Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Conservation at the National Library of Scotland

When we reach for a book our primary thoughts are likely on the contents. Whether we're reading for pleasure or study, it's probably the title of a book that made us pick it up.

There are groups of people, though, who pick up books with a different perspective. One such group can be found on the fourth floor of the National Library of Scotland (NLS). The conservation department have a mission to preserve and protect the holdings of the NLS and they do so with great diligence.

Their aim is to ensure that items are able to be viewed by the public, and in some cases digitised so that we can all view them online. This brings in a great variety of skills, and their remit is wider than we may at first imagine.

The conservation team are not only responsible for fixing damaged items (and preventing damage) but also caring for items when vital maintenance is taking place on the buildings in which they are stored. We all enjoy the NLS exhibitions, but have you ever considered how long it takes to prepare the items? The items need to be able to be viewed in a display case, but without careful preparation, such a display could cause damage.

Talking to the team yesterday, they told me that one item could take a day to prepare. They may need to wash the paper, conserve damaged areas then design a method of keeping the item stable while on display. It could be a matter of attaching a piece of paper to a board, or designing a made to measure book stand so you can read it easily in a display.

The team are constantly working to improve conservation methods too. For example, a recent project to preserve a vellum book gave the conservation team the opportunity to develop a new method of flattening pages. The traditional method wouldn't work due to the severity of the damage to the book. In the end, they used a wet solution then laid the book on a suction table, gradually increasing the suction to flatten the pages, how ingenious!

This visit will certainly make me think differently the next time I see a library or museum display. I suppose though the question for us is, what can we do to help them, and help preserve books and documents that we consult while tracing our family tree?

There are obvious things, handle with care. Use a cushion or other support for books and don’t open them too far. If you open a book and hear the spine crack that’s the glue and thread ripping apart and YOU are shorting the life of the book.

 © Copyright Kim Traynor
I asked, if there is one thing to remember, what would it be? The answer, use clean hands. How simple, we can all do that, can’t we? When a celebrity goes to an archive on a TV programme they are invariably given white cotton gloves. In reality however we don’t often wear them. While they may stop oils from our skin transferring to the books, they actually increase the possibility of tearing the book or documents, especially if the paper is fragile. If we wash our hands, though, this will also limit the transfer if oils from our hands to the documents.

My tour was part of the conservation workshop. Keep an eye on the National Library of Scotland’s website for future tours: they are free but do need to be booked in advance. If you are part of a group that would like a tour, contact the NLS and they would be happy to arrange one for groups of up to 15 people.

No comments:

Post a Comment