Water Quality Part 4 – Conclusions and Recommendations

Today’s blog post concludes remote intern Mhairi Boyle’s four-part series on water quality. Mhairi discusses the conclusions she reached during her internship and provides us with her recommendations for regular water testing at the CRC.


As the weeks drew to a close, I began to culminate all of my research into one final report. Mulling over everything, I was able to generate a few conclusions, and most importantly, some recommendations for the CRC.

  1. My first conclusion is that the tap water in Edinburgh is safe to use in paper conservation treatments. The on-site analysis demonstrated that the metal content is far below the maximum amount recommended by Scottish Water. This is, of course, subject to regular testing and monitoring.
  2. My second conclusion is that there is a lot more research to be undertaken in this area. Looking towards a more sustainable profession, the use of tap water in paper conservation should be encouraged, subject to quality. Further research should be undertaken into the metal and chlorine content of tap water.

Further investigations should be taken.

As a culmination of all my research, I devised a Water Testing Programme for the CRC. I wanted to keep it simple, understandable, and easy to grab at a moment’s notice. The gist of the program is as follows:

  • Monthly pH Testing. The CRC uses water to make solutions, adhesives, and to humidify objects. The pH of the water used should be tested monthly with a digital pH meter, and be adjusted if it is too acidic. It should also be tested before the washing of any objects.
  • Monthly Chlorine Monitoring. A more sensitive digital chlorine reader has been recommended for the CRC. Monthly chlorine monitoring will allow the CRC to monitor the chlorine content and observe any fluctuations.
  • Bi-Annual Water Analysis by an External Company. The results can be compared to Scottish Water quality reports for any discrepancies. Bi-annual water analysis accounts for any major seasonal changes in the water.
  • Contingency Planning. I have recommended the use of a logbook to ensure the Programme is carried out, and to allow for the monitoring of results. If the results of the tests are deemed unacceptable, I have recommended the interim use of jugs of purified water until the results are fully investigated. For example, if the iron content jumps up significantly, it could be an indication of rusted pipework at the University.

And that’s a wrap! I’d like to thank my supervisor, Emily Hick, and all of the CRC & Museums staff for giving me this wonderful opportunity.

Water Quality Part 3 – Survey

In the third instalment of this four-part series, remote intern Mhairi Boyle discusses the survey she created to get insight on water type and water usage from fellow paper conservators all around the world. She talks us through how she analysed the results and provides the findings from the survey.


In this blog, I will be discussing the results of an online survey I conducted.

Do you ever walk into a supermarket and feel immediately overwhelmed by the amount of baked goods on display? Sourdough, or tiger loaf? Or maybe cleaning products are your thing: Cillit Bang, or Mr Muscle? Either way, this is called ‘choice overload’, or ‘overchoice’. When I first started looking into water filtration methods and types, this is exactly how I felt. Which company? How much? Is it effective?

In this case, it has proven very useful to conduct a survey. Surveying fellow paper conservators on their water usage and opinions has given me an insight into the most popular water types and filtration choices, and why conservators use them.

I asked ten questions, five of which were multiple choice, and five of which were open-ended. I wanted to keep it as simple as possible to maximise the number of respondents. A one-page survey is less daunting and time-consuming than a ten-page survey. The open-ended questions gave me information on emergent themes and concerns of conservators regarding their water usage. The multiple-choice questions gave me quantifiable, i.e. numerically measurable information, on which water and filter types were most popular. In the end, I got fifty respondents, which was a great result. When I closed the survey and exported the information into a spread sheet, I looked at it and froze for a moment. What now?

Over 50% of respondents resided in North America.

Enter… Excel. Microsoft Excel can be an intimidating beast. I feel that I have only scratched the surface of its analytical power, but even so, it has been a very valuable tool. If you are not mathematically-inclined (me), Excel can do all of the hard work for you. The multiple-choice results were surprisingly simple to grapple with: I was able to work out percentages using Excel calculations and visualise all of the answers in bar graphs and pie charts.

