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.

Along the centre fold of the page the crease is damaged and torn in places.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 stone edged out of its housing. The foam is carefully cut so the rock sits secure.

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.

A foam black board with neat holes cut out to house and keep secure spiral shells.

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.

A shard has white tack stuck to the top in one photograph. In the second, it has been removed, and the surface cleaned.

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.

Conserving the Mackinnon Collection

This week, Claire Hutchison describes the start of her eight-week internship working to conserve the Mackinnon collection…

I am four weeks into my internship at the CRC and absolutely loving it! I have been given the task of conserving and rehousing the Mackinnon collection. This project has been generously funded by the National Manuscripts Conservation Trust. This collection comprises of the lecture notes, learning materials and other such scribbles of Professor Donald Mackinnon, the first Chair in Celtic at the University of Edinburgh. He made quite the mark during his professional life by translating many Gaelic texts that include poetry, medieval manuscripts and religious texts. Through his work, primary sources of Gaelic language and literature could finally be shared.

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Icky Sticky Tape

This week’s blog has been written by Lisa Behrens, a book and paper conservation student from Stuttgart in Germany, who spent four weeks at CRC’s conservation studio earlier this summer. In this post, Lisa describes a treatment she carried out on a bound volume in the Margaret Morris collection from the Fergusson Gallery in Perth. This collection is being catalogued and conserved at the CRC as a part of a collaborative Wellcome Trust-funded project entitled ‘Body Language’

If you don’t know the first thing about paper conservation, let me help you out: Do not, under any circumstances, use sticky tape. There you go, you now know the first thing.
I understand it’s tempting. When you first put it on, it looks neat. It mends that tear, it is easy to use and readily available. The problems start when it begins to age. Even if stored in optimal conditions, certain chemical reactions will inevitably take place. These will lead to discolouration of the adhesive, making the tape brittle and, worst of all, damaging and discolouring the object itself. Adhesive can also sink into the paper matrix and become so hardened that it’s almost impossible to remove.

During my three years of working and studying in this field I have come across a lot of adhesive tape, mostly used for tear repairs by well-meaning individuals over the last few decades. For example, this volume of sheet music from the Margaret Morris Collection, namely a ballet called The Forsaken Mermaid, had been repaired at least twice before, which is apparent from the use of different types of adhesive tape and kinds of thread for resewing.

Pile of musical note sheets, with marks on the left-hand edge of a previous binding.

The Forsaken Mermaid, before treatment

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Student Placement – Joey Shuker

Joey Shuker, conservation placement student from Camberwell College of Art describes her experience of working at the CRC in this week’s blog post…

I have been very fortunate to have spent the last four weeks in the CRC as part of my summer placement for my masters degree in Conservation of Paper. I have just finished the first year of a two-year masters at Camberwell College of Art, part of the University of Arts London.

I have been working mostly in the studio with Emily Hick, but my placement here has also taken me to the National Library of Scotland conservation studios, The Scottish Conservation Studio (private studio) and I have spent days working at the Annexe (the CRC’s of site facility) with Katharine Richardson.

One of the projects I spent most time working on was conserving a collection of photographs of Leith in the 1920s.The condition in which the photographs arrived in meant they where not able to be digitised. The prints were mounted on thick card that had distorted due to past environmental and storage conditions. The distortion of the card mount was pulling and creasing the photograph. Being so distorted meant that any pressure to put them under glass during the digitisation process would have caused more damage to the print. The decision was made (before I arrived) to remove the mount backing which would allow the prints to relax and flatten.

Days were spent removing the backing down to the layer just above the back of the print. A scalpel with a no.22 blade was used to remove the backing layer by layer and a pencil grid was drawn on each layer to ensure even removal which would support the print during this process.

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Curved photograph and mount

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Grid on back to aid even removal of card

After the majority of the backing mount had been removed and the prints began to relax and could be pressed under glass overnight. Backing removal was something I had learnt on my course but I had only ever done it on large prints rather than a collection of small ones.

Doing aqueous treatments on photographs was something I had not yet covered on my course. Emily showed me a humidification method that allowed enough moisture to soften the paste holding the last backing layer on, but didn’t affect the print. We used fords gold medal blotter, which was recommended for use with photographs as it is thinner and holds less water. We used a blotter sandwich for humidification, the print were humidified for 30 minutes. After this time, the last layer of backing could be easily peeled away and the paste could be removed with a spatula.

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Blotter sandwich for humidification

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Removing the paste

After this treatment and being put into a press for a couple of days, the box of photographs that arrived at CRC curved and stiff are now relaxed and flattened and ready to be sent to the photography lab for digitisation. This was a great project to work on as I could follow the project almost from start to finish.

I have learnt many new skills and I have been introduced to new treatment methods throughout my time here. Alongside working with Emily and the conservation team in the studio, I have also had introductions to other members of staff who have taken time to show me their role in the wider CRC such as the Archives, Photography Lab, Exhibitions, Rare Books and the Musical Instruments Conservation studio.

This placement has been highly valuable to my studies and preparing for work after university. Many thanks to everyone at the CRC that I have met during my time here.

Joey Shuker

Conservation Student Placement