accessioned into the Library's archives, where it will begin to truly disintegrate rather than than just playing at it. One day even further in the future, the book will come back to its birthplace in the Conservation Centre, that squat building full of silent discourse and argument with the past, and plead its case.

It is in this way that I see the importance of the Centre's role at the Library taking on almost-legislative proportions. It is no secret that the public sector, of which the Library is a part, must now make do with less and less money as time goes on, even as the archives grow and the doddery old celebrities that they contain require even more work. The Conservation Centre is where such decisions on resources are made; it must be determined which books are to be rescued, where the hours will be spent and which items must, inevitably, wait until it is too late to save them. That book of Hebrew scripture was lucky, but in one hundred years Isaak's diary may not be as fortunate. It is a minor work, by three unheard-of artists. Who knows how difficult the choices that Cordelia's successor faces will be?

These thoughts are frightening ones, especially to those who believe in the immutability and the permanence of such collections. However, my time amongst the Conservation Centre's work has convinced me that such choices about what knowledge we shall retain and what shall be lost, and what will form the truth of the future, is being undertaken by the best people for the job. No matter how difficult time is to negotiate, how unbending and bullying, I know that the conservators will fight to make sure as much is saved as possible.

Even, I hope, those dog yoga books that I found in the archives, one bored Wednesday.

Rob Sherman

02 April 2015

Rusty Rusalka

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There are some binding styles that are inherently sound and will protect the texts within for centuries. In the West, generally they include sewing gatherings of bifolia through the fold with linen thread onto supports such as hemp cords, linen tapes, or slips of alum-tawed leather. Unfortunately, these methods tend to be expensive in time and materials. So the industrialisation of printing in the 19th century led also to new and varied means of holding the leaves together, most of them emphasising speed and cheapness over longevity.

The lowest-priced books had the crudest “sewing” – often stabbing holes through the entire textblock away from the spinefold to oversew the edge, or to pass through fasteners like staples or ties. One problem with this was that the leaves could not open conventionally at the spinefold, and quickly became damaged around the stab holes as readers tried to access text near the gutter.

Around 1880, a compromise was invented in Germany by which wire staples were inserted from inside through the spinefold onto supports such as tapes or cloth. This “wire sewing” seemed a fast and strong method, well suited to books that had to open well, such as music. Development of mechanised through-the-fold book-sewing machines began at about the same time, but took much longer to become economically viable. Thus wire sewing continued in use right through to the first half of the 20th century. Unfortunately, wire sewing has one serious flaw: the wires quickly rust and corrode both the book paper and the spine support. Eventually, they disintegrate and the book falls apart.

Photo 1: Rusalka (I.339.nn) as received in the conservation studio

CC by Photo 1: Rusalka (I.339.nn) as received in the conservation studio

Among the British Library’s printed music collections is a vocal score of Rusalka (I.339.nn), published in Moscow in 1937 – not the more familiar opera by Dvořák, but a lesser-known work in Russian by Alexander Dargomyzhsky (1813-1869). This was sent for conservation because the joints had split and the spine-cloth was detaching, but it was quickly apparent that it was wire sewn and much greater intervention was required.

Photo 2: a close-up of the damage to the spine

CC by Photo 2: a close-up of the damage to the spine

First, the wires had to be removed. The tines or legs of the staples were gently eased up on the outer spine. Fortunately, the cloth beneath them, though damaged, was intact enough to protect the spinefolds.

Photo 3: lifting the wires

CC by Photo 3: lifting the wires

Next the spine was gently rolled onto a length of plastazote (R) which the tines could sink into, both to stabilise the spine and protect the work-surface from scratches. The staples were then slowly worked out from the centre of each section, and the cloth forming the “sewing support” detached easily.

Photo 4: spine after cleaning, showing staggered holes left by the wire staples

CC by Photo 4: spine after cleaning, showing staggered holes left by the wire staples

Rust treatment was considered, but this is a lengthy and invasive action and it was found sufficient to brush out loose fragments from the sections. Minor tears to the textblock were repaired. The holes left by the wires were undamaged and could be used for resewing the textblock with linen thread. However they had been staggered on the spine to avoid bulking it at just a few points. One option was to sew through a textile spine lining, replicating the original support for the wires, but it was felt that triple linen tape supports at each station would better control the opening and eventually offer a stronger board attachment. Once this was done, a light spine lining was added.

Photo 5: resewn textblock detail

CC by Photo 5: resewn textblock detail

The old case was repaired, supporting the worn spine cloth and split joints. The corners also needed some attention to strengthen the soft, brittle boards and reform the split cloth covering them. Old marks and stains were left as they would not cause further damage and are part of the history of the item. Then textblock and case were rejoined.

Photo 6: the repaired case, drying

CC by Photo 6: the repaired case, drying

The final result is a music score that sits securely in its original case binding, with leaves that turn well and open flat should it ever be required for performance again.

Ann Tomalak