Monday, 13 January 2014

Book conservation at the British Library

My dictionary needs a new cover
I began my new year with a tour, that is open to the public, of the book conservation studio at the British Library. The British Library is the national library of the United Kingdom and is a major research library that scholars from all over the world visit to pursue their academic studies.

When the library was sited in the British Museum and centred on the Round Reading Room only scholars and post-graduate students were granted permission to study there. As an undergraduate I tried to get a reader's card so I could take a look at something relating to Piet Mondrian and I was sent away with a flea in my ear. The library has been in its present, purpose built site at St Pancras since 1998 and now they have so much space practically anyone is entitled to a reader's card, including me.

I've been studying making frames and cutting mounts to display artwork for a few years now and it is considered good practice to use conservation standard materials where possible in order to extend the life of the work involved. I thought it would be interesting to see this approach being used in a related field so hence my visit.

The reason the books are conserved is so they can be studied by future readers. Since there are more books that need repair than there are conservators to repair them decisions have to be made about which books will be selected. I asked if there was ever a time a book might be thrown out because it was in too poor a state of repair. No, was the reply, they would record the pages digitally and then store the book in a purpose made archival box for occasional future use.

We were visiting the main studio at the top of a three floor building which was bathed in a lovely north facing light entering through skylights in the ceiling. While the room was recognisably a studio with presses, large tables for spreading work out on and sharp tools and pots of glue it was also so clean and tidy it resembled an operating theatre. This impression was reinforced by the sight of conservators wheeling trolleys around carrying their new 'patients'.

We were shown a variety of work being conserved and this included a watercolour painting, a print plus a map made on one of Captain Cook's voyages. These items all had tears that needed repairing and for this they use different types of Japanese paper, which is made from Mulberry fibre and is very strong and flexible, and starch as the glue. One of the Japanese papers was so fine it looked like gossamer.

We also watched while another conservator prepared the spine of a book for repair by removing the old glue and another conservator as he built made-to-measure archive boxes to house specific books which made the archive box I have at home to store my prints in look very flimsy.

I, along with everyone else on the tour, found this a most interesting tour and it provided a fascinating insight into what goes on behind the scenes of the library. Sadly for me my poor old dictionary that needs a new cover won't be repaired by these experts because it is neither rare nor unique. I will have to take it to the bookbinder's in Theobald's Road instead.

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