Qualitative information is a bit more complicated to analyse. I used a method called ‘open-ended coding’. Using this method, the researcher reads through all of the answers and notes any common emerging themes or feelings that arise from the answers. These can all be categorised. I used coded themes such as ‘Safety’, ‘Cost-effectiveness’, and ‘Sustainability’. I was then able to tally up how many conservators’ answers came under each theme, and from that I was able to get a general sense of what was important to the respondents. I could also add comments on the side. This process takes a few reads of the answers, as more themes may emerge on second and third analysis.

Here are some of the key findings:

  • North American respondents used a larger combination of water filtration methods. For some, this was because their tap water quality was very poor, and for others, it was because they preferred the sense of control it gave them.
  • Some conservators were wary of using tap water because of its regional and seasonal variability.
  • Over half of respondents agreed that tap water is viable in conservation, but it is dependent on local quality and regular, thorough testing.
  • Conservators chose water type and filtration methods based on: safety, control, purity, and cost-effectiveness.
  • Most conservators did not have an official Water Testing Programme, but did undertake regular testing of some description.

Respondents in North America used a greater variety of water filtration systems.

The survey gave me some valuable information on the real-life practices of conservators, and I used some of this information to inform my Water Testing Programme. I will talk more about this in my next blog.

Water Quality Part 2 – Water Tests

Join us today for remote intern Mhairi Boyle’s second instalment of her four-part series on water quality and its impact on paper. Here she discusses the tests and analysis she undertook during her internship, explaining the chemistry and her results in an easy to digest way.


In this week’s blog, I will be discussing the water tests and analysis I have undertaken.

When doing this kind of research, it’s important to have real-life evidence to support your work. To start off, I created my own at-home experiments. This was my supervisor, Special Collections Conservator Emily Hick’s, great idea. My at-home experiments focused on the presence of chlorine and chloramine in tap water. To give you a bit of context, the chlorine content of tap water is something that concerns paper conservators. Chlorine is used to disinfect tap water to make it safe to drink, but it is also an oxidative bleach. This means that it has the potential to accelerate the degradation of paper-based objects, weakening them and making them more brittle, much like when you bleach your hair too much and it begins to snap off.

I wanted to firstly find out the chlorine content of my tap water, and also observe if the chlorine content varied drastically over the period of a month. I also wanted to compare the chlorine content to that of spring water, charcoal filtered water, and distilled water. I used WaterWorks test strips, which you dip into the water for ten seconds. The strip changes colour depending on how much chlorine is in the water. The results were quite positive. The chlorine level in the tap water and filtered water were very low, and varied slightly but not by much. The distilled and spring water had no chlorine, which made sense because they had both previously been purified.

Testing a water sample.

The Total Chlorine level of tap water from 26/04/21 – 21/05/21.

I also managed to analyse some on-site samples. During this most recent lockdown, most of the CRC has been closed to the public. However, a select few conservators have been allowed to go in on different days to complete essential work. Whilst on-site, the conservators have taken tap water samples for me which have been sent off for lab analysis by a company called IVARIO. Water was sampled from the CRC, St Cecilia’s Hall (SCH), and the University Collections Facility (UCF).

IVARIO’s Standard Test tests for almost everything that is of concern to paper conservators: metals, pH, conductivity, and more. As everyone knows, Scottish tap water is great, and so unsurprisingly the results came back very positive. All of the metals were under the maximum value recommended by Scottish Water; the pH was very close to neutral; and the water was deemed to be quite soft. There were slight variations, with the CRC and SCH samples differing from the University collections facility samples. This could be because the UCF falls under a different water supply area. Overall, the water at all sites performed very well.

A comparison of the on-site water samples to standards set by Scottish Water.

In my next blog, I will be looking into the opinions and practices of paper conservators from all around the world.

