It’s Friday the 13th!

It’s that time of the year when the leaves start changing, the air gets cooler, and I get creeped out by works in the collection…

As the Art Collection is an ever-moving beast, on display across the University of Edinburgh’s entire campus and beyond, I am responsible for overseeing the transport of artwork in and out of storage and ensuring locations are kept up to date. However, occasionally I can get spooked out by works that I swear that I’ve never seen before – a fitting topic for today’s Friday the 13th blog!

Let’s start with my favourite. A few weeks ago, I had a move into storage of 40+ artworks due to office refurbishments. It was a great (read: sweaty) game of Tetris in which me and our Collections Care Technician, Robyn, ended up moving approximately 130+ artworks to fit the returning collections onto our art racking. However, after the move while double-checking new locations, I stumbled across this guy, who I had never noticed before:

Noticing the portrait from the corner of my eye

Front view of the work – I can’t look at it too long…

Instantly, I was transported to my first viewing of Ghostbusters II (1989) and my 7-year-old inner child freaked out. It’s our Vigo the Carpathian! Hopefully a river of pink slime is not opening up under our stores anytime soon, but I might get Egon and the gang on the phone, just in case…

The second, which still haunts my dreams, is the classic creepy child photograph. Hanging at the very top of our highest racking, I suddenly locked eyes with the little boy and felt horror enter my soul. I was with other staff members at the time, so they saw the confusion on my face as I explained I had no memory of the work in the slightest.

The photograph as discovered on racking.

A close up on his haunting face…


Have I stumbled across something from the photo album in The Others (2001)? Is it connected to Arthur Conan Doyle and his belief in spiritualism? I don’t have a clue, but I’ve recently moved it, so I don’t have to get creeped out by the image too often.

As we have over 8000 works in the collection, I’m not too surprised that occasionally I come across items that I don’t recognise, especially considering some of the works on campus have never been in storage and only return when work is being undertaken on buildings on campus. To be honest, at this point, sometimes I wonder whether a few of my C&CM colleagues are just having a laugh with me, as I’m sure I’ll come across more unnerving items in store soon, especially with Halloween just around the corner!

Anna Hawkins

Museum Collections Manager

End note: The scariest thing about this post might be my photography, apologies!

CRC: A Space Odyssey – Day in the Life of a Collections Management Technician 

My name is Jasmine, and I’ve been working here at the University for five and a bit months as the Collections Management Technician. I’m the other half to Robyn Rogers’ role as Collections Care Technician, whose fantastic blog post about her recent work you can read here, and I work directly with the Appraisal Archivist and Archives Collection Manager, Abigail Hartley, whose equally wonderful blog post was featured last month.  

Abigail did a great job of defining appraisal and the challenges to the archivist when it comes to choosing what material to preserve. The archivist is often put in the position of assessing the ‘value’ of the record, a thorny process which comes with a number of ethical challenges. Thinking through these problems, it might seem easier to suggest that we simply keep everything we receive. If we get to keep everything, we don’t have to think through complicated questions, like what is the purpose of the record? And what is the purpose of the archivist? After all, if something has found its way into the archive, isn’t that an implicit statement of its value? Why appraise at all? 

Colour photograph of a cardboard box with the lid off. Inside are folders, papers and photographs.

The process of sorting through material in boxes to first determine what is inside them is the first stage in the appraisal process

An important part of the role of the Conservation and Collections Management team is making collections accessible to researchers. Having tens, or even hundreds of copies of the same record makes life more difficult for cataloguing staff who must list the material, for reading room staff who must retrieve the material, and for researchers who must select, request and interpret that material. But accessibility to researchers is not the only issue if we leave records unappraised. Unfortunately for us, archives are real, tangible spaces with limited amounts of physical room. If records aren’t appraised, we run the risk of running out of space for collections very quickly. Even a digital archive which may appear to have an infinite amount of space is usually hosted on servers, which cost money and can have a significant environmental impact.

Because we are dealing with paper records, in a physical building which does have limited space to house its collections, it’s crucial that we do appraise our records. Doing so ensures that we have enough physical room to safely and securely house all our existing material and continue to expand and develop our archive holdings so that we can support learning, teaching and research. Mapping our existing spaces and finding areas where we can shuffle or rehouse collections to free up more room has been another part of my role. The appraisal work Abigail and I are undertaking will hopefully allow us to increase the free space we have available.  

