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

22 October 2020

On light: conserving material for our exhibition Unfinished Business: The Fight for Women’s Rights

Alexa McNaught-Reynolds, Conservation Exhibition and Loan Manager

Two of the items selected for display in our exhibition: Unfinished Business: The Fight for Women’s Rights appear to be in good condition but have vulnerabilities that may not be immediately obvious. In Conservation we strive to understand every component of an object in order to recommend the best course of action for their long-term care.

Item 1. NEWS.REG170: Daily Mirror front cover: Tuesday 28th March 2017

Vulnerability: newspaper is not made to last

This is an important item in the exhibition, highlighting how strong working women are still sometimes represented in the media today. Newspapers are produced from poor quality wood pulp that is inherently unstable due to something called lignin, and they are not made to last. Lignin makes the paper acidic and when placed in direct sunlight, as many of you will have seen, newspapers turn yellow and become brittle very quickly.

Controversial front page of the Daily Mirror on Tuesday 28th March 2017 showing Theresa May and Nicola Sturgeon. The headline reads 'Never mind Brexit, who won Legs-it!'

Figure 1: Controversial front page of the Daily Mirror on Tuesday 28th March 2017 (NEWS.REG170)

We strive to protect our newspaper collection by storing them in alkaline buffered material, in a stable environment free from exposure to light sources. These actions significantly slow the degradation process.

But what about when one is requested for exhibition? While we are familiar with the vulnerabilities of newspaper generally, we are not sure how stable the media will be under exhibition conditions. The exhibition environment is very stable and the newspaper is subjected to low levels of light. While light level is low, with no UV, and the time is restricted, we are not sure how much of an effect this limited light exposure will have on the media.

In order to get a better understanding of how the media will fair under exhibition conditions, we will be monitoring this item closely. To do this, we are measuring the colour by using simple colorimetry. This is completed with 'Lab*' colour measurements which is a method of representing colour using numerical values, in a similar way to the more familiar RGB or CMYK systems. One of the particular advantages of the Lab* system is that it is based on the way in which the human eye and brain observe colours and determine differences between colours. 'L' represents lightness, from 0 (pure black) to 100 (pure white), while 'a' measures the green-red axis (negative values are green and positive values, red) and 'b' measures the blue-yellow axis (negative values are blue and positive values, yellow). The system is capable of detecting colour changes smaller than the human eye can observe, and so gives us another tool to help us provide the best possible stewardship for the items in our collection.

Controversial front page of the Daily Mirror on Tuesday 28th March 2017 showing Theresa May and Nicola Sturgeon. The headline reads 'Never mind Brexit, who won Legs-it!' This image has been labelled with yellow lines and numbers showing where colour measurements were taken.

Figure 2: Front page of the Daily Mirror with areas marked in yellow indicating where colour measurements were taken.

Highlighted in the image above are the areas where the colours were measured. The same areas will be re-measured at the end of the exhibition. This will detect any colour changes that have happened (hopefully none) and will inform the future display limitations of this item and for other similar contemporary newspapers.

Item 2. Add MS 88899/6/13:  Greenham fence wire from the Angela Carter archive

Vulnerability: highlighter ink loses colour under light exposure

This item is a piece of wire cut from the perimeter fence of RAF Greenham Common Airbase during anti-nuclear protests by the Women's Peace Camp and sent to the novelist Angela Carter who was against nuclear weapons. It was attached to a record card through two punched holes in the centre with typed notes above and below the wire.

Greenham fence wire piercing a white flash card from the Angela Carter archive with high-lighted typed message.

Figure 3: Add MS 88899/6/13:  Greenham fence wire from the Angela Carter archive with highlighted typed message.

Although the item itself is in good condition, highlighter pen was used over the top of the typed message. Highlighter pens contain fluorescent colours which are notoriously light sensitive; they will not retain their colour over extended periods of light exposure. For this reason, we will be displaying this item at our exhibition under low light levels but we will also be limiting future display in order to preserve the bright colour.