Water Quality Part 1 – Introduction

Today we have the first instalment of a four-part series from our remote intern Mhairi Boyle. In her first instalment, Mhairi shares with us the importance of water and its inextricable link to paper. She eases us into the topic of different purity levels of water and comments on what it has been like interning from home during the pandemic.


My name is Mhairi, and I have spent six weeks in April and May virtually interning with the Centre for Research Collections (CRC) in the Conservation department. I graduated from the University of Melbourne with an MA in Cultural Materials Conservation in 2018, after which I worked on a freelance basis in Australia until returning to Scotland in late 2019. This internship has been a great opportunity for me to get back into conservation on this side of world, after a long pandemic-enforced break. This will be a four-part blog series, detailing my experiences and investigations as a virtual research intern.

I was first introduced to the concept of the ‘Five Minute Shower’ when I moved to Australia a few years ago. Concerned about the depleting sources of water due to many droughts and the impact of global warming, the Australian Government campaigned for the nation to hop in and hop out of the shower in a five-minute extravaganza instead of indulging in a lavish and lengthy bathing ritual. Indeed, water is a finite natural source, as well as being one of the main proponents used in paper conservation treatments.

People are often surprised to hear that water goes hand in hand with paper in the world of paper conservation. When you drop your book in the bath at home, it alters the fibres of the paper. Most often, after panicking and trying to dry it with a hairdryer, your book becomes distorted and wrinkly. However, when used in a controlled manner, water can be highly beneficial to paper! Water can be used to wash and flatten objects, and it is also used when making various adhesives used to repair tears and more.

My most recent bath tragedy.

You might remember the Bobble Bottle, or the Brita Water Filter craze. People started to question the water they were drinking, and how to best purify it. Activated charcoal filters have certainly had their moment in the spotlight. This topic is also discussed in paper conservation. Water can remove degradation products from paper fibres, but this means that it can also add undesirable elements to paper.

You may be wondering how a five-minute-shower, Bobble filters, and paper conservation are all connected. Here comes the tricky part: many water purification systems used in conservation use a lot of energy, and a lot of water. Tap water is the most cost-effective and sustainable option, but is it viable for conservation treatments? What about all of its unknown variables? My internship project is a preliminary study which explores all of these questions and assesses the viability of tap water in conservation treatments.

My internship has been a fully remote research project. Pre-pandemic, I would have never imagined working from home as a conservator. The first thing that comes to mind when thinking of conservation is practical treatment work. However, there is a lot more to it than that! I have gained a lot of valuable experience working remotely, which will be very relevant to post-pandemic work habits and routines. I have been introduced to the world of Microsoft Teams, remote all-staff meetings and seminars, and lovely coffee breaks with the conservation team, CRC volunteers and interns.

Interestingly, it has made me very aware of my own work habits. I have learned a lot about my own productivity levels, and how to plan my work around my energy levels. One of the main perils and joys of working from home has been spending time with my kitten, Taro. Sometimes, he is a very helpful assistant intern. Sometimes, he is intent on distracting me any way he can, from sitting on my keyboard to yowling the songs of his people at the highest decibel possible. It has been a time of growth and adaptability for both of us.

My assistant helping me get started.

In my next blog, I will be diving into the world of water analysis and what is actually in our tap water.

Assessing books for exhibition

This week Special Collections Conservator Anna O’Regan talks us through her experience of learning new skills and how they were applied to conserving a group of books for an upcoming exhibition.


Over the last few months working part-time as a Special Collections Conservator at the CRC, I have gained numerous new skills such as assessing books for digitisation, exhibitions, and loans. Having had limited experience with assessing books before, I jumped at the chance to assist in a consultation of a group of books marked for exhibition.

