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 June 2017

Time-lapse Video Showing Conservation of Tangut Documents

The Tangut documents are part of the Stein collection that is held at the British Library. They were recovered by Aurel Stein in 1914, during his Third Expedition to Central Asia (1913–1916). From the moment they were unearthed from the ancient city of Kharakhoto, a major centre of the Tangut State of Xia located in the Gobi Desert right inside the present-day Chinese border with Mongolia, these important items have remained untreated. This has made their study impossible.

Tangut fragments

Conservator Vania Assis is in charge of repairing and stabilising the documents, which have survived in a fragmentary state, in the aim of eventually digitising them as part of the International Dunhuang Project. This task is a time-consuming process, where all fragments need to be humidified to unfold all their existing layers. However, in order for this to happen, all the sand from excavation needs to be removed beforehand, or else it would sink into the paper fibres and permanently obscure the text. Only once cleaned can the fragments be flattened and repaired, using small Japanese paper tabs to stop disintegration.

So far, more than 1500 items have been conserved, and many are already housed in spot welded polyester sleeves, ready to be digitised. Hopefully, making these items accessible will help unfold more secrets about the Tangut Empire which only existed from 1038 to 1227.

09 May 2017

Craft Week - Conservation at the British Library

Paper, book and textile conservators participated in London Craft Week on Thursday 4 and Saturday 6 May with demonstrations and talks at the British Library.

The event was very successful and was well attended by those interested in the craft of conservation and how we care for our collections.

Many conversations were had with visitors to the Library: some were on holiday, others had come to work or study, many were supporting London Craft Week and others had tickets for the Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths exhibition.

London Craft Week
London Craft Week demonstrations at the British Library, Thursday 4 May 2017

Thanks to all who attended to make the day so memorable. If you missed the event but are interested in conservation at the British Library, don't forget there are tours on the first Thursday of each month. The tours begin at 14:00 and depart from the exhibition area in the Centre for Conservation. Book your place now as spaces are limited.

08 May 2017

Beauty is only Skin Deep – Installation of the 101st Soviet Rifle Regiment Banner for the Russian Revolution Exhibition

Iwona Jurkiewicz reports on the installation of an extraordinary and iconic banner on exhibition for the first time outside Poland at the British Library's latest exhibition: Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths. It can be seen until the exhibition closes on 29 August 2017.

It is a well-known truth that external attractiveness bears little relation to the essential internal qualities of a person. This time, the old saying: ‘beauty is only skin deep’ proved to be true for a banner.

The 101st Soviet Rifle Regiment banner captured in the 1919-20 Soviet–Polish War by the victorious Poles is very plain and unassuming in appearance. It is, however, of enormous value, being the only surviving banner from that conflict still held in the Polish collections.

A great number of other banners were captured during the Soviet-Polish War and kept in the Polish Army Museum in Warsaw. In the 1950’s all but this one were ordered to be returned to the Soviet Union (hence its unique status).

Soviet Rifle Regiment
Picture 1: The banner of the 101st Soviet Rifle Regiment with the popular propaganda slogan of the time: ‘Peace to huts, war to palaces’.

The banner has been borrowed from Warsaw for the Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy and Myths Exhibition together with a much more visually appealing hat of a Red Army soldier, known as Budenovka.

Red Army uniform hat
Picture 2: Red Army uniform hat named after Red Army Commander, Semen Budennyi.

Yet, it was this plain looking banner, with its twists and turns of history that go beyond the Russian Revolution, rather than the cute red hat, that captured my attention.

The current monochrome appearance of the cotton ground is misleading since it was originally red, and the star stitched in the middle of the banner with the early emblem of the Soviet state of a hammer and sickle was - against all expectations - white.

We know this thanks to the detailed documentations of all captured banners made between 1930's-1950's published in a book on trophies seized during the Soviet–Polish War by Jarosław Pych1.

Banner
Picture 3: The banner as shown in the documentation in the Polish Army Museum after it was donated in the 1930’s.

Unfortunately, this iconic item lost its original colours in the course of the long term display and due to the poor stability of the dye used. It now, indeed, seems very plain and unassuming. However, the post Second World War Soviet intervention gave it the status of the only surviving banner in the Polish Army Museum collection, and this added to its already great national significance. The banner has never been displayed abroad before, and it was conserved prior to the Russian Revolution exhibition by the Textile Conservation team based in the Polish Army Museum and led by Jadwiga Kozlowska, who also couriered the item for the British Library exhibition.

