In the first post of this two part series, our Collection Care Technician, Robyn Rogers, discusses her Decorated Paper rehousing project. If you want to learn about the uses, production, and trade of decorated paper, you can visit the online exhibition on this collection, curated by Elizabeth Quarmby Lawrence, here. Look out for the second post in this series soon, in which Robyn will discuss mounting loose leaf papers.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
This week, we have our final blog from Project Conservator, Helen Baguley, who has been working with us for the past 18 months on the Collections Rationalisation Project…
The Royal Mile is an iconic street which runs through the centre of Edinburgh. It is a ‘must see’ attraction for tourists, and one of the first places I visited when I moved up to Edinburgh for my new job which began 18 months ago. Running from the Castle to Holyrood, the Royal Mile is actually slightly longer than a mile, and measures 1.81 kilometres. Here at the Centre for Research Collections (CRC), I have been working within the conservation department on the Collections Rationalisation Project, caring for some of the rare books and archive collections which are housed at the University Collections Facility (UCF) and the Main Library. As my contract here has now come to an end, I have added up the linear meterage of the shelves which house the collection I have been working on, and it comes to an incredible 1801.25 metres. To put this into perspective, 1801.25 metres is just 8.75 metres short of the Royal Mile. But I think my Royal Mile is just as historic and exciting, as it is made up of beautiful rare books, interesting archives and fascinating objects from the collections!
In this week’s blog, Alberto Bonza, an apprentice from Italy, describes his time working with conservators from the CRC…
I am writing this blog post at the end of my six weeks of volunteering at the CRC, which I think came far too soon!
I am an apprentice keyboard instruments maker and restorer, working with my father in our family business in Italy. Before my placement in Edinburgh, I worked on various early instruments, such as the 1788 Taskin harpsichord in Milan ‘Castello Sforzesco’, and the 1782 J. A. Stein fortepiano. My most recent work has been the reconstruction of the chromatic harpsichord owned by the Prince of Venosa, Carlo Gesualdo. A few months ago, I decided to contact Musical Instrument Conservator, Jonathan Santa Maria Bouquet, to see if I could volunteer at the CRC in order to improve my skills.
This week’s blog is written by our new conservation Intern, Holly, who is working on a collections rationalisation project within the rare books department…
I am now beginning my third week as an Intern here at the conservation studio, and thought I would take the time to briefly introduce myself and the project.
I am a current student at the University, studying for an MSc in Book History and Material Culture. The opportunities provided through this degree since it’s commencement in September have allowed me to realise fully a long-held belief in the irreplaceable importance of cultural heritage, and I soon wanted to get involved and gain experience in the field of conservation. As such, I have been a volunteer in the conservation studio since January, and when the advert for this internship was brought to my attention, I jumped at the chance.
In this week’s blog we bring you another edition of our volunteer voice, this time from Valentina de Riso, who volunteers in the conservation studio every week….
What is your name?
I’m Valentina de Riso.
Where are you from?
I’m from Italy and I’ve come to Scotland to study for an MSc in Comparative Literature at the University of Edinburgh.
What do you do when you are not volunteering?
I am a book lover and I have a passion for literature. When I’m not volunteering I love reading, writing short-stories and exploring the city of Edinburgh. I am also keen on old and used books, so I often happen to be in some second-hand bookshop, sniffing between pages and looking for rare books!
In this week’s blog, Special Collections Conservator Emily, describes the first stage of conserving a collection of Indian portraits…
I was recently asked to complete a condition report and treatment proposal for a collection of 32 portraits from India, known as a Tasawir, dating from the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century. The images have been pasted onto gold-sprinkled paper, and 7 have examples of calligraphy on the back. They are due to be used in a teaching seminar at the University in the new academic year and are scheduled for exhibition in 2017, but need to be conserved and rehoused before they can be safely handled and displayed. Prior to any conservation work carried out on treasures in the collection such as this, a full condition report is required to document any signs deterioration. This allows the conservator to study the object in detail to understand the materials used, the types of damage found and what may have caused it, ensuring that the treatment proposal put forward is carefully considered and suitable for the item. The brilliance of the pigments used, and the detailed nature of the paintings make these items visually stunning and I was delighted to be given the opportunity to examine them closely.
Last Friday, I attended a one-day training workshop on iron gall ink repairs. The session was organised by the Collections Care Team at the National Library of Scotland and hosted by Eliza Jacobi and Claire Phan Tan Luu (Freelance Conservators from the Netherlands and experts in this field. Please see www.practice-in-conservation.com for further information).
Iron gall ink was the standard writing and drawing ink in Europe from the 5th century to the 19th century, and was still used in the 20th century. However, iron gall ink is unstable and can corrode over time, resulting in a weakening of the paper sheet and the formation of cracks and holes. This leads to a loss of legibility, material and physical integrity.
Unsafe handling can exacerbate this problem. Bending and flexing a paper with iron gall ink can cause mechanical stress and result in cracking of the ink and tearing of the sheet. If this has happened, the area needs to be stabilised with a repair to ensure that further tearing doesn’t occur and additional material isn’t lost.
