Bearing Witness: The Pre-Digitisation Conservation Treatment of The Witness, Part 2

Today we have the second instalment of a two-part series by Projects Conservator Mhairi Boyle. Mhairi spent April 2022 working on The Witness, a collection of Edinburgh-based newspapers held by New College Library. You can read the first part of the series here.


The first instalment of this series focused on the contextual background and the condition of The Witness newspapers. In this final instalment, I will be discussing the ethical challenges of digitisation conservation work and reveal some highlight findings from the collection.

Weak and damaged areas.

In the Conservation team we often use the terms ‘pre-digitisation treatment’ and ‘post-digitisation treatment’. When assessing objects for digitisation, it is important to consider the condition of each object and how it will be digitised. If the pressing or scanning of an object will worsen its condition, pre-digitisation conservation treatment is often recommended. If there is damage to an object that will not be made worse during the digitisation process, then it can be flagged for post-digitisation treatment. In the case of The Witness, each newspaper will be laid flat, and each page scanned. This could worsen the split areas and areas of weakness when each page is turned for scanning. When each page is pressed, the tension from the old adhesive and thread holding each volume together could also create new splits and damage. This presented a new dilemma: we had to decide whether to keep the newspapers bound, or disbind each volume.

There are pros and cons to each approach. As previously mentioned, the binding of the newspapers was two-fold: there were residual fragments of binding and adhesive from the original larger bound volume, as well as a single thread binding which was added later. Removing the original adhesive would be very time-consuming, and potentially further damage the fragile and damaged edges of each page.  After discussing this with the curators and the Senior Collections Manager, we agreed on a partial pre-digitisation disbinding. I removed the additional single-thread binding, which we agreed was adding unnecessary stress and tension to each newspaper. By removing some of the tension from each page, less damage is likely to occur when each volume is pressed flat under a scanner.

The text block was repaired with a thin Japanese tissue, which is strong but also preserves legibility.

I also made the decision to leave the previous repairs in place. Although they have cracked in places, removing them could result in further damage and render` parts of the newspapers illegible. Instead, I repaired vulnerable areas and large losses. I focused on any tears and cracks, which threatened the text block and legibility of each volume. I also repaired areas of weakness which could potentially catch at a wrong angle and worsen when the pages are turned. I used a thin Japanese tissue, which is thinner than the newspapers – this means that if these repairs fail in the future, they should bear the brunt of the damage rather than the original items.

10% w/v carboxyl methylcellulose.

I consulted Projects Conservator Claire Hutchison, who has previously worked on a sizeable newspaper project for the National Library of Scotland, on the best adhesive to use. Claire cited carboxyl methylcellulose (CMC) as her adhesive of choice, because of its viscosity, water content, and drying time. CMC is a ‘cellulose ether’. It is a dry, powdery substance made from purified cellulose commonly derived from wood or cotton. This undergoes a reaction with chloroacetic acid to create CMC, whose structure is more amorphous than pure cellulose. It is commonly used in the food and cosmetic industries as a thickener. In conservation it has three main uses: as an adhesive; to soften and remove historic adhesive; and to strengthen flaky/powdery media. Once it is added to water and vigorously stirred, it magically transforms into a gel overnight.

Because of its gel-like form, it is less likely to further damage fragile paper by way of oversaturating it with water. It dries in a fairly quick time to a clear, flexible film, which is advantageous when working with newspapers, whose pages are turned and flattened.

Areas of weakness have been reinforced with Japanese tissue.

During this project, I became a repair administering machine. Each page of each Journal was re-examined for areas of weakness and repaired.

I did stop a few times to check out the local news from 1800. One of the differences between digital news outlets and physical newspapers is that online there is no need for ‘gap-filler’ articles. These happen to be some of my favourite ‘gap-fillers’.

From rum and ice to extreme teetotalism!

It is also interesting to examine the differences between the language used in the 1800 versus today. I think I could take a few tips from The Witness on how to craft concise-yet-sophisticated prose!

A stern reminder of the newspaper’s publishing days.

The newspapers are now ready for digitisation.

Now that the pre-digitisation conservation treatment is complete, the newspapers will be digitised and accessible online. However, the work doesn’t stop there. Once they return to the CRC, I will examine them for any further damage and discuss further treatment options with the curators. Options include archival rehousing; testing out removal of the historic repairs; and removing the aged adhesive and historic bindings. Although The Witness will be available online, some users will still prefer to come and interact with the material objects themselves.

One of the reasons I enjoy being a conservator is getting hands-on with collections. With so many workflows now taking place entirely through a computer screen, I find the physicality of remedial treatment work very mindful and refreshing. Working closely with The Witness has reminded me of a slightly slower way of life, when consuming the daily news involved physically engaging with an object rather than scrolling through apps and ads fighting for your attention.

Further reading:

Feller, RL., & Wilt, M. 1990, Evaluation of Cellulose Ethers for Conservation, J. Paul Getty Trust, USA.

Tobey, D.A., ‘Preserving history: Here’s how to keep that historic newspaper for years to come’, NYT Regional Newspapers, https://www.mnhs.org/preserve/conservation/reports/nytimes_preserving.pdf

A Heavenly Rehousing Project!

Today we have the final instalment of a two-part series from Collections Care Assistant, Sarah Partington. In this post, she talks about cleaning and  rehousing a collection of works by the Gaelic Baptist preacher and hymn writer, Padruig Grannd. Sarah has just completed a government-funded Kickstart placement and has now started a new role working with our collections at the University Collections Facility.


