Collection Care blog

Behind the scenes with our conservators and scientists


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

30 November 2015

Farewell to all that

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Preparing for retirement, I inevitably revisited the exciting projects and beautiful objects I worked on during my time at the British Library. The conservator’s role has seen many changes, even in a decade. Limited resources are increasingly focused on preserving whole collections by reducing the risks of damage and deterioration, rather than treating single items. But to make those collections more available both in the Reading Rooms and digitally to users across the world, some repairs are essential so items can be handled safely. Minimal intervention helps to retain evidence of the item’s history and past use.

St Cuthbert Gospel f1r

 The St Cuthbert Gospel (Add Ms 89000) f.1r The damage records the ways the book was used and stored through the centuries and will be preserved.

My first project was the conservation of Alexander Fleming’s papers (Add Ms 56106-56225), including those relating to his discovery of penicillin – not perhaps the most suitable job as I am highly allergic to it. The repaired notebooks were housed in plastazote, laboriously cut to shape by hand. Eventually, I would learn to “drive” a Zünd cutter, which did the same job in minutes.

Beryl Bainbridge’s papers followed, and it was a surprise to discover that she had been to art school as a teenager and illustrated her early work. However, she used a poster paint with very little binder, so the surface was often powdery. The paintings were treated with a weak solution of JunFunori, misted on with a nebuliser repeatedly over a week or more.

Add Ms 83745

A double page image from a volume of fragments 1951-3 (Add Ms 83745 ff.5v-6).

Immediately after World War II writing paper was scarce, so Bainbridge often used poor quality scraps held together with pressure sensitive tape. This was all degrading and had to be removed with heat and solvents – very carefully, where there was text nearby. Modern inks can run in both water and solvents, making conservation more difficult.

Add Ms 83745

The same volume showing different papers and typical edge damage (Add Ms 83745 ff.33-41).

Edgar Mansfield’s working archive for his designer bindings gave me much delight, and more challenges. First seen packed tight in two box files, after conservation and proper housing they filled a shelf and a half. Early on we agreed to preserve evidence of how the design process developed, and how the final tooling patterns used folds and excisions to fix the paper to the book leather temporarily. Loose overlays needed careful hinging to secure them in precisely the right position. The British Library has two of Mansfield’s finished bindings.

Dance and the Soul

Valery’s Dance and the Soul bound by Mansfield (C130c6) with his final design and the tooling pattern used to transfer it to the leather cover.

Eventually I moved into digitisation projects (Harley Scientific Manuscripts, Greek manuscripts and finally Hebraic manuscripts). As I gained experience, I also got the more difficult one-off jobs. The largest item, the Moutier-Grandval Bible (Add Ms 10546), more than half a metre high, needed a special cradle and team of people to handle it safely (read more here).


Two people turn the leaves while a third adjusts the cradle.

For the Brontë miniature books I had to make tiny “fingers” to hold the leaves flat for imaging (more on that here.

Ashley Ms 157

Blackwood’s Young Men’s Magazine, First Series, No. 6, f.6v (Ashley Ms 157)

Through the years, a stream of running repairs have come my way; simple tasks for the most part, but letting me handle many beautiful items: the Theodore Psalter (Add Ms 19352), Cruciform Lectionary (Add Ms 39603), Chinese Qur’an (Or Ms 15256/1), Queen Mary Psalter (Royal Ms 2.B.VII), Macclesfield Alphabet Book (Add Ms 88887), Prayer Roll of Henry VIII (Add Ms 88929), Guthlac Roll (Harley Roll Y 6), charts of Cook’s voyages (Add Ms 31360), a suffragette prison diary (Add Ms 49976) and many hundred more, most recently the Leonardo Notebook (Arundel Ms 263). To increase efficiency, a mobile workstation took me out of the studio to work in the storage areas, eliminating the transportation of books to the Conservation Centre and the associated security and paperwork.

Life of St Guthlac

Life of St Guthlac (Harley Roll Y 6) f.15r The spectacles and feather were added by an earlier owner.

I also did exhibition work, mostly condition reporting and checking loan items. But one job in Durham had the local newspaper asking “How many people does it take to turn a page and how long does it take them to do it?” Since the book was the Lindisfarne Gospels, it did take a while.

