A Case for Sensorship

Preventive conservation, and environmental monitoring in particular, is an important part of my job as Conservation Officer at the University. It was for this reason, therefore, that I found myself heading into our storage and exhibition spaces within the Centre for Research Collections, and beyond, to collect up our Hanwell environmental monitoring sensors (all 37 of them) and prepare them for their annual calibration. Although small, these sensors are invaluable in helping us to monitor temperature and relative humidity conditions, and their calibration ensures that the readings are as accurate as possible.

It is impossible to halt the aging process of a material completely. However, environmental conditions during storage and display can greatly affect the rate of aging and the extent of damage, and, therefore, a well-controlled environment can dramatically improve the condition of a collection, and reduce the need for more interventive treatment in the future. Our Hanwell environmental monitoring system provides regular readings, and helps to ensure that the conditions stay within the recommended limits as set out by the British Standard Institution’s document PD 5454:2012 (Guide for the storage and exhibition of archival material) – namely 13°C-20°C and 35%-60% relativity humidity with emphasis placed on stability within these parameters.

Having successfully undergone their yearly check-up, it was just left to place them all back again….

Hanwell Sensors

Hanwell Environmental Monitoring Sensors


Conserving Laing III

Laing III 226 (569x640)

In April this year, I was lucky enough to be offered a 10 week internship to begin conservation work on the David Laing Bequest of rare books. This internship was funded by the National Manuscripts Conservation Trust and was the first stage in a series of projects on this collection, intended to stabilise and protect the most vulnerable items. It provided me with a fantastic opportunity for some hands on professional experience.

Based in the main library in George Square, I worked in the conservation studio surveying, cleaning, measuring, and rehousing this prestigious collection comprising around 1000 rare books. The treasures in the collection are worthy of the name, including poems in the hand of Robert Burns, and letters from Kings and Queens, as well as numerous early Scottish documents, and other significant literary papers. In only ten weeks, I had to complete work on the whole collection. It worked out at around ten minutes per book, so I wasn’t able to take the time to read very much of it…

Laing III 067 (640x464) But I was tempted!

The stages of conservation I undertook during this internship were, firstly, surveying and identifying the most vulnerable items in the collection, which were then measured so that individual boxes could be made for them. Secondly, I thoroughly dry surface cleaned the outside of every book, and the inside pages of some of the most vulnerable or dirty. Thirdly, I completed some repairs of loose and torn pages, and finally rehoused any loose pages, and all the vulnerable books into folders and boxes.

Here are a couple of pictures to show the difference a good clean makes to a bookshelf, look at the difference to the book on the end:


Laing III 247 (640x425)


Laing III 248 (640x425)

As well as cleaning a lot of books, I spent a little time during this internship visiting other departments. One of the huge benefits of an internship like this is the opportunity for professional development, with studio visits, lectures, and work swaps, which I took full advantage of. I even spent some time working with the preventative conservation team packing musical instruments, which made an interesting change from cleaning books… although I think I know which I prefer!

Laing III 100 (328x640) A piece from the extensive musical instrument collection- It was a lot heavier than a book!

A huge thank you to Joe Marshall, Ruth Honeybone, Caroline Sharfenburg, Serena Fredrick, and Emma Davey for all the guidance and help they gave me throughout this project, and everyone in the CRC for being unwaveringly welcoming and supportive.


Welcome to the new University of Edinburgh’s conservation blog. This post will be the first of many, keeping you up-to-date with all the interesting and exciting aspects of the conservation work going on throughout the University’s rare and unique collections. Our next blog will come courtesy of Erika Freyr, who (without revealing too many spoilers) is coming to the end of the her 10-week internship in our conservation department working on the University’s historically important Laing Collection.