Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Book Conservation for all!

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.

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Gloves- on or off?

Last week we were involved with a number of sessions to introduce english students to the wonders of 19th century periodicals. The materials included copies of The Graphic, Lady's Own Paper and the Illustrated London News. For each session our Archivist and one of the Academic Liaison Team introduced the material and gave a short introduction on how to use and handle the materials. Much to our surprise, one of the students showed some disappointment when asked to wash their hands prior to handling the material rather than wearing the magic cotton gloves.

So, when and why did donning gloves first appear in the archival annals? Surprisingly, Baker and Silverman suggest the spread of gloves into the reading room has only occurred during the last twenty years and as such it is a fairly new development. [1] There are few who would disagree that throughout this period our appetite for the past has grown which has perhaps necessitated a response to control the ever increasing demands placed on some archival material.

It could also be said that gloves contribute towards our experience of the past by building a sense of anticipation and occasion when we view historical material. This effect has long been utilised by television to inspire awe in its audiences and in so doing build viewer expectations during historical and genealogical programmes.The gloves reinforce the fragility of the past as if without them to protect it, the past will escape our grasp and disappear into the ether. This has not been without benefit to the guiding archival principle of preservation. This deference to the past increases our sense of value in a document or object, so facilitating the archival goal of preservation by guiding a user's behaviour towards an archive.

Yet, the question as to whether or not you should wear gloves remains undecided. Many Conservators and Archivists no longer recommend their use. This is largely because the initial delight in donning the magic gloves is soon replaced by frustration and discomfort as sensitivity to touch is reduced, encouraging rougher treatment of the material through the inability to fully interact with the item. Neither The National Archive or British Library requires readers to wear cotton gloves, unless handling particularly delicate material such as photographs. [2+3] However, there are institutions that still prefer gloves to be worn and. noting the difficulties of using cotton, supply nitrile gloves instead. Archives Outside is a website managed by staff at the State Records Repository of NSW Australia, to help promote other archives in the state and advise on the care and management of those collections. The senior conservator there recommends in their general handling procedures that when handling archives, gloves should be worn where possible, but points out plastic as the best option, so circumventing the issues of reduced sensitivity. [ 4] Indeed, they even ran a poll of reader's preferences between nitrile and cotton, and  found cotton ranked very closely behind nitrile with 29% compared to 26%.[5] A surprisingly close result considering the supposed difficulties of using cotton.The Jury remains out!

What do you think? Is it best to recommend gloves or do you think most readers respect the rules and wash their hands?

[1]Silverman, Randy. & Baker, Cathleen A. 'Misperceptions about white gloves', International Preservation News, No. 37 Dec 2005  [Accessed 8/11/2012]
[2]The National Archives, 'What is the policy of the National Archives on wearing gloves to handle documents', [Accessed 8/11/12]
[3]Pimlott, Jane. 'Use of white cotton gloves for handling collection items'
[4] Hadlow, Elizabeth. Archives Outside,'General Handling Procedures' [9/11/12]
[5]Archives Outside, 'Glove Poll',  [9th Nov 2009]