Appraisal aside, space management can be a complicated affair. We have to work together across teams to ensure all the right people are aware of archives arriving into our stores, identify space for it to be housed, and ensure the space is suitable for the material by making sure shelving is pitched at the correct height and appropriate preservation measures are in place. Sometimes it can feel a bit like playing Tetris. 

Colour photograph of white metal shelves, three in total. On the top two are six cardboard boxes, three columns of two. The third shelve has three boxes, two on top of eachother then one in the centre.

Space management is much easier when all your collections are housed in neat, standard sized boxes, with all the shelves pitched at a standard height, but archives rarely arrive in beautiful acid free standard sized boxes. Sometimes our archives contain objects, like clocks or even chairs, which can’t be housed in a predictable nicely stackable container. Often, archives arrive in large boxes like bankers boxes which take up more space and aren’t suitable for the material’s long-term preservation. Looking at our collections and seeing where we could rehouse materials has been another part of my role, one which I’ve shared with our Collections Care Technician. Space management isn’t all appraisal work – sometimes a simple re-boxing can save a surprising amount of space. 

Appraising collections and managing space in the stores can feel like an overwhelming task in an institution with such vast holdings, and there are lots of tough questions to answer, but the work is incredibly rewarding. Turning an unwieldy bankers box full of loose papers into a manageable archive box which we know contains material researchers can use is gratifying work, and it’s great to be part of the chain of hardworking staff who turn the records we receive into material researchers can use.  

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!

Recovering Silent Sounds


In this blog, Veronica Wilson discusses her project working with musical instruments in storage. Veronica started this project as a Thompson-Dunlop Intern and then joined the Conservation & Collections Management team as a Library Assistant (funded by Thompson-Dunlop endowment and the Nagler bequest).

Wolfson gallery at St Cecilia’s Hall

The University of Edinburgh holds a rare and unique collection of musical instruments. Many stand proudly on display in St Cecilia’s Hall, the music museum of the University, visible to the public and played by musicians from around the world. The rest are in storage, available only by request for research, study, or viewing. The collection at the University Collections Facility (UCF) consists of instruments too large to be stored in any of the other locations. Though the time since they were last played can span lifetimes, the collection is anything but silent.

Plastic-wrapped instruments, University Collections Facility

The instruments and accessories stored here moved to the UCF from different storage areas of the Main Library and from the Reid Concert Hall’s basement. When I started my internship for St Cecilia’s Hall in June 2022, all but a few recent acquisitions were wrapped in plastic bubble wrap, which had started to degrade. That wrapping method creates a microclimate which prevents pest and water incursion, but doesn’t allow for regular conservation or inspection of the instrument. To keep the collection alive we must let it breathe. Thus, the aim of the Thomson Dunlop internship was to create made-to-measure covers from storage-safe material, allowing access to each instrument for research and conservation purposes. Our material of choice for the task was Tyvek, a lightweight plastic-based fabric.

Instruments with new bespoke Tyvek covers

Tyvek must be sewn carefully because each puncture is permanent. It requires clips instead of pins, and top and bottom edges lined with stiff tape to keep the material from getting caught in the machine. I started the internship in June and sewed over 120 covers by the end of August. I returned in November as a Library Assistant, to finish what I had started, sewing covers for the remaining instruments of the collection stored in the UCF and creating barcode labels that linked with Vernon CMS (collection management software).


Instruments with new bespoke Tyvek covers

I spent my time in the UCF measuring, drawing out patterns, calculating seam allowances, sewing, and printing labels. This storage unit holds centuries of musical history, but each instrument means so much more. Long-forgotten people live on through hand painted motifs, through names carved on spinet lids and writing exercises on the undersides of repurposed piano stands. They may not be on display, but these “songs that voices never shared” are still breaking the silence of time[1].

[1] Simon and Garfunkel

The Book Surgery is Open: Learning the Art of Book Spine Repairs

In this blog Project Conservator Mhairi Boyle discusses her new role within the One Health project at the CRC, and the training she has undertaken with Book Conservator Caroline Scharfenberg (ACR). 