Leventis Foundation Exhibition Registrar and Project Manager Emma Ulloa and myself, along with Special Collections Conservator Emily Hick who joined us virtually, collaborated to assess the group of books picked out for Edina/Athena: The Greek Revolution and the Athens of the North, 1821–2021. Emma and I, maintaining social distancing throughout the consultation, were able to assess all the books picked out and agree which ones were suitable to exhibit and which ones were not. Emma called out reference numbers for the books and updated the exhibition spreadsheet from one side of the room while I handled the books with Emily there (virtually) beside me. I was able to pick the books up and have Emily look over them with me via the Wolfvision CZ-V6 overhead projector. I talked through any damage or lack thereof that I was seeing, commenting on the function of the books and whether there were any loose pages or pieces of leather, if the spine was intact, or if something wasn’t quite right so we could investigate it further together.

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How to Become More Sustainable

The CRC Conservation Team ran two remote internships earlier this year. This blog is from Karoline Sofie Hennum, who was our intern for our Environmental Sustainability in Collections Care project between May – July. Here, Karoline Sofie talks about her internship and shares her top tips on how we collection care practitioners can all work more sustainably.


Ever since my teenage years, I have often found myself involved in political activism, in particular animal welfare and the environment. In 2015 I entered the field of conservation and collection care as I started my BA at the University of Oslo, but it was not until my first year of my MA in conservation at the same university that I truly realised how much of a problem waste produce and energy consumption is in conservation and collections care. As result of this, I swiftly decided that I wanted to become a conservator who always considers sustainability in my own practices.

In May of this year, I started an internship in Environmental Sustainability in Collections Care with the University of Edinburgh’s conservation team. This internship is one of two remote conservation internships offered this semester, so all my work is carried out from my own living room. My supervisor, preventive conservator Katharine Richardson, has taken me and her phone camera on virtual tours around their premises – it does not get much more corona-friendly than that!

The goal of my internship is to integrate environmental sustainability into existing collections care practices amongst those working with the University’s heritage collections. I will be helping the conservation team to take their first step in forming their own sustainability plans, in particular a long-term action plan to tackle issues related to sustainability, such as reducing energy consumption in environmental control. To do this, I am researching and making recommendations on how sustainability can be introduced to their everyday collections care practices. So far, I have started or completed a range of tasks:

  • Assessment of their material waste and energy consumption
  • Appraisal of their materials and equipment, as well as their suppliers, to see what can be recycled or reused, or possibly replaced with more sustainable products
  • Researched environmental sustainability and created a literature review and a resource list for the conservation team to use
  • Reviewed and added sustainability measures to their existing collections handling guidelines, as well as their Disaster Response and Recovery Plan
  • Currently looking into setting up a recycling scheme for their nitrile gloves waste.

For many, it can be difficult to fully get a grasp of how one can become more sustainable when working in collections care and conservation. If there is one thing I have learnt so far in my internship, it is that even the smallest changes can make a big difference in the long run. Therefore, I have put together a list of simple steps anyone caring for cultural heritage collections can take to become more sustainable:

  1. Swap all halogen light bulbs out with LEDs. Consider installing motion sensor lights or light bulbs.
  2. Reduce your own nitrile gloves waste. Ask yourself if you really need to wear them or if having clean hands is applicable. If a used pair has not been contaminated by dust, soil or hazardous chemicals, you should consider reusing them.
  3. Turn off lights and electrical appliances when they are not in use or of any importance to the work you are currently doing.
  4. Reuse materials. Cut-offs or waste material can often be reused or repurposed. The bin should always be your very last option. Your imagination is the only limit – come up with creative solutions. Make sure you share your solutions with other conservators in forums and on social media. Let us help each other!
  5. Set up recycling points around your workplace. If you do not generate enough waste on your own to fill up for example zero waste boxes, team up with another local conservator!
  6. Travel to work or on courier trips by public transport if you can.
  7. Set up a sustainability working group at your workplace. Arrange monthly tea breaks or meetings where you discuss sustainability and share your experiences with one another.
  8. Participate in sustainability discussions and join networks. Examples: Icon’s Environmental Sustainability Network, Sustainable Scotland Network and Fit for the Future.

