Monday, August 15, 2011

British Library Conservation Studio
On our last day of class, we toured the British Library Centre for Conservation. Since I didn't have the chance to visit the British Library previously (my class had toured the library when I was on my way to Paris),  I walked through the library before our tour and visited the treasures room, where there are manuscripts of Jane Eyre and some Jane Austen materials, including her writing desk. There are also handwritten Beatles lyrics on napkins and other miscellaneous materials, maps, and illuminated manuscripts. The Magna Carta is also in the treasures room. The British Library has a very large collection, with over 150 million items in all languages of the world--the library is a copyright library, so a copy of all published materials in the United Kingdom have to be deposited at the British Library. The British Library is also located near Kings Cross-St. Pancras Station, so of course we had to find the Harry Potter 9 3/4 platform that is set up near the station.

The conservation centre was opened in 2007, and it was purpose built with temperature and humidity controls so that it provided the best conditions possible for the conservation of books as well as audio engineering. It also has other environmental controls that deal with pests and other nuisances. We were shown around the facility by  Mark Browne, a conservationist, and Allison Faraday, the Conservation Training Coordinator. The Centre for Conservation has a quarantine room for new materials so that any particles or interesting creatures that might have found themselves in the collection are able to be removed before they come into contact with other materials. There are five teams of conservators who mostly work on books that have become damaged and deteriorated; however, Mr. Browne's team of conservators works on specialized items like stamps, photographs, and palm leaves. The conservators try to use as minimal intervention as possible--they use things that are re-treatable and reversible and they try to keep them as close to the original way the item was created as possible. They keep very detailed treatment records as well so that conservators and researchers know what has been done to the items.

We were able to see conservation in action and were shown how palm leaves from the seventeenth century were restored. The conservator showed us how she can fill in holes in the leaf with paper pulp and how she cleans them. She also showed us what the palm leaves look like after they've been put in a Leaf Caster, which automatically fills in missing parts of the leaf with pulp.

We were then shown a demonstration of how gold tooling is done on bound books--if you notice that many bound books have gold writing on their spines--this is how that is done. They first polish the leather with a hot iron so that the surface is smooth and the gold will stick; egg whites and water are then put on the item as an adhesive and they also may put some Vaseline on to help the gold leaf stick to the surface. The gold leaf is put on the book and the lettering is done with brass tools. This was a very cool demonstration--I had never thought that gold tooling was done by hand.

Conservation Uncovered:
It was very interesting to see the Centre for Conservation--we got to see some preservation in action and an introduction to a book art. We also got to look at the exhibition "Conservation Uncovered" which detailed how the centre deals with damaged books and other materials, and it showed how sound materials are preserved and conserved. There were booklets on basic preservation of materials from the Preservation Advisory Centre, on taking care of photographs, damaged books, bookbindings, and basic preservation techniques in the exhibit as well. These booklets and others can be found online at the Preservation Advisory Centre's Web site. It was awesome to see how large the centre was and get an inside view at how conservation is done at one of the largest and most respected libraries in the world.

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