In the Conservation Studio

Hi, my name is Rachel Day. I’m a Postgraduate student at West Dean College working towards an MA in Conservation of Books and Library materials. As part of the course I have spent the last six weeks as an intern here in Aberdeen at the Special Collections Centre. As it comes up to the end of my time here I thought I’d write a bit about one of the projects I’ve been working on.

Rachel Day, conservation intern at SCC working on a papyrus project
Rachel working on a fragment of papyrus in the Glucksman Conservation Centre.

In addition to books and paper documents the University’s archive collection holds a large number of works on parchment. Parchment is a material made into sheets by preparing the skin of an animal, often goat or calf. In ancient and medieval times it was often used as a writing surface. For the purposes of this project I focused on a selection of parchment documents that were stored unfolded and flat in a plan chest. A number of them had pendant seals which can be very delicate and present a particular challenge in terms of safe housing.

These items were part of a larger collection which includes a variety show of pieces, on both parchment and paper, that span hundreds of years; from a letter written by Mary, Queen of Scots to unidentified miscellaneous papers collected by ecclesiologist Francis Eeles and later donated to the archive. The main focus of my project was the historical charters relating to Marischal College.

Existing housing for parchment document (Ref: MSK 256/6/3).
One of the parchment documents in its existing housing: sandwiched flat between two boards, one of the pendant seals protected by a lightly padded seal bag (Ref: MSK 256/6/3).

This collection is being looked at as a precursor to a re-housing project to give the pieces that need it more appropriate storage. To collect information for this project I created a survey and did a sample evaluation of one drawer of the collection. The results showed that of the sample surveyed most were being stored simply sandwiched between two pieces of board. As over half of the pieces have seals, some of which aren’t even in seal bags, this type of housing could be considered inappropriate for both storage and handling.

Example of current housing (Ref: MSK 256/17/3).
Another example of current housing that is not providing adequate support for the pendant seal (Ref: MSK 256/17/3).

I also found that all but one of the documents surveyed has some sort of information on the reverse. In the case of the charters, i.e. the documents with seals, the writing on the reverse is only a small inscription rather than a second full page of text. However, this inscription is also where you will find the date the charter was written. The rest have the same amount of text on both sides of the sheet making it difficult to tell which is the front.

Parchment with full text on both sides (Ref: MS 2379).
Document from the collection of Francis Eeles papers, with full text on both sides (Ref: MS 2379).

The main problems with documents that have important information on both sides is finding a way to house them which will allow people to handle them by the mount and yet still be able to turn them over. As they are housed now all the information is accessible but readers are likely to handle the document directly in order to access it. This is likely to lead to mechanical damage and dirty documents.

Having anticipated this problem I had previously researched current methods of mounting and housing, hoping to find a solution. Unfortunately I just ran into more problems. After looking through multiple articles I came to the conclusion that most of the current methods of mounting double sided parchment were adhesive in nature.

This is a problem because you don’t want to use adhesive on parchment unless you absolutely have to. Parchment is extremely sensitive to moisture so even an adhesive like wheat starch paste that is widely used in book and paper conservation is likely to cause some distortion. The parchment will suck in the moisture from the paste and expand causing it to become wavy, or cockled. And that’s even before you need to take it out of its mount again later, which will require the application of more moisture to release the adhesion of the paste.

However, there are a few methods of mounting and housing that don’t use adhesive.

Ignoring the conundrum of double sided-ness for a moment, let’s venture into the topic of non-adhesive housing. One of the charters within the collection has already been re-housed. The technique does require the document to be removed from the mount to be able to access the back but other than that it is a good solution to housing important, single sheet parchment documents.

Non-adhesive mounting housed in a custom-made clamshell box (Ref: MSK 256/43/1).
The Foundation Bull of Pope Alexander VI, 1495 an example of non-adhesive mounting housed in a custom-made clamshell box (Ref: MSK 256/43/1).

This method requires making a clamshell box large enough to house the document, and the seal if applicable, and therefore is costly in time, resources and storage space. However, it provides the document with a secure housing and the support board can be removed from the box for better handling or display. ‘V’ shaped strips of polyester at the edges hold the document in place while allowing it freedom of movement if the environmental conditions fluctuate and cause the parchment to distort. The seal cup consists of two curved strips of Melinex standing proud of the board. This will hold the seal in place protecting it and preventing unnecessary stress from being put on the cord it’s attached to.

Rachel’s housing solution (Ref: MSK 256/43/10).
Rachel’s housing solution for the Bull of Indulgence, Pope Julius II, 1506 (Ref: MSK 256/43/10).

A variation on this method that is less time consuming to make, though slightly less sturdy, involves housing a similar support set up in a different type of box. Starting with a piece of box board the same size as the mount you can construct the equivalent of a box. From this you construct a tray with walls slightly above the height of the seal cup, which in this instance is made of thin card. This tray is then glued into a case made of the same material consisting of a lid, base and spine that are connected by a strip of cloth along the spine. As can be seen above it was this type of box that I decided was the best solution, though I used polyester strips over the corners rather than along the edges. It is an appropriate compromise between construction time and sturdiness.

With either of these variations access to the reverse of the document can be given via a high quality image included within the storage box.

This project was only one of many things that I got to do during my internship here but unfortunately it was the last. I have enjoyed my time here immensely and I’m sure I’ll miss it and all the wonderful people I’ve met when I go. But for me it’s back off down south, back to college and back to working on my MA.

Thanks for reading!

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