After the course: the British Library and its conservation laboratory.

Why is it that cultural institutions world wide seem to feel the brunt of funding cuts? Who gets funding increases? Is it that the administration of things has gone viral and we are now paying more for bureaucrats than for the people actually do the work, who create the interesting stuff?

Exterior of entrance to British Library

On Sunday after my course finished I went on a bit of a reconnoitre. I knew my apartment was close, and since I didn’t want to be late for my appointment at the preservation lab on the Monday morning, I thought I’d take a closer first look at London’s foremost book repository.

King’s library near the cafe

Its exterior belies what treasures can be found in its interior. I wandered around the large empty halls, not really knowing where to start. I thought a cup of tea might be the place; and on the way I found the philatelic collection. They had stacks of pull-out drawers with English stamps. The café was located at the base of the King’s Library collection. It stands behind many feet of glass, extending beyond where I could see. Unfortunately the café was closed.

So I wandered around the building, looking quickly over the displays in the treasure galleries. Without a purpose I feel quite listless in cultural institutions. At least I knew my way there for the morrow.

Monday morning: after croissants at Les Deux Amis, I made my way in the drizzle to the British Library for my first laboratory visit of the trip.

After such an intense week in the dark looking at books and bindings, I was keen to get back to the bench, anyone’s bench.

Before the walkthrough, Robert Brodie, their public relations officer, took me through their workflow procedures: how items get to preservation, and the processes through which they go in the department. To begin, various departments whose collections need attention, work through a bidding system for time in the laboratory; based on time, a worth number is assigned to each bidder. On this basis the whole year in conservation is planned and different collections get assigned a certain amount of work time and priority. This was significant because within our library we are looking for ways to prioritize our work.

Within the library they use the PCMS (Preservation conservation management system), which keeps track of jobs and books electronically throughout their journey from one department to another.

The Conservation department consists of 6 teams of about 5-6 people. Each team has their own station and their own wet area. Each team deals with a particular collection or department within the library. The teams are made up of paper conservators, binders and all rounders, both paper and book conservators.

The conservation lab at the British Library  is located on a spacious two floors. In the two floors that Preservation cover there are specialist rooms such as the paring room for leather work,

the finishing room, with many drawers of type and tools and the expert finisher

the finisher

and the stores room.

After Robert’s whirlwind tour, he left me in the capable hands of Chris Day.

Chris and I discussed the intricacies of binding repairs. As I am fairly knew to this business I was keen to see how others did spine repairs; I was curious to see if other labs also used commercial paste, or if they solely used starch paste. Most of the repairs that passed through the lab were on major items. The British Library is also a legal deposit library, so they received  paperbacks and all manner of books.  Repairs to such items are not necessarily done in the lab.

In essence, the way they look at books is the same as us, except that their books are so much older than ours. By comparison, some of our treasures would possibly be just an average, alright  perhaps more than average, book in their collection.

Chris took me to meet with the finisher in the tooling room. Unfortunately there were visiting Russian librarians and I did not have the opportunity to talk with him. As we walked around the separate rooms that made up the laboratory we talked about binding repairs and and the state of binding in the UK.

At the end of the day, life in the bindery wasn’t so different to the one at home. It’s bigger, better equipped and has more staff. The binding techniques remain the same; the paperwork is slightly different.

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