Visitors to Special Collections often ask how we preserve the rare books, manuscripts and archives in our collection. Much of what we do could be described as preventative care. This starts as soon as someone visits us to consult an item, as we ask them only to bring pencils or digital devices into the reading room and to leave any food or drink outside of the reading room. We ask all readers to follow various handling guidelines, and to use book supports to prevent damage to bound volumes.
Viewers of TV history documentaries often wonder why they’re not immediately asked to pull on a pair of white cotton gloves the minute they walk into the reading room. However, few rare book libraries and archives recommend this and a couple of years ago The National Archives banned filmmakers from wearing white gloves. This is because thick cotton gloves can make you more clumsy and liable to tear the page of an item. We do, however, ask our visitors to wear close fitting latex gloves when handling photographic material. This is because sweat or oils on the skin can easily cause permanent damage to the surface of a photograph.
These measures may seem fussy and off-putting to people who are new to working in Special Collections, but they are all designed to ensure that the items in our care will be available for future generations of students and researchers to consult. They also help to avoid the need to carry out specialist conservation work on items in our collections, which is a labour intensive process. It’s extremely important that this work is undertaken by skilled and professionally trained conservators, who will aim to alter the item as little as possible using methods and materials that will not result in the loss of any written evidence.
As a relatively small Special Collections team, we do no have our own conservator to work on our collections. Over the last couple of years we’ve been very fortunate to be able to commission Karenna Fry from the Record Office for Leicestershire, Leicester and Rutland to provide us with expert advice and to carry out conservation work. Most recently, we sent a number of important items for various types of treatment, all designed to support their long-term preservation.
Among these were two scrapbooks from the Joe Orton Collection (MS237). They were both compiled by Orton during the 1960s, and contain press cuttings, reviews and collages relating to his plays Entertaining Mr Sloane and Loot. These are among our most regularly consulted items, but in recent years they have become particularly fragile and in need of attention.
The Entertaining Mr Sloane notebook had many cuttings glued in and small paper pamphlets/play programmes sellotaped onto pages. Several of these pamphlets also had rusty staples. Some of the images and words glued to the cover and inside the volume were lifting or had become detached, and the binding was also in need of repair. Images and words glued onto the cover were lifting up, as were some of the newspaper cuttings inside. These were stuck back down with paste.
Where items had been Sellotaped into the volume, the Sellotape had yellowed and stained the pages. This was removed, with an application of lighter fluid to remove the adhesive residue. Pamphlets and theatre programmes that had previously been Sellotaped down had rusty staples removed and replaced with cotton thread, and were tipped back in place with Japanese paper so that the back pages can now be read. Repairs were made to the spine of the volume, and finally a polyester wrapper was made to protect the text and image pasted to the front from damage.
Another of the items that Karenna treated for us will be familiar to many members of the University. This is our grant of arms, issued in 1922 by the College of Heralds. For a number of years it was on display in the foyer of the Fielding Johnson Building, but in order to ensure this iconic document could be preserved for the future it has now been returned to the archives. This parchment document has three pendant skippets (brass enclosures for protecting seals) attached. As a significant item in the history of the University we felt that it deserved a conservation grade box and support. The document is in good condition, although there was some surface dirt that Karenna carefully removed with a plastic eraser and brush.
A box and lid was made to measure using 3mm grey board and black buckram, and the bottom lined with a layer of plastazote (conservation grade close cell inert foam). On top of this a layer of 15mm plastazote was added with holes cut for the seals and notches for the ribbon. The parchment document is now secured in place with four strips of archival polyester.
Several other items have also returned from the Record Office after conservation treatment, including our first edition of Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species, from which the title page had come detached, and the University’s Royal Charter, now housed in a similar new box to the Grant of Arms. We’re extremely grateful to Karenna and the Record Office for helping us out with this work, and for allowing us to share photographs of the work in progress.