Appraisal Made Easy (If Only…): A Day in the Life of an Appraisal Archivist

Welcome to our Day in the Life Series, where each of our new team members will give you an insight into life behind the scenes at the University of Edinburgh’s Centre for Research Collections. In this post, our new Appraisal Archivist and Archive Collections Manager, Abigail Hartley, discusses what she has been up to since joining the Heritage Collections team in March. Expect one more post in this series, as we introduce our Collection Management Technician, Jasmine Hide.

You may have seen the other week my colleague Robyn upload a new blog regarding her role as Collections Care Technician. If you haven’t… Go go go! Take a look at the fantastic work she has undertaken thus far. Once you have returned, it is my turn to introduce myself and the work I’ll be tackling for the foreseeable future.

Let’s start from the beginning, shall we? My name is Abbie and I have been working at the University of Edinburgh as its Appraisal Archivist since April 2023. These past three months I have been creating an appraisal process and enacting some practice runs on smaller collections in preparation of being let loose amongst the backlog of records held at the assorted Heritage Collections sites across campus.

But what even is appraisal?

Colour portrait photograph showing a total of eight bankers boxes on four white metal shelves - two boxes per shelf. Some of the lids and handles are broken from the boxes being overly full.

During a practice run of testing out a new appraisal process, Jasmine and I were able to get some Edinburgh College of Art papers looking like this…

Appraisal in an archival context is the determining of how valuable a record is to the archive. If it is deemed valuable, then it is placed in the storerooms for permanent retention, ready to be catalogued and made accessible to the public. No two archives are identical, and each has a slightly different focus on what they want to keep. There are some standardised rules no matter the institution – usually you do not need to keep three copies of the same document, signed committee minutes are almost always going to be kept, and a record which is so mouldy that conservation deems it unsalvageable is sadly not going to be retained – but oftentimes, answering the question of is this record valuable? Leads down some almighty rabbit holes.

After all, ‘valuable’ to whom? Who decides what is valuable? How fixed is that definition? These are questions I must carefully consider when creating the criteria for retention.

Colour portrait photograph showing a total of fifteen archive boxes on three white metal shelves - six boxes per shelf then three on the final. The white metal shelves have ben arranged, giving two completely empty shelves for room for growth.

…to this! We weeded out duplicates and superfluous documentation, as well as followed retention schedules and guidance laid out by legislation such as GDPR and the FOI Act. Re-boxing and re-pitching the shelves created additional metres of space.

What do we mean by valuable anyway? It is not a case of its monetary value (though this may play a role). More frequently, its value is determined by two factors: Does it have evidentiary value, and does it have informational value? In our case, these must relate directly back to the University. Decisions are made based on the records’ provenance, their content, their authenticity and reliability, their order and completeness, their condition and costs to preserve them, and their intrinsic value. Legal requirements through GDPR (General Data Protection Regulations) and FOI (Freedom of Information Act) can also impact retention decisions.

This means we want to keep records which give a clear picture of the operations, administration and major decisions which shaped the University into what it is today. We also want to keep records which will be of interest to researchers, whether they be genealogists, students, or academics, as well as material that will be used for teaching within the courses offered by the University. We do have guidance on these factors and standards to help us make decisions, but these can be improved and made more specific to the types of collections we wish to hold.

One thing we absolutely do not want to be is arbitrary in our decision making. Can we standardise the act of removing the unnecessary material to create tighter and more easily navigable collections before they even make it to the cataloguing stage? That’s my job to figure out.

With over eight miles of shelving and five hundred years of history, the Heritage Collections of the University of Edinburgh are both immense in scale and immense in workload. Organisations like these tend to create a lot of paperwork, far more than any archivist can keep on top of. Thus, a backlog begins, and physical space becomes a premium commodity. At times, it truly can feel overwhelming; a mountain with no visible summit.

Colour photograph within a strongroom. The floor, shelving and ceiling are white, and the lighting is fluorescent. The shelving rows run down the left and right of the image, and on the shelves are cardboard boxes, lever arch files, loose papers and assorted documents.

With those initial boxes complete, we now move on to the collection as a whole. It spans four and a half rows, so there is much work to be done!

I am going to be working closely with my colleague Jasmine Hide (look out for her blog next month) in a never-ending saga to consolidate and create space within our strongrooms for new incoming accessions, as well as to review existing uncatalogued collections which maybe need a little TLC, and finally make the backlog just a little less overwhelming for our colleagues. By creating lists detailing what we hold and what the final decisions are to be regarding its retention, we aim to increase the findability of these uncatalogued collections, ensure the decision process is well recorded and accountable, flag records in danger for our conservation colleagues, and having the general satisfaction of clearing space.

Yes, this does involve spreadsheets. Many a spreadsheet.

Screenshot of a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet. Some columns are coloured green, red, orange or blue depending on the contents of the cell.