At the British Library we aim to make everything as accessible as possible so that everyone can enjoy the collection and see the items in their original condition. However, in order to preserve the collection some items do need to be restricted for various reasons, such as fragile condition, or in these cases, to limit their light exposure and preserve the bright colours for future researchers to see.  Although this means that some items can only be able to be exhibited for short periods, there are alternative solutions for display. For items that were mass produced or have multiple copies, it is possible that a replacement can be found. When an item is unique or other copies are not available, we can suggest a high-quality facsimile be made, this way the viewer can see the uninterrupted exhibition story. In this way, we can maintain the integrity of our collection for as long as possible, as well as finding ways for everyone to enjoy it in the meantime.

Fortunately, both original items will be displayed in ‘Unfinished Business: The Fight for women’s Rights’.

08 October 2020

Learning to Communicate: Before and After Lockdown

Samantha Cawson, Digitisation Conservator

The conservation profession takes skills sharing seriously and so the need to open up channels of communication is essential. This is especially true of The British Library’s Centre for Conservation (BLCC), which has collaborated with institutions all over the world, most recently with China and Palestine. But locally, the BLCC has Deaf members of staff and runs a very popular programme of British Sign Language and audio descriptive tours.  These tours are a great way for our visitors to enjoy our collection items and to get an understanding of the work that goes into preserving them; providing a unique opportunity to ask questions and to sometimes handle conservation tools and materials.

Before

Back in February we invited VocalEyes to the BLCC to run a two-day audio description training workshop in order for our tour guides to gain greater self-confidence and to really perfect their presenting skills for our blind and partially sighted (BPSP) visitors. The training was excellent, and covered topics such as visual awareness training, guiding techniques, guide dog etiquette, and an introduction to Description.

One of the practical exercises was to consider some of the challenges that arise when describing spaces, objects and techniques.  We gave individual presentations to the rest of the group who listened with their eyes closed, exploring terms and vocabulary to get a better sense of how the Tours and BLCC experiences might be received.  This brought up some interesting findings. The first was that it isn’t always obvious what something is just by naming it. This was the case when I began talking about my trusty Teflon bone-folder (pictured and described below). I began by describing the material and size, however didn’t clarify why it was called a bone-folder, which to someone who has never seen or used one, the name itself sounds rather gruesome. It was suggested that this tool required further explanation; for some practical items description becomes easier to comprehend if you include what it is used for, how it works and perhaps a little historical context…something I’ll take into account next time!

A hand is holding a white teflon bone-folder. In the background there is an 18th century manuscript.

Figure 1: This is my Teflon bone folder. I use it to flatten my repairs as it doesn’t burnish or stick to my repair tissue. Original bone folders would’ve been made using cattle bone, hence the name, and is used by bookbinders and conservators for making strong sharp creases in paper. Both styles are used within the studio today and are considered a must have tool. You see, not so grim with a little additional information!

Another interesting topic discussed is how to describe colour. Some blind or partially sighted people are born with some sight, and will retain some memory of colour. Many will be able to see colours and shapes; some will have central or peripheral vision. Even those who were born blind are likely to understand the cultural significance of colour, and so during our training we were encouraged to embrace it within our descriptions, as well as to use a vivid, varied and memorable vocabulary in general. For instance, red may signify passion, richness or heat. Green might indicate freshness, jealousy or decay. This topic made me rather nervous at first, however over time I’ve enjoyed the challenge of creating interesting colour descriptions, which can really bring an object to life. I’m now excited to try and describe the pigments and pages of the library’s collection, some of which are still so vivid and exciting even after hundreds of years!  I’ve included a photograph of a particularly colourful illuminated manuscript which was part of the Pre-1200 digitisation project. How would you describe the colours? They remind me of a bag of mouth-watering sweets!

The left hand page of a highly pigmented illuminated manuscript. There is an illustration of a saint with a golden halo, wearing vibrant draping robes in a variety of pastel shades. There is a soft, pond green border.