The Peter Grant Collection comprises volumes of works by the Gaelic Baptist preacher and hymn writer, Padruig Grannd. These were stored together in a box, along with other printed works, manuscript sermon notebooks, and items pertaining to one of his descendants, Daniel Grannd. The material was put together in the 50s and it had unfortunately experienced the effects of unsuitable storage conditions over the years prior to it coming into the care of the Centre for Research Collections. This was obvious from its condition: in addition to the more common issues with older books, such as surface dirt, loose boards, text blocks and spines, most of the items in the box also showed serious signs of mould, residual staining, and warping from damp conditions in past storage. Conservators and archivists alike will get shudders when they hear whispers of attics, basements or garages…the likely former home of this collection.

The collection in its original housing

Although collated in the 1950s, the collection didn’t actually arrive to The School of Scottish Studies until the 90s. After 20-odd years under the University’s care, it was about  time that this incredibly special collection got the in-depth treatment and rehousing it deserves– as Collections Care Assistant, that’s where I came in!

I began by checking each item thoroughly in order to wheedle out the items showing signs of inactive or worse, active mould, which could spread if left untreated. I breathed a big sigh of relief when I didn’t find any active mould, but as a precaution I still placed the items with past mould damage to the side to avoid any potential cross-contamination. After this, cleaning work could begin on the items that I had identified as being free from the clutches of mould spores.

Left: removing ingrained dirt with a smoke sponge. Right: brushing away dust with a soft brush

I carefully brushed away the dust from the covers, fore-edge and top-edge of each book, after which I used a smoke sponge to remove ingrained surface dirt from the covers, end papers and text blocks. I repeated the same process on the notebooks and loose leaf material, but I was careful to avoid rubbing off any handwritten text or drawings, cleaning around these parts.

FYI, you will notice from the photos that I wore nitrile gloves when I was cleaning the items. This was just in case I came across any mould that I had missed when checking the books initially. Generally, books should be handled with clean, dry hands unless a health hazard is suspected or they have parts made from another material that requires gloves when handling, i.e. metal.

Any books that were structurally unstable and had loose text blocks, spines or covers, were then identified for further attention. In mild cases two cotton tape ties sufficed for securing the covers and spines, but in a large number of cases the books were in such a fragile condition that they needed a custom-made box to stop loose or friable (not the yummy kind) parts falling off. I put these items to the side to return to later.

Cleaning in the fume cupboard

Meanwhile, I began tackling the mouldy items. I put a protective and very stylish FFP3 mask on to protect myself from breathing in the mould spores, and placed the contaminated items in the fume cupboard. I combed each item for mould deposits, and used a museum vacuum on a low-suction setting to then remove them. After they were free from mould, I followed the same process that I had applied to the other items, brushing dust away and using a smoke sponge for ingrained dirt.

Inactive mould before and after cleaning. The reduction in mould spores is visible in the image on the right.

Now that everything was clean and mould-free, it was time to return to the fragile volumes that still needed some TLC. I measured them all, adding a couple of millimetres buffer room to my measurements to allow space for the folds of the rehousing material. I then created individual housing using a cutting board, scalpel and guillotine; I made phase boxes – four flap enclosures designed to protect delicate or damaged books – from museum-grade box board, which is a tough acid-free paper board, casings with spine support for smaller notebooks, and four flap folders for loose leaf material.

Making a custom phase box

I had to do a bit of problem solving here, as it wasn’t always obvious which rehousing solution would be best for a particular item. For example, a collection of printing proofs proved pretty hard to store. They had previously been stored folded up, causing the paper to bend. I consulted our paper conservator, Mhairi Boyle, and she suggested housing them in such a way that they could be made to lie more flat, without the need for further interventive treatment at this stage.

Left: printing proofs in custom folder. Right: printing proofs in custom phase box

Initially, I thought that a folder would work best for this, but the proofs didn’t fit in my custom folder, even though it had been measured to the correct size. The folder didn’t allow the necessary wiggle room for the 2.5cm bends, and it certainly wasn’t strong enough to coerce the paper into a flatter shape. In order to tackle this problem, I resorted to the largest ruler and cutting mat the conservation studio had to offer and I made another custom box for it instead. In the end I had housing that was long enough for the proofs, whilst allowing them 1.5cm depth so that the bends could be flattened out slightly.

The rehousing solution: archival box with fragile volumes in phase boxes

The last step in the Peter Grant saga was separating out the material into archival boxes in a coherent way. I put the items in three categorised archival boxes: printed works by Peter Grant in order of volume, other works, and pre-print items. If you like organisation and tidiness like I do, I think you’ll agree that the end result is very satisfying. More importantly, the collection is now more secure, and its future more certain.

Bearing Witness: The Pre-Digitisation Conservation Treatment of The Witness, Part 1

This week we have the first instalment of a two-part series by Projects Conservator Mhairi Boyle. Mhairi spent April 2022 working on The Witness, a collection of Edinburgh-based newspapers held by New College Library.


As a child I remember the local tabloid newspaper being delivered every morning, and my dad examining the daily happenings over his morning coffee before heading off to work. At the time I was more interested in the horoscopes and agony aunt sections. Weekends were a more relaxed affair, with a much larger (and more sophisticated) newspaper that barely fit onto the kitchen table. Considered ephemera, the newspaper was read once then discarded, with little thought lent to the matter.