And remember: Start small and keep yourself inspired. Small changes will eventually lead to bigger ones.

“Meet the…Special Collections Conservator” Podcast

Our Special Collections Conservator, Emily Hick, recently took part in the “Meet the…” series organised by VOiCE (Volunteers in Collections Engagement) at the Centre for Research Collections (CRC).
This was a live online event which discussed how Emily first became interested in conservation, her training and career so far, and gave an insight in to her day-to-day life as a conservator at the CRC.
For those who missed the event, it was turned into a podcast called which you can listen to here.
It is part of a podcast series entitled “We’ve Got History Between Us“. Over the coming months they will be exploring the different aspects of collections management, archival practice, and the wider museum and heritage sector. They aim to shine a light on the different types of volunteering going on at the Centre for Research Collections, bringing you interviews and discussion panels with staff members, talking about artefacts, upcoming exhibitions, museum ethics and new acquisitions.

Special Collections Conservator, Emily Hick

Semply the Best: A Collection in Need of Some Love

This week’s blog comes from Project Collections Assistants Anna O’Regan, Winona O’Connor and Max Chesnokov who worked with Preventive Conservator Katharine Richardson on a project back in 2019 to survey and clean the Semple Collection, a large rare books collection from the School of Divinity.

Introducing the team

Max, Winona and Anna

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Thompson Dunlop Conservation internship at St Cecilia’s Hall 2019

Article written by Riccardo Angeloni in 2019

One from the archives this week! In this article we’ll transport you back to July 2019 (months before Covid-19 even existed, imagine that!) and hear from Riccardo Angeloni, a Thompson Dunlop Conservation Intern at St Cecilia’s Hall….

Throughout the month of July 2019, I had the chance to work and study as an intern at St Cecilia’s Hall. I was welcomed by professional and friendly staff and spent the first few days learning about the main principles of collection care. This internship was an opportunity to put in practice a lot of theories and techniques that until then, I had only seen on paper.

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Volunteering Virtually with Conservation

A new year and a new blog from the conservation studio! Our first blog of the month comes from Stephanie Graban, an undergraduate student from the University of Edinburgh currently studying Arabic, who volunteered virtually with the conservation team for eight weeks from October to December 2020…. 

As my time working as a volunteer for the Centre for Research Collections (CRC) comes to an end, I’d like to reflect on my experiences. The eight-week project, which was both challenging and fascinating, focused on XRF analysis and background research of objects held by the University. These included a rare 15th century German Bible, a striking Persian marbled album, vibrant Indian Ragamala paintings, a collection of commemorative medals, and scraps of a 10th century Qur’anic manuscript. Evidently, the range of objects which I studied was wonderfully varied; each week felt like I was embarking on a new historical journey to a different corner of the world – from the comfort of my bedroom. The internship was carried out remotely due to Covid-19 and, although I wish I had the opportunity to see the XRF spectrometer at work, it was all the detective work that made this project so unique and memorable.

XRF analysis of Ragamala painting (Or.Ms.437) carried out by Special Collections Conservator, Emily Hick, at the CRC

My task was to interpret combinations of periodic elements in a table and deduce what pigments these elements could form. I quickly realised that in practice, this could be quite the challenge as the pigments could be contaminated or mixed with neighbouring colours. In order to make a confident assumption about the pigment’s identity, I consulted various pigment databases on the internet, as well as books exploring colours from various time periods and cultures. It was through this process that I found a new dimension to all the colours I see on a daily basis. Before the project, I never thought twice about why my jeans are blue or how the acrylic colours in my painting set were first named. I quickly realised that each colour that we interact with on a daily basis offers a rich and captivating history, which may even be controversial at times.

