Our last visit was to the British Library Centre for Conservation, a bit of a relief after this very intense month.
About half of the class had already been to the British Library on a tour, but the rest of us didn’t get to go because that was the day we left for Paris (although with how late the bus was we could have made it with plenty of time).
Our guides were Alison and Mark, who gave us really becoming lanyards with large blue cards to wear as we walked around. First we stopped in the conservation studio lobby for a quick health and safety talk, and then Alison was going to give us some information about the library but half of us had already heard it so she skipped ahead. She did give us a few tidbits, such as that 1,200 readers can be seated a day, and each person can order up to 12 items. There is a remote newspaper library and another building for materials as well. The author John Berger also donated his archives to the library in 2009, but they were located in a barn in remote France and had to be picked up in person.
In the conservation studio there is one person whose only job is to control the studio environment. There are five teams of conservators, though there is room for six, and Mark’s team specializes in stamps. I thought this meant postage stamps, but later I on learned differently. There is a quarantine room for books and items that come in, so that if they carry anything on/in them, it doesn’t become a problem. There are also studios upstairs for working on larger items.
The goal, Alison told us, is conserving items, not restoring them to what they were originally. Everything they do is intended to be reversible or retractable, so that, as we saw on many of our visits, there are not mistakes made that truly cannot be fixed. there are very detailed records made for each item they work on, with photographs taken before and after.
After this introduction we went into a large studio room, filled with workstations covered in odd conservation tools. We met Ivanna, who has worked there for seven years, having begun in the manuscript department. She was working on a new material that probably no one there had ever worked on, palm leaves. These were long, thin sections of leaf, covered in writing, with two holes each that wer threaded through with cord or similar, and used as a sort of book. It is possibly a religious text, definitely Asian, and there were hundreds of them. This type of book is only meant to last or be used for a hundred years, and then it is rewritten, so the leave all have some damage, corner broken off or bits eaten out by bugs or something. It’s unknown exactly what century they came from, possibly the 17th, or as far back as the 13th or 14th.
We were shown photos of a palm processing demonstration, and then Ivanna talked about the process of filling in the holes in the leaves in order to keep them from falling apart. There are two processes used: a leaf-casting machine and hand filling. The machine is something I’ve never heard of, but is really cool. It is filled with palm pulp, then the leaves are placed inside and the holes are filled. She couldn’t really explain more than that because it’s a weird process, but this is the first time it has been used on this type of material. It is much faster than working by hand, as Ivanna demonstrated. Hand work is a painstaking process and I can’t imagine doing that for hours on end.
After looking at some of the filled-in leaves, we moved on to the stamping room for a demonstration by Mark. This is where I discovered that stamps meant leather stamping. Mark demonstrated the process of stamping gold leaf onto leather, which involves egg adhesive (called glare), Vaseline, and extremely hot irons—that sounds like a torture session. We had a bit of a wait for the stamp to heat up to the right temperature, so Mark explained some things about how he got to be working at the studio. After school, he had to take a five year apprenticeship, which is not done nowadays, during which it was discovered that he had a knack for stamping, and that was how he ended up specializing in stamping. He pulled out two pieces of gold leaf and had the group try passing them around on the backs of their hands, but I was in the back and didn’t get to try because they pretty quickly got stuck on a couple of people. I had never thought about how gold stamping, or any kind of leather stamping, is done, so this was really interesting to me.
After Mark finished stamping his name onto the demonstration leather piece, we went back out into the studio lobby, which had activities and informational materials. I sat down and worked on cleaning up the only known recording of Florence Nightingale’s voice (again, the irony) and then picked up the booklets on offer.
After this we all trooped back out, and while half the group left, I think everybody who went to Paris walked down to the treasures room. I was determined to see Jane Austen’s writing desk, and I didn’t realize that one of her three volumes of juvenilia was there as well. Loved it. I did wish a bit that I could have gone on a tour, but I did get to see some pretty awesome things.