Visitors sometimes asked about my favourite collection item and most often I chose whatever I was currently working on and making discoveries about. But the book that lingers in my memory is Thomas Osborne’s Treatise on Arithmetic (Harley Ms 4924). If I had had such an attractive textbook as a child, I would have been a more eager student. It is now too frail to be issued in the Reading Room, but is available to everyone in digital form.

Treatise on Arithmetic

Treatise on Arithmetic (Harley Ms 4924) f.6r Note the schoolroom scene in the lower left corner.

I plan to revisit the British Library eventually to research historic binding structures, but meanwhile I shall be following the blogs and keeping an eye on the latest uploads to Digitised Manuscripts.

Ann Tomalak


05 November 2015

How do you decide what to conserve?

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Almost every visitor (nearly 700 last year) to the Centre for Conservation asks the same question: How do you decide what to conserve?

Estimate forms

Estimate forms ready for checking and approval

Given that the library holds around 150 million items, this is a pertinent question and one that we have to consider carefully. With limited resources we simply cannot treat everything and yet there is a great deal that needs some attention. 

That isn't to say that we don’t look after our collection. Our onsite storage in both St Pancras and Boston Spa (Yorkshire) is carefully monitored and managed to give the best conditions possible for long term preservation. Handling training for staff and readers is a key priority for our Preventive Conservation Team.

Examining collection items

Chris and Frances examine collection items

Rather, an historic collection that has had past use, is currently used and is ageing will show signs of deterioration. Inherent vice or component materials that self-destruct, sometimes rapidly - such as machine made paper containing lignin and impurities - also strongly influences how a collection fares over time.

A system for prioritising which items receive conservation treatment is used to create an annual programme of work. We call this the ‘bidding system’ and in October each year the subject specialist curators are invited to put forward suggestions for projects or ‘bids’ needing conservation. Information about the items is entered into a database and some priority questions are answered during this process.

These questions include:

  • Is the item unique?
  • Does a surrogate exist?
  • What is the level of demand for this item?

The questions are weighted – and carry a numbered score which is automatically calculated by the database. Hence each ‘bid’ has a priority score allocated to it. By analysing the scores it is possible to determine the highest priority items from the clutch of suggested bids based on the current agreed criteria.

Discussing treatment

Francesca and Roger discuss treatment

Items with higher scores are examined by the conservators to create a treatment proposal and an estimate of the number of hours needed to complete the work. The number of available treatment hours for bids, or our capacity for the year, is calculated concurrently.  A work programme is created that matches the number of hours available and hours needed for treatment.

An obvious flaw in the system is that it depends on the curators knowing their collection and putting forward items that are pertinent. Fortunately curators take this system seriously. They are very supportive of the conservation process and throughout the year conservators work closely with the curators to discuss treatment requirements and also possible future bids.

The annual conservation work programme is given final approval by the Preservation Board – an internal governing body designed to oversee the process and confirm that resources are allocated appropriately and strategically. Ensuring both preservation of and access to the collection are some of the core purposes of the Library.


Cordelia Rogerson

Head of Conservation

23 October 2015

Magna Carta Conservation Team at the ICON Awards

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The British Library conservation team that worked on the Magna Carta project attended a glamorous awards ceremony at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers last night. The team were shortlisted for the Institute of Conservation (ICONAnna Plowden Trust Award for Research and Innovation, which went to Tate for their impressive Rothko Conservation Project. A huge congratulations to the Tate team and to the Imperial War Museum who were also in our category for their amazing space vacuums, air bazookas and duster drones project in the War Against Dust.

Magna Carta Conservation Team

Left to right: Cordelia Rogerson, Christina Duffy, Gavin Moorhead, Julian Harrison

The Magna Carta Project was a collaborative process of sophisticated research and innovation that enabled a pragmatic solution for rehousing and displaying an iconic document. Our biggest challenge was overcoming long held preconceptions and expectations that a high profile artefact required an expensive high-tech approach. You can read more about our work here.

ICON Awards 2015

It has been a great privilege to work with Magna Carta and the curatorial team in the build up to the British Library's most successful exhibition Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy.

Many thanks to all colleagues across the British Library and other institutions who helped progress the project into something we are all very proud of. Thanks to ICON and their sponsors Beko for organising a terrific night celebrating an incredible range of conservation work going on around the UK.

Congratulations to all the entrants, shortlistees and winners!

Christina Duffy