Section of a spreadsheet listing contents, physical condition, and retention or disposal decisions for the Information Technology Institute at the University.

My next steps are to create a list of priorities for collections that need the most attention, formerly establish a workflow to slot the work of appraisal into the broader acquisitioning, accessioning, conserving and cataloguing processes, and of course, actually do the appraising.

We’ll be keeping you up to date with major projects we undertake, with some classic before and after images, so do watch this space for future updates!

Books, Boxes and Bugs! A day in the life of a Collections Care Technician at the Centre for Research Collections

Welcome to our new Day in the Life Series! The Conservation and Collections Management team recently recruited three new members of staff. In this series each of our new team members will give you an insight into life behind the scenes at The University of Edinburgh’s Centre for Research Collections. In this post, our new Collections Care Technician Robyn Rogers discusses what she has been up to since joining the team in March. Expect two more posts in this series, as we introduce our Appraisal Archivist and Archives Collection Manager, Abbie Hartley, and our Collections Management Technician, Jasmine Hide.

My first three months at the Centre for Research Collections have been jam packed – I have installed an exhibition, couriered a loan to the V&A Dundee, cleaned one hundred linear metres of rare books, and rehoused over seventy collection items – and that’s just a small selection of what I’ve been up to! On an average day you might find me jet setting across campus to move a harpsichord at St Cecilia’s Hall, or vising our offsite repository, the University Collections Facility, to clean some especially dirty books, before finishing the day in the Conservation Studio making some phase boxes. I feel fortunate to have worked with many fascinating collection items so far, from a Bible that had been rescued after falling down a well, to 60s pop stars’ microphone of choice. This demonstrates what I love about being a Technician working in cultural heritage – our work focuses on preventative collections care, as opposed to interventive treatment, allowing us to work with an exciting breadth of collections material.

The foundation of preventive collections care is good collections storage – if we want to preserve our collections and protect them from damage, we need to give them the right home. This is why the maintenance of good collections storage, and “rehousing”, is the collections care professional’s bread and butter. Therefore, improving the conditions and storage of our collections is a main goal of mine as Collections Care Technician. So far, I have focused on two projects in particular – cleaning the Early Books collection, and rehousing our newly acquired Decorated Paper collection. Most days I will spend some time working on these projects, working in collections stores or the conservation studio. I take a lead on these projects, but liaise with curatorial and conservation staff to guarantee storage and rehousing is fit for purpose. This ensures our collections are safe and cared for, while maximising access for our students, scholars, and the general public. Expect some posts on my Decorated Paper rehousing project soon. If you would like to learn more about Decorated Paper, you can visit our online exhibition, curated by Elizabeth Quarmby Lawrence, here.

This image shows a selection of books upright on a shelf. There is one shorter volume between two larger volumes. The shorter volume does not have a hardcover, so the spine, binding and pages are exposed.

These images are good example of my work in the Early Books collection – this volume was stored loose on a shelf, but the fragile binding rendered it vulnerable to damage through disassociation if a page became loose. The lack of a hard cover also increases the risk of damage through incorrect handling.

The shorter volume in the previous image is displayed in an archival box.

By making a custom phase box, I provided some protection from rough handling, while ensuring that all pages are kept together. The box also prevents dust particles from accumulating within the fragile pages. This volume is now safe to be accessed by researchers in our reading room.













One aspect of maintaining good collections storage that you might not expect is Pest Management. Insect pests can seriously damage collections – so monitoring insect levels in collections spaces is essential. You can see some evidence of historic pest damage to this paper binding in our Decorated Paper collection. Insect pest damage to books and paper is characterised by these rounded munching patterns.

This image shows the corner of a cover of a paper bound volume. The cover is decorated in swirling designs in orange and gold. There are some holes in the cover, revealing the page below.

A paper bound volume from our Decorate Paper collection showing signs of historic pest damage.

A close up of a spider beetle caught in the sticky side of a blunder trap.

A spider beetle caught in one of our blunder traps.










Here at the CRC we monitor our pest traps quarterly, but have regular housekeeping procedures to ensure our collection sites are inhospitable to hungry insects. I recently completed our June trap change – reviewing the insects who had wandered onto our “blunder” traps and compiling the data into a large spreadsheet, allowing me to flag any potential issues. Thankfully our insect levels were minimal and not concerning, though a long term project I am working on is improving our pest monitoring to minimise the risk of pest damage.

When I’m not working to improve the condition of our collections, I am supporting my colleagues at the CRC in collections care tasks that facilitate wider projects. For example, I recently supported our Engagement Officer (Exhibitions), Bianca Packham, in the installation of the A Carrying Stream Exhibition, at the Main Library Exhibition Gallery. This involved moving collections from the School of Scottish Studies, cleaning objects in preparation for display, and installing objects in their cases. This exhibition features three commissions from local artists who have created audio artworks using material from the School of Scottish Studies Archive. Displayed alongside these artworks are a selection of historic recording equipment – some of which were made bespoke for researchers at the university. These are complex composite objects, made of a variety of materials including plastics. Plastics degrade quickly and are notoriously hard to clean. Nevertheless, I was able to surface clean the objects, removing any distracting grime before they went on display. If you want to see these intriguing objects in person, information about visiting A Carrying Stream can be found here.