Paper conservators usually carry out tear repairs with water-based adhesives such as wheat starch paste and Japanese paper. However, this can be harmful for paper with iron gall ink inscriptions. Iron gall ink contains highly water-soluble iron (II) ions. These are invisible, but in contact with water they catalyse the chemical reactions that cause paper to decay. If these ions are not removed before treatment, any introduction of water can cause significant damage to the item. If a tear over an iron gall ink inscription is repaired using an aqueous adhesive, these invisible components will migrate out of the ink into the paper in the surrounding area, and speed up degradation in this location. Since this is not immediately visible, it can take approximately 25 years before the damage is noticeable.
Conservators have only recently become aware of this problem, and have had to develop a method of creating a very dry repair, and a way to test it before application. This is what we were shown during the workshop. First, we created remoistenable tissues for a repair paper using gelatine, rather than the traditional wheat starch paste. Gelatine is used because it has been found to have a positive effect on iron gall ink. It has been suggested that gelatine may inhibit iron gall ink corrosion, however, this has not been proved by empirical research.
To make the remoistenable tissue, we applied a 3% liquid gelatine solution to a sheet of polyester through a mesh. The mesh ensures that an even layer of gelatine is applied to the sheet. Japanese paper is then laid onto this sheet and left to dry. We created three sheets using different weights of Japanese paper, for use on different types of objects.
When this was dry we had to remoisten the tissue so that it could be used to fix tears over iron gall ink. We were given a personalised mock-up item to practise this on. To remoisten the tissue, we used a sponge covered with filter paper to ensure that only a minimal amount of water is absorbed. You need just enough to make the gelatine tacky, but not so much that the water will spread away from the repair. Two sheets of filter paper are placed over a thin sponge and just enough water is added to saturate it. A small piece of remoistenable tissue is cut from the pre-prepared sheet, and placed, adhesive side down, on to the paper for a few seconds. This is then lifted using a pair of tweezers and applied to a test piece of paper that has been impregnated with bathophenanthroline and stamped with iron gall ink.
Bathophenanthroline has no colour, but in the presence of iron (II) ions, it turns an intense magenta colour. As such, this sheet can be used as an indicator for the soluble iron (II) ions that can cause paper to degrade. If little or no magenta colour shows after application of the remoistenable tissue, this suggests that the repair paper has the correct moisture level and this method can be used on the real object. We used this indicator paper to try out a range of adhesives, to see what effect they had on the iron gall ink.
As you can see from the above image, the gelatine remoistenable tissue resulted in limited movement of iron (II) ions, whereas the wheat starch paste (WSP), methylcellulose (MC) and water applied directly to the paper has caused further movement. I thought that this was an excellent method of testing the repair technique, as it rendered the invisible movement of iron (II) ions visible. This means that a Conservator can be sure that the tear repair isn’t causing additional damage to the document.
Overall, the workshop was very informative and useful. A large number of documents at the CRC contain iron gall ink, so I’m sure I will put this new learning into practice very soon!
Check out this website for more information on iron gall ink: http://irongallink.org/igi_index.html
Throughout 2015, I have been involved in many different projects within the CRC. However, I have mostly been working with collections from the Lothian Health Services Archive (LHSA). Overall I have spent 4 months carrying out conservation work on their main collection, and spent 1 month working on a public engagement project.
The majority of the work I have carried out has been on bound volumes. I have spent 25 days working on these items and have conserved 321 volumes. The conservation work aimed to stabilise the objects and prevent them from deteriorating further. Techniques carried out included surface cleaning, consolidation of red rot using Klucel G in IMS, inner joint repair to reattach loose or detached boards, and reattaching damaged spines to volumes using a hollow.
During this time, I have also worked on a few photo albums and scrapbooks. Often, the photographs had fallen out of the albums as the adhesive failed, so I reattached the photographs using hinges made from Japanese paper and wheat starch paste. Although the paper the album is made from is not ideal for the storage of photographs, I wanted to conserve the album as a whole, and keep the way it was originally intended to be viewed. I particularly enjoyed working with a scrapbook that belonged to Yvonne Fitzroy. The pages of the book had become cockled over time, which allowed for the ingress of surface dirt. I cleaned each page using a smoke sponge and was delighted to come across a note and doodle from H.G. Wells on one page of the book.
I have also rehoused 16 boxes of case notes, which had previously been stored in their original folders, loose on the shelf. I removed all the metal fasteners (paper clips, staples), realigned any creases and carried out tear repairs if necessary. I then rehoused the case notes in acid free single crease folders and placed them in an acid free box.
X-rays are another collection I have been working with. I have sorted through 15 boxes of X-rays in preparation for frozen storage. You can read more about the deterioration and storage of X-rays in the LHSA blog.
During this time, I have also been supervising conservation volunteer, Colette Bush, who has been working on a collection of architectural plans. She has surface cleaned each plan, repaired any tears and removed any paper accretions using a poultice. When this was complete, I humidified and flattened the plans and rehoused them in a polyester sleeve. Together we have conserved 16 plans in this way.
I’ve really enjoyed working with such a diverse collection and have learnt a lot on the way. I’m looking forward to seeing what new conservation challenges arise over the next year as I start working with new collections.