The January 1842 copy of The Witness.

These days I rarely, if ever, purchase a physical newspaper. With the reign of the Digital Age, the news is accessible through the swipe of a fingertip via various apps and videos all shown on a tiny cellular screen. Critical stories are updated by the second with live news feeds, which means you can scroll to your hearts content on a regular basis.

I hadn’t given the modern consumption of news much thought until I was asked to assess the condition of a collection of newspapers belonging to the School of Scottish Studies. The Witness collection comes in two formats: there are 23 folders of partially loose issues which appear to have been removed from bound book volumes, and 26 much larger volumes. As part of a larger digitisation project which aims to make The Witness accessible online, I was asked to assess the condition of the loose monthly volumes prior to them being sent off to an external company to be scanned. Because they are so large, it takes two people to produce one item at the New College Library. Digitising The Witness will enable ease of access to all readers and reduce the need for handling such large items. I met Senior Collections Manager Katharine Richardson at the University Collections Facility to assess the newspapers.

Newspapers are also great forums for practising cursive.

Why is the preservation of these newspapers important? Historic newspapers are physical encapsulations of everything from historic world-changing events to opinion columns which echo the thoughts and feelings of communities from different eras. The Witness is an Evangelical Christian newspaper which was issued twice-thrice weekly from January 1840-February 1864.

The 23 loose monthly items vary from poor to excellent condition. The dates of the newspapers range from January 1842 to October 1843. During this period, a transition was being made from using cotton rags to make paper to using wood pulp, an inexpensive alternative. Wood pulp paper tends to become yellowed, brittle, and crumbly over time, whereas cotton rag paper tends to be strong and better-preserved. Thankfully The Witness was printed on a good quality cotton rag paper, which means that despite the wear and tear incurred through a century of use, the paper is still of a good and sturdy quality.

A large tear obscuring the text block, and some split areas where the paper has previously been folded.

The most concerning issues with the newspapers were tears encroaching into the text block, areas of weakness due to being folded, and fragile pages where the papers had previously been bound together into one area.

A failed historic repair.

An interesting (and challenging) aspect of the condition of the collection is the damage caused by historic repairs. Conservation is a constantly evolving profession with new techniques and adhesives being produced every year, which means that occasionally my job involves removing historic repairs if they are causing damage to objects. Many of the newspapers had old repairs administered with an unknown adhesive, which had failed and split over time.

Two layers of binding: the original adhesive is yellowed and hardened, and the single thread was added later on.

In addition to this, a well-meaning repairer had also taken the time to painstakingly individually ‘bind’ each disbound newspaper with a single piece of thread. Unfortunately, this thread has caused issues regarding the structural stability of the newspapers, causing areas of tension and fragmentation throughout.

After surveying the newspapers, I formulated an action plan, which included a few ethical dilemmas and consultations along the way. Digitising the newspapers involves pressing them under flat scanners, which meant that they required stabilisation through remedial conservation treatment. The ethical questions involved, and the remedial treatment of the newspapers, will be discussed further in Part 2 of this blog series: coming to an online news outlet near you soon!

Putting the Pieces Together: The Challenges of Working on Architectural Models (Part 2)

This week we have the final part of Project Conservator Mhairi Boyle’s series on the conservation treatment of three Percy Johnson-Marshall architectural models. The first part can be read  here.

Putting the Pieces Together: The Challenges of Working on Architectural Models (Part 2)

In my last blog, I introduced the Percy Johnson-Marshall architectural models, and the challenges faced when designing a treatment plan for them. In this week’s blog, I am going to tackle the topic of different adhesives and treatment methods used in this project.

In the field of paper conservation, there are a few gold-standard adhesives. The most ubiquitous adhesive that almost all paper conservators use is wheat starch paste. Though most conservators associate starch-based adhesives with East Asian conservation practices, one of the earliest recorded uses for starch was recorded in Ancient Egypt, where it was used to adhere pieces of papyrus together.

Powdered wheat starch mixed with water over heat forms a gelatinous paste, which can be tailored to suit different purposes. It can be kept thick (‘dry’), or thinned out with more water. Dry paste is often used to mend thicker paper-based objects or objects which cannot tolerate a lot of moisture, and thinned out paste is used when more flexibility is required. I decided to use a very dry paste to attempt to re-adhere lifting areas of the models, with varying degrees of success. Wheat starch paste requires at least 10-15 minutes to dry, meaning that the part of the object being repaired with paste needs weighted down. Although wheat starch paste is a strong and reliable adhesive, the extent of the water damage and the embrittlement of the card used in areas of the model meant that it was not strong enough to re-adhere parts of the model.

Collections Care Assistant Sarah Partington and I then moved onto using EVA glue. EVA stands for ethylene-vinyl acetate. It is a synthetic adhesive that was adopted by conservators in the 1980’s as a more reversible (but still challenging to remove) alternative to the completely irreversible PVA (poly-vinyl acetate). EVA is commonly used

Loose and lifting areas of one of the models.

in book conservation and artefact conservation. It’s stronger than wheat starch paste, but also has a longer ‘curing’ time. Rather than ‘drying’, adhesives like EVA and PVA react with the environment and form flexible solids.

Using EVA worked in some cases, but again, the drying time was not quick enough for the thicker cards used on the model. We also found that the weights we were using during the drying process were not quite the right size. At this stage, I turned to our Musical Instruments Conservator Jonathan Santa Maria Bouquet for some assistance.

