Volunteering at the Portico, Part 2: Conservation cleaning

On 13th October 2021 myself and another volunteer had our first collections care session with Jim Duff (former book binder and head of collections care for University of Manchester at the John Rylands Library, Main Library and more). The session could be viewed as a basic introduction to the principles of book conservation but also collections care more broadly. I took notes and photographs throughout:

  • The difference between the terms conservation and preservation: conservation is about intervening in an item to stop it deteriorating further, preservation is more about prevention, and slowing the deterioration of items, including books which are made of 99% organic materials broadly speaking (although today books are less organic). The type of work we will be undertaking whilst volunteering in this capacity at the Portico can be classified as preservation rather than conservation.
The conservation work station at Portico
  • There are 9 agents of deterioration:
    • Light – Damage from light radiation including visible, ultraviolet or infrared (the Portico have UV films on the windows) can be cumulative and irreversible.
    • Humidity – Organic materials all contain moisture, if the relative humidity (moisture content) in the air goes up, objects will either absorb it or shrink in reaction. Sudden, large and frequent RH fluctuations can cause shrinkage, warping, splitting and general aging of organic materials.
    • Temperature – causing slow deterioration.
    • Pollutants – generate both inside and outside buildings; those that can cause damage to collections include particulates and gasses, which can be airborn or transferred through direct contact.
    • Handling / Physical Forces – including natural disaster and human error, improper handling or vibrations from nearby construction work.
    • Pests – both rodents and insects.
    • Fire
    • Water
    • Dissociation – One type of custodial neglect occurs when active care is not taken to preserve the collection or when information and practices on collections care are not current. The second type of custodial neglect is the disassociation of collection objects and their records.
  • The golden rule of conservation is that every process you carry out must be reversible. ‘The rule of reversibility’.
  • From 1850 onwards books were made with wood pulp paper. Before 1850 it is likely they were made with ‘cotton rag’ paper (it would be useful to watch a video on how paper is made – see below)
    • The paper making process 2 (wood pulp):
  • Making paper from organic cotton, sun and water:
  • We touched on the ethics of conservation – ie. When something is worth spending the time, money and resources to conserve. If the contents are important it may warrant digitisation but this can also be costly. For example, if a volume has hand written notes inside, they might make it more unique, valuable and worthy of conservation. You would also take the books provenance into account. Resources must be carefully targeted.
  • In answer to the question ‘who decides what is conserved’, Jim says it is a collaborative decision-making process involving the conservator, curators and any other important stakeholders.
  • There is a Heritage Digitisation Team at the University of Manchester. For more info on this: https://www.library.manchester.ac.uk/using-the-library/staff/imaging-services/
  • Jim showed us how to handle books, including fragile ones, and how to place them on book pillows. He demonstrated the correct way to take books from a shelf which is to put your hand over the top of the book and gently push it from the back of the shelf, whilst placing your hand on the books either side. The photograph below shows what damage can occur when books are pulled from the top of the spine.
Books showing damage on the spine from frequent handling
  • Jim also showed us how to place a book on a pillow. This depends on the fragility or condition of each individual book. It is important to look at the spine (from the angle pictured below) and ensure it is supported properly by the pillow to avoid further deterioration.
  • To clean the soot, air pollution and dust from the books, we used a ‘smoke sponge’ (we weren’t able to use the museum vac on this day due to other activity taking place in the library). Smoke sponges are made of vulcanized natural rubber and can be used to clean soot and smoke damage from wallpaper, painted metal and wood surfaces, fabrics and a variety of other surfaces. You use them dry, as you would an eraser; they can be used on books for dust and dry mould and can be washed in cold water, using a little soap, but must be thoroughly air-dried before reusing and stored away from sunlight. They can be bought on the Preservation Equipment Limited website (Jim also recommends looking at other conservation products and tools on this website): https://www.preservationequipment.com/
Smoke Sponge
  • Tim taught us about a couple of different types of book binding:
    • ‘Hollow Back’ binds have a space between the spine of the text block and the spine of the cover resulting from the covering material being attached at the joints and not glued to the spine of the text block. Hollow back is more modern.
Jim demonstrating a hollow back bound book at the library
  • Glassine paper is water, air and grease resistant and used to wrap paintings and place between stacked drawings, etchings, prints, maps and watercolours. It has a smooth surface and therefore isn’t abrasive against delicate drawings. It is a sustainable alternative to plastics, films, and foils.
  • You can wash books using calcium hydroxide. Further details on this and the de-acidification of paper: https://www.conservation-wiki.com/wiki/BPG_Washing_of_Books
Environmental monitoring spreadsheet which is filled out twice daily at Portico
  • Jim asked us to see if we can spot any patterns when recording environmental monitoring in the library. The form for this is pictured above, showing the different locations around the building and different aspects we are required to record. The ideal temperature for books is 16-19C but they will survive in 21-22C too. For special collections they can be placed in an environmentally controlled store. The ideal relative humidity is 45-55%, Lux around 100 and no more than 50 for sensitive display items. Stability in environmental factors is key for books. Over 65RH will activate mould spores. This is important to look out for when checking environmental monitoring.
Books before and after smoke sponge cleaning

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