Conservation training during Covid-19

Katie, one of our conservators based at Palace Green Library, is studying for her ARA certificate in Archive Conservation. A significant element of her training is getting practical experience – not the easiest thing to accomplish at the moment. But last year, in between lockdowns, she managed to head to Flintshire Record Office for her placement with Conservator Mark Allen. In this post, she shares the results of her training.

Although I have prior experience of conserving works of art on paper and paper documents, the Durham University archive encompasses a much broader range of materials and I have therefore had to broaden my skill set. The collection there, as with most archives, includes Parchment, Wax Seals, Maps and Books as well as Paper, which are all subjects on the ARA course.

I have just completed Book Conservation with Mark, which is an eight week practical placement. I completed the first four weeks last February, which focussed on an introduction to bookbinding. In order to conserve books, one needs a good understanding of their structure. It’s only when you start putting together different styles of binding that you realise the multitude of ways in which they can be made! There are numerous techniques involved in the sewing, forwarding and finishing of books, different materials, adhesives and covering materials so as you can imagine it is a huge topic. In addition to practical work, the study of the history of bookbinding and chemistry of the materials involved is also very important.

I managed to finish the second half of the placement in between lockdowns at the end of the year. We moved on to the conservation of books and looking at common problems which may occur with bindings over time; missing spines, detached boards, broken sewing, torn pages… and how to deal with them. We also discussed a range of preventive measures which included the production of various styles of bespoke packaging. The main item we worked on during this time is the stationary binding pictured below. As you can see the hollow of the spine is missing, the leather is very worn and fragile and the corners are missing. Despite this, the strong supportive sewing of this binding style, combined with good quality paper means that the textblock was still in good condition, though a little worn down at the tail end. The conservation of the binding therefore focussed on the replacement of the missing spine and corners.

The heavily rounded spine and type of sewing supports suggest that this was a spring-back binding, which is a type of binding that literally springs open, pushing the pages up to lie flat. This makes them easier to write in and therefore a suitable style for large stationary bindings.  They’re also very sturdy and can cope with repeated use. The hollow of the spine should be very solid, is usually made with laminated card and animal glue. After making some initial reinforcements to the sewing supports we created a new hollow in this way and attached it with cloth into the split board. As you can see the edges were then moulded down to meet the textblock. A space is left between the new spine and the board to allow it room to open. We then built the board up at the corners using a mixture of wheat starch paste and cut-up hemp cord. The result is a very strong corner which has a good bond with the original. This was then layered with Japanese paper to give it a smooth finish ready for its leather covering.

As you can see from the before and after photos, we have not tried to blend in the work we have done by restoring the original book. Whilst remaining sympathetic to the original, conservation work is never carried out for purely cosmetic reasons. The new corners will help to protect the textblock, and prevent it from abrasion on the bottom edge. The new spine will increase usability for the reader, and maintain the structure of the book for future use.

I’m looking forward to returning to Flintshire Record Office in the summer to complete my delayed Parchment placement, pandemic permitting!

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