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

29 November 2018

Dealing with computer viruses in digital collections

Evanthia Samaras, PhD placement - Digital Preservation 

Malware, or ‘malicious software’ such as computer viruses are a significant digital collection care challenge. The British Library collects a large range of digital content, so it is important that we identify any malware that could potentially put the digital collections, or our users, at risk. We also need to properly consider the question: How should we deal with malware-infected materials in digital collections?

Virus_Checking_Blog

How do we identify malware?

The Library has strict processes in place to check for malware in digital collections. For example:

  • As part of our Flashback disk imaging project, we have scanned over 16,000 floppy, CD and DVD discs from the 1980s to 2000s for malware using anti-virus software. Infected items are then moved to a designated ‘quarantine’ area.
  • For websites collected as part of the UK Web Archive, the Library scans every file collected (over several billion files each year!). Website files infected with malware are quarantined and ‘deactivated’ using an encryption tool so that the files cannot be read or opened (see this blog for more information).

Compared to other institutions around the world, we actually do more virus checking than many other libraries (especially for our web archives).

What are the options for dealing with malware?

The four main options for dealing with malware-infected material are:

  • Discard the malware.
  • Put aside and quarantine (then process at a later date).
  • Fix them (try to remove malware).
  • Try to get another clean version from publisher/donor.

There is also another option: Keeping the malware as a collection in its own right.

Should we collect malware?

Scholars such as Jonathan Farbowitz of New York University argue that we should be preserving malware. He suggests that:

Malware is a form of cultural heritage and an important part of the historical record… If malware were not preserved, a significant portion of contemporary computer users’ experiences as well as the “texture” of the internet and of computing itself would be lost (pp. 10, 12).

If the British Library were to start forming collections of malware, how could we ensure they are maintained safely over time?

Computer security and anti-virus software companies collect examples of malware for research and development (see the Anti-Malware Testing Standards Organization’s Real-Time Threat List). Therefore, it is indeed possible to keep malware in controlled environments over time to facilitate study.

But it is less clear whether libraries should take custodianship of such material. Could it jeopardise the ongoing care of our digital collections?

Malware in the future

It is expected that the British Library will have to deal with malware for many years to come. Making sure our collections remain safe and usable for our readers is a priority for the Library. Yet it is also important that we consider what our readers may want to access in the future. Perhaps malware could be a collection in its own right? But for now, we will continue to tread with caution when dealing with malware in our digital collections.

23 November 2018

Conservation Cats: An Exhibition

Cats on the Page’ is a free exhibition now open in the front entrance hall of the British Library running until Sunday 17 March 2019.

Have you ever wondered how all the items for an exhibition are prepared?

Once the exhibition concept has been approved and the curators have chosen all the items that they would like to display in the exhibition, conservation becomes involved.

We start by examining each item and checking for the following things:

  • Condition: is it in a condition that is stable for display?
  • Treatment: does it require any conservation treatment to make it stable for display? If so, how much?
  • Display: How is it going to be displayed, does it need any special mounting?
  • Vulnerability: Is it particularly sensitive to light or environmental changes?
  • Touring: Is it suitable for display at multiple venues?

Trolley

Any exhibition can have between 100 – 300 items selected for display and are spread over many different departments, so assessing each item can be time consuming.

Orlando  Cat books

Once everything has been assessed anything that requires treatment is arranged to be delivered to the conservation studio, this will usually be about 4-5 months prior to the install of the exhibition (or longer if needed due to high amounts of treatment required).

All items arriving in the conservation studio are brought up on a ticket which has a special code for the conservation department. Not only this, but everything is also entered into our ‘tracker’ book, which allows everything to be signed in and out of the studio.

The types of treatments that we undertake in preparation for an exhibition can range from simple treatments such tear repairs to the opening page or more in-depth treatments such as board attachments and pigment consolidation. Due to the high number of items that need preparation for exhibition, anything that requires more than 10 hours of treatment will generally be removed from the exhibition list and handed over to the Conservation collection care teams for full treatment.

This copy of ‘Puss in Boots’ is a pop-up book that was just one of the items that required treatment prior to going on display.