Jonathan has experience dealing with an incredibly dynamic collection of 3D objects, chiefly musical instruments, and his workshop reflects this. Whereas paper conservators often have nimble and petite tools in their arsenal, Jonathan has saws, drills, clamps, and hammers.

Custom acrylic weights made by Jonathan Santa Maria Bouquet.

He very kindly lent Sarah and I some clamps to hold areas of the models in place while drying and created some custom-shape acrylic weights for us to use.

In addition to this, Jonathan suggested we try the adhesive Paraloid B72. B72 is an acrylic resin which has been used in conservation for over 25 years, and is commonly associated with archaeological and objects conservation. It is manufactured as small hard pellets which are then dissolved in a solvent of choice. Solvents are chosen based on how quickly they evaporate and their compatibility with the object – the quicker a solvent dissolves/dries, the quicker the adhesive will dry. Jonathan recommended a 50/50 mix of acetone and isopropanol, to give a medium-fast drying time.

From left to right: wheat starch paste, EVA, and Paraloid B72.

The B72 was a success – in conjunction with the custom weights and clamps, Sarah and I managed to successfully adhere all loose components of the models. It dried quickly, and the clamps and custom weights allowed us to apply a stronger and more precise amount of pressure to drying areas.

Clamping an area of the model to allow the Paraloid B72 to dry.

Successfully re-adhered components.

Acid-free tissue was built up to create an even plane, reducing the risk of pieces coming loose.

After the models were made secure, Senior Collections Manager Katharine Richardson and I met to discuss the safe packing and moving of them. Sarah and I prepared for their move by covering them in acid free tissue, filling in any gaps between built-up areas so that they wouldn’t come loose and knock against each other. The external removals contractors then arrived, and we discussed the safest method of moving the models. Large plastic bags were used to cover the models and tissue, and everyone held their breath as the largest model was tipped on its side to fit through the door.

Everything remained secure, and the models made it safely to the University Collections Facility. This project demonstrated the importance of cross-disciplinary collaboration and wouldn’t have been possible without the whole team mucking in to put the pieces together.

Sarah and one of the models, all in one piece!

Further Reading:

Whitten, J., Buckley, B., Houp, H., Vagts, L., Irgang, H., van Gelder, M., Blakney, S., Roth-Wells, N., & Pocobene, G. 1997, Varnishes and Surface Coatings: Polymeric Varnishes, https://www.conservation-wiki.com/wiki/Varnishes_and_Surface_Coatings:_Polymeric_Varnishes

Koob, SP. 2009, ‘Paraloid B-72: 25 Years of Use as a Consolidant and Adhesive for Ceramics and Glass.’, in Ambers, J., Higgitt, C., Harrison, L., & Saunders, D. (eds) Holding It All Together: Ancient and Modern Approaches to Joining, Repair and Consolidation, London: Archetype Publishing, Ltd., pp. 113-119.

Menei, E. 2017, ‘Use of East Asian materials and techniques on papyrus: Inspiration and adaptation’ in Adapt & Evolve 2015: East Asian Materials and Techniques in Western Conservation, pp. 118–27.

Glazy in Love: Rehousing the Emma Gillies Collection

Today we have the first instalment of a two-part series from Collections Care Assistant, Sarah Partington. In this post, she talks about rehousing a collection of ceramics made by the artist Emma Gillies. Sarah is working at the CRC on a government-funded Kickstart placement and will be sharing two of the projects that she has completed during her time with us.

This year, I have had the absolute joy of working with an exciting collection of ceramics by Emma Gillies. Previously, Emma Gillies was thought of largely in relation to her brother, the renowned painter and past Edinburgh College of Art Director, William Gillies. However, due to a discovery of a large body of her work, we are now able to gain fresh insights into her practice as a prolific artist in her own right.

A significant amount of work has already been done to catalogue and house the collection since its rediscovery in 2013. My role in this project built upon this foundation of existing collections management and care work, and was focused on two main tasks: checking and updating the existing inventory, and rehousing the ceramics in such a way that they could be accessible visually, whilst also being secure and stable.

Previous housing: items stored in archival and banker boxes

When I first viewed the collection, it was housed in various boxes, which were cushioned with acid-free tissue paper to protect the ceramics. This would not suffice long term, because acid-free tissue paper eventually becomes acidic again and can damage collections. From an accessibility perspective, the lidded boxes were not ideal for this type of collection because you couldn’t easily view the items without removing them from their housing and handling them. In some cases items were stacked one on top of the other. It was important to think about the future of the collection by finding an alternative storage solution that would increase access, and also provide more stability long-term.

But you can’t put the shopping away without knowing what you’ve bought, right? I decided it was best to begin by getting to know the collection a little and understanding the type of objects that I would be rehousing. I checked items against the existing inventory, first re-measuring each item, and then checking that we had a corresponding image. I made a note of any missing items or items with an incorrect photo, so that any such items could be prioritised for visual documentation at a later date.

Plate with description and condition report

I compiled detailed descriptions and a condition report for each object as I went through. I’m not a ceramics expert, so I found it helpful to go back to basics and look at the language that other museums use when they talk about their ceramics in museum catalogues. I could then make my own language as accurate as possible. Like people, ceramics have mouths, necks, lips and bodies, and they come in many different shapes and sizes! They can be trumpet-shaped, globular, and tulip-shaped. I also focused closely on the language that is used to describe their condition specifically. For instance, the spidery cracks in glaze are called crazing, and small round holes in the glaze are called glaze pops. The visual data now corresponds directly with the information that we hold about each object, and an object can easily be identified from its description alone.