Figure 2: Add MS 46487 Digitised as part of the Pre-1200 project.

Another area of the training that I was looking forward to was identifying objects which could be handled and passed around the tour group, allowing someone to get a better understanding of the weight, texture and shape of something being discussed. We explored a variety of different possibilities that could be utilised. Here are a few examples:

Japanese Repair Tissues

Japanese repair tissue comes in many different weights and textures, which a conservator will choose accordingly to be as sympathetic to the original weight and look of the damage area being treated. Over the years I have accumulated a scrap box full of tissue. In the future I hope it will be a great resource to pass around a group, whilst explaining why and how we use them!

A small box overflowing with different types of scrap pieces of Japanese repair tissue. The tissues differs in thickness, colour and texture.

Figure 3: My box of scrap pieces of Japanese tissue.

A hand holds a very fine piece of Japanese tissue. It is so thin and delicate that the hand is fully visible through the matrix of the tissue.

Figure 4: You can just about feel the texture of this very fine kozo tissue!

Finishing Tools

Another great example presented itself during a gold tooling demonstration. This experience not only has the benefit of visitors being able to hold and feel the weight and shape of a finishing tool (and we have so many exquisite examples of them!) but also provides the smells of tools being heated, and the great sizzling sound that identifies when the tool is hot enough to be used. This made for an excellent multi-sensory experience.

A hand holds a heavy metal finishing tool. The tool has the words British Library in a large font type fitted within it. The tool looks well used.

Figure 5: A finishing tool (not heated!).

Binding Examples

And of course a British Library conservation tour wouldn’t be complete without describing different binding styles. We have various binding examples specifically made to present the different sewing techniques, supports and materials utilised when creating a book. It’s a great resource to pass around a group as the ridges and materials of the sewing structure can be easily felt and identified; A great tool for most tours, and a way to appreciate the behind the scenes structure of a book. 

 conservator is holding an example book, which doesn’t have a cover or spine so that the sewing is exposed. The image focuses on the variety of different sewing supports and sewing techniques that could be utilised when binding a book.

Figure 6: A binding with examples of sewing on a variety of tapes and cords that could be used to construct a volume.

On the whole this workshop was a great learning experience. It provided us with new knowledge and confidence, and a greater sense of understanding of how important our presentation skills are to perform a coherent and pleasurable experience for all. But honestly, this course taught me how to describe and achieve the ‘WOW factor’ when bringing to life our beautiful and interesting collections, as well as giving a sense of the passion and expertise that the staff have at the BLCC.

After

One effect of the Covid19 lockdown has been the increased awareness of how important communication is to our well-being. For me and others this has been an interesting and sometimes creative process, as well as highlighting how communication needs to be responsive and inclusive. Having just completed the VocalEyes training and with an unknown amount of time working from home stretched out before me, I decided to continue working on my communication skills and began an online British Sign Language (BSL) course.

A laptop is on a small table in a working from home environment. The laptop screen shows a BSL teacher signing the word 'librarian'. Next to the laptop are two small boxes labelled 'BSL test cards'.

Figure 7: First things first, how to sign ‘library’!

The course covered a whole range of topics such as greetings, numbers, rooms and furniture in the home, colours, weather, travel and jobs. Despite this I still have a long way to go before having a fully coherent conversation using BSL with Deaf colleagues in the conservation studio, or with Deaf and hard of hearing tour visitors. But as the library staff slowly begins to occupy our sites, I look forward to being able to continue the learning process through informal everyday practice (perhaps I’ll even learn how to sign bone-folder!), and hopefully once our tour programme resumes I can put all of these new communication skills to the test!

10 September 2020

Joining the British Library Salvage Team

This is the third and final blog post in a series about the British Library Salvage Team and the impact of COVID-19. Previously, my colleagues Sarah Hamlyn and Nicole Monjeau discussed changes made to the Disaster Response Plans and team training in reaction to the evolving situation and types of risk. In this post, I reflect on my experience as a relatively new member of the Salvage Team, both prior to and during the lockdown.  

