Throughout the last week I have attended a couple of sessions run by interns from a private book conservation company in Cornwall. Funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund it enabled people from a variety of organisations to find out how best to display and handle their rare book collections. Representatives from The Royal Cornwall Museum, Royal Cornwall Polytechnic Society, Cornwall Records Office, Liskeard and District Museum and various other local organisations learnt how to produce display stands, book shoes and boxes for books at a price easily achievable by the smallest of organisations.
The sessions started with an introduction to the technical terms relating to the different parts and structures of a book. For instance, did you know that the little tab at the top of the book which is quite often used to pull the book off the shelf (don't pull it by this, it does damage the book structure), is called the headband? This moved on to how different construction methods alter the way a book wears and consequently the different ways we can reduce or minimise that wear, particularly when on display. We produced a display support customised for a book's individual requirements and practised wrapping books in acid free tissue paper; a bit of pre-Christmas wrapping practise. You may be asking the same question I did, which is why on earth would you wrap a book in tissue paper? Well, apparently this is done if the book has pieces falling off, in which case it keeps all the material together and prevents the loss of any parts. Wrapping also provides protection to elaborate decoration on the cover and prevents abrasive action from neighbouring books, particularly if they have metal furniture, and finally, wrapping helps protect a collection if it is being relocated.
This workshop was really useful for us in the Archive Service. Currently our archive assistant, Carole, is cataloguing the Nick Darke Collection in which there are numerous note books. These are quite often spiral pads and other cheaply constructed notebooks which are not necessarily conducive to long term preservation. By using the techniques demonstrated, we will be able to make archival boxes for each individual notebook and so help reduce the wear and damage to the books by protecting them against dust, atmospheric pollutants and light. Such boxes are also able to minimise the effects of temperature and humidity fluctuations in the storage space.
But of course, whilst you can try to prevent damage from external sources it is very difficult to protect an item from the very material it is made of. One of the greatest enemies of paper conservation is the acidity of the paper itself. Prior to the early nineteenth century paper was made from plant fibres such as cotton or flax which have longer fibres and so produce a stronger material. Since then, demand for paper has meant new processes and materials have been employed. Some of these introduce acids to the material during the manufacturing process, for instance bleaching agents, or use materials which can become acidic. Cheap papers, such as newspaper, are made using wood pulp, which not only has shorter fibres, but also contains lignin. Lignin is a natural substance within wood, found in the cell walls, which provides the structure and strength of the plant, but as lignin deteriorates it gives off acid. Newspaper is notoriously fragile and prone to discolouration for this very reason. To add to the issue, acidity can migrate from one material to another, so although paper may not start off as acidic, it can become so through contact, eventually causing disclouration of the paper.
Within the archival world there is a huge array of different groups and organisations holding archives, all with very different access to resources and funding. When you send off for a catalogue from an archival company it can be hugely intimidating and overwhelming, not only with the amount of products on offer, but also the cost implications, which can leave many groups feeling as though there is very little they can do to care for their collections. What was so good about this workshop was that it introduced you to the basic materials needed and showed how cheaply and easily you can make a difference and care for your collection. As someone who has volunteered and worked at a variety of different archives, I can see how this workshop would be invaluable to groups with small budgets who struggle to get funding.