Under the Skin: Studies in Parchment

This week’s blog comes from Special Collections Conservator, Emily, who recently took part in a training event in London on the conservation of parchment. This is the first in a two-part blog. It focuses on the introductory section of the workshop, consisting of a series of lectures to develop understanding of the material. The second post will look at practical techniques for the conservation of parchment…

From 19 to 22 October, I attended a four-day training event on the conservation of parchment at the National Archives in Kew. Parchment can be a problematic material to work with as it highly sensitive to moisture. Since many of the treatments we use in paper conservation utilise water, we have to employ methods that use the smallest amount possible to avoid irreparable damage. We have a large amount of parchment in our collections at the CRC, including approximately 3000 parchment charters in the Laing collection, so I was keen to find out more about this material and learn the very latest techniques for its conservation and preservation.

Parchment charters in the Laing collection

The event consisted of two days of lectures, followed by a two-day practical session. The lectures were open to a large number of people, whereas the practical workshop was limited to a maximum of 15 attendees.

The talks during the first two days focused on the making and analysis of parchment. The first talk was by Theresa Lupi, freelance Book and Paper Conservator in Malta, who discussed aspects of codicology and how it can be helpful to conservators. By studying different elements of the manuscript, we can learn how the parchment was made, what tools and techniques were used to prepare it and how this might affect its longevity and the treatments we can use. Following this, Theresa also gave lecture on fragments of manuscripts. Parchment documents were often recycled and reused in the past, and fragments can be found in the bindings of later books or used a wrappers for other items. These fragments can give clues to the how manuscripts were historically used.

Drawings in manuscripts in the CRC collections

Next, Dr Fiona Brock, Lecturer in Applied Analytical Techniques at the Cranfield Forensic Institute presented a paper on the radiocarbon dating of parchment. Fiona first described the method of radiocarbon dating and discussed the advantages and disadvantages of using this method to estimated when the parchment was made.

After this, Professor Matthew Collins from the University of York presented his research which focuses on the identification of skins in our archive, and how this can tell us about the history of livestock management and craft. Matthew uses small eraser slithers which are gently rubbed against the parchment to remove a minute amount of material from the parchment. These tiny samples are analysed and the type of animal used to make the document can be identified. This service is offered for free and you can obtain a sample kit by emailing matthew@palaeome.org.

The day ended with a presentation by Jiří Vnouček, Conservator of Parchment and Paper at the Royal Library of Copenhagen. Jiří discussed the methods of parchment making and how it has changed over the centuries. Studying the production techniques can give conservators clues which help date and give provenance to the manuscript.

The next day began with another talk from Jiří, which followed on from his presentation the previous afternoon. He first focused on the methods of parchment making in the UK, and showed the below video of the methodologies used in Britain in 1939. He also discussed parchment making in Iceland and how the preparation can affect the final result.

The following talk by Angelica Bartoletti, Researcher in Conservation Science at the Tate, examined parchment on a nano-scale. Angelica states that not all damage to parchment is visible and by scrutinising the material on a micro-scale, we can detect damage before we can see it with the naked eye, and develop conservation techniques to reduce the effects of that damage.

The penultimate talk of the day was by Dr. David Mills, Microtomography Facilities Manager at Queen Mary University of London. The main focus of this talk was on the Apocalypto Project, a collaborative effort between conservators, scientists and computer vision experts to investigate how x-rays can be used to reveal obscured writing or text on parchment. David and his team used a CT scanner to take a 3D x-ray of a tightly rolled piece of parchment. Using a computer programme, they were able to digitally unravel the scroll and decipher the handwriting, without causing any detectable damage to the document. This technique has also been successfully used to view previously inaccessible archives, including glass plate negatives which have been stuck together, and a roll of film that was severely degraded by vinegar syndrome, which can be viewed in the video below. Amazingly, this service is offered for free! Email David (D.mills@quml.ac.uk) for more information.

The final talk of the day was by Edward Cheese, Conservator of Manuscripts and Printed Books at the Fitzwilliam Museum Cambridge. He gave a talk on the repair and binding of parchment manuscripts. Edward evaluated the balance between the risks of conservation treatment, against the benefits to collection items when they have been conserved. For example, Edward argued that although treatments such as humidification may have negative effects on the substrate, this is preferable to leaving the document unusable, or leaving the item in a state which encourages repeated stress on certain areas when handled. For example, a parchment charter that is difficult to open should be humidified and flattened, rather than repeatedly opened and closed which will eventually cause a split, even though the humidity may cause damage on a micro level.

Overall, I found the first two days of the event informative and inspiring, and it provided a great base for the practical session that followed. Read the second part of this blog to find out more about historic conservation of parchment, and up-to-date methods conservators use today – coming soon!