I joined the British Library Salvage Team in late 2019 as an additional aspect to my role as a Digitisation Conservator. I had previous experience of developing salvage plans at a National Trust property, so I was interested to build on this and compare the approaches of the different organisations. I also considered how joining the team would be a beneficial way of developing my knowledge of the Library and its collections, and working more closely with colleagues in the conservation department and from across the organisation. Becoming a member of the Salvage Team requires going through an application process because, in addition to experience of working with collections, members must demonstrate that they are able to remain calm in an emergency, adapt to diverse situations and make decisions under pressure.

Close up view of part of the first page of the induction checklist.
Copy of the induction checklist.

Acceptance to the Salvage Team is followed by a thorough period of induction. It is essential that team members become familiar with the site, existing procedures and the location of emergency supplies and equipment. My main concern upon joining was my limited knowledge of the building, due to its size and complexity and because, as a relatively new member of staff, I had not yet gained the familiarity that develops with time. Some of the most useful training activities for me, therefore, were orientation exercises conducted within the different storage areas. As well as independent induction tasks, I joined the regular team training programme (For more information on training, see the second blog post in the series.) I found the induction process to be positive, detailed and methodical, with a checklist to ensure that each area of activity had been completed. The content of the training served as a reminder that, despite thorough planning, incidents are unpredictable and response must be adapted to each case; which the current situation exemplifies.  

Three people looking at a floor plan of an exhibition together.
Team members taking part in an exhibition orientation exercise.

I had not yet finished the full course of induction training when lockdown came into place. My immediate concerns were accessing information, (the shared phones containing the salvage manual were with those who were last on call), and travelling to site.  However, both of these areas were rapidly attended to. Team members were issued with written authorisation to travel in an emergency and instructions of how to book a contracted taxi. We then received copies of the salvage manual and briefing notes detailing revised procedures, which I found particularly important for understanding what was expected of me during this time. A positive outcome is the change to using WhatsApp in place of email for reporting in for duty and general communications. I have found it reassuring that I receive a reminder of who is on call, and the group contact has aided team cohesion. As the lockdown progressed, I grew mindful about further potential challenges, such as managing a salvage response with the requirements for social distancing, navigating the building with the new one-way system in place and responding efficiently having had a long break from my usual work routines. However, the provision of a remote training programme and the regular interaction and feedback sessions that resulted from this, have been constructive and valuable factors in remaining connected and reducing uncertainty.  

Feedback shared during a remote training session.
View of a computer screen displaying written training feedback.

The combination of reading, videos, elearning, written exercises and discussions that comprised the remote training proved an effective learning method. This supported different learning styles and enabled subject areas to be considered from multiple perspectives, providing a more complete picture. Due to the variety of the sources, I learned about incidents and organisations that I was not previously aware of, which were often international examples in which priorities differed to those of the UK. A particularly relevant case for conservators is the Florence Flood of 1966, which is known as a pivotal event in the development of conservation as a profession, but which I had not studied in detail before. I found the discussion sessions especially helpful not only for confirming that others shared the same thoughts, but for filling the gaps in my knowledge and highlighting aspects that I had not considered. It has also been interesting to hear team members’ suggestions and contribute new ideas prompted by study. In the absence of being able to carry out physical practices, this remote training programme has maintained motivation, engagement and skills development.   

Two ©Playmobil figures, wearing personal protective equipment, are shown carrying a miniature book between them.
Team work

The response to the unprecedented impact of COVID-19 has necessitated flexibility and ability to adapt to an unfolding situation, which are fortunately qualities that members of the Salvage Team already possess. Though this time has been a steep learning curve for all, it has felt that the Salvage Team has become more resilient and creative as a consequence, with this difficult period resulting in a re-focusing of our purpose and approach.

Lizzie Fuller, Digitisation Conservator