Team Work Makes the Dream Work: My Experience at Durham University

By Amber Russell

Becoming a book conservator isn’t easy. Finding a program that will teach you the necessary skills and techniques is difficult enough, then you have to find a job. That’s normally when a post graduate work placement comes into play. Work placement is like a mini-internship, you will generally end up emailing every conservation lab, library, university, or museum you know and ask them, in a politely begging tone, to let you come and do volunteer work with them for a handful of weeks. If you’re very lucky and find someone kind enough to say yes then you get the opportunity to walk into a conservation lab as a volunteer conservator complete with responsibilities and goals and a few projects on your desk, and you do your very best not to blow it. Like I said: not easy. But if you’re very, very lucky you get to work in one of the most incredible settings in the world, with a collection people only dream of, and with a amazing team of not just conservators, but archivists, librarians, and the various staff that keep a collection available to the public. It just so happens, I am very, very lucky, because I was able to spend my work placement at Durham University.

The conservation lab at Durham University is in Palace Green Library, snuggly placed between the magnificent cathedral and the picturesque castle. The library contains the collection of Bishop Cosin, who among other feats, provided one of the first public libraries of his time. With the help of all the staff at Palace Green and the conservators with Durham University, Cosin’s collection is still open to the public today. As I walked into the conservation lab, surrounded by the historic buildings and some of the best scenery England has to offer, I was filled with elation at the prospect of becoming one of those that helps keep these places alive. I was also a little daunted at taking the large step from “student” to “conservator”. With both excitement and dread bubbling through me I met the people who would be my colleagues for the next several weeks and quickly my dread started to fade. Everyone on this team works toward the same goal: to care for the objects and collections so they can be shared with the public, just as Cosin intended. As long as I worked towards the same goal I knew I was supported by everyone around me.

Within my first week I had a desk full of projects, books dating back to the 1600s all in need of conservation. The first step in conservation is always documentation. I photographed each book thoroughly, focusing on the areas I would be treating. I then created a condition report for each book, filling it with a description of the book and books condition, putting the photos in and adding a treatment proposal for each one. Once those were approved by the book conservator who was supervising me, I was ready to get to work.

Below are examples of before and after photography and documentation of one of my projects:

Image is an overhead photograph of a blue cloth bound book with colour card, scale measure, and identifying text. A white bookmark is sticking out of the text block at the head fore edge.
Before: Damage is not always immediately apparent

Image is an overhead photograph of the blue cloth bound book lying open with front board and spine disconnected from the text block. Beneath the book is a colour card, scale measure, and identifying text.
Before: In this condition, the book is difficult to handle without causing damage

Image is an overhead photograph of the blue cloth bound book with colour card, scale measure, and identifying text.
After: Visually, not much has changed after the treatment, but the book is in much better shape for handling

Image is a close up of the blue cloth bound book’s spine and back board. There is a yellowed paper label with black text on the spine. The book is photographed at an angle to demonstrate that the joint between the spine and the board has been repaired, although the repair is difficult to see due to the colour-match of the repair material.
After: Here’s a closeup of the split joints after repair

In this project, the book had detached boards and splitting material at the spine. I repaired the splits with colour-matched repair tissue and reattached the boards to the text block. One of the most common points of damage for books are at the corners. Corners take a lot of abuse over the centuries and will need conservation at least once in their “lifetime”. This can be anything from consolidation, which is a basic pasting of the loose board back together so they hold a firm corner shape again, to a complete rebuild if the corner is missing entirely. One of the books on my desk was missing a corner and the damage was threatening the text block. As seen in these photos I built up the missing corner by laminating tissue and thick archival paper and once the shape and thickness was right for the book, I began toning tissue to cover the repair and blend with the leather on the book.

The process of toning materials such as Japanese tissue paper and leather for repairs is an art form, involving understanding the undertones of colours, as well as understanding the paint or dyes themselves. To know how the dye will effect the material; will it become lighter, or darker? Will it mottle or be smooth? All great questions, and when you’re toning tissue paper you only have a few swipes of the brush to get it right as the tissue is fibrous and will fall apart quickly. Therefore, through trial and many errors you can get as close as possible to the original material, as seen in the photo below of the tissue I toned for my corner repair.