E-learning with Employ.ed

Today we hear from Sophie, our first ever Employ.ed student in the conservation studio…

Hi, my name is Sophie Lawson and I am currently the Conservation E-learning intern at the Centre for Research Collections at the University of Edinburgh. During my time of ten weeks here in the Conservation Department I will be creating an electronic learning resource on the subject of Integrated Pest Management (IPM). My internship is part of the Employ.ed programme, which is a University run scheme that supports students’ career development, providing work experience whilst working towards attaining the Edinburgh Award. I am currently going into my third year of my undergraduate degree in History and have an interest in special collections, particularly in digitisation and use of technologies in the heritage sector.

The University’s IPM plan is integral to the storage of rare and unique collections, being a tested method to monitor and control insect pests and mould activity in collections that, if left unmonitored or untreated, could cause irreversible and expensive damage to collection items. As part of a preventive conservation programme, IPM is an effective way to reduce damage and cost, and to minimise intervention with special collection items. An effective IPM plan will enable institutions to have greater control over and knowledge of pest activity in their facility, making pest prevention and treatment much more effective. One of my goals through creating this e-learning resource is to aid this accumulation of knowledge of pest activity throughout the department, with the hope that the resource will be used for internal staff training for a basic overview of our IPM plan, how it works and why it is so important.

Using a microscope to identify pests

So far in my internship I have been able to gain invaluable insight into the field of Conservation, having spent some time in the Historic Environment Scotland’s Conservation Studio, as well as our own in the CRC, and even being able to try my hand at some surface cleaning and making boxes for rehousing books! More specifically I have gained a great deal of knowledge about Preventive Conservation, having researched Integrated Pest Management and the theory behind it for the content of my e-learning resource. In addition to this, I have been able to shadow my supervisor, Katharine Richardson, as she carried out pest trap inspections as part of our IPM Plan – and was even able to get a closer look at the kind of pests we found!

Trap used to monitor for pest activity

For the remainder of my internship I aim to create a user directed, interactive program, and experiment with implementing different types of media such as games and video tutorials to create an engaging and educational resource. I hope that through the completion of this project we are able to generate a broader knowledge of IPM and its importance amongst the University’s Centre for Research Collections staff, as well as introduce new methods of e-learning and training styles to be used in the department in future projects.

Paper and Water: Conservation Principles

This week’s blog post comes from Special Collections Conservator, Emily, who recently attended a conservation training workshop in Edinburgh…

Earlier this year in September, I attended a two-day course organised by Helen Creasy from the Scottish Paper Conservation Studio and hosted by the National Library of Scotland entitled ‘Paper and Water: Conservation Principles’. The course was based on the book “Paper and Water: a Guide for Conservators” (Banik and Brückle), which has become an essential text for conservators since its publication in 2011, and provided by Doris Müller-Hess and Hildegard Homburger, private conservators from Vienna and Berlin, respectively.

This course examined the interaction between cellulose and water and the effect this has during conservation treatments. Paper conservators frequently use treatments that employ water, from simple treatments repairing a document using wheat starch paste, and using a poultice to remove historic repairs, to more complex treatments such as washing paper to reduce discolouration and acidity in the paper, so it is vital to understand this complex relationship.

Paper and Water: Conservation Principles

Paper and Water: Conservation Principles

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Book conservation skills for paper conservators

This week’s blog post comes from Projects Conservator, Katharine Richardson, who recently attended a workshop to learn basic book conservation techniques….

Last month I attended a two day workshop, Book Conservation Skills for Paper Conservators, at the National Library Scotland. The course aimed to teach paper conservators basic practical book conservation skills. It was led by our friend and colleague, Caroline Scharfenberg, who is an accredited, freelance book conservator based at the University of Edinburgh Conservation Studio. I was very excited to learn a bit more about Caroline’s practice, and it was a great opportunity for me to get away from my desk for a bit and learn some new interventive conservation skills.

On the first day Caroline gave a series of lectures on the theory and ethics involved in book conservation as well as a brief history of book binding. We were then able to put some of the theory into practice through a practical exercise preparing a condition assessment and treatment proposal for some of the National Library’s book collections.

Class preparing their condition assessment and treatment proposals

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A Taste of Conservation

In this week’s blog we hear from Anna O’Regan, who recently attended a Conservation Taster Day at the CRC. Anna discusses why she wanted to take part, and what she learnt during the day…

My educational background is in Museum Studies and Cultural Heritage. While I enjoyed studying this masters degree, I found it to be a little too broad, and although I did choose to narrow the focus to cataloguing and gained voluntary experience in this area, I felt like this wasn’t the right path for me to follow. Then I stumbled upon conservation and figured out which direction I want to proceed in. When I learned about the Conservation Taster Day at Edinburgh University I was thrilled to be invited to take part and learn more about what branches of conservation there are, so I could get the information I needed and make a decision about what precisely I want to specialise in. Having completed the day I can say with certainty that paper conservation is for me and I couldn’t be more excited for what the future holds.

