Collection Care blog

26 November 2013

Conservation gets mobile

Conservator Ann Tomalak tells us about the new mobile conservation workstation being trialled at the British Library.

Because we are a library, our books get handled and read. Inevitably, a small number get damaged, either by accident or because the materials degrade as they get older, and fall apart. In order to get items with minor damage back into use as quickly as possible, we have a Running Repairs programme for work that will only take a few hours.

A pamphlet in urgent need of repair

CC by A pamphlet in urgent need of repair

Traditionally, Running Repairs have been done in the conservation studios alongside major conservation projects. Items needing repair are identified by curators, library assistants or readers and join a never-ending list, from where they are delivered in small batches to the Centre for Conservation every few weeks. The paperwork takes time. Every item has to be ordered individually, and security tracked. When the repair is finished, the conservator records the time spent on it, writes a report and attaches photographs. Then the process is reversed to get the item back to store.

The mobile workstation and its contents

CC by The mobile workstation and its contents

Recently, we have been trialling a new method to get running repairs done more quickly, without compromising the quality of the conservation work. A mobile workstation has been kitted out with basic tools and lots of repair materials, so that we can take the conservator to the collection. The workstation is “parked” for a week or two in the collection areas – either in the storage pen or nearby, in curatorial offices. Colleagues are notified and soon come along, clutching damaged items. The conservator takes a quick look and discusses the options. Most running repairs can be done at the trolley, though a few items which need specialised equipment or advanced techniques must still be sent to the Centre for Conservation. A further few need extensive conservation and will be set aside for a full assessment.

A detached board and spine fragments

CC by A detached board and spine fragments. This routine repair can be done quickly, using only basic tools and materials

Taking the conservator to the collection means that we avoid the tedious ordering, tracking and delivery system. We have also greatly simplified the treatment record, simply noting the shelf-mark, work done, materials used and any other essential information, with a link to photographs. Since the conservator often works on several items at a time (for example, allowing one repair to dry while preparing another), the overall time spent on the visit is averaged over the number of items treated.

Conservation in progress

CC by Conservation in progress at the workstation

Considering that a simple paper tear only takes 15 minutes to repair and a loose leaf can be reattached in well under an hour, the paperwork often took far longer than the conservation treatment. We estimate we are saving 30 minutes on ordering and delivery, 15 minutes on security administration and 30 minutes on the treatment report. This time can now be used for more running repairs, meaning items can be returned to use much more quickly.

A detached seal

CC by A detached seal can easily be lost, so this is a priority repair

The curators are delighted. Treatments are completed to the same high standard, but precious books need never leave their sight and are returned to them quickly – often within hours. They can discuss the work with the conservator and talk through options. By watching the conservator at work, they also get a better understanding of what can be done as a running repair and what needs full conservation.

Folded material

CC by Folded material bound into a book is doubly vulnerable – the attachment point can tear from incautious opening and the folds eventually split

All in all, everybody benefits from the mobile workstation; not least our Readers who find damaged collection items return to use more quickly.

Ann Tomalak


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