Crowdsourcing Conservation – Thomas Nelson Collection

Following on from the popular “Crowdsourcing Conservation” sessions held in February 2017 and 2018, the Centre for Research Collections held seven more crowdsourcing events from October 2018 to March 2019. This time, we focussed on the Thomas Nelson collection. Over seven days, 67 volunteers helped to rehouse 197 boxes of archival material. The collections are now stored in acid-free folders and boxes, and are much easier to handle and access.

Photograph of open roller racking row of loose volumes and bankers boxes on shelving.

Thomas Nelson Collection, before rehousing

The same row open and now filled with brown archive boxes neatly stacked.

Thomas Nelson Collection, after rehousing

Thomas Nelson was a leading British publisher and the company is now a subsidiary of HarperCollins. The firm began as a small bookselling business in Edinburgh in 1789, and was founded by Thomas Neilson. In 1818, the name of the firm was changed to Thomas Nelson because of the tendency among customers to misspell Neilson! The business, located in Edinburgh’s West Bow, grew to be very successful on the formula of reprinting classic texts at low prices. Later, Nelson’s production focused on fiction, and travel and adventure books by popular authors aimed at young readers.

Colourful front covers of books.

Selection of books published by Thomas Nelson

The collection is comprised of approximately 80 linear metres of material, mostly containing business records and correspondence. In 2012, the University also received a donation of the file copies of over 10,000 Nelson books from the late 19th century to the 1980s, from the successor company Nelson Thornes.

The main aim of the crowdsourcing sessions was to rehouse the loose paper sheets in the collection into acid-free folders and boxes, and remove the metal fasteners from the material.

Prior to carrying out this work, the collections were not housed appropriately which had led to the papers becoming discoloured, creased and torn. Part of the collection was still stored in the original boxes that had been used in the offices of the publishing company. These were made from an extremely acidic straw board and had a wooden spine that also released acid as it degraded. These boxes had no folders within them to provide internal protection to the papers and this had resulted in the documents becoming discoloured in areas that were in direct contact with the boxes. These boxes were also stored vertically, which means that papers sunk to the bottom of the box causing planar distortion and creasing if they were not completely filled.

Boxes made to look like book spines standing upright.

Original boxes used by Thomas Nelson

Open view inside the boxes. The interior papers are stained around the edges.

Staining of pages due to acid migration

Other parts of the collection had been stored in large cardboard boxes, again with no internal protection. The papers were tied with string and stored vertically. This was problematic as the boxes were extremely heavy and hard to handle, making the collections difficult to access. Papers stored in this manner were also torn and creased.

Papers in bundles tied with cotton tape and wrapped in brown paper.

Large boxes used to house collection

Another problem was that different sized boxes had been used to house the collection, and there were large gaps around the larger boxes in which no items could be stored. By rehousing the material into standard sized boxes and folders, the shelf space available is used more efficiently.

Bankers boxes and brown archival boxes on shelving.

Inefficient use of space

Throughout the collection many different types of fasteners had been used to hold papers together such as metal pins, paper clips, staples, split pins and tag ties. These fasteners restrict the opening of the paper sheets, sometimes obscuring important information, and increase the risk of the corner becoming creased or torn when readers handle the documents. Most of the metal fasteners had become rusted over time, causing staining and areas of loss. To solve this problem, we chose to remove all the fasteners from the collection and replace them with paper folds to hold the sheets together.

A rusted paperclip and its rotted image on a neighbouring page.

Metal fasteners in collection, causing planar distortion and staining

The timetable of the day was the same as the previous crowdsourcing events and began with an introduction to the collection by a member of the archives team, and then a training session with Special Collections Conservator, Emily Hick. Emily talked about the benefits of rehousing, and the best way to store paper documents. She then showed the participants how to carefully remove metal fasteners using a microspatula, repackage the collections into new acid-free folders and boxes, and label the folders to ensure that the original order of the material was not lost.

Rows of tables and people sitting at them. They are working through piles of papers for rehousing in grey folders.

Crowdsourcing session

The events were highly successful with 197 boxes of material being rehoused during the seven days. Participants were asked to complete an evaluation form at the end of the event, and all agreed that they found the event fun and informative. Many participants signed up for multiple crowdsourcing events and were keen to attend more in the future.

A bundle of paper wrapped in brown paper and tied in pink cotton tape.

Thomas Nelson Collection, before rehousing

Material in grey folders in a brown archive box.

Thomas Nelson Collection, after rehousing

This amount of work could not have been completed during such a short space of time without the help of the volunteers, so we would like to take this opportunity to say thank you again to all those who helped support this event. We are holding another series of events to carry on this work from June to August 2019. If you would like to attend, please sign up here.

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