Wednesday, August 10, 2011

British Library Conservation Studio

Our final class visit was a really interesting one.  We visited the British Library Conservation Studio and were able to see some current projects being repaired.  Our tour was led by Alison and Mark.  The Studio was opened in October 2007.  Since the Library has 1,200 seats for readers a lot of books get moved around, handled and incur minor damage simply through general use.  The small fixes are easy and quick to repair.  The Studio contains five teams of conservators, two large studios for projects, and a quarantine room for new and potentially contaminated items.  The 6th floor of the Library contains a separate small conservation studio for paper, map, miniature, and wall hanging, and other large items.  The teams exist to fix damage and conserve items, they not to restore items to perfect appearances and conditions.  They take a minimal intervention approach, using reversible techniques.  They don’t want to permanently alter any items.  Curators are responsible for maintaining their collections, and when they deem that items need work, they send them over to conservation.

Most of the teams work on books, except Mark’s team.  They specialize in non-book materials like stamps, photographs and even rarer items.  We were able to get a glimpse at the work one of Mark’s teammates is working on: 17th C palm leaves.  This collection is composed of 253 leaves from India and the text is a form of Harikhrisna doctrine.  The leaves have two holes in the middle, where some sort of string would have be threaded to connect the leaves to the wood “covers.”  The leaves are very dark, making the writing difficult to read.  The leaves are very fragile and some have had extensive damage to the edges and centers. 

The conservator working on this project has repaired around 100 of the leaves, doing much of the work by hand.  She also utilizes a leaf caster to fix the most heavily damaged leaves.  She gave us a brief description of how the caster works, it’s similar to papermaking.  Special paper is made, then blended and pulped, died to match the palm leave color, and then applied to the damaged sections.  The whole process seemed very interesting, and I enjoyed getting to see such an unusual item being worked on.

The final part of our tour was my favourite.  Mark gave us a quick introduction to gold-leafing leather bindings.  I really enjoyed the whole process.  It involved gold leaf, a hot iron, metal typeset, and albumen (egg yokes).  Mark first quickly ironed the section of the spine in order to smooth out the leather.  He then applied the albumen glaze as an adhesive for the gold.  He let it sit for a few minutes while we passed around two sheets of gold leaf, passing it along on the backs of our hands.  Each piece eventually got stuck partway down the line, once they absorbed too much oil.  Mark then cut the leaf and laid it on the spine, overlapping the pieces.  He arranged the brass lettering, to spell his name, and began heating the type.  We learned that the studio has more than 10,000 pieces of type, including thousands of non-letter shapes.  When the type was hot enough Mark rolled it across the gold leaf.  The heat reacts with the albumen and makes the leaf permanently attached.  After a few seconds Mark simply wiped the rest of the gold leaf off with a towel and only the word “Mark” remained.  The whole process was really interesting.  To me, it was an excellent way to end the course, seeing some hand's on repair projects currently underway at the British Library.   

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