This afternoon I took the conservation studios tour: a look behind the scenes at the British Library; a rare opportunity as for individuals this tour is only offered once a month. Each is unique as it based on touring current projects, which conservation teams are currently working on. Our guide, Robert, explained that conservators belong to one of five teams that operate in the facility. We met with three conservators who explained the object they were working on.
The first was ancient scrolls dating from at least 7 AD. These items are being conserved in preparation for a digitisation project. The aim is to conserve the object in order that treatment can be reversed in the future. Some conservation treatments done in the past were sometimes actually damaging to the item. Items are also looked at as being made functional for access in the library but still staying as honest to the original as possible.
The scrolls had to be flattened and an effort was being made to remove hard abrasive backing. Small tears were being repaired with Japanese paper. A philatelic collection was also being cared for as they had been previously stored folded in acidic PVC plastic.
Some of the Chinese papers have interesting unrelated notes on the back. Another item was a small calculator book from 1789 that had the front and back covers reattached including the top spine finish treatment and a new reproduction lower spine finish.
Another conservator showed us the work he was doing in repairing and replacing folders that had housed rare illuminations that had been cut out from 12th century manuscripts.
There are a lot of specialists in the department relating to certain material such as philatelics or photographs. The teams also work on preparing items for exhibitions as well as compiling condition reports on items that may be loaned out to other institutions.
It was particularly interesting to see work being done on a collection of papyrus. The conservator had consulted with other colleagues to ensure that she was on the right track in removing cardboard stuck fast on the back of this very fragile paper like material. It had also been removed from a glass enclosure and will be re-encapsulated in a new safe plastic enclosure.
Library departments need to submit their bids for work done by the conservation department. An assessment is made as to the best method of conservation and how many hours will be required. Highly popular items take priority over less used items.
It was noted that the library receives a lot of queries and requests for items relating to family history. Some items will also be set to be digitised following conservation. Other activities staff undertake include training, learning, bids, public programs and running repairs including items flagged for attention from the reading room.
The tour was just a snapshot of the work of the conservation team. I was very impressed by the expertise, knowledge and passion these professionals have in helping to preserve and make more accessible, some of the more than 150 million items in the British Library’s collection, which grows every day.