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

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…