Image is of the corner of a brown leatherbound book. The leather and pulp paper board beneath it have been broken away, leaving the fragile paper fore edge exposed to damage.
This corner has been damaged so severely that the binding is no longer sufficiently protecting the text block

Image is of a hand holding a strip of Japanese tissue next to the leatherbound book for comparison. The tissue is painted to a near-exact match to the colour of the leather.
I was very satisfied with the colour match I managed to get!

Image is of a completed repair on the corner of the leatherbound book. The corner has been built back up where material was missing, and the colour-matched Japanese tissue blends the repair into the remaining leather.
The colour-match helps the repair blend in on the book

While those projects were underway I was shadowing the rest of the team of conservators with their duties and learning what happens on a daily basis for the care of a collection as large as this one. I learned from the archivists and librarians how to produce items from the collection for researchers, I assisted in preservation tasks such as replacing sensors in display cases after calibration, I conducted a survey in one of the associated collections at the historical Ushaw House, installed exhibitions, and performed public outreach during an Open Day event at Cosin Library.

One aspect of working in a conservation lab as a team is sometimes you’re asked to help projects outside your expertise, such as when the collections care conservators asked me to assist in dismounting a room full of tapestries at the Castle. The goal was to remove the tapestries from the wall, inspect and clean them, then finally roll them in protective material for transport and storage.

As seen in the photos below, none of these were easy tasks when the tapestries are the height and width of the walls themselves, but through teamwork and communication we finished before the original deadline. This was accomplished by dividing tasks and working simultaneously: as one group was cleaning, the other group was prepping for dismounting the next tapestry. Or when one group dismounted from the wall, the other group was rolling another tapestry on the floor. As seen in the photos although there were many hands it was not light work. But because I was able to help the team with this project I learned about textile conservation and got a peak behind the curtain of collections care.

The image depicts a large historic room set up for working on the tapestries. Scaffolding is erected near a now half-bare wall from which one of two tapestries has already been removed. On the lushly carpeted floor, a sheet of plastic is laid out to provide a clean surface on which to place the tapestry. Beside the plastic sheet is a round core for rolling the tapestry around after cleaning.
It takes a whole room’s worth of space to work on tapestries of this size

The image depicts a tapestry laid flat. Two hands enter the image from the left side, extended over the tapestry holding the hose of a special vacuum for cleaning it.
A textile conservator trained us to clean the tapestries and supervised us as we worked

The image depicts a large historic room with two chandeliers, corniced ceilings, a fireplace with carved whitewashed mantel, and a window with thick red curtains. On the floor is a plastic sheet to provide a clean surface on which to place the tapestry during conservation work. On the plastic sheet is a large white roll tied neatly with cotton cords to securely store the tapestry during its upcoming transport.
Here a tapestry has been successfully rolled around a conservation-friendly core and wrapped in Tyvek for transport

Conservation is rarely done in public, it’s not often that people can walk into a library and see conservators cleaning a book. During a world heritage open day in Cosin Library people were able to watch as conservation was done in situ. The Cosin book conservator spoke about the historical bookbinding process, while the book conservation intern and I had an optimistically sized pile of books that needed to be cleaned. Throughout the day, while I cleaned, I spoke with visitors and showed them the process, materials, and tools I was using while I answered whatever questions they might have. This was a fantastic opportunity to promote outreach to the general public who may not know what happens behind the scenes for historic buildings and collections. Keep an eye out for the next “Making of the Book” event and the conservators at Durham University will see you there.

The image depicts a historic library space, painted portraits and wooden shelves full of leather bound books running the length of the wall in the background. In the fore ground, a wooden table is set up with book cushions and books awaiting cleaning. Two modern chairs behind the table are set up for conservators; on the chairs’ feet are neon tennis balls to protect the wooden floors from being scratched.
The historic Cosin Library is all set up for World Heritage Day!

The image shows blog author Amber Russell sitting behind a wooden table, hand extended over a book set up on cushions as she pauses during cleaning it using a smoke sponge. Her mouth is open as she explains to a visitor, pictured from behind on the margins of the image, what she is doing. Various cleaning materials like smoke sponges, eraser crumbs, and hake brushes sit on the table beside her to illustrate various cleaning techniques.
Visitors asked great questions and hopefully learned a little about conservation throughout the day!

Once the projects were completed and the “after conservation” photography and documentation was finished, the books on my desk were returned to Cosin’s Library. The generous and kind group of people working at Palace Green Library and Durham University made my work placement a spectacular experience. I succeeded with their help and learned with their guidance and will always be grateful to them for their support and commitment to the collection and the team.

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