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

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.

27 April 2016

Opportunity: Digitisation Conservator

Salary range is £26,000 - £29,966 per annum
Full time (36 hours per week)
Fixed Term Contract for 18 months
St Pancras, London

The British Library is undertaking a number of new digitisation programmes including four hundred pre-1200 manuscripts and illuminated manuscripts and Kings Topographical maps. The ‘Discovering Literature’ web resource is also moving into its next phase requiring items to be digitised. 

This is an opportunity for an experienced conservator to undertake condition assessments and conservation treatment of paper and parchment books and manuscripts to enable digitisation as part of these and other projects. The conservator will work closely with the project managers and curators and will report to the Conservation Digitisation Manager. You’ll operate with minimal supervision and have the skills and knowledge to plan, manage and track your work to ensure that deadlines are met. You must be able to communicate effectively with people at all levels, and be able to keep clear, consistent and accurate records of all activities undertaken.

You need to have either a degree in conservation or equivalent knowledge and skills sets, and practical hands-on experience in conservation of library materials for digitisation and/or large-scale conservation projects. A broad knowledge of available conservation treatments within the field of book/paper conservation together with the ability to diagnose conservation problems and to develop and evaluate options for solutions. You should also have a high level of manual dexterity, together with knowledge of materials chemistry and the properties, behaviours and interaction of a wide range of organic and inorganic materials. A good knowledge of preventive conservation issues is also required.

For further information and to apply, please visit www.bl.uk/careers quoting vacancy ref: COL00841

Closing Date: 12 May 2016
Interview Date: week of 23 May 2016

UPDATE – we have added three more courses to the 2016 programme

British Library / West Dean college partnership Courses 2016

West Dean College has collaborated with the British Library to deliver a programme of courses in preservation and collection care for libraries. The programme focuses on Continued Professional Development and is aimed at professionals, conservation students and others interested in furthering their skills in this area. For booking information please see West Dean short course web pages here.

Environment: effective monitoring & management
Jane Henderson
BL16 8 June 2016
Location: The British Library, London

Avoiding a 'one size fits all' approach to environmental parameters, this training day helps you to understand the vulnerabilities and tolerances of your collections and then shows how to set realistic and achievable targets that are appropriate to the materials in your care and the resources available to you. At the end of the day you will be in a strong position to take cost-effective decisions and prioritise actions for maintaining a sustainable environment. The training day is aimed at people with responsibility for the care of library and archive collections, and is led by Jane Henderson, Senior Lecturer in Conservation at Cardiff University.

Course fee: £116
For booking information please see West Dean short course web pages here.

Dust, dirt: strategies for prevention & management
Caroline Bendix
BL17 15 June 2016
Location: The British Library, London

Dust is a constant presence in most libraries and archives and can be harmful to collections. This training day will focus on understanding the nature of dust and the threat it poses, as well as means by which dust can be cleaned and how collections may be protected from it. At the end of the day delegates will have:

  • a clear understanding of how dust forms and from what it is made.
  • practical knowledge of cleaning collections.
  • awareness of health and safety issues.
  • the ability to identify pest and mould damage.
  • details of various methods of protecting against dust.
  • the ability to set up a housekeeping programme.
  • an understanding of using volunteers to help clean collections. 

Course fee: £128
For booking information please see West Dean short course web pages here.

Essential preservation
Ruth Honeybone, Sarah-Jane Hamlyn
BL18 1 July 2016
Location: The British Library, London

Preservation is a means of ensuring that collections can be used for the long-term. This workshop focuses on the preservation of library and archive collections, with an emphasis on traditional, paper-based collections. The day introduces common terminology and standards, highlights risks to collections, and describes simple steps for minimising those risks. It is targeted at those who are new to the preservation of library and archive collections, and includes group exercises and discussion sessions to address individual needs.

By the end of the day, participants will be able to:

  • define what is meant by preservation.
  • identify the main threats to library and archive collections.
  • identify factors to consider when storing and handling items.
  • find other sources of information to support their preservation work.

Course fee: £128
For booking information please see West Dean short course web pages here.

Preservation Assessment Survey Workshop
Julia Foster, Paul Garside
Ref: BL19 15 September 2016
Location: The British Library, London

Preservation Assessment Survey Workshop designed for library and archive staff (no previous knowledge of preservation is required), the workshop introduces a variety of collection survey methods, explains the benefits of carrying out a survey, provides options for selecting a sample and includes a practical session allowing attendees to plan, measure, and compile survey data. Participants have successfully used the results of collection and condition surveys to support funding bids and to inform internal planning and budgeting for preservation. For further information about the course, please contact the Course Organiser: +44 (0)1243 818219 or cpd@westdean.org.uk

Course fee: £128.00
For booking information please see West Dean short course web pages here.

Preventing pests by IPM
David Pinniger
Ref: BL20 9 November 2016
Location: The British Library, London

Led by David Pinniger, Independent Consultant Entomologist, this one-day workshop provides an introduction to preventing pests through use of integrated pest management. The course is aimed at anyone with any involvement with, or responsibility for care of libraries, archives and collections. Technical handouts will be given to support the course.

Course objectives:

  1. To introduce the main insect pests which attack collections. What they need to live. How to identify them. The damage they cause. Ways to prevent them becoming established
  2. Understanding pest environments.
  3. Selecting the most appropriate treatments to control pests.
  4. Making plans to establish an Integrated Pest Management (IPM) programme.

Course fee: £128
For booking information please see West Dean short course web pages here.

Preserving Historic Photographs
Susie Clark
Ref: BL21 17 November 2016
Location: The British Library, London

Photographic collections are found in libraries, archives and museums all over the world. Their sensitivity to environmental conditions, and the speed with which images can deteriorate present special challenges. This one day training session is led by Susie Clark, accredited photographic conservator. It is aimed at those with responsibility for the care of photographic collections regardless of institutional context. The day provides an introduction to understanding and identifying photographic processes and their vulnerability, information on common conservation problems and solutions, and the preservation measures that can be taken to prolong the life and accessibility of photographic collections. Contact with real examples of different photographic processes is an important feature of this training session which is therefore limited to only 16 places. At the end of the day participants will be able to:

  • identify historic photographic processes.
  • explain how damage is caused.
  • implement appropriate preservation measures.
  • commission conservation work.

For further information about the course, please contact the Course Organiser: +44 (0)1243 818219 or cpd@westdean.org.uk

Course fee: £128
For booking information please see West Dean short course web pages here.