Training Day 2007

Preservation and Conservation

Thirteen participants attended this course on 14th March in London. The topic may not sound too upbeat but Mr. Tony Bish, former conservator at the Wellcome Institute in London, made it amusing, informative and practical and was ready to advise on even the simplest problems which many had.

On Storage his advice was that ideal conditions were: (1) a temperature about 20 – 21 C or cooler; (2) humidity 45% – 55%. Stability was the most important factor – as little change in the atmosphere as possible is the best preservative. Check with a basic thermometer and hygrometer and make sure the storage area is regularly cleaned thoroughly.

Boxes: Tony produced a sample kit of boxes from Conservation by Design which when opened was like Russian dolls, one fitted inside another all the way down the varying sizes until he reached four flap enclosure papers also of varying sizes. Boxes with transparent lids attracted a lot of attention. He also had a variety of acid free folders which could be adapted for various items.

When wrapping items, he suggested the use of Magic tape as it is not too strong and the wrapping will come away easily.

Photographic storage is best in special photographic preservation material and also kept in Time Care boxes to keep them together or Juris Expansion folders which will also help with preservation and minimum storage.

The next topic was First Aid and his first question to everyone was to ask if each had a Disaster Plan. Some had, but others had just moved premises or just taken over the work and were in the process of developing such a plan. When it was suggested that if a fire occurred only the archivist would know which material to move first, Tony suggested we each get in touch with our local Fire Brigade who will take note of such requests. He also suggested we check our insurance policies to see if archives are included in the house policy or under a separate insurance and the importance of having adequate insurance if a disaster does occur, as conservation is costly. Anything written on parchment or vellum reacts like a skin after fire and becomes rigid and tries to return to its original animal shape. If it is on board then it pulls the board apart, therefore limp vellum binders are easier to deal with as they have nothing to pull against.

If there is a Flood and mould appears, it can be cleaned with an alcohol solution of 75% water and 25% alcohol but it is better if a professional does it. Use water absorbent cloths to take up excess water in the flooded area. While these can be purchased from catalogues, they also can be obtained from hardware stalls on local markets. After a flood, layout boxes on carpets or flat surfaces to dry and fan heaters will help. Use silicone or greaseproof paper to lay documents out on. However if there has been an overflow of sewage in the flood, this can be more harmful to humans working there than to the archival collection. If you have to freeze any material to preserve it after a flood then -12 to -15°C is the ideal temperature, then after three weeks in the freezer bag, move the material to a refrigerator, then to a cold room till it is ready for room temperature.

When trying to keep books flat or mark the place in them, use Snakes.

Mould or Insect Infestation needs fumigation. Silver fish can be attracted away from books and hidden corners by a small dish of sugar. Beetles and bookworms are other hazards which need professional treatment. Even if you think your premises are free of all infestations it is amazing what can be hidden if careful and frequent checks are not made.

Leather spines etc which are deteriorating need treatment sparingly with SC 6000 which is a chemical cream but again it is better for professionals to do it.

Professional help costs money but if the item is worth it then ask at the Institute of Conservation, the National Archives or the Local County Records Office if they have a conservator or know where to get one.

The afternoon practical session focused on problems brought by the participants:

  • Parchment documents which are likely to crack when opened need humidity to relax the document and then eased open all round a needle board using bulldog clips.
  • A Bookbinder will repair a book, a Book Conservator will return all the pieces which have had to be stripped off or dropped off in the repair so that the original book material can be studied.
  • A Boardcutter has a handle which drops to cut, a Guillotine has a sliding blade.
  • House plans can be stored in plastic tubes or rolled around them and then covered and one participant has hooks now attached to the wall and the plans are laid on lengths of guttering between the hooks to minimize storage space.
  • If a book is in poor condition and there is little money for conservation, photograph each page with a digital camera and put the book away in a box to be kept unhandled till such time as conservation is possible.
  • If the spine of a book is coming away but the book is fairly sound, then make a hollow tube of strong paper, stick it to one side with paste and then the other so that there is flexibility and the spine is supported. Also a wooden dowel rod can be inserted into the spine so that it is supported when opened out fully.
  • One of the participants brought photographs of very old altar missals that are important diocesan archival material but badly in need of conservation. It was suggested that boxes be made to the exact size of each item, the diocesan insurance be checked to see if the work is covered and then go for professional conservation.
  • Important newsprint can be copied on to acid free copy paper and then the original left to disintegrate. There are paper firms which sell archival paper as well as those in archival catalogues: Falkner’s (formerly Shepherd’s) Southampton Road, London; R K Burt Paper Merchants; Purcell Papers; Stockwell Paper Merchants. There is a commercial company in Scotland which will do restoration on pages of ledgers etc. There is an Irish firm called Ireland Ray which makes a linen material sold at £] 0 per metre but is stronger than leather for preservation. Leather today is much finer and less sturdy than medieval leathers which were tanned with a dog’s dirt solution containing an enzyme still used today but manufactured in sterile laboratory conditions so it does not toughen the leather to the same extent.
  • Property deeds should be left folded and covered but if papers need to be flattened then old hand irons, bought at car boot sales, with the bottoms covered with felt, are ideal for the job.
  • Slides are preserved in special folders and either stored in a Time Care box or kept in special hanging folders. They can be put on to CDs but a special attachment is needed for the computer.
  • Magic lantern slides can be scanned and the copies kept for use and the slides stored away safely.

This was a most practical day and everyone went away with much to think about to preserve his or her archive collection and with grateful thoughts to Tony Bish for alerting everyone to the hazards that can befall archives and the relief in knowing that there is someone out there who knows how to deal with the disasters.

Sister Bridgetta Rooney SSJP, March 2007