Water Quality Part 3 – Survey

In the third instalment of this four-part series, remote intern Mhairi Boyle discusses the survey she created to get insight on water type and water usage from fellow paper conservators all around the world. She talks us through how she analysed the results and provides the findings from the survey.

In this blog, I will be discussing the results of an online survey I conducted.

Do you ever walk into a supermarket and feel immediately overwhelmed by the amount of baked goods on display? Sourdough, or tiger loaf? Or maybe cleaning products are your thing: Cillit Bang, or Mr Muscle? Either way, this is called ‘choice overload’, or ‘overchoice’. When I first started looking into water filtration methods and types, this is exactly how I felt. Which company? How much? Is it effective?

In this case, it has proven very useful to conduct a survey. Surveying fellow paper conservators on their water usage and opinions has given me an insight into the most popular water types and filtration choices, and why conservators use them.

I asked ten questions, five of which were multiple choice, and five of which were open-ended. I wanted to keep it as simple as possible to maximise the number of respondents. A one-page survey is less daunting and time-consuming than a ten-page survey. The open-ended questions gave me information on emergent themes and concerns of conservators regarding their water usage. The multiple-choice questions gave me quantifiable, i.e. numerically measurable information, on which water and filter types were most popular. In the end, I got fifty respondents, which was a great result. When I closed the survey and exported the information into a spread sheet, I looked at it and froze for a moment. What now?

Over 50% of respondents resided in North America.

Enter… Excel. Microsoft Excel can be an intimidating beast. I feel that I have only scratched the surface of its analytical power, but even so, it has been a very valuable tool. If you are not mathematically-inclined (me), Excel can do all of the hard work for you. The multiple-choice results were surprisingly simple to grapple with: I was able to work out percentages using Excel calculations and visualise all of the answers in bar graphs and pie charts.

Qualitative information is a bit more complicated to analyse. I used a method called ‘open-ended coding’. Using this method, the researcher reads through all of the answers and notes any common emerging themes or feelings that arise from the answers. These can all be categorised. I used coded themes such as ‘Safety’, ‘Cost-effectiveness’, and ‘Sustainability’. I was then able to tally up how many conservators’ answers came under each theme, and from that I was able to get a general sense of what was important to the respondents. I could also add comments on the side. This process takes a few reads of the answers, as more themes may emerge on second and third analysis.

Here are some of the key findings:

  • North American respondents used a larger combination of water filtration methods. For some, this was because their tap water quality was very poor, and for others, it was because they preferred the sense of control it gave them.
  • Some conservators were wary of using tap water because of its regional and seasonal variability.
  • Over half of respondents agreed that tap water is viable in conservation, but it is dependent on local quality and regular, thorough testing.
  • Conservators chose water type and filtration methods based on: safety, control, purity, and cost-effectiveness.
  • Most conservators did not have an official Water Testing Programme, but did undertake regular testing of some description.

Respondents in North America used a greater variety of water filtration systems.

The survey gave me some valuable information on the real-life practices of conservators, and I used some of this information to inform my Water Testing Programme. I will talk more about this in my next blog.

Water Quality Part 2 – Water Tests

Join us today for remote intern Mhairi Boyle’s second instalment of her four-part series on water quality and its impact on paper. Here she discusses the tests and analysis she undertook during her internship, explaining the chemistry and her results in an easy to digest way.

In this week’s blog, I will be discussing the water tests and analysis I have undertaken.

When doing this kind of research, it’s important to have real-life evidence to support your work. To start off, I created my own at-home experiments. This was my supervisor, Special Collections Conservator Emily Hick’s, great idea. My at-home experiments focused on the presence of chlorine and chloramine in tap water. To give you a bit of context, the chlorine content of tap water is something that concerns paper conservators. Chlorine is used to disinfect tap water to make it safe to drink, but it is also an oxidative bleach. This means that it has the potential to accelerate the degradation of paper-based objects, weakening them and making them more brittle, much like when you bleach your hair too much and it begins to snap off.

I wanted to firstly find out the chlorine content of my tap water, and also observe if the chlorine content varied drastically over the period of a month. I also wanted to compare the chlorine content to that of spring water, charcoal filtered water, and distilled water. I used WaterWorks test strips, which you dip into the water for ten seconds. The strip changes colour depending on how much chlorine is in the water. The results were quite positive. The chlorine level in the tap water and filtered water were very low, and varied slightly but not by much. The distilled and spring water had no chlorine, which made sense because they had both previously been purified.

