Conferences & events, The Bulletin

Collections care for historic libraries, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, 21 June 2019

Over morning coffee, a diverse group of participants assembled, including Librarians, Reading Room Assistants and Photographers involved in digitisation projects. The workshop was led by Edward Cheese (Conservator of Manuscripts and Printed Books, Assistant Keeper) and Monika Stokowiec (Assistant Conservator) at The Fitzwilliam Museum. It demonstrated the wide range of professionals working with special collections who seek a deeper understanding of the preservation of library and archival materials. In my role as Events and Outreach Coordinator at a small but busy independent library in Manchester, I understand very well how important it is for every member of staff in contact with collections to understand the vulnerabilities, the risks and the methods of protecting our precious artefacts.

We were led to our classroom, in this case the Founder’s Library, a gorgeous 19th century library and an ideal space for our purposes. Our instructors started right at the beginning of Western book making. The group was shown the line of progression from the earliest techniques and materials all the way to our modern-day paperbacks. The level of detail was impressive; even parchment, leather and paper making techniques were described. We learned the importance of knowing the inherent qualities and tendencies of materials, as well as the processes they undergo, in order to predict how they will react under adverse conditions.

A holistic and historical approach showed us how the development of printing, the
proliferation of book production and the changing storage implications over the centuries affected, in turn, the ways that books were designed, crafted and manufactured. For instance, clasps were necessary on 12th century books to limit any disfigurement of the parchment leaves within. The small number of books produced at this time also meant they could be stored flat. By the 17th century, with leaves made of paper and the skyrocketing demand for books, clasps had lost their function and books were stored upright to make better use of space.

With a crash course in the history of book production under our belts, we moved on to the various forms of chemical and physical degradation and how they come about. This led to a discussion about working with conservators to prioritise and execute work on collections in ways that are efficient, economical and sensitive to the objects.

After lunch we returned to our work. The afternoon covered handling, cleaning, housing, exhibiting and emergency planning. What a lot to cover in short space of time! But the level of planning and preparation that went into the workshop made this achievable. We even had time to try building our own cleaning stations made of paper, designed to trap dust and debris.

After the workshop we were provided with extremely helpful supplementary guides on cleaning books, building display cradles and planning for emergencies, which we could keep for future reference. Such detailed theoretical explanation and very practical demonstrations, guides and tools would help any person who wishes to enhance their own knowledge and elevate conservation practices at their place of work. In fact, I would highly recommend this workshop for any member of staff working in an organisation with collections at its heart. Speaking as someone with an equal enthusiasm for conservation and engagement, it seems clear that shared understanding incentivises cooperation across disciplines and lays a strong foundation for successful collections care. In any case, what booklover wouldn’t be thrilled to know more about such a fascinating subject?

Aoife Larkin
Events and Outreach Coordinator, The Portico Library, Manchester
BA Art History, MA Contemporary Curating
Currently studying MA Preventive Conservation