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As the Library looks towards the next phase of its award-winning 21st century building project, our Collection Care team is already working hard to make sure our books are ready for action.

The past decade has seen many impressive developments to the Library building, from the refurbishment of iconic spaces such as the Times Room and the Sackler Study to the addition of a whole new wing in the form of T. S. Eliot House. Now the Library is looking forward to the next stage of its building programme, which will see an extension of the Victorian Back Stacks and the refurbishment of most of our collection spaces.

In order to keep our collections safe, clean and accessible while this work is taking place, we will need to move many of our books to alternative locations. Anyone who has ever moved home will know it is essential to ensure that one’s possessions are in good order, and that they are packed and wrapped in such a way that they will arrive safely at their destination. The Library’s collections are no different, and that’s why our Collection Care team is already preparing them for what promises to be one of the largest book moves in the institution’s history.

The scale of the challenge is considerable. The nineteenth-century Back Stacks occupy seven floors and house five and a half miles of books. To make sure the books can be safely transferred en masse from their existing shelves to other another part of the library, each volume needs to be thoroughly assessed. If a book’s binding is defective, the risk of it suffering further damage is greatly increased, and would be especially high during a complex operation such as a major book move. If the binding is failing, we don’t only risk losing the book’s covers. Without its sturdy protection, text-blocks can suffer tears, staining, crumpling, and pages may also go missing.

Collection Care assistants Frances and Bettina have taken on the challenge of working through the Library’s Topography holdings, checking each volume for structural damage or any significant weakness that would render it vulnerable to rapid degradation. They have learned to identify signs of deterioration, from a few loose pages to a partially detached spine, a board held in place only by sticky tape or a text-block that no longer stands properly within the square of the binding case.

The team’s mission is to select only the most vulnerable books for treatment. Books with only minor or cosmetic damage, which are in a stable condition, are returned to the shelves. It can be a tough call to leave a book on the shelf when it requires some minor repairs, or even if it just looks a little tired, perhaps having a small amount of old tape on the spine or few small tears to the text-block. This strategic approach is nevertheless proving successful, enabling us to commit our available binding funds to those volumes that are most at risk. As the average cost of rebinding an octavo volume comes in at about £20, we need to be selective to ensure we can cover as many shelves as possible before building work commences.

Any books which are found to be particularly fragile are taken off to our Collection Care department, where they are put through a kind of triage. Some may need some to be repaired in-house before they are sent off to the bindery. Page tears are patched with Japanese tissue and wheat starch paste. In some cases we may even be able to stabilise a binding so that the book no longer needs to be sent out to a commercial contractor. Carefully-placed strips of light-but-strong aerolinen can shore up a damaged spine and reinforce any weakened joints.

Other volumes need to be sent to the bindery with specific instructions to ensure that their aesthetic is preserved. We take great care to retain original features from the covers such as illustrated papers panels, printed textiles, and even early Library book labels, which give a taste of the object’s history. Decorative endpapers are preserved where possible, and any repairs are done in cloths and papers which tone in with the original design. In a few cases, where it is impossible to keep an original feature (for example, paper covers which have been glued down onto the book boards), we’ll make a facsimile of it so that the design can still be enjoyed by future readers.

The project has been an enjoyable one for Frances. She says, “I find the Topography section fascinating, as it covers such a large range of subjects, from physical geography to national customs and other aspects of social history. As a collection, it has a lot of character and, browsing through it, you quickly discover how attitudes to travel have changed. The ‘Hints to Travellers’ section is particularly interesting, and I’ve been struck by the eloquence of many of these early guides”.

Overall, it is the transformative effect of the project that has been the most rewarding for all those involved. “I hope that members will find the Topography section even more attractive now”, says Frances. “Some of the bindings were particularly lovely, my favourite being an 1834 Italian guidebook with original leather binding and decorated metal clasps. It is wonderful that we have been able to preserve these bindings for members to enjoy for years to come”.

With between two and five books in need of treatment per shelf, there is still a long way to go until all the of the Back Stacks have been covered, but it is heartening to see how the project is already enhancing the appearance of our collections and giving them vital protection. Crucially, all the books we’ve dealt with are now more stable, and so are in a much better position to be taken off the shelves and browsed, stamped at the issue desk and then taken off in a bag to read at home.

If you would like to learn more about our Back Stacks rebinding project, please get in touch with our Collection Care department. Email judith.finnamore@londonlibrary.co.uk

The charming decorative textile binding from our  Topography collections.

The charming decorative textile binding from our Topography collections.

Damaged bindings leave books vulnerable to page losses.

Damaged bindings leave books vulnerable to page losses.

Before rebinding...

Before rebinding…

...and after.

…and after.

In the past, 'quick-fix' tape repairs were sometimes used to hold a book together. These could be damaging and many are now failing.

In the past, ‘quick-fix’ tape repairs were sometimes used to hold a book together. These could be damaging and many are now failing.

The books spine had be precariously held in place by tape. The tape had since failed revealing the damage it had done to the leather.

The books spine had be precariously held in place by tape. The tape had since failed revealing the damage it had done to the leather.