Puss in Boots

Pop-up books are inherently fragile because of the moving parts but this book is also made from very poor quality card that has become very acidic and brittle over the years. It required some minor treatment in preparation for its inclusion into the exhibition.

Pop up book  Pop up book open

The Exhibitions team order custom made book supports for each book, specific to the page opening.

Setting up

The book is strapped to the book cradle, using Melinex® strapping to help it stay open during the exhibition. It is then ready to be installed into the showcase by the Exhibitions install team with the other material.

Exhibition

The variety of different books and artworks have highlighted the love of our furry friends, ‘Cats on the Page’ is open for three months and free to visit, so don’t miss this lovely exhibition!

 

Alexa McNaught-Reynolds, Conservation Exhibition and Loan Manager

19 November 2018

What’s in a box?

Well, mostly books and newspapers, but other objects in the British Library collection too. We do this at our Boston Spa, West Yorkshire site, where the Collection Care North team are based. They make around 15,000 boxes a year.

What do we box?

  • Legal Deposit newspapers, national and regional titles.
  • Damaged books.
  • Books that have received conservation treatment.
  • Fragile and/or valuable books.
  • 3D objects, for example the 3,000 year old Chinese oracle bones, artefacts from the Punch Magazine archive.

IMG_1267

Some of the Chinese Oracle bones in their storage box.

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Repaired book with a phase box.

How do we make boxes?

We have two digital flatbed cutting machines that cut and crease the card for us. The only manual bit is placing a sheet of box board on the machine and taking the cut out board and folding it into the box.

Boxing 1
Six boxes cut out of one sheet of box board, ready for folding.

The machine has three tool heads:

  • A blade to the cut the card.
  • A creasing wheel that marks out the folds.
  • A pen that we can use to write the book or object information on the outside of the box, so no need for sticky labels. 

Zund tool head

Left to right: cutting blade; creasing wheel, pen.

There are a few different designs of box that we use depending on what item the box is for. All of our boxes are made to a bespoke size. If the item is stored/arrived at Boston Spa we measure them on site. If any boxes are requested for items in St. Pancras, then the measurements are sent to us.

Book measurer 2
Book/newspaper measurer.

The boxes have to fit snugly to the item so that it can’t move around inside. This is particularly important for the newspapers that are boxed. Several editions go in one box; a weeks’ worth of one national title, or a months’ worth of a regional paper. If the box is too big and allows the newspapers inside to move about, this will cause them damage, but it will also potentially cause problems in the store. The National Newspaper Building at Boston Spa is home to the National Newspaper Archive. The building is a high density store, with capacity to store 60 million newspapers. To aid fast retrieval of requested items from the shelves, which are 20 meters high, robotic cranes operate in the store. If a box was too big for a bundle of newspapers and they moved about inside as they were being retrieved this could cause the crane to malfunction with the unexpected shift in weight of the box.

Box board

We use four different types of box board. There are two main differences between them; thickness and structural design. We use a solid card in thicknesses of 6.5 mm and 1 mm, and a corrugated card in thicknesses of 1.1 mm and 1.3 mm. The type of box board chosen depends on the size and weight of the item being boxed.

C card
Sample of 1.3 mm thick corrugated box board.

The corrugated card is stronger, so used on very big or heavy books. However it is thicker and will take up more space on a shelf, so we can’t box everything in the strongest card if it doesn’t require it and a thinner card will offer the necessary protection.

Boxing 3
Boxes ready for folding.

Advantages of boxing

  • A large range of designs available to suit all kinds of objects, made to bespoke measurements.
  • Reduces potential physical damage caused by handling and transport.
  • Protects against dust and other contaminants.
  • Buffers against changes in temperature and relative humidity. Incorrect levels of either can lead to chemical and physical deterioration.
  • Quick and efficient option to protect fragile/vulnerable/damaged items.

IMG_3280

Collection Care Support Assistant operating one of the digital flatbed cutting machines.

Disadvantages of boxing

  • By placing an item in a box, we are making the item bigger, even if only by millimetres, so a boxed item will take up more room on a shelf.

So if you ever receive an item in one of the British Library reading rooms or from our remote supply service and it’s in a box, that item is probably fragile - so please handle carefully. Boxes proudly made in Yorkshire!

 

Emily Watts, Collection Care North Manager