Student Placement Experience – Tara Laubach

Find out what it is like to be a work placement student in the conservation studio in this week’s blog…

My name is Tara Laubach. I am currently studying the two-year masters course in the Conservation of Fine Art, specializing in paper, at Northumbria University in Newcastle. I completed my second work placement at Edinburgh University Library conservation studio under the mentorship of Emily Hick, Special Collections Conservator, from 9-20 September 2019. My placement was generously funded by the June Baker Trust and the Santander Learning and Employability Fund.

The week began with a tour of the Centre for Research Collections (CRC) main areas, including the store rooms, the digitisation lab, the conservation studio and an introduction to handling training and basic health and safety practices in the studio. I received a folder of relevant and helpful information, including a detailed rota so I could prepare for my placement assignments.

View from the Conservation Studio

The first task was tear repair of the MacTalla newspapers volumes 7 and 8. These Gaelic newspapers are from the late 19th century and are made from poor quality mechanically processed wood pulp. The newspapers are highly discoloured and yellowed, with many pressure sensitive tape residues. The pages were brittle, often with folded corners and edges, and water sensitive, so I had to be careful not to create tidelines with the introduction of moisture from the adhesive used to attach the repair paper. Using thin Japanese paper (6gsm and 12gsm) and wheat starch paste for the tear repairs and toned (using umber and raw sienna acrylic paints) 30 gsm Japanese paper for the infills, I repaired multiple sheets of these newspaper sheets in order to enable easier future handling and research.

Repair of the MacTalla newspapers

In my first week, I also helped to set-up and attended a crowdsourcing event which focused on the rehousing of the Thomas Nelson collection. This collection contains material from the publishing firm, Thomas Nelson, which was established in Edinburgh in 1795. Working with 15 volunteers, we removed metal paper clips, fasteners, degraded and yellowed rubber bands, and old ribbons and replaced them with acid-free paper folds. We also removed the original acidic and discoloured office folders and boxes and replaced them with high quality acid-free folders and boxes. Most of this collection was from the early 20th century, and included many interesting manuscript rejection letters, or letters searching for appropriate illustrators for the books, which sparked stimulating conversations during the tea and lunch breaks throughout the day.

Crowdsourcing Conservation day with Thomas Nelson Collection

The second week consisted largely of learning new methods of tear repair for degraded tracing papers. A medical thesis from 1913 which contained large numbers of medical sketches and diagrams on highly yellowed, brittle and acidic tracing papers, required tear repairs, infills, and some of flattening of creases. Tracing paper is exceptionally water sensitive due to the highly beaten fibres used to create the paper. These tracing papers would have been machine-made, and probably impregnated with either dammar, Canada balsam or linseed oil to obtain the translucent sheen typical of such papers. It was imperative not to lose this translucency and not to introduce excess moisture when repairing this material. To repair these, I learnt how to make remoistenable tissues using both toned and natural Japanese papers of 6, 12 and 30gsm and gelatine. These tissues allowed me to repair the paper using a limited amount of water.

Toning Japanese paper for tracing paper repairs, and making remoistentable tissues

Before (left) and after (right) tear repair using remoistenable tissue on tracing paper

During my time at the CRC, we also experimented with a new very thin low-reflectance yet high-strength nanocellulose film for repair on some duplicate samples of old tracing paper. This was exciting as I could test out an innovative new repair material being developed in Scotland and compare it to existing methods. This material is currently being developed and tested for tensile strength and ageing properties at Edinburgh Napier University by Keith Dunne. His wife, Kirsten Dunne, Senior Projects Conservator at the National Galleries of Scotland, sent out the samples to Emily with a questionnaire. Luckily, Kirsten happened to be visiting the conservation workshop the day we were trying out the nanocellulose film, and so I had the opportunity to share my opinions directly with her, as well as filling out the survey. We applied the repair film with 5% Klucel G in ethanol. It had a very good bond, with strong adhesive quality, and when the adhesive was applied relatively thickly there was adequate time for manoeuvre of the repair paper, which was not the case with remoistenable tissues. The repairs when seen at some angles were almost invisible, preferable to the fibrous appearance of Japanese paper in relation to the lustre of tracing papers. The nanocellulose film was impossible to feather edge (a technique used when cutting Japanese paper to improve adhesion and improve the aesthetics of the repair) due to its high water sensitivity, but this wasn’t a problem due to its strong hold and translucent appearance. It was easier, quicker and more effective to cut the film with a small scissors than with a scalpel.

Testing out nanocellulose film to repair tracing paper

I also had the opportunity to spend one day at St Cecilia’s Hall with Musical Instrument Conservator, Jonathan Santa Maria Bouquet, during which I dry cleaned the harpsichord, clavichord and piano collections, and the organ using a museum vac. I also helped to mount some mouth pieces for display in the museum drawers.

Conservation at St Cecilia’s Hall

The whole experience was immensely valuable and varied. I benefited from training in a large amount of different areas in a two-week time slot.

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