Jadwiga Kozlowska
Picture 4: Jadwiga Kozlowska with the banner.

Her presence during the installation proved vital. The banner, usually displayed in portrait orientation in Warsaw had firm attachment – a Perspex rod - on the short side, but not the long one as was necessary for the landscape orientation of the case in the Russian Revolution exhibition.

Perspex rod attachment
Picture 5: The Perspex rod attachment of the banner.

Display case
Picture 6: Landscape orientation of the display case.

This situation was promptly remedied by Jadwiga Kozłowska who was able to stitch the crêpeline facing the banner alongside the top edge using an invisible polyester thread.

Attaching the banner
Picture 7: Jadwiga Kozłowska attaching the banner to the supporting board.

This enabled a secure display of the item in landscape rather than portrait direction. The banner is displayed on a slope within the case, and the supporting board is secured using acrylic clips.

Final installation
Picture 8: The final installation of the banner.

The installation of the banner with such a chequered history couldn’t have been straightforward, but nothing proves impossible with teams of dedicated exhibition, conservation and loans registry staff!

The Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths Exhibition opened on 28 April and will run until 29 August 2017. You can also read articles from our experts exploring some of the themes of our exhibition on our Russian Revolution website.

 

Iwona Jurkiewicz

 

I would like to thank Jadwiga Kozłowska for not only helping with the installation, but also providing the information about the banner.

Further reading:

1. Jarosław Pych "Trofea wojny polsko-bolszewickiej 1920 roku", Warszawa, 2000

Workshop on Understanding Asian Papers and their Applications in Paper Conservation

AsianPapers

Instructor: Minah Song, independent paper conservator
www.minahsong.com
Date: July 11th - 13th (Tue - Thu), 2017 - 3 days
Place: The British Library, 96 Euston Road, London NW1 2DB
Enrollment limit : 12
Registration fee: 470 GBP or 560 EUR (materials included)

This three-day intensive workshop is designed to provide both emerging and established conservation professionals with the theoretical and practical foundation for understanding Asian papers and their applications in paper conservation. The workshop consists primarily of hands-on activities with a lecture, group discussions and examinations of various Asian papers.

Participants will familiarize themselves with history and characteristics of Chinese, Korean and Japanese papermaking, including an overview of contemporary Asian paper production. Each participant will be presented with a set of different paper samples and will study the papers first hand and examine the fibres, sheet formation, alkali content and the results of different manufacturing processes and drying methods. Different Asian paper fibres will be compared with the help of microscopic images.

In a practical session, participants will make small-sized paper samples using simple tools with paper mulberry fibres and formation aid. They will also use cotton fibres as a comparison. Participants will make modern equivalent of drying board (karibari) using a honeycomb board and mulberry paper.

Participants will study and share details of various methods of repair and lining techniques using different Asian papers, depending on their opaqueness, texture, and strength, appropriate for specific objects. For example, participants will try double-sided lining with thin mulberry tissue, drying a lined object on a drying board, and making re-moistenable tissue with different adhesives. Useful tips in toning techniques with acrylic paints for mulberry paper will be discussed.

For further details and online registration see:
www.minahsong.com/workshop
Contact the instructor: minahsongstudio@gmail.com

12 April 2017

Conservation demonstration at London Craft Week

London Craft Week

Conservation at the British Library
As part of London Craft Week members of the British Library Conservation team will demonstrate conservation techniques used to protect one of the most significant library collections in the world. The Library houses treasures including The Magna Carta, Leonardo da Vinci’s Notebook and the Beatle’s manuscripts.

Thursday 4 May Demonstrations 11am - 5pm, talks 2pm - 3pm and 6pm - 7pm
Saturday 6 May Demonstrations 12pm - 4pm, talk 2pm - 3pm

Demonstrations free / Entrance Hall
Talk £5 / Foyle Room / booking necessary www.bl.uk/events

Silk curtain

Illuminated manuscript with silk ‘curtain’. Image © British Library Board

13 February 2017

The beauty within: conservation of manuscript Delhi Arabic 1928

Flavio Marzo reports on the conservation of a unique manuscript from the Delhi Arabic collection.

I have recently undertaken the conservation of a very interesting Arabic manuscript that is a good example of how the mixture of features means richness and beauty.

The manuscript, produced in the first half of the XIX century, contains two different texts bound together, about cosmology and astronomy. This book, measuring 285 x 175 x 30 mm, is one of the scientific volumes that we are presently digitising within the project sponsored by the Qatar Foundation, here on the 6th floor of the British Library, for the Qatar Digital Library web site.