Taking the example of the Ragamala paintings which I studied in Week 3, I discovered the surprisingly cruel history of Indian Yellow. The pigment, which began to be utilised on a wide scale in the 16th century, was produced by force-feeding bitter mango leaves to cows until they were near the point of starvation. The leaves would intensify the bile pigment and produce bright-yellow urine. The cow urine was then collected and boiled for hours, resulting in a pigment which proved sensational across Asia and Europe! Without a doubt, everyone has seen this haunting pigment in a world-famous work: Van Gogh’s Starry Night – but few people know about its morbid history.

Ragamala painting (Or.Ms.437)

This was not the only secret the Ragamalas hid in plain sight. Upon analysing the elements making up the colours of the vividly-decorated music sheets, I noticed that titanium was overwhelmingly present in the artwork. This did not seem correct. The only recognised use of titanium in paint is in the manufacture of titanium dioxide white, a paint which was only first synthesised in the early 20th century. The presence of titanium is now commonly used as a marker for detecting forgeries. However, the Ragamalas were dated back to 1842 by the University catalogue, which drew questions about its authenticity. How was it possible for titanium white to be used in the object? Was the dating wrong? After delving into literature on similar Ragamala paintings, I came across a study which raised the exact same questions about the presence of titanium. Here I found an interesting observation: the authors of the article suggested that Indian artists may have been using titanium in their paints since the 17th century, centuries before the West first used it. This is a fascinating idea, but it’s a topic yet to be thoroughly explored. However, discovering further evidence which supported this observation offered a sense of importance to our findings.

That wasn’t the only time throughout the project where XRF analysis proved potentially valuable to academic discourse. A Persian album exhibiting calligraphy and marbled paper was chosen for analysis due to uncertainty in its date of manufacture. The catalogue description claims that the marbled page borders were added to the album at a later date and were not contemporary to the construction of the album. While XRF analysis did not offer any decisive results, I was able to find a recent essay by researcher Jake Benson discussing the very same album. Benson offered strong arguments in favour of the marbling being contemporary to the album’s construction.

Persian album of calligraphy and marbled paper – Qit’at-i Khushkhatt (Or.Ms.373)

After conducting contextual research, I found out that the marbled pages were most likely created by the famous marbling master Muhammad Tahir. In fact, the album likely inspired generations of artists, who used Tahir’s methods to endow Persian literary masterpieces such as Conference of the Birds and Fragrant Orchard with similar marbled borders. I reached out to Jake Benson, who kindly offered his suggestions on specific areas to conduct future technical analysis on in the album that would conclusively date the marbled borders. It felt exciting that the potential data gathered by XRF could be used to change what we know about such an important historical object!

The last object which I studied during the project was one of my personal favourites. It consisted of ancient-looking scraps of vellum displaying angular Qur’anic Arabic calligraphy. The University catalogue did not offer much information on its background or dating, so anything I could find while analysing the XRF data and conducting background research could prove valuable. I ultimately managed to date the manuscript scraps to approximately the 10th century, by using clues relating to the style of calligraphy and the format of the manuscript. I also found out that the manuscripts were discovered in the Al-Amr mosque in Egypt, the same mosque which held the oldest Qur’an ever found (now held at the University of Birmingham).

Scrap of vellum with angular Qur’anic Arabic calligraphy (Or.Ms.175)

Perhaps the most valuable outcome for me personally is that the past two months have taught me so much about various areas of history (including the history of colour) which I have never had the opportunity to study formally. The opportunity to solve a new ‘puzzle’ every week and put all the pieces together into a meaningful and valuable interpretation was more rewarding than any other academic project I’ve worked on! Thank you to Special Collections Conservator, Emily Hick, for all your kind guidance and advice throughout the eight weeks and for making my time as a volunteer (especially Thursday afternoons) very memorable. Lastly, thank you to CRC for offering me an invaluable opportunity to gain experience in the field of XRF analysis.

To find out more about volunteering opportunities at the CRC, please see our website. https://www.ed.ac.uk/information-services/library-museum-gallery/crc/volunteers-interns-honorary-fellows/volunteers-interns