Repairing the Richardson letters

In our Franklin collection is an album containing about a hundred letters, mainly written by Sir John Franklin (1786-1847) to his good friend and fellow arctic explorer, Sir John Richardson (1787-1865). The letters had been stuck into the album with a shiny, translucent tape, which had also been used to carry out repairs. In order to ensure the long-term survival of these letters we decided to remove them from the album: many were loose already and at risk of falling out, and the tape was causing further damage to the paper.

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We carried out a few tests on the repair tape and found that the adhesive was water soluble. The inks used were stable in water, so we were able to wash the letters and remove all remnants of the tape this way. An additional benefit to having washed the letters is that it has flushed out all kinds of dirt and degradation that had become ingrained in the paper, and it has re-invigorated the paper fibres, making the letters feel stronger again.

All the letters have now been repaired with handmade conservation repair paper and wheat starch paste. Here are some examples of letters before, during and after the process:

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In case you were wondering, if in a few hundred years’ time one of our successors wants to remove these repairs in order to treat the letters with whatever amazing technique that may be available then, all they will need to do is wash them again and all our repairs will simply float off.

We have of course saved the original album as part of the collection – if you would like to see it and the letters, just pop in and ask for D8760/F/FJR/1/1/1-92. Or have a look on our catalogue for a description of their contents, as they are full of fascinating information about Franklin’s expeditions, his time in Tasmania, and his home life. But as we are in Matlock, my favourite snippet has to be this from 13 June 1823:

D8760 F FJR 1 1 5 Matlock

‘I went up today to Matlock, and was much delighted with the scenery. I think it equals in richness and the picturesque anything I have seen – though it is not so grand as some we have beheld in America. Mrs Richardson will be gratified to learn that its prettiest parts reminded me of different spots in Scotland.’ (D8760/F/FJR/1/1/5)

Looking out of my window as I type this, with the tops of the hills shrouded in mist, I can only agree!

 

a lucky letter repair

Here is a nice repair job I carried out on one of our Franklin letters, written by John Richardson to John Franklin in July 1823. It was a particularly satisfying one, as this letter originally had a missing corner piece, which amazingly our project archivist Neil had managed to find! After it had been matched up to its rightful home, I re-attached the piece using a wheat starch paste and spider tissue, and filled a hole with handmade repair paper. See the results below – it just goes to show how easy it is to lose information when paper becomes damaged, but luckily this time we could help!

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Letter to Franklin from John Richardson

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Missing piece of the letter

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Letter before repair

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Letter after repair

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Missing piece re-attached

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Letter after repair – infill

Packaging the packaging

When I carry out preservation training sessions, I always emphasize the importance of archival packaging: it protects our (and your) records from over-handling, keeps them out of light, provides a barrier for rodents, insects, mould and water, and stops them getting covered in layers of dust. The ‘archival’ bit matters, as that means the quality of the packaging is such that it won’t in itself cause damage to the documents through any chemicals that may have been used in the production process. Invariably this means that when we take in new records we discard the old, often damaging, packaging – I’m sure you’ll agree there’s no reason to keep these:

 

Of course, there are always exceptions to every rule, and sometimes the packaging is such an integral part of the history of the document, that we keep it as well. A prime example of this is D22/1, a large rolled document from 1764, which is still in its original leather-covered, wooden box:

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Beautiful, isn’t it? Both the parchment document and wax seal have survived in perfect condition in that box for the past 255 years, so I see no need to remove them.  However, the box itself is also made of organic material and therefore needs protection from light, insects, etc. This time it’s the original packaging that needs the archival kind.

We make our own archival packaging from various types of archival card and board; the first step in the process is measuring the length, width and height of the item as this determines the size of card we need. We then transfer our measurements on to the board and check whether the item will fit. The checking before cutting away the flaps is essential, as it’s very easy to end up with a box that’s just that little bit too tight or too loose. 

In order to make our new box a bit sturdier, I stuck a sheet of archival fluted board on the base – fluted (corrugated) board is very strong while also being lightweight, making it ideal to use if you want a stronger box that isn’t too heavy.

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Now we just need to fold over all the flaps and tie it all together with some unbleached cotton tape and our original box with contents is safe for the next 255 years!

D22 1 finished closed

 

Two tales of self-adhesive tape

Next time you meet a paper conservator, just mention the words ‘self-adhesive tape’ and watch their struggle to retain some self-control.  It is the bane of our profession, the tapes used by very well-meaning people, who were trying to look after or even save important, precious documents and ended up destroying them in the process.  Two unrelated items came into the Conservation Studio yesterday, which show different ways in which self-adhesive tape has been used.

The first is a minute ‘book’ from the National Union of Mineworkers, dating from the mid nineteen eighties (D1920/1/1/39):

D1920 1 1 39 whole - Copy

Each page consists of a backing sheet with a typed up page of minutes sellotaped to both sides of it. That’s two hundred backing sheets with four hundred pages of minutes:

D1920 1 1 39 open tape - Copy

In some cases the adhesive is no longer sticking to the backing sheet, leaving the minutes lying loose; in all cases it has migrated into the paper, causing significant discolouration and weakening of the paper. Removing each piece of sellotape will require a combination of heat, a sticky-stuff removing erasure and quite probably solvents, such as acetone and toluene. The problem is, you see, that in most cases the tape doesn’t come off cleanly, but leaves a little bit of sticky residue which also needs to be removed.  So that’s one thousand six hundred pieces of sellotape to remove, at a very optimistic average of five minutes each: eight thousand minutes – or about 134 hours – of work.  Obviously we can’t justify that amount of time spent on an item that can be studied in its current condition, so all we’ll be doing for now is give it some extra packaging so at least there’s no risk of pages tearing, and adding it to a list of jobs to consider in the future.

