Giving Decorated Paper a Home … Rehousing Books and Paper Bindings

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.

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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!

Righting Letters – Conserving the Lyell Collection

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Semply the Best: A Collection in Need of Some Love

This week’s blog comes from Project Collections Assistants Anna O’Regan, Winona O’Connor and Max Chesnokov who worked with Preventive Conservator Katharine Richardson on a project back in 2019 to survey and clean the Semple Collection, a large rare books collection from the School of Divinity.

Introducing the team

Max, Winona and Anna

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Printmaking: Identification, Preservation and Creation

Immerse yourself in all things print! Join our conservators, Emily and Katharine, for an evening of preservation and printmaking. For centuries artists have been using different printing techniques to depict the world around them. In this workshop, you will get to study a range of prints from the University of Edinburgh’s Art Collection and learn how to identify them. You will find out about their unique conservation issues, and discover the best way to preserve them, before creating your own linocut to take home and treasure.

Date: Friday 19 May

Time: 6pm – 8pm

Cost: £5 (Advanced booking required) Book here.

Location: St Cecilia’s Hall, Niddry Street, Cowgate, Edinburgh, EH1 1NQ

For more info, please contact: 0131 651 1438 (9am-5pm Mon-Fri only)

Organised by The University of Edinburgh Museum Collections

Print from the Thomson-Walker Collection depicting Giuseppe Atti (1753-1826)

A Fond Farewell

For the last ten weeks I have been working with Project Conservator, Emily Hick to conserve and rehouse a collection of rare Greek books. The weeks have gone racing by and now my internship has come to an end. In light of this, I would like to share a bit more about my internship experience at the Centre for Research Collections.

Working on the Blackie project with Emily has been a great way to gain insight into the planning and management of conservation projects. One of my responsibilities as intern was to record the time it took me to complete each task and the materials I used in the process. This was a really useful exercise as it made me think of how I could work more efficiently and be more resourceful with materials. I now feel that I am better equipped to plan and manage conservation projects myself in the future.

One of the great advantages of working on a project involving Greek books is that I can’t stop and read them! However, I have occasionally found some quirky things in the collections to distract me. My favourite by far is this doodle on the endpaper of an eighteenth century book. The image is of George Dunbar, professor of Greek at Edinburgh University from 1807 to 1851. It looks as if it may have been drawn by one of his students!?

Sketch of George Dunbar, Professor of Greek at Edinburgh University from 1807 -1851

Sketch of George Dunbar, Professor of Greek at Edinburgh University from 1807 -1851

My background is in Preventive Conservation so the internship has been an excellent opportunity to become more familiar with paper conservation. I have been able to learn a lot more about the interventive treatments of paper just by observing Emily and the other conservators at work. As most cultural heritage collections contain paper objects and books, the value of this knowledge cannot be understated. I thoroughly enjoyed having a go at some basic interventive conservation treatments during a Conservation Taster Day held at the CRC, where I learned to do tear repairs and infills on de-accessioned documents.

Having fun making tear repairs during the conservation taster day

Having fun making tear repairs during the conservation taster day

As a Preventive Conservator, I feel it is important to have a broad understanding of all materials and objects found in cultural heritage collections. Therefore, it has been particularly helpful for me to visit different parts of the University’s collections to learn how they are cared for. I have been able to visit the Musical Instrument Collections, the Anatomy Museum and the Art Collections. I was fascinated to learn about the treatments and techniques employed in the conservation of musical instruments. During my visit to the anatomy museum I was interested to learn about the practical ethical challenges in caring for collections of human remains.

Musical instrument conservation studio

Musical instrument conservation studio

Throughout the internship I have had access to training, which has significantly improved my knowledge and skills in both preventive and remedial conservation. I have received training on rehousing, disaster planning and designing collections databases. The training will undoubtedly improve my chances of finding employment once the internship concludes. I have also been able to get an idea of what is involved in running a staff training day by assisting Emma Davey, Conservation Officer, in preparing for the disaster response and salvage training.

Learning to make temporary boxes for books

Learning to make temporary boxes for books

Building wind tunnels during salvage training

Building wind tunnels during salvage training

I have thoroughly enjoyed my time working with the Conservation Department at the CRC. I have been encouraged to get involved in all aspects of the Department’s work, from conservation and collections care, to public engagement activities. As a new graduate, the internship has allowed me to put the knowledge gained from my Masters degree into practice and given me more confidence in my abilities. The conservation team have all been very supportive and have given me lots great advice on career development. All in all, I think an internship with the CRC is an excellent opportunity for a new graduate, and I would strongly recommend it to anyone starting out in conservation.