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.

Anna preparing to start the consultation. Photo by Emma Ulloa.

Emily on the laptop beside the view from the overhead projector. Photo by Emma Ulloa.

It was immensely valuable to have Emily there to prompt me to look at things such as the joins between the boards and text block or for red rot, for example, and through the consultation I learned what to look out for. General treatment plans were discussed then and there for all of the books that were shortlisted for exhibition and I began the work over the next few weeks. I then handed them over to Photographer Malcolm Brown in the Digital Imaging Unit so the page openings could be photographed, such as the one(s) below.

New High School, Carton Hill, From the Canon Gate Church Yard (top) and Custom House in Leith (bottom). Drawn by Thomas Hosmer Shepherd, engraved by J. Henshall. From the book “Modern Athens! Displayed in a Series of Views, or, Edinburgh in the Nineteenth Century”, 1829. UoE reference number SD80.

The frontispiece from “The totall discourse, of the rare adventures, and painefull peregrinations of long nineteene yeares travailes…”, 1640, by William Lithgow. UoE reference number TR.954.

A large, fold out panorama of Corfu from “Description of the City & Island of Corfu, with Part of the Coast of Greece, Epirus, and the Suliote Chain of Mountains in the Distance; The Whole Representation Embellished in the Foreground with a Variety of Costume Worn by the Greeks, Assembled on Fort Neuf, to Celebrate the Annual Religious Festival of ‘La Madonna'”, 1825. UoE reference number P.143/18.

Having recently begun working on a part-time, freelance basis for Book Conservator Caroline Scharfenberg, I learned some basic structural repair techniques and was able to use these skills when conserving the Edina/Athena books. Being the conservator for this exhibition has been a great experience for me to build upon those new book conservation skills and liaise with members of staff from different departments. It has given me the confidence to assess books by myself going forward.

Since completing the work for Edina/Athena, I have had the opportunity to assess and conserve other books in the CRC’s collection. This process was made easier having had that first group consultation. I am very much looking forward to seeing Edina/Athena on display.

Edina/Athena: The Greek Revolution and the Athens of the North, 1821–2021 will be on display from the 29th of October 2021, to the 29th of January 2022, in the University’s Main Library Exhibition Gallery on the ground floor. You can find out more about the exhibition here.

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