The same book sensitively rebacked. The decorative leather covers were retained and the damaged patches toned in dark red to improve their appearances.

The same book sensitively rebacked. The decorative leather covers were retained and the damaged patches toned in dark red to improve their appearances.

We were unable to salvage the original paper cover of this book but a colour photocopy has allowed us to retain much of the bindings character.

We were unable to salvage the original paper cover of this book but a colour photocopy has allowed us to retain much of the bindings character.

The splendid binding of the 1834 Italian guide book.

The splendid binding of the 1834 Italian guide book.

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Posted by on in Collection Care

On the night of 23 February 1944 enemy planes flew over St James’s and dropped a deadly cargo of high-explosive bombs. Four landed between Jermyn Street and Pall Mall, with one hitting the London Library’s north-west wing. The Library lost four floors of its 1930s stacks and the blast affected many of the library’s most iconic spaces, including the Art Room and the Prevost Room (now the Sackler Study). Over 16,000 volumes were destroyed or damaged beyond repair. Even where books had escaped the full force of the explosion, these were seriously affected by the dust and dirt.

In the aftermath of the disaster, repairing the Library’s building fabric had to be a priority. Rebuilding the collections was also high on the agenda. Where books had been obliterated or were simply too damaged to put back on the shelves, the Library sought to replace them. New copies of the most popular volumes were acquired shortly after the disaster, while strenuous efforts to fill gaps in the art, fiction and biography collections went on well into the Fifties.

70 years later, bomb-damaged volumes can still be found on the library’s shelves. If you’ve spent time browsing the Library’s art collections, you may well have come across books with the words “damaged by enemy action” (or “e. a.”) lightly pencilled onto the reverse of the title page. In many cases, bomb-damaged books were retained because they were still serviceable, despite the odd warped board, tear or water stain. In others, more seriously mutilated volumes were retained because there was no replacement copy to be had.

Over the years, work has been carried out to stabilise many of these surviving books. Bindings have been strengthened, shrapnel holes patched, and tears mended. These kind of repairs fall well within our in-house conservator’s repertoire, and all are carried out with archival quality materials, such as Japanese papers and wheat starch paste, to ensure that they can be removed should the need ever arise. There is never any attempt to hide the original damage, or to make the book look ‘as good as new’, as our Collection Care team follows a programme of conservation rather than restoration. We act to arrest the degradation of our collections rather than to reverse it, and try as far as possible to maintain the historical integrity of the books in our care.

A handful of our surviving bomb-damaged books remain almost unusable, their bindings shattered by shrapnel and bits of blasted mortar. Where fragments punctured the text-blocks, pages have become ‘mechanically adhered’: each page has curled around the other at the point of impact, with an interlocking effect. In this state, the pages cannot be turned without snagging and tearing. We could flatten these pages by a process of humidification, but to do so would remove primary evidence of an event which not only affected this book, but also had ramifications for the Library’s wider collections.

In these rare cases of extreme mutilation, we have elected to preserve the books in their damaged state, carrying out only minimal repairs where these are needed to prevent further degradation. Where bindings were blown off or are no longer able to protect the pages within them, we have boxed these volumes. We have removed embedded shrapnel and mortar as this could cause the paper to decay, and encapsulated any interesting fragments in archival-quality plastic, so that they can still be seen but won’t harm the books. Having carried out this essential preservation work, the risk of loss to the bindings and paper is now low.

Since the disaster some 70 years ago, interest in our bomb-damaged volumes has transferred from the textual document to the historical object. We would not want to restore the volumes to how they were before the disaster, as to do so would undoubtedly result in losses of a different kind – this time cultural and historical. Preserved in their war-torn state, they are poignant reminders of a dark period in the Library’s history and of the institution’s remarkable resilience.

Pages suffering from mechanical adhesion

Pages suffering from mechanical adhesion

This book lost its covers, and the pages have been badly distorted and torn

This book lost its covers, and the pages have been badly distorted and torn

Close-up of torn and crumpled pages caused by the blast

Close-up of torn and crumpled pages caused by the blast

One of our surviving casualties from the air raid

One of our surviving casualties from the air raid

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Conservation and Restoration student Jo Berzins has just completed a 10 week work placement with The London Library’s Collection Care department. As her time at the Library drew to a close we caught up with her to talk about her experiences.

What inspired you to come to the London Library?

I’m studying for a BA in Conservation and Restoration at the University of Lincoln, and as part of my studies I needed to undertake a work placement in a conservation department. Although my course is mainly to do with objects (such as ceramics, wood and metalwork) I have a real passion for books. When my tutor suggested The London Library, I knew this was where I wanted to come. I was attracted by the prestige of the institution, as well as the opportunity to have one-to-one guidance and instruction from Rachel, the Library’s Conservator.

Did you have any experience of book conservation before you came here?

I first became interested in book conservation when I was Custodian of Lamport Hall in Northamptonshire. While I was there, I carried out a major cleaning project on the Hall’s historic library collections. It was hard work, but I was very proud of my achievement. I even got a two-page feature in the local paper!

Since starting my BA course I’ve undertaken a very short project on conserving a pamphlet, but other than that book conservation was a new world for me.