The second item is a sale catalogue from 1912 (D7108), which is in a far worse condition:D7108 UL before whole - CopyIn this case the kind person trying to mend the pages has used a combination of different self-adhesive tapes, even ordinary white labels:

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Clearly this item isn’t safe to be handled or looked at, so we will be conserving it in 2019 and we’ll let you know how we get on…

 

Sir John Franklin’s signature

After the disappearance of Sir John Franklin in 1845 his wife, Lady Jane Franklin, was inundated with requests for copies of his signature. She responded by cutting out his signatures from letters he’d sent and posting these to the grateful collectors.  The damage this did is immediately obvious in this example, a letter Sir John wrote to his sister, Hannah Booth, in 1833:

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The severity of the damage however only becomes apparent when you view the letter on a light box:

D3311_36_5_(i)_on_lightbox_02[1]

All the sharp cuts show where a knife went through the paper – we can’t be sure these slashes were made when the signature was removed, but as they don’t occur on any of the other letters it’s reasonable to assume the two are linked.

The letter has now been repaired and is ready for one of our volunteers to read.

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An unusual incunable

An incunable is a book that was printed before the year 1500, when the printing press was still a new invention.  Most surviving ones are now in specialist libraries or private collections, but we’re fortunate to have one example here at the Record Office: Lives of the Saints volume II, by Plutarch (D5424/1).  It was printed by Nicolas Jenson in Venice on the second of January 1478 and still looks fantastic. As you can see on the photographs, early printed books tried to look like illuminated manuscripts, with the printers leaving room for hand-drawn capital letters and other illustrations.

 

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What makes this particular copy unique, is that it was rebound in 1902 by Douglas Cockerell, a well-known bookbinder from the arts and crafts era.  He used wooden boards, just as they would have used in the fifteenth century, with a beautifully decorated piece of leather along the spine. The boards themselves he left bare – it was generally assumed at that time that that is how a medieval binding would have looked.

whole book

Unfortunately though, this has caused a problem: chemicals within the wood have migrated into the new endleaves (first and last pages of a book), causing severe discolouration and weakening of the paper.

Fortunately no damage has been done to the original pages. Removing the binding would destroy part of the book’s history and cause a lot of stress to the fifteenth century paper, so we protect the text with sheets of inert archival quality polyester, loosely placed in between the binding and the pages. We now know that they usually covered the boards completely  with parchment in the Middle Ages, perhaps at least partly to avoid this problem.

D5424 1 polyester in situ

Shiny archival polyester sheet in place

This book is a great example of how conservators and bookbinders can cause damage, despite following the procedures and using the techniques that are accepted as ‘best practice’ in their time.  Knowledge about materials such as wood, leather, paper and inks constantly increases, bringing new ideas and new techniques for every new generation of conservators.  All we can do is try and keep up to date with the latest developments, regularly think about the materials and techniques we’re using and whether they are still appropriate, and hope that our future colleagues will understand that they too will make ‘mistakes’.

If any bibliophiles out there would like to help us continue to look after this marvellous book, you can adopt it via our Adopt a Piece of History scheme.

 

 

Ingenious book design

Every Thursday afternoon our preservation volunteers diligently clean items from collection D2375, the archive from Calke Abbey. There was a surprise in store while cleaning D2375/A/S/1/1/1 though, a fifteenth century Alstonefield Manor Court book.

D2375 A S 1 1 1 volume

D2375/A/S/1/1/1

Re-using an older piece of Medieval parchment as the cover of a paper text block was standard practice – both parchment and paper were expensive and never wasted.  But in this case the bookbinder hit upon an original solution to store some extra loose sheets of paper: they sewed pockets in the parchment cover.

D2375 A S 1 1 1 back pocket

Parchment cover with pocket

 

D2375 A S 1 1 1 back documents

Documents revealed

Often in archives we need to find the balance between the long term preservation of documents and showing their historic context. Standard practice would be to remove the loose sheets, unfold them and then store them in an archival folder alongside the book. However, as the documents are in great condition and haven’t suffered from their unusual storage, we’ve decided to leave them exactly where the fifteenth century clerk placed them. If we ever find the documents or volume are getting damaged then of course we will remove them, but for now our researchers can have the pleasure of using the parchment cover in the way it was designed to be used all those centuries ago.

A father’s letter

When you work with archive collections, sometimes you come across something that makes you stop in your tracks – a document that takes your hand and transports you through time to its author, making them so tangible, so real, that the intervening centuries vanish and you’d swear they were standing right next to you.  That happened to me yesterday with a letter I came across, a perfectly ordinary letter from William Porden, the 18th century architect, to his daughter Eleanor Anne Porden.

D3311 2 2 front

D3311 2 2 back

The content is of course sweet, written by a caring father to his loving daughter, and the reference to smallpox inoculation only two years after it became available is certainly interesting. But what really got me was the handwriting: it is completely different to his normal joined-up style.  Then I realised Eleanor would only have been five at the time, still learning to read and needing clear letters to decipher her father’s words.  I write notes to my daughter in block capitals to spare her the agony of trying to decipher my atrocious handwriting – that two hundred and eighteen year gap suddenly feels very small indeed.