Testing a water sample.

The Total Chlorine level of tap water from 26/04/21 – 21/05/21.

I also managed to analyse some on-site samples. During this most recent lockdown, most of the CRC has been closed to the public. However, a select few conservators have been allowed to go in on different days to complete essential work. Whilst on-site, the conservators have taken tap water samples for me which have been sent off for lab analysis by a company called IVARIO. Water was sampled from the CRC, St Cecilia’s Hall (SCH), and the University Collections Facility (UCF).

IVARIO’s Standard Test tests for almost everything that is of concern to paper conservators: metals, pH, conductivity, and more. As everyone knows, Scottish tap water is great, and so unsurprisingly the results came back very positive. All of the metals were under the maximum value recommended by Scottish Water; the pH was very close to neutral; and the water was deemed to be quite soft. There were slight variations, with the CRC and SCH samples differing from the University collections facility samples. This could be because the UCF falls under a different water supply area. Overall, the water at all sites performed very well.

A comparison of the on-site water samples to standards set by Scottish Water.

In my next blog, I will be looking into the opinions and practices of paper conservators from all around the world.

Water Quality Part 1 – Introduction

Today we have the first instalment of a four-part series from our remote intern Mhairi Boyle. In her first instalment, Mhairi shares with us the importance of water and its inextricable link to paper. She eases us into the topic of different purity levels of water and comments on what it has been like interning from home during the pandemic.

My name is Mhairi, and I have spent six weeks in April and May virtually interning with the Centre for Research Collections (CRC) in the Conservation department. I graduated from the University of Melbourne with an MA in Cultural Materials Conservation in 2018, after which I worked on a freelance basis in Australia until returning to Scotland in late 2019. This internship has been a great opportunity for me to get back into conservation on this side of world, after a long pandemic-enforced break. This will be a four-part blog series, detailing my experiences and investigations as a virtual research intern.

I was first introduced to the concept of the ‘Five Minute Shower’ when I moved to Australia a few years ago. Concerned about the depleting sources of water due to many droughts and the impact of global warming, the Australian Government campaigned for the nation to hop in and hop out of the shower in a five-minute extravaganza instead of indulging in a lavish and lengthy bathing ritual. Indeed, water is a finite natural source, as well as being one of the main proponents used in paper conservation treatments.

People are often surprised to hear that water goes hand in hand with paper in the world of paper conservation. When you drop your book in the bath at home, it alters the fibres of the paper. Most often, after panicking and trying to dry it with a hairdryer, your book becomes distorted and wrinkly. However, when used in a controlled manner, water can be highly beneficial to paper! Water can be used to wash and flatten objects, and it is also used when making various adhesives used to repair tears and more.

My most recent bath tragedy.

You might remember the Bobble Bottle, or the Brita Water Filter craze. People started to question the water they were drinking, and how to best purify it. Activated charcoal filters have certainly had their moment in the spotlight. This topic is also discussed in paper conservation. Water can remove degradation products from paper fibres, but this means that it can also add undesirable elements to paper.

You may be wondering how a five-minute-shower, Bobble filters, and paper conservation are all connected. Here comes the tricky part: many water purification systems used in conservation use a lot of energy, and a lot of water. Tap water is the most cost-effective and sustainable option, but is it viable for conservation treatments? What about all of its unknown variables? My internship project is a preliminary study which explores all of these questions and assesses the viability of tap water in conservation treatments.

My internship has been a fully remote research project. Pre-pandemic, I would have never imagined working from home as a conservator. The first thing that comes to mind when thinking of conservation is practical treatment work. However, there is a lot more to it than that! I have gained a lot of valuable experience working remotely, which will be very relevant to post-pandemic work habits and routines. I have been introduced to the world of Microsoft Teams, remote all-staff meetings and seminars, and lovely coffee breaks with the conservation team, CRC volunteers and interns.

Interestingly, it has made me very aware of my own work habits. I have learned a lot about my own productivity levels, and how to plan my work around my energy levels. One of the main perils and joys of working from home has been spending time with my kitten, Taro. Sometimes, he is a very helpful assistant intern. Sometimes, he is intent on distracting me any way he can, from sitting on my keyboard to yowling the songs of his people at the highest decibel possible. It has been a time of growth and adaptability for both of us.

My assistant helping me get started.

In my next blog, I will be diving into the world of water analysis and what is actually in our tap water.