It’s Friday, it must be Winchester

This week I have been extremely fortunate to have some company on my travels and in my studio, with Surjit Singh joining me as part of his two month internship in the UK.

Surjit has just completed the first year of his Masters degree at the National Museum Institute of History of Art, Conservation and Museology in New Delhi, and is in the UK to develop his understanding and practice in library and archive conservation.

It was a bit of an immersion into the life of a conservator in private practice, with the days being spent both on the road and in the studio. Monday saw us visiting several clients in Oxford, and Surjit got straight into the swing of things by helping me take some cradle templates for a forthcoming exhibition at New College library.

Tuesday was a studio day, and together we worked on the cleaning and repair of the early C19th Petitions of Assistance collection of paper documents for the Salters’ Company archive. This NMCT funded project was a great way for Surjit to practice some key paper conservation techniques and get experience of handling and treating different types of paper which had a variety of damage types, including iron gall ink corrosion.

Wednesday saw us back on the road and heading west, this time to Winchester Cathedral, where I have been working on the Morley Library cleaning project for a number of weeks. We began by helping the volunteers set up the next phase of the cleaning of the collection, and then Surjit moved on to start the installation of the fishing line handling deterrent. In this system, originally developed for use in National Trust libraries, fine nylon fishing line, dark brown in colour, is laced between two conservation grade boards at either end of the shelves. This discourages and prevents casual browsing of the books, and acts as an aide memoir for visitors that touching is not allowed.

Thursday was a welcome studio day after all the activity of the week, and we looked at case binding repair and methods to conserve circulating library collections at Corpus Christi College library. This included scraping and poulticing old degraded spine linings and sewing on new textile linings for additional strength.




We were back on the road again early on Friday morning, bound for Winchester Cathedral to complete our part of the project as well as hand over the cleaning to the volunteers to continue to work their way around the 2000 books that make up the library. It’ll be great to see the progress they have made next time I visit.

Friday afternoon was all about iron gall ink, that key – and rather tricky – component of so much of our manuscript heritage. I showed Surjit how to make and use gelatine-coated remoistenable tissue, through which repairs may be made on iron gall ink media whilst controlling the level of humidity, the primary cause of iron gall ink corrosion.

The week with Surjit Singh went by all too fast. He put up with my hectic schedule, spirited driving style, the menagerie of wild animals that seem to be taking over my garden and my attempts to cook Indian classics for him admirably. More importantly, it was great to revisit some of the techniques and procedures that I do as a matter of course and see them from a fresh perspective. It was even better to see Surjit taking these techniques, thinking how they could be adapted and making them work for him: this is how we all develop as conservators.

Good luck to Surjit Singh, there’s a great future for him just around the next corner.

 

My thanks to all the clients and sites we visited during the week, and for allowing the reproduction of the images in this post. 

Making a full recovery

Despite my New Year’s resolution to be a more frequent correspondent, like so many other people the good intentions enthusiastically made on that clean temporal slate in the first hours of every January are easy to make but difficult to implement. As you can see, it has taken me until May to have time to actually put virtual pen to paper.

But what a year so far!

 

 

 

 

I spent a good part of the first two months condition assessing the most remarkable collection of bound volumes in advance of a current installation at Tate Modern, Yinka Shonibare’s The British Library: a three-dimensional work of art that is so much more than the sum of its 6327 parts.

Having assessed and measured every single book in the work it was incredible to see it installed in all its impressively colourful glory in the gallery. The books themselves are carriers of the concept of the work: through the application of various patterns of Vlisco’s veritable wax hollandaise textile and with the names of notable Britons with heritage from all over the globe or links to immigration policy or protest blocked in gold on selective spines, the volumes are elevated beyond that of usual library book stock.  The atmosphere in the library-like gallery space was fantastic, with visitors really engaging with and responding to the installation.


A large part of the year so far has also focused on the completion of a treatment based binding project which also has a twist to its covering method, but instead of modern art this was working with very old craft indeed.

Abbots’ Register B is a C14th cartulary that is part of the manuscript collections at Gloucester Cathedral Library and Archive and was conserved through the generosity of the National Manuscripts Conservation Trust and the Dean and Chapter of Gloucester Cathedral.

The manuscript had clearly had some history to tell during its 700 years of life. Having undergone at least two previous sewings, the final binding was no longer extant and the sewn parchment textblock came to me very much au naturel and without boards or a cover.

