Tag Archives: Conservation

Guest post: Conserving Edward Thomas’ herbarium

The following post comes from Pamela Murray, an MSc Conservation Practice Student at Cardiff University and conservation volunteer at Glamorgan Archives. She has been working on the Edward Thomas Conservation project as a student conservator thanks to the generous support of the National Manuscript Conservation Trust


Leaves and flowers are generally removed from archives or books collection, as this organic material encourages pests, stains paper and can be poisonous, but when they have been pressed between pages for over a century, a different approach must be considered. Herbarium collections can add value and depth to an archive, and can offer a new angle for research. Earlier this year, a herbarium collection of about 20 different plants was found within the Special Collections’ Edward Thomas archive. These pressed flowers and leaves were found in three different notebooks dated between 1895-1896, which had been selected to be conserved thanks to generous funding by the NMCT. Nature, and specifically the Welsh countryside, is known to be a major inspiration for Edward Thomas’ works.

Edward Thomas’ poem Thaw, 1916.

Part of the conservation activity funded by the NMCT grant included hinging the pressed plants with Japanese tissue to micro-chamber board, and encapsulating it, which would give support to the plant and protect it from exterior factors – mainly humidity and pests.  Part of any conservator’s job is to do huge amounts of research. I was very curious about herbariums, and came across many research papers warning of previous treatments that could be hazardous.

Previous treatments

It was common practice, as recently as the 1980s, to treat herbariums with mercury chloride as a disinfectant against pests. It would be applied in one of two ways – soaked, or brushed on with ethanol. Mercury chloride, although once used against syphilis, is extremely poisonous. It can reduce into metallic mercury, which is liquid at room temperature and can vaporise. Mercury vapour can build up to harmful levels when samples of treated plants are kept in boxes or between pages, and the vapour is highly poisonous if inhaled. The World Health Organisation has classified mercury as “extremely hazardous Class 1A”. The emission of mercury vapour from herbariums can be an occupational health hazard for collection workers and researchers.

How do  you know if the collection has been previously treated with mercury chloride?

There are a few ways to test for the presence of mercury chloride. Working in collaboration between Glamorgan Archives, Special Collections and Archives, and Cardiff University Conservation Department, we decided to use the Conservation department’s portable XRF. An XRF is an X-ray Fluorescent Spectrometer that determines what elements are present. It is a non-invasive technique, which is appropriate for rare collections and heritage objects.

A flower sample resting on the pXRF.

To explain briefly, the X-ray beam affects the atom, which releases a burst of energy that is characteristic of a specific element. This produces a graph which can be analysed. Under the guidance of PhD candidate Chris Wilkins, we tested all the samples. Luckily none of the samples came up with a positive reading for mercury chloride. We also looked for arsenic and lead, other common historical biocides that are classified as hazardous. All of the readings indicated that mercury, arsenic and lead were absent.

Graph of trace elements from pXRF.

Benefits of testing

Knowing that the herbarium has been tested ensures a safe working environment for archive workers and researchers. It also informs the storage plan for the herbarium. If samples were contaminated, then a form of ventilation would be required to ensure vapour ratios are within UK health and safety regulations. Testing the samples has improved the collection’s accessibility for readers and researchers, and allows further information to be uncovered. Sampling DNA, or categorising the plants would give us a fuller image of Edward Thomas’ landscape in the late 1800s.

Samples that have been hinged with Japanese tissue on MicroChamber board, before encapsulation.

The herbarium has been encapsulated, and remains between the pages of Edward Thomas notebooks. If you are interested in Edward Thomas’ notes, poetry or the plants that took his interest, they can all be found and explored safely in Special Collections and Archives.

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Guest post: Iron gall ink in the Edward Thomas manuscripts

The following post is courtesy of Pamela Murray, an MSc Conservation Practice Student at Cardiff University and conservation volunteer at Glamorgan Archives. She has been working on the Edward Thomas Conservation project as a student conservator thanks to the generous support of the National Manuscript Conservation Trust


Dating back to the 1st century AD and used all the way until the 19th century, iron gall ink was a common writing ink throughout Europe. It is made from iron sulphates, gum,   tannins  extracted from galls (generally oak tree galls), and water. There are different recipes and methods found throughout history to make iron gall ink, and some even include using wine.

Iron Gall Ink recipe ET blog

This is a recipe from the Dutch website dedicated to Iron Gall Ink: https://irongallink.org/igi_index78f9.html

So, one of the problems with this historic ink is that the degradation process of it can be detrimental to the paper or work of art it has been used for.