Image 1_2Right/front and left/back cover of Delhi Arabic 1928.

Image 3

The spine of the book.

This manuscript is also another item from the Delhi Arabic Collection; a fantastic series housed at the British Library that has been the subject of other previous blog posts of mine, written for the British Library Collection Care blog.

The book came to us because it needed extensive conservation before any further handling, from cataloguing to photography, would have been possible. Something needed to be done, but as soon as I started to examine the book in detail I realised how interesting and unique its binding was.

Categories are essential to communicate, we need a common language to share information and a common vocabulary to be able to understand each other, but this inevitably often requires simplification. The history of book binding and the craft of book making are not different, we have created a vocabulary that helps us to categorise styles, techniques and features, assigning to specific definitions chronologically and geographically defined areas.

‘Islamic style binding’ is one of them; it identifies books that are bound following specific techniques and are characterised by specific codified and agreed upon features.

At a first look, this book seemed to bear all of those characteristics:

1. A type of decoration with inlays made of tooled toned paper was applied to the leather, as well as being framed with lines of drawn gold pigment. 
2. The boards were not larger than the book block (no squares).
3. It had a flat spine.
4. The burnished shining paper of the pages bore Arabic writing.

Image 4

One of the paper inlays, lifting.

I was also expecting an unsupported sewing (without sewing supports) and Islamic style end bands, but this was not the case.

The sewing, made with a very thick linen thread was actually made on strips of tanned leather with the thread passing behind them in the so called ‘French style technique’ (link stitch) where the thread passages are linked together during the sewing, as visible in the following image.

Image 5

Image 6

The leather strips and the passages of the sewing thread in the ‘French style’.

The end bands, or at least what was left of them (only the one at the tail survived almost entirely) were also a surprise, they were in a western style, sewn with two silk threads (pink and green) onto a round core made of linen cord.

Image 7

Detail of the surviving 'western style' end band at the tail of the book spine.

What a magnificent multicultural binding! An Islamic style cover with French sewing and western end bands; how many stories this damaged little book is telling all at once - not only the fascinating content of the text but also the intriguing mixture of features that speaks of a binder obviously bridging two different worlds and their book binding craftsmanship.

The book was made in the XIX century, a time when the western domination of the Far East (the book was part of the Imperial Mughal Library so possibly produced in India) was already quite established, and so the reciprocated exchange in craftswork and tastes.

Was the binder a westerner or an easterner artisan? It is hard to tell even if the predominance of eastern features, like the attachment of the leather cover to the book block achieved by only adhering the leather to the spine without any lacing of the supports, makes me favour the second option.

The challenge here was then how to treat the book. The leather strips were completely gone and the sewing very loose. A huge amount of insect damage, especially on the spine folds of the bifolia, had made most of the pages detached. Likewise, the leather on the spine and the board edges were almost completely gone.

Approaches in modern conservation are based on some clear principles and ethics, two of which are ‘minimal intervention’ and ‘fit for purpose’. In this specific case I chose the ‘minimal’ approach aimed at keeping all the historical evidence of an object undisturbed as much as possible. I decided to work ‘in situ’ and try to restore all the elements of the binding leaving them as they were.

This was a very ‘minimal’ but not at all ‘fit for purpose’ approach. Digitisation project workflows are based on the constant processing of material to be imaged and uploaded online. Conservation within these work streams is there to support this flow, making sure that the items processed are stabilized and safely handled to produce good quality images. In this context, the ‘fit for purpose’ approach means that conservation treatments on single items should not take more than 5 to 10 hours to be completed. To repair the manuscript, however, took me one week. The time was needed and it was found within the scope of the project, but making sure that we were also keeping a steady flow of material to work on for the rest of the workflow strands.

A new spine lining made of Japanese paper was applied onto the spine to secure the book block as much as possible and to support in place the remnants of the end bands before starting to work on the pages.

Image 8

The spine of the book and the remnants of the end bands are reinforced with Japanese paper layers adhered with wheat starch paste and the new linen tapes inserted under the passage of the sewing.

New cotton tapes were inserted under the sewing thread passages where the leather strip supports were originally placed. In most of the sections the sewing thread was secured in place with small pieces of Japanese paper and wheat starch paste. The loose pages were secured with hinges of Japanese paper, making sure that the correct collation was maintained.