Once all the information was filled out and up to date, I could then begin moving the

Layout plan for a tray

ceramics into their new home. The plan was to house them in stackable trays supported by a plastazote foam lining and offcuts that would be pinned in place to provide support for individual objects. As somebody who works best by visualising outcomes from the outset, it really helped at this stage to draw out a plan for the items in each tray. I looked at the measurements for each object and decided what size tray I would need for each item, based on its height and the depth of the tray. After this I was able to start separating items into groups that could be placed into the trays. This meant that not only did I know where each item was going to be rehoused, but also that I was able to better estimate the quantity of trays required, so that I didn’t over or under order materials.

Something important that I had to keep in mind was the sequence of items. This had to remain coherent. For example, it would not make sense to put items from the same set in, say, tray 1 and tray 10, rather it would make more sense to put them in tray 1 and 2.

Items in their original box, supported by acid-free tissue paper

 

A set of plates in their tray, supported by a plastazote foam lining and pinned in place

Standing proud: two lambs in their new housing

The rehousing part was really fun, but it did present some challenges. This was largely due to the variety of items in the collection. The ceramic animals were particularly tricky to rehouse. For instance, there was a box that contained two lambs, both of which had small, protruding parts such as ears and tails. Initially, I was planning to house these on their sides because I wasn’t sure how stable their legs were. I eventually decided that this made these areas too vulnerable, especially as one of the lambs already had a broken, re-attached tail. I made the decision to store them upright instead, and used the plastazote to provide additional support to the legs so that there was no chance of them slipping around in their tray. The result? Two happy lambs just in time for Easter!

Overall, I rehoused 50 boxes of ceramics, with 175 items in total finding a new home in the trays. It felt like a huge task to begin with, but after a fair amount of planning and a little problem solving it all came together. This beautiful collection is far more accessible, looks better on the shelves in the store, and is, most importantly, safe and secure. The Emma Gillies legacy lives on!

The Emma Gillies collection in its new housing!

Rock, Paper, Scissors – Conserving the Lyell Collection

Today’s blog post concludes Lyell Intern Joanne Fulton’s two-part series on the Lyell Project. Joanne discusses the variety of work she carried out over the last few weeks of her internship at the CRC.


As my internship at the CRC draws to a close, I can reflect on the many exciting opportunities I’ve had to experience all aspects of the work involved in conserving the Lyell Collection. As I shall discuss further in this second blog, my responsibilities have not solely covered the rehousing of the specimens in the geological collection which was explained in my first blog.

In my last blog, I spoke of the labels on the Lyell Geological specimens, some of which were more fragile than others. In twelve cases, these labels needed to be conserved and re-attached. To do so, I needed an adhesive. While I tested both gelatine mousse and EVA, a co-polymer adhesive commonly used in bookbinding. I chose to use gelatine mousse as I found it to have the strength required and was more historically appropriate than EVA, as the labels had previously been attached with an animal glue.

The labels offered a few different challenges and solutions. Following the discovery that white tack was attached to one of the rocks previously, upon closer look at the labels I found one of these labels had used blue tack to be secured to the specimen. Once I had carefully removed both the blue tack from the specimen and label, I made the decision not to reattach the label but to slip it into a Melinex pocket, which I then housed with the specimen in its box.

A specimen of grey and red laminated sandstone had an awkward placement of its label, meaning the label had suffered more damage than others being only half attached to the specimen. Here, I had to piece together the small parts of paper broken from the label, not dissimilar to a jigsaw, then use a lining to attach this with the remaining half of the label still on the specimen using a thin Japanese paper and the gelatine mousse. As this still meant half the label was not attached to the specimen, as originally intended, I created a little Melinex protective box, so the label could not be accidentally torn in the future.

Before, During and After rehousing and conservation of specimen EUCM.0167.2013

On two other occasions I used a lining to reassemble torn and broken pieces of the labels back together. Some were harder to correctly position together due to the nature of each piece and/or some parts being missing.

Applying the jigsaw-like pieces of a label to a lining

The rehousing and conservation of the Lyell Geological specimens was finished by the end of week six of my internship. With the rehousing finished, I hand-made two book cushions with Tyvek and the excess Plastazote scraps and offcuts. This created a sustainable solution with the waste material, all I needed was a needle and thread.

Book cushions proved to be a simple and sustainable solution to all the waste Plastazote offcuts

My attention then turned to Lyell’s personal notebooks and volumes. Here my aim was to rehouse them whilst gaining new skills in book conservation, skills I was very eager and grateful to learn.

The main aim with the notebooks was to finish their rehousing, not a small feat as 294 book shoes needed to be made in total. However, as this was a task completed progressively throughout the project by all those involved, all book shoes were made by the end of my week seven. As well as this rehousing, I conserved three of Lyell’s notebooks. This consisted of surface cleaning, consolidation of red rot (a degradation process found in vegetable-tanned leather), label repair, corner repair, and repairing inner joints.

Finally, the volumes needed new housing in the form of phase boxes, which provide an additional layer of support and protection to the series. Then, depending on each volume, I surface cleaned, consolidated red rot, and repaired the outer joints. For the outer joints, I used a lightweight paper which I had toned using acrylic paints to match the colour of the volume. Unfortunately, the spine and the leather on the covers were different shades, so I matched my repair paper to a mid-tone. The darker spine is unusual, as usually you see the spine is lighter because of light damage. However, in this case, I believe the spine had previously been consolidated or brushed with a substance that has darkened over time.

