James' Jaunts
British Library
Conservation Studio
London, England
Allison & Mark

This was a particularly exciting visit for me because this is the area I ultimately hope to work in. Our group was met by Allison and Mark. Allison is the education coordinator, I think, and Mark heads one of the conservation teams. There are six teams—one team handles paper items, another stamps, photographs, etc., and the rest take care of the books.

The conservation studio has an isolation room where they quarantine incoming collections. They have freezers ready for storage to contain mold outbreaks. They treat general deterioration, as their purpose is to conserve rather than restore. All corrections made are reversible or re-treatable to preserve the integrity of the item. They keep detailed records of all work done, including before and after photographs and detailed record logs. The conservationists work closely with the curators to determine items needing work, and they often have an extensive list of items waiting.

While visiting, we observed two areas of conservation. Yvonna, a conservationist on Mark's team, was working on palm leaves which contained a 14th century text of the doctrines of Krishna. The palm leaves themselves date from 17th century Southern Indian. Yvonna began with an explanation of how palm leaves are chosen, cured, and inscribed to create these texts. That in itself was remarkable. I honestly thought I'd heard wrong when they said they were restoring palm leaves! She then went on to explain her conservation method, and how she came to this method. She was primarily repairing the leaves by hand until she discovered an article from another conservationist, which detailed the use of a leaf setter to repair damaged areas. I cannot guarantee that is the correct name of the machinery, as it was difficult to take notes at this point, and my memory is shot, but it is the same machine used to create or restore paper. Yvonna discovered this method had been used various times and, once she incorporated it, her production rate drastically increased. She still does the more delicate work by hand, and sometimes has to correct the leaf setter, but has found it very useful. She then demonstrated hand repairs and showed us a group of leaves restored by machine.

We then moved to Mark's work area where he demonstrated how they restore or replace the gold-foil lettering on books. He said there are two types of materials used, a gold tape that usually requires restoration within a few hundred years, and actual gold, which lasts forever unless destroyed by damage. He then demonstrated the process, using a method he said has been passed down from master to apprentice for the last 500 years. He said this job depends as much on instinct as on technical skills. Most of those who succeed in this area have a 'feel' for the work. Most of the materials used in this method are common items—egg whites and water for the glazing, body oils for the adhesive (he dotted a cotton ball on his face to make the gold foil stick), and petroleum jelly to polish. It was absolutely fascinating!

After visiting the conservation studios, we then moved into the education center. The center has video demonstrations and pamphlets explaining conservation methods for books, sound recordings, and photographs. I played around with sound recordings and actually hit pretty close to the British Library's conservation stats.

This was actually our final visit. It was definitely a high note to go out on!


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    London Away:
    British Studies
    Summer 2011


    I am a professional student.  I have a formal education--both a Bachelor and Master's degree in English, and I am working on a Master's in Library and Information Sciences.  But I believe that life experience is the greatest teacher anyone can have.  So I am hitting the road to have fun and to learn--and no, that's not mutally exclusive!--and live life to the fullest.



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