The boards were re-attached to the book block as they had been by attaching the original linen spine lining and the remnants of the old leather supports reinforced with the new cotton tapes.

All the remnants of the covering leather on the spine were secured to the spine lining now supported by a new Japanese paper hollow. No infill with new leather was made, but the spine was repaired only with thin toned Japanese paper instead, leaving the linen fabric of the original lining exposed.

Image 9

The book after the conservation work.

During the conservation of the book block, a note was also found inserted. Written on this note are the shelf mark and probably a request from the cataloguer for the restoration of the book (‘Repairs & binding’).

The note was most surely inserted at the time the book was being catalogued since the handwriting on it matches the calligraphy on the cataloguing labels adhered on the right and left boards.

Image10_11

Pink slip with handwritten shelf mark and annotation compared with the shelf mark written on the labels adhered on the right/front board.

At the British Library, the practice of inserting pink slips to highlight the need for urgent conservation work is still in use today. This procedure obviously dates back quite far.

We know that the manuscripts in the Delhi collection were moved from Calcutta to the India Office in London, and at a certain point divided into their respective language collections. This arrangement was made after they were catalogued in 1937, so it is reasonable to assume that the labels were placed not much later than this date.

The request on the slip was obviously ignored and the book was not restored, a ‘negligence’ that probably saved the manuscript from a complete rebinding that would have destroyed all the historical evidences of this unique artefact.

The perception of beauty is another very controversial topic; this work of mine was meant to preserve as much as possible all the evidence of a very unique and fascinating item, keeping the original features in place and preserving all the possibly hidden information for future research.

The tattered look of the damaged book was also preserved, arguably not a pleasing look, but time has left its marks and that has its own beauty.

Flavio Marzo

Understanding leather - from tannery to collection

Five days Continuing Professional Development (CPD) training for Conservators (10 -12 participants only).

Conserve and Care Northampton

Main Subjects

  • Understanding Leather
  • Understanding the threats to the preservation of leather in your collection

The course is a mixture of theory and practical (tanning, handling different leathers and examining deterioration problems).

Each aspect of leather production is explored in both a theoretical and practical way, and explained in relation to deterioration processes and resultant care and conservation problems.

Participants will have opportunities to try some of the production methods using both modern and traditional techniques.

Experienced professionals are on-hand to answer questions and the course takes place in an informal group, where students are encouraged to take part and get involved.

Leather tools

Participants

This course is aimed at conservators, curators and other museum professionals with responsibility for collections which include historic leather items, who wish to understand (a) leather making processes and (b) common deterioration problems found in historic leather objects.

Those who attended the course in previous years found it to be immensely useful as well as enjoyable.

To be held at:

The Leather Conservation Centre & Northampton University’s Institute of Creative Leather Technologies,
The University of Northampton,
Boughton Green Road,
Northampton NN2 7AN

Dates - Monday 26 to Friday 30 June 2017

Cost - £495 tuition only. There are a few bursaries available for students on recognised conservation courses which will bring the cost down to £295.

An accommodation list will be available.

NB The course will not run with less than 10 participants.

For further information or to book a place on this course please contact - Yvette Fletcher, Head of Conservation, The Leather Conservation Centre on email lcc@northampton.ac.uk.

Lab coats, gloves, boots and other necessary PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) will be provided.

Please note the course does not cover conservation treatments or techniques (please visit the West Dean website www.westdean.org.uk for information on CPD course on conservation of leather).

03 February 2017

Job opportunity: Conservator – Adam Matthew Digitisation Project

Full Time, Fixed Term Contract to 31 March 2018

The British Library leads and collaborates in growing the world’s knowledge base. We have signed a partnership with Adam Matthew Digital to make thousands of digitised historic documents and manuscripts available online to researchers, scholars and the general public. The Conservation department, which comprises some 50 people, is responsible for the care of one of the largest, richest and most diverse research collections in the world.

Cover is going to be reattached to text block

This is an opportunity for an experienced Conservator to work closely with the imaging team, Project Manager and Curators. For the majority of the time you will be based in the imaging studio carrying out the ordering of materials to ensure the workflow, condition checks and preparation treatments on a range of collection items that are being digitised as part of this project. Some conservation treatments will be carried out in the conservation studio. 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 and the ability to treat fragile and delicate materials, 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 with the ability to deliver training on the handling of library material to support and implement best practices within the British Library/Adam Matthew Digital partnership project and collaboration with the colleagues in the main British Library Conservation Studio (BLCC).

