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

03 April 2020

Lotus Sutra Project: Conservation of a burnt scroll (Or. 8210/ S.2155)

The Lotus Sutra Manuscript Digitisation Project at The British Library is a multi-year project which started in 2018. The project aims to digitise almost 800 copies of the Lotus Sutra scrolls in Chinese, with a view to make images and information freely accessible. Out of these 800 scrolls, a large portion of them need conservation work. Our conservators deal with a variety of lengths of scrolls on this project, ranging from 30 centimetre fragments to scrolls measuring up to 13 metres. This blog post covers the treatment of an item which I (Marya Muzart, IDP Digitisation Conservator) had the opportunity to work on. 

Falling under a treatment time estimate of 25 hours, the condition of this item before treatment was not ideal. As a digitisation conservator, my aim is to stabilise the object to:

a) Ensure the item can be safely handled during digitisation and quality control

b) Ensure the text is visible and accessible so that high quality images can be taken

Or 8210 before treatment shown laid out on a desk with visible burn marks and missing areas of text.

Picture 1: Or.8210/S.2155 before treatment

Before treatment neither safe handling or a high-quality image capture was possible. The damage left the scroll incredibly vulnerable. With every handling, small fragments of burnt paper were flaking off. In addition, the burns were making the paper curl at the edges. 

The scroll had been damaged by fire at some point during its lifetime. It is certain that the scroll acquired these burns whilst it was rolled up as the burn damage is throughout its entire length, in a repeated pattern. How the scroll came to be burned, we can only assume. This could have been due to candles, incense or oil lamps used at the time (6th- 11th Century).  It is most likely that while being handled in its rolled up state, it accidentally came in contact with an open flame or heat source. Whilst there may be some large losses, luckily much of the text is still present. 

As this scroll measures 10 metres, it was crucial to work in sections. To start off, I surface cleaned the scroll using some soft cosmetic sponges to remove any surface dirt. Next, humidification was applied to the scroll via a gentle mist, and then flattened under boards and weights. The whole length of the scroll had to be humidified for the paper to lie as flat as possible in order to enable repairs. The introduction of moisture also returned a little flexibility to the burnt areas. 

A toned Japanese paper was selected for the repairs, which has a sympathetic tone to the original paper. A common question we often get is: why do we use Japanese paper, such as kozo (made from the bark of the mulberry tree), when treating an object made of Chinese paper? The long fibres in kozo gives it mechanical strength, tear resistance and flexibility. On the other hand, fibre length in xuan paper (Chinese paper) is much shorter than kozo (and generally other Japanese papers) and consequently its tear strength is not as great. This makes Japanese papers ideal for repairs in paper conservation, it can be strong enough to act as a repair paper, whilst being flexible and light enough to not cause any damage to the original scroll.  

To apply the repairs, I used wheat starch paste. When working with scrolls, the paste has to be the correct consistency to enable enough flexibility for the rolled item. Each repair was then left under a weight for an appropriate amount of time.

Before treatment showing the scroll with burn damage along the full length.

Picture 2: Or.8210/S.2155 before treatment

After treatment showing the scroll with Japanese paper repairs.

Picture 3: Or.8210/S.2155 after treatment

After treatment, the scroll is now in a much better state. It can be safely handled and digitised by trained internal staff. Whilst the burnt edges no longer curl up and now lie flat, notes have been passed on to our trained photographers, to take extra precaution when handling this item. I am pleased with the result of this treatment, it was a great success! 

Scroll after treatment showing the scroll lying flat with repairs. The burnt edges are no longer curling up.

Picture 4: Or. 8210/ S.2155 after treatment

Marya Muzart, IDP Digitisation Conservator

31 March 2020

The mannequin must be unpacked!

Before the Library was closed, three bust forms and one full sized female mannequin arrived at the British Library Centre for Conservation (BLCC). These are the supports for four costumes which were to feature in the Library’s forthcoming exhibition Women’s Rights: Unfinished Business: https://www.bl.uk/events/unfinished-business

Three bust forms on display on desks in the British Library Centre for Conservation.

When the boxes arrived at the BLCC it was not possible to tell how the mannequins had been packed into the boxes. Unable to foresee how long the Library may be shut, it was essential that they were unpacked: it would be problematic if the forms stood on their heads for a long period.

They were unpacked and are now sitting on a table in the BLCC and safely off-gassing in the dark!