Example of a phase box

Having applied the repair paper to the outer joints with EVA, they were left to dry before being trimmed.

My experience at the CRC has improved my skills as a conservator immeasurably, and, boosted my confidence. The highlight for me has been rehousing the Geological collection which was a new experience and challenge, and I leave happy in the knowledge that each specimen is now preserved for the future in its own uniquely carved housing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Prints Gone Off – Conserving the Lyell Collection

Today’s blog post concludes Lyell Intern Sarah MacLeans’s two-part series on the Lyell Project. Sarah discusses the variety of work she carried out over the last few weeks of her internship at the CRC.


With my conservation work on Lyell’s correspondence finally being successfully completed in the sixth week of my time at the CRC, I’ve been able to devote the final fortnight fully to – well – to everything else!

My time in this internship has not, of course, been devoted to Lyell’s letters alone. In fact, I have had ample opportunity to pursue work in many other areas of this exciting collection.

Here I am applying Klucel G in IMS to areas of a notebook cover affected by red rot.

I’ve made the journey out to the King’s Buildings Campus to handle the packing and transport of geological specimens. I’ve made innumerable journeys elsewhere too, gaining insight into the work ongoing at institutes like Historic Environment Scotland as well as the National Library, Museums, and Galleries of Scotland, and forged professional connections with the wonderful staff members there. I’ve boosted my technical skill immeasurably in book conservation, assessing and conserving three of Lyell’s personal notebooks as pictured here. And I’ve rehoused vast quantities of these notebooks by creating book shoes, a bespoke enclosure which protects the notebook but leaves the spine exposed.

After all that excitement, the last big task for me to complete during my time at the CRC has been a comprehensive survey of Lyell’s expansive collection of offprints – a very big task indeed!

An offprint is a separate printing of a work that has originally appeared as part of a larger publication, usually one created by multiple authors – like a magazine, an academic journal, or an edited book. Sir Charles Lyell understandably picked a lot of these up throughout his life, and they range far and wide in subject matter from treatises on the molluscs of Algeria to ruminations on the temperaments of the citizens of 19th Century Reykjavik.

A selection of Lyell’s Offprints in their original state prior to survey and rehousing.

The Offprints also range in physical size from folio (approximate to A4) down to manuscript (more or less A5), a fact that caused initial confusion as the two sizes were alphabetized and housed separately as two different series. And finally, the Offprints range considerably in overall physical condition.

On the whole, they have held up well over the last two hundred years with 12 of the 18 boxes surveyed rating as Grade Two – Fair Condition. The majority of Offprints within this category are reasonably stable, can be handled safely with just a little extra care and attention, and, by and large, show mainly cosmetic or minimal structural damage at worst.

An oversized item that has suffered damage and planar distortion as a result of insufficiently large housing

However, this is not the case across the board.

One issue that I have encountered already in my survey is the issue of size, finding oversized items to be much more common within this series of the collection than initially anticipated. Oversized bound works like that pictured in figure 3 have become distorted and damaged when forced to fit unsuitable housings. Even with time-consuming flattening and other conservation treatment, they will remain too large to fit comfortably within their new housings – so alternatives must be found. As is the case with other oversized flat works like maps and geological diagrams, such items require a great deal of thought and collaboration, leading to a great many conversations with other departments within the CRC to negotiate alternative storage space within available plan chests.

A group of offprints severely affected and embrittled from damage caused by mould.

Another issue that has arisen within this survey is that of the damage caused by mould which, unfortunately, I have discovered within 11 of the 18 boxes surveyed.

I should stress, first and foremost, that the mould I’ve found is historic and entirely inactive. Environmental controls in place within CRC stores have successfully stopped the historic mould in its tracks, depriving it of the warm, humid conditions in which it likes to spread, and ensuring that it can cause no more bother than it already has.

The main challenge that the mould poses now in terms of interventive conservation treatment is the time-consuming surface cleaning process that is now necessary to safely remove it. The mould, although inactive, can appear gritty and is potentially abrasive, so it needs to be removed along with surface dirt in order for the weakened paper substrate underneath to be repaired properly. This, unfortunately, lengthens overall treatment time and potentially complicates the recommendations that I would make about the treatment and care of this part of the Lyell Collection in the future.

Surveying Lyell’s Offprints has been a pleasure not in spite of these unexpected challenges but because of them. The unexpected is something that all archives, libraries and other institutions have to contend with often – as collections grow and become more varied, it can be increasingly difficult just to figure out the extent of what you have, let alone how to handle, and treat it all! The unexpected is also something that I will encounter on a personal level, having now completed my internship and looking to make my next career step as a paper conservator. I’ve gained such invaluable and varied experience throughout my time at the CRC, the challenge of the unexpected is one that I’m now more than ready to meet head on

 

Homes for Rocks – Rehousing the Lyell Geological Specimen Collection

Today we have the first installment of a two-part series from Joanne Fulton. Joanne is here on an 8-week internship funded by the John R. Murray Charitable Trust to help with the conservation of the collection of Sir Charles Lyell (1797 – 1875).


It is a privilege to handle objects that have been worked on by people in the past, to experience the connection and witness their working and learning processes. Therefore, it has been a fascinating opportunity to work on the rehousing of the Lyell Geological Specimen Collection which consists of various specimens from flint implements and axe heads, to shells and raindrop traces.