Job reference number 01095
For the full job profile and to apply please visit British Library website, https://britishlibrary.recruitment.northgatearinso.com/birl/

Closing Date: 26 February 2017
Interviews will take place in mid-March 2017

31 January 2017

PhD placement opportunity: Textiles in the British Library

Textiles are a numerous but perhaps unexpected part of the collections at the British Library. These intriguing and delicate items require careful storage, handling and conservation to preserve them for the future. Since the British Library’s first Textile Conservator was appointed in January 2015, hundreds of textiles have been discovered within the Library’s collections. These range from fabric covers for Torah scrolls and silk escape maps of Berlin, to a Japanese children’s book resembling a baby in a sleeping bag and Captain Cook’s book containing samples of bark cloth from the South Pacific Islands.

Textiles

This first textile-focused PhD placement presents an opportunity to gain insight into a relatively new area of the Library’s work and contribute to raising the profile of a currently less well-known part of the collections. Working alongside the Textile Conservator, Liz Rose, the placement student will be responsible for completing an internal database of textiles in the
British Library collections. This will involve working with curators across collections to view textile items, photograph them and input their details into the database using the Library’s shelfmark conventions. In addition, there will be opportunities for the student to write blog posts about newly-identified textile items for the Library’s blogs and other public platforms.

During the three-month placement (or part-time equivalent), the student will be a full member of the Conservation Team and will have the chance to assist with holding public tours and events in the conservation centre and with preparing textile items for exhibition displays or external loans. As well as developing specialist knowledge of a wide range of textiles and their conservation needs, the placement thus offers a chance to gain transferable skills in event management and public engagement.

The placement would suit PhD students with an interest in textiles from a range of disciplinary backgrounds. The main requirement is the ability to keep clear and consistent records, and strong IT skills. Training in the handling of fragile textile items, the Library’s subject-specific naming conventions, as well as an induction to the textile collections and to the wider work of
the British Library Centre for Conservation will be provided at the beginning of the placement.

View a detailed placement profile.

Application guidelines

For full application guidelines and profiles of the other placements offered under this scheme, visit the Library’s Research Collaboration webpages. The application deadline is 20 February 2017. For any queries about this placement opportunity, please contact research.development@bl.uk.

A note to interested applicants

This is an unpaid professional development opportunity, which is open to current (or very recent) PhD researchers only. To apply, you need to have the approval of your PhD supervisor and your department’s Graduate Tutor (or equivalent senior academic manager).

Our PhD placement scheme has been developed in consultation with Higher Education partners and stakeholders to provide opportunities for PhD students to develop and apply their research skills outside the university sector. Please note that the Library itself is not able to provide payment to placement students, nor can it provide costs for daily commuting or relocation to the site of the placement. Anyone applying for a placement at the Library
is expected to consult their university or Doctoral Training Partnership/Doctoral Training Centre to ascertain what funding is available to support them. The Library strongly recommends to universities that a PhD student given approval to undertake a placement is in receipt of a stipend for the duration of the placement.

24 November 2016

Applications of Image Processing Software to Archival Material

Images of archival material are useful to both conservators for monitoring changes, and to researchers for detailed analysis and permanent access to collection items. Image processing allows historical documents and other collection items to be studied without the risk of damage to the primary source. The increase in digitisation projects is generating large volumes of image files that can be processed to enhance the understanding of our collections without physically handling fragile material.

ImageJ is a powerful public domain Java-based image processing package. The nature of open source software allows for the constant update and availability of new plugins and recordable macros designed for specific tasks. ImageJ’s built-in editor and a Java compiler allow for the development of custom acquisition, analysis and processing plugins. In April 2013 I presented a poster at the ICOM Graphics Documents Working Group Interim Meeting in Vienna, outlining the applications of image processing software to archival material . The full poster can be downloaded as a PDF here.

C-DUFFY-poster

While several improvements have been made to the functionality of ImageJ since 2013, I hope this poster provides useful information to those less familiar with image processing techniques.

ImageJ was originally designed for the purpose of medical imaging by the National Institutes for Health by Wayne Rasband, but has since found applications in many fields. It can be run on any computer with a Java 5 or later virtual machine, as an online applet or as a downloadable application (Microsoft Windows, Mac OS, Mac OSX, Linux, Sharp Zaurus PDA). ImageJ offers features similar to commercially available image processing software packages such as brightness/contrast adjustment, frequency domain filtering, binarisation and particle analysis.

Christina Duffy