Mannequin pieces on display on a table in the British Library Centre for Conservation

Liz Rose, Textile Conservator

19 February 2020

From Integrated Pest Management to Preserving Historic Photos - Spring and Summer 2020 One Day Courses at British Library

By West Dean College of Arts and Conservation

A person with shoulder-length, light brown hair looks through a microscope at a photograph.

The British Library and West Dean College of Arts and Conservation collaborate to deliver Continued Professional Development for those involved with care of libraries, archives and collections, and for conservation students.

Spring and Summer 2020 courses include:

Preservation Assessment Survey Workshop – 3 March 2020

As librarians, archivists or conservators we often know, either instinctively or anecdotally, about the state of our collections. This knowledge is not always easy to quantify or translate into information we can use to influence funders. To ensure access to the resources we need to ensure the long term preservation of our heritage collections we need to be able to present statistically robust information. A sample survey whether of condition and preservation, dirt levels or readiness for digitisation will provide a snapshot of the current situation. This data can be analysed, extrapolated and compared against appropriate standards to provide short, medium- and long-term activities.  A good survey will provide both quick wins and longer-term strategic information for its institution and is an effective tool for accessing funding.

Disaster response and salvage training – 26 March 2020

With reference to case studies, you will learn strategies for dealing with damage through an emergency decision-making exercise and a major incident desktop scenario.

By the end of the course, you will be able to:

  • identify the key issues that a disaster plan needs to address
  • give examples of the decisions to be made when responding to an incident
  • source salvage equipment to build a disaster kit

Damaged books and bound archives: practical first steps – 2 April 2020

Gain the knowledge to confidently care for the books in your collection though learning:

  • Identification of different types of damage and recognition of the causes.
  • Simple steps for minimising damage.
  • Understanding appropriate treatment options and decision-making for remedial treatment.
  • Understanding use of protective enclosures, including a protective exercise in tying tape and making melinex™ wrappers.
  • Working with conservators and volunteers.

Preserving Historic Photographs – 14 May 2020

Photographs are found in museums, libraries and archives all over the world and their care can present special challenges. This course is aimed at those responsible for their care. You will learn how to identify the common photographic processes, recognise potential conservation problems and solutions and prioritise care accordingly. The environmental, storage and wider preservation requirements of photographs will be covered, including how these might relate to digitisation projects. Examples of the common processes will be shown and discussed as part of the course. Samples of storage materials and enclosures will be given to participants. Handouts will be included. The course is led by Susie Clark ACR ICON, an accredited and experienced photographic conservator. Susie has given many courses in a variety of regional and national institutions in many countries and is used to providing practical help and advice.

Preventing pests by integrated pest management (IPM) – 9 June 2020

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. You will learn about 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, understanding pest environments, selecting the most appropriate treatments to control pests and how to make plans to establish an Integrated Pest Management (IPM) programme.

Environment: Effective monitoring and management – 18 June 2020

Avoiding a 'one size fits all' approach to environmental parameters, the 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.

The focus of the day will be on relative humidity and temperature ensuring you understand how they behave and can make informed choices about targets that you set.  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.

Dust and dirt: Strategies for prevention and management – 29 June 2020

This one day course includes practical sessions on how to clean books and discusses cleaning of stack areas. It also provides steps to follow when setting up a housekeeping programme and highlights what to think about if you are considering involving volunteers.

You will learn:

  • What is dust and why does it matter?
  • How to monitoring and measure dust, including a case study in progress at the British Library.
  • Practical measures to prevent dust and dirt.
  • How to clean books and documents, shelves and stacks.
  • Setting up a housekeeping programme and working with volunteers.

Preserving Historic Photographs – 24 September 2020

Photographs are found in museums, libraries and archives all over the world and their care can present special challenges. This course is aimed at those responsible for their care. You will learn how to identify the common photographic processes, recognise potential conservation problems and solutions and prioritise care accordingly. The environmental, storage and wider preservation requirements of photographs will be covered, including how these might relate to digitisation projects. Examples of the common processes will be shown and discussed as part of the course. Samples of storage materials and enclosures will be given to participants. Handouts will be included. The course is led by Susie Clark ACR ICON, an accredited and experienced photographic conservator. Susie has given many courses in a variety of regional and national institutions in many countries and is used to providing practical help and advice.

Courses are £147 each and take place at British Library.

Book online

Enquiries +44 (0)1243 818300