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

One man and two woman smile for the camera in front of shelving full of books.

Max, Winona and Anna

Max Chesnokov

A man is sitting on the ground outside in the shade. He is ordering rocks on a sieve sheet.

Max Chesnokov

I’m a final-year undergraduate student of Ancient History and Classical Archaeology at the University of Edinburgh and I have always had a passion for books. Having previously volunteered in the Conservation Studio at the Main Library, this project has helped me to expand on my prior experience and develop my interest in a range of conservation issues in a slightly different environment. My time with the Semple Collection (and all the lovely people I’ve met working here!) has been wonderful.

Winona O’Connor

A woman smiles in front of paintings and a white wall. Her arms are crossed.

Winona O’Connor

I have a BA in Painting from the University of Edinburgh and have become interested in the conservation of Fine Art and objects over the past couple of years. The Semple Collection project has been a great introduction into the world of conservation and has affirmed my interest in pursuing conservation as a career, and I intend to apply to study a Masters in conservation in 2020!

Anna O’Regan

A woman works on some paper on a grey table. She is holding a small tool to help flatten the edges of crinkled paper.

Anna O’Regan

In 2018, I graduated from Northumbria University with an MA in Conservation of Fine Art (specialising in works of art on paper). Since then, I have been working in the conservation field securing short contracts and working in private studios in both Edinburgh and London and I recently joined the National Galleries of Scotland Professional Freelance Register. In January 2019 I assisted Katharine Richardson on another project at the UCF and it has been fantastic being back for the Semple Collection project.

The Semple Collection

The Semple Collection is a fantastic and linguistically diverse collection of (mainly) religious books from the University of Edinburgh’s collection. The books in this collection mainly comprise of religious texts like Bible commentaries, sermons and treatises, however, books on wildly different themes have found their way in over the years, like antiquarian travel guides and even an early French edition of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. Most of the books entered the collection through generous donations from former ministers, teachers and lecturers. The earliest book that we found in the collection dates to 1556 which predates the foundation of the University of Edinburgh by 26 years! Other notable events of 1556 include the Shaanxi province earthquake in northern China and Philip II’s coronation as King of Spain. It is incredible to think that these events were happening at the same time that this book was sent to the press!

Conservation issues

The books presented a variety of issues requiring conservation, such as loose or missing spine pieces; detached or missing boards; volumes split in half down the spine; degraded Sellotape still attempting to hold the books together; foxing; surface and ingrained dirt; softening of paper; tide lines from water ingress; damage from furniture beetles; inactive mould and warped vellum. While the books in the collection had a variety of conservation issues that needed to be addressed, the scope of this project was to survey them, assess their cleaning needs and begin cleaning the most affected volumes. One of the priorities of this project was to stabilise the collection’s condition so that it could be safely handled by staff during the cataloguing work.

The plan of action

When dealing with such a large number of books needing attention, it was important that we conducted a survey of them first. This survey was the first step toward identifying the conservation needs of this collection and it would inform us of which books would need to be cleaned first. We assigned each book a number between one and three (one being the most urgently in need of cleaning and three being least urgent) using acid-free archival paper slips to identify cleaning priorities before any cleaning began. We identified that cleaning the collection and securing books with loose or missing parts were some of the main requirements to stabilise the collection’s condition.

The survey and cleaning

During the survey we found that many books did not need to be cleaned so they were not given a numbered slip. The surveying process took the majority of our project time (we made our way through approximately 24,000 books covering 750 linear metres!) and the rest of the project was dedicated to cleaning the books – stay with us, as it’s about to get exciting!

During the survey we removed fastenings such as rubber bands, strings and ribbons, which were keeping some of the books together, and replaced them with archival quality cotton tape. We checked for dirt and any signs of inactive mould and used the paper slips to identify their cleaning priorities. Once the survey was finished, we worked our way through the books based on their priority level and cleaned the worst affected areas to prevent the spreading of dirt or any potential mould. We used Museum Vacs with nozzles of varying sizes to brush away and remove surface dirt and then replaced the books on their shelves, ready to be perused by the next borrower.

A man stands on a small yellow ladder, removing a book from a shelf.

The team in action: Max

A woman unties white cotton tape around a bound book.

The team in action: Anna

A woman uses a small black brush to clear dirt from the interior pages of a book.

The team in action: Winona

Our favourite titles

When surveying the collection, we came across several interesting titles. Here is a list of some of our favourites we couldn’t resist sharing:

Book spines: Mushrooms on the Moor, A Handfull of Stars, Mountains in the Mist, and the Golden Milestone.

Books in the collection

  • “The Morning-Exercise Against Popery: or, the Principal Errors of the Church of Rome”
  • “Taylor’s Advice to the Teens: or Practical Helps Towards the Formation of One’s Own Character”
  • “The Conversion of Salomon: Profitable For Old Men Which Are Decrepit, and Have One Foote in the Grave”
  • “Mushrooms on the Moor”
  • “Golden Thoughts on a Holy Life”
  • “Saturday Night”

Our favourite finds

Quite often during the survey we found some interesting additions within the pages of these books, including sketches, notes, doodles, engravings and even people practising their handwriting! Here are some of the most creative ones we found.

Pencil sketch of a sail ship on the water dating 25 January 1839.

Anna found a beautifully intricate drawing of a ship inside the back cover of a book

A page pasted into a larger book. Along the borders are doodles of a man's profile repeated several times.

She also found some experimental head drawings!

A small envelope with a broken red wax seal.

A very petite letter found by Max in the middle pages of a Biblical commentary complete with the wax seal!

A letter dated 29th August 1865 opened up.

The above letter opened up

Page of inked signatures of George Francis Gilbert being practiced.

A find by Winona from 1756 – someone practising their handwriting/signature

Copy engraving of H Dudley's Floating Church at Strontian

In one of the books Anna found a print of a floating church

Closing remarks and acknowledgements

The project was a roaring success. We worked well and efficiently as a team to reach (and exceed!) our goal of surveying and cleaning the highest priority books in the collection. It was fascinating to work with such a range of unique texts and to get to know the Semple Collection in greater depth. We would like to thank all the staff at the UCF for being so welcoming and kind and making our project here so enjoyable, and our special thanks go to Katharine Richardson for her efforts in planning and executing this project from start to finish.

A polaroid image of two women either side a man. The are smiling in front of book shelves.

Winona, Max and Anna

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