As previously outlined in these blogs, Sir Charles Lyell (1797-1875) was a hugely significant scientific figure in the 19th century. Amongst others, Lyell corresponded and was a close friend of another well known figure, Charles Darwin, a name closely linked to a number of the shell specimens within the collection I’m rehousing.

These specimens were collected or given to Charles Lyell on his many geological excursions. They were then used to inform his geological research, and they continue to inform learning and research within the University of Edinburgh today. When observing the many documents in the Lyell collection, I’ve found drawings of the same specimens I’m rehousing, illustrated by Lyell in his papers and notebooks.

In the first week I calculated I should be aiming to complete at least 5 objects per day to finish within the 8 weeks of my internship, as I had to bear in mind that within the 168 objects to be rehoused there are groups of items – here I’m largely referring to the shells – that make up a single object. However, as I reach the end of week 4, I’ve found I’m now completing over 10 a day due to more efficient preparation.

The materials I have been using to rehouse the specimens includes card tray compartments and plastazote, a type of foam used in archival repackaging. I have several sizes of trays, however there are 6 specimens which are too large for the largest of trays and need their own custom boxes. I’ve made these myself with card and corrugated card.

My process for rehousing a specimen begins having prepared the tray and two layers of plastazote to fit within. I then cut into the plastazote as appropriate to the rock. Using a white pencil I mark out where I need to cut through the top layer of plastazote, and then using a sharp scalpel, I carve into the thicker bottom layer. This carving is continued until the specimen sits tight and will continue to do so in the future when the specimens are returned to their storage.

A sharp scalpel is needed to create a neatly cut support for each specimen (EUCM.0204.2013)

All this cutting creates a lot of off-cuts from the plastazote. Rather than wasting them, I shall be reusing them as padding for a Tyvek book cushion in order to make my project more sustainable.

Previous to my rehousing, some of the rocks were held in small green trays of a standard size, often not suited to the actual size of the specimens and offering no added protection. The shells, which I shall be rehousing next week, are in small red boxes.

Included with many of the specimens are extra notes and labels of various origins – some of Lyell’s own handwriting –  which also need to be housed with the object as part of their history. When this is the case, I create a third layer of plastazote to house this paper note slipped in a melinex sleeve, carving a little recess for it to sit flat. I then attach cotton tape to the middle layer so the user can lift the object to see the paper note when needed.

Shells after rehousing: A note stating these shells were collected by Darwin is stored underneath (EUCM.0180.2013)

The majority of these specimens are in good condition – they are rocks and so robust by their composition- the labels, many handwritten by Lyell, and other attachments to the object are less so. Many are in need of repair having suffered losses, crumpling, and have become detached from the specimen. This is a problem I shall be tackling in the second half of my internship; repairing the tears and losses, as well as reattaching the labels with an adhesive.

There have also been a few messy surprises and oddities in the collection, with one rock having a large amount of white tack attached, unfortunately this was also stuck to the rock’s labels. This white tack was removed, and the same tack was used to remove the tiny amounts left in the small crevices on the rock surface. I carefully removed the labels from the rock and the tack, removing the unwanted and potentially damaging tack mechanically from the paper labels.

Photo during and after removing white tack from one of the specimens (EUCM.0003.2013)

Having recently graduated from the paper conservation course at Northumbria University, its been a rich learning curve working with objects such as the geological specimens. In my second blog, I plan to examine the method of reattaching the loose labels to the specimens as well as the finalisation of the rehousing within the second half of my internship.

Righting Letters – Conserving the Lyell Collection

Today we have the first installment of a two-part series from Sarah MacLean. Sarah is here on an 8-week internship funded by the NMCT to help with the conservation of the collection of Sir Charles Lyell (1797 – 1875).


As my career in conservation progresses, I find myself drawn most to objects and collections that give insight into the more personal, human aspects of history and heritage. Kings and Queens and famous faces are all very well but I’m more interested in the lives of everyday people – in their passions and machinations, and in how they interacted with the world around them.

Throughout my studies and previous work, I have had ample opportunity to see and conserve this kind of history. Most recently, I worked on the conservation and digitisation of the 1921 Census of England and Wales where I saw first-hand the lives of ordinary people, a snapshot of the nation captured in a single day. And now, as an intern working on the Sir Charles Lyell Collection, I see similar opportunities to preserve and elevate the more unique and personal aspects of the great man’s life.

Sir Charles Lyell (1797 – 1875) was a Scottish geologist and scholar whose discoveries informed a significant shift in our understanding of the Earth and its history. Lyell posited that the geological processes that shaped the Earth are still active in the modern era and through extensive fieldwork, travel, popular lectures, and his best-selling books, he became internationally famous and respected by many scientific communities.

He also corresponded with near-innumerable members of these communities with professional and personal relationships often spanning the entirety of his career in the same way that his precious notebooks do. It is this varied and extensive correspondence that I have been working steadily to conserve and rehouse during my time at the Centre for Research Collections.

A letter from Lyell’s correspondence before and after conservation treatment

This part of the Lyell Collection comprises 22 boxes containing thousands of letters and other documents. Typically, I assess and conserve 1-2 boxes in an average working day and so anticipate completing this work by my 6th week here at the CRC. I re-label each folder of correspondence individually before assessing and conserving its contents as needed. Typically, this work extends to flattening folds and plane distortions, surface cleaning using chemical sponge, undertaking tear repairs, and infilling small lacunae using Remoistenable Tissue (lightweight Japanese paper impregnated with an adhesive that is reactivated with moisture).

