Thursday, July 16, 2009

British Library Centre for Conservation: Treating Broken Treasures

After the amazing tour of the British Library, we had some (delicious) lunch at the BL cafeteria, then migrated to the British Library Centre for Conservation. The building is only two years old, so its existence is a very exciting development for the BL. It was wonderful to meet trained professionals in conservation, a side of librarianship I know almost nothing about (and haven't considered as a specialty since I fail at crafts), and see them explain how they treat rare, damaged items.

A highlight for me was seeing a professional demonstrate his treatment of a broken binding on a 1st edition Beatrix Potter book (and how nonchalant he was about it!). I think it would be so interesting to work with rare, irreplaceable items on a daily basis, and help preserve them for another few decades or centuries.

Another conservator was working on rebinding and re-covering records of the East India company, while yet another showed us how she used a "guard" create a fold between paper leaves, which doesn't affect the paper of the item. The conservators explained that they use sympathetic, archival materials, and that unless the damaged part can be saved, they are not trying to replicate the original bindings, covers, etc. Any work they do on an item needs to be reversible in both process and materials, just in case. If they remove and replace any part of the damaged area, they return the original part with the item to the curator. When we asked how they determine what process to use to treat the items, they explained that there is a back-and-forth dialogue between the conservators and the curators, and that ultimately they come to a compromise on what can and should be done for the item.

Ultimately, the tour was brief, but fascinating, and I enjoyed the glimpse into the world of conservation. I'm so glad that there are others out there with the skill to treat our broken treasures.

For more information, or to schedule your own tour:

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