Where every project starts: the manuscript waiting to be surface cleaned in the dusting box

The lack of a binding presented a great opportunity to preserve the now visible evidence of the structure, sewing and binding history, and it was important not to impose a binding style that was either inappropriate or would potentially create problems for future analysis of the manuscript.

One of the few decorative initials in the manuscript

A non-adhesive binding method was used to attach a beautiful thick linen rag paper cover made by the Moulin de Verger papermill in Angouleme, France using traditionally stamped rather than beaten fibres. This creates a strong and durable paper with excellent stability. Alum tawed supports, laced through the cover, and stitched alum tawed and linen textile linings provided the primary cover attachment, mechanically fixing the paper cover to the textblock without the need for any adhesive. The cover, linings and sewing may be removed at any stage without additional disruption to the textblock, particularly as the previous sewing holes were used.

Linings and sewing supports being sewn into place

Punching the lacing holes through the cover – nerves of steel required!

Alum tawed slips laced through the cover

Before treatment, the back of the spinefolds were heavily glued. By removing this adhesive and by choosing a non-adhesive method of lining as well as through the use of a structural endband and packed sewing, the textblock now opens much more easily and with much greater fluidity and flow, allowing improved access to the gutter margin and reducing the strain on the sewing structure by more even distribution of the weight of the textblock.

A structural endband, non-adhesive lining method and packed sewing provides a good level of fluidity in the textblock

My year continues at an exciting pace, with some fabulous activities in the pipeline, including several externally funded conservation projects ranging from large format C19th mine working plans to Livery Company records saved from the Great Fire in 1666, as well as conference presentations for the CILIP Rare Books Group and ARA 2019. More as these projects unfold, and hopefully before another five months elapses…

The completed manuscript project with laced in linen rag paper cover

 

All images reproduced with the kind permission of the Chapter of Gloucester Cathedral and the Trustees of Tate

We could be (unsung) heroes, just for one day: update

Following on from my last post, the book cradles I made earlier in the month proved very effective in displaying a superb selection of 12 early printed books from the collections held in the library at Corpus Christi College, Oxford. With apologies for the reflections, the cradles did their job exactly as intended, as you can see from the images below: they fully supported the openings for display and prevented strain on the bindings and sewing structure, yet were invisible when viewed from above. The polypropylene strapping is also virtually undetectable, and keeping it away from text areas as far as possible means that it does not detract from the visual impact of these exceptionally fine objects.

A good cradle always plays a supporting role, and is never centre stage, but without them the stars of the show would not be able to shine quite so brightly.

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View of display from above

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Side view

My thanks to Corpus Christi College for their kind permission to take and use these images.

We could be (unsung) heroes, just for one day

One of the best aspects of my role as a freelance library and archive conservator is the huge variety of work, including some projects that don’t necessarily need me to perform practical treatments on heritage materials. August has seen some great examples of these type of projects, and I have been busy with tasks such as interpreting environmental data collected on behalf of a school archive,  condition checking for the National Trust, conducting a conservation and collection care survey on rare book material at an Oxford college and preparing a training session for an archivists’ group. Last week I was assisting in the digitisation of a manuscript at the Cambridge University Digital Content Unit. Due to the very unique and particular quire make up and condition of the manuscript, this was an intricate and tricky procedure, and my main role was to ensure the delicate binding and sewing structure were well supported on the specially designed digitisation cradle. A very interesting and painstaking task, and I really enjoyed working with a great team at the Unit. The walk to work wasn’t too bad either, see image below!

The end of the week saw me making cradles for use in a temporary, day-long exhibition for a conference that is part of the 500th anniversary celebrations at Corpus Christi College, Oxford.  Cradles really are the unsung heroes of any exhibition: essential in  the vital supporting role they play in the staging of displays, and if done properly they rarely intrude on the aesthetic impact of the books themselves. They are custom-made using a unique template to fit the contours of the opening exactly and hold the textblock and boards at the correct angle to ensure that the binding and sewing structure isn’t damaged or placed under strain during exhibition, however short the length of time on display. Cradles come in many guises: they are usually made in box board for temporary exhibitions as in this case or, for longer and more permanent display, perspex can be used. Depending on the size, weight and condition of the book they can be flat or tilted. Once made, the opening is held down with clear polypropylene strapping, which is unobtrusive but strong.

Here are some of the completed cradles prior to installation, ready to  show off the exhibition items both safely and to their best advantage. I hope to be able to update this post after installation with an image of the cradles in place complete with the exhibition items.