My work on the 1921 Census prepared me well for my work on the Lyell correspondence – not only have I built considerable aptitude with my chosen repair material, but I also greatly enjoy the nitty-gritty remedial nature and consistency of the work. However, this consistency and regularity is not to say that the Lyell correspondence has not already yielded some wonderful surprises.

Often, these surprises have come in the form of unique drawings, maps, and other larger format works coloured with an array of aesthetically pleasing pigments. From the coastline of Louisiana to coal deposits in the Scottish Highlands, these works have the potential to tell us not only about Lyell’s working processes and the areas of study he thought most important, but to give greater insight into his personal quirks alongside those of the people with whom he corresponded.

A small drawing showing an erupting volcano illustrating Lyell’s interest in volcanology.

These larger works often pose interesting conservation challenges too. Their scale means that they have been folded to fit their envelopes or other housings and the mechanical stresses this puts on the paper has led in many places to weakness and tears. The repairs that I undertake must not only be neat and visually pleasing but must also be robust enough to withstand handling and consultation as well as the object itself being carefully folded again and returned to its housing.

I have also had the opportunity already during my time at the CRC to tackle Lyell’s collection of geological specimens and discovered a heretofore unknown little example of such a specimen within his correspondence – another pleasant surprise.

Crumpled within a small envelope, I have been unable yet to discover what type of stone these pieces are comprised, but I have been able to rehouse them, encapsulating them in Melinex for the time being so that they can be viewed and consulted without the need for direct handling.

Two small geological samples discovered within an envelope in Lyell’s correspondence.

All the work I have undertaken thus far on the Lyell correspondence has been done with that knowledge that the collection is, at its core, is to be used and learned from. This need for accessibility interests me just as much as the unique and personal stories within Lyell’s correspondence because I believe strongly that the more accessible we are able to make the Lyell Collection and others like it, the greater the impetus will be for such treasures to be preserved and protected in the future.

 

Putting the Pieces Together: The Challenges of Working on Architectural Models (Part 1)

Today we have the first instalment of a two-part series from our Projects Conservator, Mhairi Boyle. In this first instalment, Mhairi discusses the assessment and the first treatment steps involved in the conservation of three large architectural models created by Percy Edwin Alan Johnson-Marshall (1915-1993) (Accession numbers PJM/PJMA/EUD/B/9.1; PJM/PJMA/EUD/E/1; and PJM/PJMA/EUD/B/1.5). 


Since beginning my contract as Projects Conservator, I have been involved in a wide variety of work. From meeting and greeting art couriers from Greece to examining a frog muscle specimen, there’s never been a dull moment. One of the great things about working with the Centre for Research Collections is the collaborative nature of my job. I work with archivists, curators, librarians, and anyone and everyone who needs the advice and assistance of a conservator.

Most recently, I have been working with Collections Care Assistant Sarah Partington, Preventive Conservator Katharine Richardson, and Archivist Grant Buttars to assess and treat three large architectural models of the University of Edinburgh. The models were created by the architect and previous Professor of Urban Design and Regional Planning, Percy Edwin Alan Johnson-Marshall (1915-1993), between 1962 and 1976. They provide a fantastic snapshot into the developing landscape of Edinburgh during this period – Grant pointed out several building proposals which had never gone ahead, and most excitingly, the location of the Burke and Hare Tunnel which is visible from the within the Law School building in Old College. The aim of the conservation treatment is to stabilize the models so that they can be safely transported to another University building, keeping them accessible to researchers who wish to view them.

The models provide a snapshot of potential extensions and changes to the University from 1962-1976.

As a paper conservator, I usually work on flat objects such as letters and maps, as well as repairing books in-situ when required. It has been challenging, and very interesting, to examine and treat such large composite objects.

The models have several inherent vices, which means that there are elements which will inevitably decompose and become more fragile over time. They can be considered ephemeral objects: like film posters and newspapers, the materials used to create the models were never intended to stand the test of time.  The lichen used to create the trees has become very brittle and fragile over time, and in some cases, now has a post-apocalyptic feel to it. Low-quality papers, cards, and adhesives have been attached to the wooden components of the models. One of the models was exposed to the elements in one of the University’s lobbies, wherein a rogue bird popped in to leave its ‘mark’ on the roof of one of the models.

Poor quality adhesive hardens and fails over time.

The lichen used to create the trees has decomposed, becoming brown and blackened.

The hole on the bottom left of this photo is a peg hole, where a loose element was once attached.

The largest model is composed of removable elements, attached in place by wooden pegs. We had a lot of fun locating the proper sites for some of the detached elements, hearkening back to my first ever lockdown days which were filled with jigsaws and puzzles. The loose and missing elements of the models were extensively documented, and most pieces were reattached after consultation with Jonathan Santa Maria Bouquet, the University’s Musical Instruments Conservator and resident wood expert. This will be discussed in detail in the second blog of this series.

After removing loose debris with a Museum Vacuum and using a smoke sponge to remove surface dirt, Sarah and I got to work reattaching loose paper elements with wheat starch paste, and thicker card elements with EVA adhesive.

Collections Care Assistant Sarah Partington re-adhering loose paper elements.

Working on these models has been a great chance to work closely with colleagues from different departments. In the second and final blog of this series, I will examine the different adhesives used in this project and the reattachment of some of the loose elements.