This image shows a large display case with several pieces of electrical recording equipment displayed in side.

Here I was putting the finishing touches to a display case with my colleague Bianca – arranging objects, labels and text panels. Now that the exhibition is installed and open to the public, I complete gallery checks, monitoring the condition of the artworks and objects on display.









I am keen to work on more of these exciting projects, supporting my specialist colleagues while caring for the variety of collections held by the University. Despite having handled hundreds of objects in my short time here, the collections are so large and diverse that I have barely begun to scratch the surface – there is much more to look forward to!

The Book Surgery Part 2: Bringing Everything Together

In this blog, Project Conservator Mhairi Boyle her second day of in-situ book conservation training she has undertaken with Book Conservator Caroline Scharfenberg (ACR). Mhairi previously undertook a Maternity Cover contract at the CRC within the Conservation Department.

In the previous blog, the examination and initial steps in spine repair and board reattachment of two volumes from the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies (R(D)SVS) were described. The first blog in this series can be found here.

After my first session with Caroline, I sat down and pored over all my notes and the millions of photos I had taken. The amount of thought, precision and care that goes into book spine linings and repairs that will eventually be hidden and concealed shows how complex even in-situ book conservation steps can be. After jotting down my notes into a coherent order and cross-referencing everything with Caroline, I came back to the studio a few weeks later refreshed and ready for a full day of training and collaboration.

In this session, Caroline and I focused on making spine pieces and hollows, and examined how to reattach cracked book boards in different ways. One of the things I like most about working in Conservation is that we are constantly adapting and evolving techniques, tailoring them to the objects we are currently working on. This is exactly what Caroline demonstrated to me: informed by our initial examinations of both volumes, we tailored the treatment steps for each book based on its size, weight, and particular areas of weakness.

After the book spines were both lined, providing them with adequate strength, we lifted the cover material off the book boards with along the spine edges so that the new linings could be slotted under the lifted material. Because one book had a leather cover and the other had a cloth-covered spine, it was a good opportunity to practice this technique and see how it works in different scenarios. I personally found the cloth material easier to lift than the leather, because it was lighter and easier to manoeuvre.

The cloth covering the spine was lifted, and the new lining was slotted under the lifted material.

The leather-bound volume was given a new hollow.

We then went onto looking at book hollows, and how the hollow can be adapted for books of different sizes and sewing structures. A hollow supports the volume by giving it flexibility, allowing it to open more fully. Sometimes a book may have had a hollow in the past that has failed/become damaged, and sometimes a book may have never had one to begin with. The leather-bound volume had a hollow-back structure, so we used the traditional hollow structure to re-instate its flexibility. The other volume has a ‘tight-back’ sewing structure, meaning that the covering material has been directly adhered either to a spine lining, or directly to the spine itself. In this case, there was evidence of a previous spine lining.

The laminated spine piece was adapted from the typical ‘hollow’ structure.

Because this volume was smaller, lighter, and had less space for a hollow, we decided to instead create a sturdy yet flexible spine piece, which consisted of three pieces of archival-grade paper adhered together. This took up less room on the already narrow and small spine structure. The spine piece was hinged onto the spine with adhesive, creating a hollow mechanism, and then covered with Japanese paper. Japanese paper was then tugged and adhered onto the boards underneath lifted cover material.



Tightly wrapping the volume and new hollow in bandages allows the hollow and spine covering to fully adhere to the contours of the book spine.

When adhering the spine piece and hollow to their respective volumes, we used 50/50 wheat starch paste and EVA adhesive. Caroline showed me a novel way of applying this – she first went in with the wheat starch paste for flexibility and increased drying time, then used a layer of EVA adhesive over the top for strength. EVA dries very quickly and can be difficult to work with at times, so layering it over the wheat starch paste gave us more time to fix everything into the position we wanted, before tightly wrapping both volumes in bandages and weighting everything down so it adhered in all the right places.

Inner joint repairs help to further stabilise the board reattachment.

After everything dried, I went in and applied inner joint repairs for more stability, applied the consolidant Klucel G to any weak areas of leather, and consolidated the damaged board corners with 50/50 wheat starch paste and EVA adhesive.


I have really enjoyed the collaborative nature of this project and I would like to thank Caroline for sharing her wealth of knowledge with me. It has driven home to me how important it is to have great mentors to help develop your decision-making skills and hand skills alongside. Although there are plenty of reference books and articles, there is nothing quite like working alongside a leading expert in the field.

Both books are in one piece again!