In August, I started a new role as the Project Conservator for the One Health project within the Heritage Collections team. One Health brings together three archival collections which chart the development of animal health and welfare in Scotland. The collections in question are from OneKind, an animal welfare charity; the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RSZZ); and the University of Edinburgh’s Royal Dick School of Veterinary Studies (R(D)SVS).

One of the challenges of this project is the variety of material I am working with. Whilst most of the material is loose leaf archival papers and photographs, we also have many bound volumes. On the opposite end of the spectrum, we have chicken skeletons, animal medicines, vet tools, and graduation robes. In these cases, I will stick to preventive measures such as handling instructions and appropriate rehousing to enable ease of access and prevent any further damage.

The bound volumes held within the three archives present an opportunity for me to expand upon my book conservation skills. In terms of conservation training, book and paper conservation are usually separated into separate MA courses. Training as a book conservator requires different skills and knowledge, such as bookbinding skills and knowledge of different historic bindings and book structures.

As a paper conservator, I undertake simple in-situ book conservation repairs, but do not attempt more interventive measures such as resewing binding structures or re-backing damaged book covers with leather.

Because books are 3D objects with moving parts, there are common subsets of damage which occur due to poor handling; repetitive strain caused by turning pages; and poor-quality sewing/heavy text blocks. In my previous conservation role at the CRC, I learned how to repair cracked book boards and consolidate damaged book corners. I have managed to conserve 52 volumes so far using these techniques.

Books from the R(D)SVS collection in multiple stages of repair.

There are, however, some volumes which require more complex repairs. Some volumes from the OneKind collection have extensive Sellotape attached to them, holding together the damaged boards and spines of the books. In some cases, the degraded Sellotape is fully adhered to the leather, whereas in others the adhesive has hardened, and the plastic tape carrier can be mechanically removed.

In the R(D)SVS collection, a couple of volumes have cracked or fully detached boards and spines. Thankfully, there is no Sellotape to contend with on the outside structure of the books.

Keen to learn more in-situ book repair techniques, I took this as an opportunity to get some on-the-job training. I have been working with Caroline Scharfenberg, an Accredited book conservator whose independent business Book and Archive Conservation Services Ltd. operates from within the CRC’s Conservation Studio. Caroline has been showing me how to restore function to volumes whose spines and boards are fully detached.

Firstly, Caroline and I identified some volumes appropriate for the training sessions. We examined the volumes and Caroline explained to me how and why such damage occurs. Often the text block of volumes is too heavy for the boards and spine, and when the book is stored upright, the weight of the text block causes it to detach from the spine partially or fully. This can also cause the boards of the book to come loose. She also pointed out that damage often occurs to the front of the textblock, as this is where a person commonly begins flicking through a book.

Caroline demonstrating how the textblock can strain and eventually detach from the spine and covers of a book.

A methyl cellulose poultice softens the hardened and yellowed adhesive, making the spine more flexible and easier to reshape.

After examination, we moved onto adhesive removal. Often the adhesives used to attach spine linings and spines to the textblock of a book do not age well. They become browned and brittle, rendering the book less flexible. We used a gel poultice of 4%w/v methyl cellulose to soften the adhesive in a controlled manner, making it easier to mechanically remove with metal tools.


Once the adhesive was removed, Caroline demonstrated to me how to manually re-shape the spine before applying a spine lining.

Caroline demonstrating how to reshape a spine.

After the spine was re-shaped, we applied wheat starch paste, and applied the first of two Japanese tissue linings. The first lining was composed of two pieces of Japanese paper which overlapped in the middle. This will help the spine retain its shape, as well as provide a protective layer.

The second lining was applied once this dried. It was measured to be intentionally wider than the spine: this lining will act as a release layer, which will wrap around the new spine hollow. A hollow is a hollow tube of paper – once attached to the lined spine, the Japanese paper wings will attach around it. This will create a structure which enables the book to open and close properly once again whilst giving extra support to the spine. If the hollow ever needs replaced in the future, it can be removed without interfering with the spine or lining.

Both linings are now attached. The second lining is wider than the book spine and will attach to a new spine hollow.

After working with Caroline to line one spine, I put my learning to the test and lined the spine of another volume. It worked like a dream! In our next session, we will focus on making a hollow and reattaching the spines and boards of the volumes.

My first solo spine lining!

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,

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!