Excess iron sulphates Fe(II) accelerate the oxidation process in the paper or parchment due to their reaction with atmospheric oxygen. There are three signs of degradation:

  1. Halo-ing: when there is a faint spreading of the ink.
  2. Burnthrough: when the ink becomes increasingly visible on the reverse of the page.
  3. Lacing:  where the inked area is so weak and friable that it causes the paper to cracks and eventually fall out. this is possibly the most detrimental.

Luckily, none of the manuscripts from the Edward Thomas archive had lacing. They did, however, have  a slight haloing. In order to test the paper for iron gall ink, we dipped an indicator paper impregnated with bathophenanthroleine is dipped in deionised water and spot tested on an appropriate area. The bathophenanthroleine reacts with ferrous ions to form a pink complex.

Many of the Edward Thomas notebooks tested positive for iron gall ink, meaning that none of the papers can be treated with water because the ferrous ions could spread, causing further degradation. Luckily for us, in a paper written in 1995, Neeval suggested a calcium phytate aquaeous treatment, where the phytate chellates the iron (II) ions. It  does not break down Iron (III) because it is a stable molecule, so that means the ink doesn’t fade. However, this treatment strategy has been met with some challenges because it is highly interventive, and there have been many international projects looking into the treatment of iron gall ink with calcium phytate. (Kolar et al. 2005, Kolbe 2004, Tse et al., 2005, Zappala and De Stefani 2005, Botti et al. 2005, Hofmann et al. 2004, Jembrih-Simbürger et al. 2004, Reissland and de Groot 1999.)

Testing ET Notebook

Testing one of Edward Thomas’ notebooks. The pink complex indicates ferrous ions present in the ink.

Looking at the altenatives, this is the most effective aqueous method of prolonging iron gall ink’s life time with minimal side effects. So, it was agreed that treating the notebooks in question with a calcium phytate bath was the best step forward to prevent further damage due to iron gall ink.

It is with thanks to the National Manuscript Conservation Trust and the Glamorgan Archives that the Edward Thomas manuscripts housed at Cardiff University’s Special Collections and Archives could be treated and conserved accordingly. In the same breath, it has served as an important learning tool for myself as a conservation student.

Mixing Calcium

Mixing up the calcium carbonate and phytate acid to make calcium phytate.

The BBC has a great clip about iron gall ink: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p033dbrb  in BBC Four’s documentary Oak Tree: Nature’s Greatest Survivor. The full programme can be purchased from the BBC Store.

References:

Neevel, J. (2009). Application Issues of the Bathophenanthroline Test for Iron(II) Ions. Restaurator 30, pp.3–15.

http://www.kennisvoorcollecties.nl/en/projects/collection-risk-management/paper-heritage-metamorfoze/ink-corrosion/

http://www.averybazemore.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/Bazemore_Avery_MA_thesis_16092016.pdf

https://irongallink.org/igi_index888e.html

 

Archives Wales Forum 2013: Working Together

Maesmawr Hall Hotel, Caersws

Maesmawr Hall Hotel, Caersws

This week I travelled to sunny Caersws for the annual Archives Wales Forum. Held in a Tudor manor house, the conference was attended by archivists from across the country, from Anglesey to Gwent. The theme was ‘working together’, and over a fully packed day, we heard from twenty speakers on a wide range of topics from educational outreach to catalogue conversion.

The guest speaker, Dr Aled Jones, Chief Executive and Librarian of the National Library of Wales (NLW), began the day by introducing the Library’s recently launched strategy document, Knowledge for All: Strategic Direction 2014-2017.

Morning speakers included Sally McInnes on the NLW’s £20.4 million Heritage Lottery Fund bid for a national Conservation Centre, which is proposed to be built onto the area of the National Library’s building affected by April’s fire. Alwyn Roberts (NLW) reported on a project to use volunteers to transcribe shipping records, and Elspeth Jordan (National Museum of Wales) discussed their £600,000 Esmée Fairbairn funded project to conserve, digitise and carry out research on a sample from their photography collection. Both Kerry Robinson from Powys Archives and Steven Davies from Flintshire Record Office spoke about using affordable portable scanners to digitise collections and catalogues. I gave a presentation on SCOLAR’s support for a new undergraduate module in the School of English – Project Management and Research – in which students undertake workplace-based projects in exchange for course credit, in order to develop employability skills prior to graduation.