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Making the Invisible Visible – Repairs on Iron Gall Ink

Last Friday, I attended a one-day training workshop on iron gall ink repairs. The session was organised by the Collections Care Team at the National Library of Scotland and hosted by Eliza Jacobi and Claire Phan Tan Luu (Freelance Conservators from the Netherlands and experts in this field. Please see www.practice-in-conservation.com for further information).

Iron gall ink was the standard writing and drawing ink in Europe from the 5th century to the 19th century, and was still used in the 20th century. However, iron gall ink is unstable and can corrode over time, resulting in a weakening of the paper sheet and the formation of cracks and holes. This leads to a loss of legibility, material and physical integrity.

Document in the Laing collection showing early stages of iron gall ink corrosion.

Unsafe handling can exacerbate this problem. Bending and flexing a paper with iron gall ink can cause mechanical stress and result in cracking of the ink and tearing of the sheet. If this has happened, the area needs to be stabilised with a repair to ensure that further tearing doesn’t occur and additional material isn’t lost.

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Books with corroded iron gall ink causing the paper sheet to break.

Paper conservators usually carry out tear repairs with water-based adhesives such as wheat starch paste and Japanese paper. However, this can be harmful for paper with iron gall ink inscriptions. Iron gall ink contains highly water-soluble iron (II) ions. These are invisible, but in contact with water they catalyse the chemical reactions that cause paper to decay. If these ions are not removed before treatment, any introduction of water can cause significant damage to the item. If a tear over an iron gall ink inscription is repaired using an aqueous adhesive, these invisible components will migrate out of the ink into the paper in the surrounding area, and speed up degradation in this location. Since this is not immediately visible, it can take approximately 25 years before the damage is noticeable.

Conservators have only recently become aware of this problem, and have had to develop a method of creating a very dry repair, and a way to test it before application. This is what we were shown during the workshop. First, we created remoistenable tissues for a repair paper using gelatine, rather than the traditional wheat starch paste. Gelatine is used because it has been found to have a positive effect on iron gall ink. It has been suggested that gelatine may inhibit iron gall ink corrosion, however, this has not been proved by empirical research.

To make the remoistenable tissue, we applied a 3% liquid gelatine solution to a sheet of polyester through a mesh. The mesh ensures that an even layer of gelatine is applied to the sheet. Japanese paper is then laid onto this sheet and left to dry. We created three sheets using different weights of Japanese paper, for use on different types of objects.

Eliza creating a remoistenable tissue.

When this was dry we had to remoisten the tissue so that it could be used to fix tears over iron gall ink. We were given a personalised mock-up item to practise this on. To remoisten the tissue, we used a sponge covered with filter paper to ensure that only a minimal amount of water is absorbed. You need just enough to make the gelatine tacky, but not so much that the water will spread away from the repair. Two sheets of filter paper are placed over a thin sponge and just enough water is added to saturate it. A small piece of remoistenable tissue is cut from the pre-prepared sheet, and placed, adhesive side down, on to the paper for a few seconds. This is then lifted using a pair of tweezers and applied to a test piece of paper that has been impregnated with bathophenanthroline and stamped with iron gall ink.

Workstation with four sheets of remoistenable tissue, sponge, filter paper and indicator paper.

Bathophenanthroline has no colour, but in the presence of iron (II) ions, it turns an intense magenta colour. As such, this sheet can be used as an indicator for the soluble iron (II) ions that can cause paper to degrade. If little or no magenta colour shows after application of the remoistenable tissue, this suggests that the repair paper has the correct moisture level and this method can be used on the real object. We used this indicator paper to try out a range of adhesives, to see what effect they had on the iron gall ink.

Bathophenanthroline Indicator Paper.

As you can see from the above image, the gelatine remoistenable tissue resulted in limited movement of iron (II) ions, whereas the wheat starch paste (WSP), methylcellulose (MC) and water applied directly to the paper has caused further movement. I thought that this was an excellent method of testing the repair technique, as it rendered the invisible movement of iron (II) ions visible. This means that a Conservator can be sure that the tear repair isn’t causing additional damage to the document.

Overall, the workshop was very informative and useful. A large number of documents at the CRC contain iron gall ink, so I’m sure I will put this new learning into practice very soon!

Check out this website for more information on iron gall ink: http://irongallink.org/igi_index.html

Emily Hick

Project Conservator