What were your first impressions of the Library?

I felt awestruck when I first arrived. The building had more original features that I’d imagined and I was impressed by the quiet and studious ambience of the Reading Room. I was also taken aback by the scale of the Library and its collections. I had two or three orientation tours of the Library that first day, which left me feeling quite exhausted and had my head spinning!

My first task in the Conservation Studio was to learn how to make a book box. Frances, the Library’s Preservation Assistant, was a great teacher. The atmosphere in the Collection Care department was wonderful. Everyone was really friendly and welcoming.

Tell us about the project you have been working on during your internship

I’ve been working on the Library’s holdings of The Lady magazine, which cover 1885 through to 1985. I had to draw up a survey of all the volumes to show which repairs would be needed, and once that was completed I got on with implementing the treatments. It has been a fabulous project and I’ve enjoyed looking through the magazines while I’ve been working on them. It made me smile to find a small feature on bookbinding as an ideal handicraft for the genteel lady at home! I found lots of wonderful adverts too, from shoes to hair tonic.

Some of the books were in fairly poor repair. There were quite a few broken headcaps to be repaired, and some of the spines were completely detached. Where the bookcloth covering had abraded, often at the corners, layers of book board had started to come apart or ‘delaminate’.

I’ve learnt so much through working on this project. I now know how to attach spines, insert pages, and even sew sections of a book together on a wooden frame. I’ve had a lot of practice in repairing tears. All the treatments I’ve done have used archival quality materials and where possible, have been in keeping with the book. For example, where I’ve needed to repair bindings with special lightweight linen, I’ve toned this to match the colour of the original binding.

Has anything surprised you?

Before I started my internship, I hadn’t realised how long each repair can take. You can be working on one volume, another thing will be drying so that you can carry out a further process on it, and you can easily find yourself with four or five books on the go at once! I soon realised I had to slow down and be patient, and found that if you take one step at a time you get a better result.

Has there been anything you’ve found difficult?

So much has been new to me, so of course I have needed guidance as I’ve undertaken different kinds of treatment for the first time. Rachel, the Library’s Conservator, has taken the time to demonstrate and explain each repair to me really clearly and she has also shared some of the tricks of the trade that help her to get a great finish.

Not long into the project, I realised that I needed to learn more about how books are made so that I could make the right decisions about how to repair them. The Library arranged for me to visit a commercial bindery to find out more. It was a fascinating day. The binder walked me through every stage of the bookbinding process and it was reassuring to find that some of the binding repairs I had found fiddly were also considered difficult by the professionals!

How would you sum up your time at the Library?

I’ve absolutely loved it, every minute of it. Would I recommend a placement to other conservation students? Definitely!

Advert for shoes in The Lady magazine

Advert for shoes in The Lady magazine

Bookbinding as 'a handicraft peculiarly suitable for women' (extract from The Lady)

Bookbinding as ‘a handicraft peculiarly suitable for women’ (extract from The Lady)

Books mid-treatment

Books mid-treatment

Jo at her workstation

Jo at her workstation

Learning to sew a book onto supports

Learning to sew a book onto supports

One of many volumes with badly damaged spines

One of many volumes with badly damaged spines

Some of the pages were badly crumpled and torn

Some of the pages were badly crumpled and torn

This illustrated advert for hair tonic raised a smile

This illustrated advert for hair tonic raised a smile

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Last week the Library saw a flurry of activity in the Back Stacks as our Collection Care team moved more than 36 metres of Topography volumes to a new location at the far side of the store. It is part of series of measures that we will be implementing this year to improve the housing of our open access collections.  By The London Library’s Head of Collection Care, Judith Finnamore.

In its former location, the Topography folio series had been subject to a dearth of deep shelving. Many books were overhanging the edge of their shelves by quite some length, rendering them unstable and at risk of being knocked, or even falling. Some other volumes had ended up being stored on their fore-edge. Each time one of these books was retrieved, some abrasion would occur along the edge of the binding, eventually wearing away the leather, cloth or paper cover that had been protecting – and decorating – the boards. Over time, the weight of the book’s pages would have caused them to become distorted and, in a worst case scenario, led to the whole textbook to dropping and detaching from the spine. It was time to take action!

Three busy days of measuring and re-pitching shelves, loading and wheeling trollies, amending shelfmarks and reshelving some extremely heavy books has resulted in a new and improved area for our largest topographical volumes. ‘Extra large’ tomes now benefit from being accommodated on an extra deep shelf, where they are properly supported and, as a result, easier and safer to retrieve and shelve. The move has also given us the opportunity to address areas of congestion, creating pockets of space into which the collections can expand.

We’re really pleased with the new series we’ve created, but we won’t be resting on our laurels. Work is ongoing to repair or rebind our most fragile Topography books, and the team will soon be moving back our quarto titles onto the vacant shelves where the folios used to be. Again, the aim will be to have better-housed books and to relieve tightly-packed areas of shelving, resulting in more space for our collections to grow and flourish in future.

Congested shelf before the move

Congested shelf with overhanging books

Overhanging books in the former sequence

Folio and extra large Topography volumes in their new sequence

Part of the new extra large folio series

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