The afternoon sessions focused on a number of educational outreach projects undertaken by Gwent, West Glamorgan, Anglesey and Glamorgan Archives, involving children as young as 3. All are successfully working with teachers to link local collections in with National Curriculum themes. Sarah Winning from Denbighshire archives spoke about their WordPress blog, launched to save staff time in writing annual reports and newsletters and to help reach a new online audience.

One of the most impressive presentations of the day came from Andrew Dulley of West Glamorgan Archives Service. Andrew produced an award-winning short film of the Olympic torch relay route, as it would have looked in 1908 Swansea. The resulting film is slick, professional, and successfully brings history to life – but it cost nothing to produce. Andrew used free software to carry out all transitions, image editing and sound editing, and obtained free music and sound effects under a Creative Commons licence.  It is a superb example of what archives across Wales are managing to achieve despite financially straitened times, with a bit of hard work, ingenuity and imagination!

Archives and accountability

This was the central theme of the UK and Ireland annual conference of the Archives and Records Association (the professional body for archivists) which met in Cardiff this autumn, with over 200 delegates.

The conference explored the authenticity and reliability of archival records. Talks ranged from their role in the Hillsborough Panel report, including  allegations of doctored records of the football disaster, to the role of archives as a ‘trusted repository’ in areas of conflict, such as Northern Ireland and the American black civil rights movement, both in recent memory. ARA_breakoutAs well as the main talks, there was an opportunity to participate in small break-out groups, which discussed issues affecting the profession – including workforce diversity, professional membership, collecting policies, and archival descriptive standards.

The first keynote speech was from Sarah Tyacke, previously Chief Executive of the National Archives at Kew in London, and member of the Hillsborough Independent Panel. The second was from Dr Jones Lukose Ongalo, Head of Archives at the International Criminal Court, The Hague. ARA_LukoseHe described the many precautions taken to ensure the security and authenticity of its war crimes’ evidence, given that the ICC is the world’s first wholly digital archive. They were joined by a wide range of speakers from organisations based all over the world.

Talks on conservation took place alongside those on archives, with both conservators and archivists encouraged to attend one another’s sessions. Conservation speakers included Jane Henderson from Cardiff University (School of History, Archaeology and Religion), Sarah Paul from CyMAL, (the National Assembly’s agency for archives, museums and libraries in Wales) and Emma Dadson, Director of Harwell Restoration.

Relating the theme of authenticity and accountability back to our own work context was not too difficult. We use examples from our archives in workshops with our students, to question and challenge the idea of ‘evidence’ (how it is preserved, and how reliably), and to highlight the difference between responsibly curated archival documents, and the potential transiency and unreliability of sources found online.

For more information, please visit the Archives and Record Association conference page.

Innovative Historical Conservation in SCOLAR

A seminar in the University Library organized by SCOLAR showcased two new innovative methods of conservation for rare books – one to extend the lifespan of the books, the other to extend our knowledge of the history of those books and their bindings.

A guest speaker from Northampton’s Leather Conservation Centre, Lara Meredith, a professional conservator, outlined a new technique for combating acidification in leather, which causes red dusty rot of the material. The new technique will give at least another generation of life to rare books suffering from ‘red rot’.

A second speaker, Professor Nicholas Pickwoad, of the University of the Arts London, has devised a new methodology for analysing, identifying, and describing the historical physical structure of rare books – in a way which opens up a whole new field for extending our knowledge of the early origins, production, trade, and use of rare books. Such new data will trace the historical and geographical journey of volumes, and chronicle the narrative of their use over the centuries, the ‘archaeology of the book’ as Prof. Pickwoad noted. Such studies based on whole collections could open up whole new layers of historical evidence to enhance our understanding of the material conditions which prevailed in the book trade and libraries, and of individual ownership and use of books since the dawn of printing in the 15th century.

Dr Thanasis Velios, a colleague of Prof. Pickwoad, demonstrated the database he has created to capture the layers of data discovered using the new methodology of analysis of binding structures and materials, and showed the potential to utilize the data for a range of potential research fields across the Humanities.

An external conservation grant from the Colwinston Trust, negotiated via Development and Alumni Relations (DEVAR), has enabled conservation already to begin on the Cardiff Rare Books Collection, and enabled this seminar, which was attended by University academics, librarians, archivists, and staff from the National Museum of Wales Library and Glamorgan Archives, to take place.