30 Jul 2018


Highly Commended post in the Conul Training and Development Library Assistant Blog Award 2018. 
This post is by Sarah Graham, Maynooth University Library 

When I am asked what a book and paper conservator is, the usual response is ‘you must have a lot of patience’ or ‘you must be good at jigsaw puzzles’. In reality, neither is true. Instead a rich mixture of history, science, ethics and practical bench skills informs my practice in the studio and helps me in the protection of our cultural heritage. It is important to protect these individual, physical, bound items as they inform our understanding of how the information within was read and shared over the centuries. This is especially so when the text is rare or unique. There are a number of preventive measures used to mitigate future damage from use or environment but sometimes interventive treatment is necessary to consolidate deteriorating material. This blog will look at the first volume I conserved in Special Collections and Archives after joining the team last February, the manuscript written by Seán Clárach Mac Domhnaill in 1720.

Request for Digitisation: 
In early 2018 the Churchtown North Cork Heritage Group requested a number of pages from this manuscript as they wished to have the surrogate pages bound and displayed in their meeting house. It belongs to the collection of fifty Gaelic manuscripts from St Coleman’s College, Fermoy which was brought to Maynooth in 2013. Further information can be found in the MU Library Treasures blog by Yvettte Campbell. Volume 20 (Gaelic Ms. Vol. 20) contains multiple items. The first hundred pages are the manuscript followed by; a list of Subscribers, part of the Dublin Chronicle (6th October 1817) and Keating’s History of Ireland.

Figure 1:Tears and burns to text block.                                                                              Losses of paper and previous repairs.
©Maynooth University

Assessment of the condition: 
Digitisation requires significant handling and it is important to assess the risk to the original material beforehand. It was agreed that in its pre-treatment state, the volume was too fragile and there was risk of losing unique information. The first third of the volume had large tears and significant losses of paper (especially true for the first few pages) and the old repairs were both obscuring text and damaging the page substrate. The list of subscribers also has structural tears and areas of the page are detached.

Figure 2:List of subscribers before and after treatment
©Maynooth University

Treatment of the volume: 
This manuscript has a half-leather binding and the leather on the joints and corners was beginning to chemically deteriorate. A consolidant (a mixture of klucel G and isopropanol called Cellugel) was applied to improve the cohesive strength of the leather. As this was evaporating, the text block was cleaned with smoke sponges. Most of the dirt was already ingrained but this removed surface particles which could be abrasive to the paper.

Previous repairs had been adhered with a weak water sensitive adhesive. In many areas adhesion had already failed but removal was assisted with moisture from wheat starch paste where necessary. This was replaced with Tengujo paper (12gsm) as it is thin enough to read the text underneath but still strong enough to hold the repair together. Wheat starch paste was also used here, but as an adhesive this time. There were significant losses around the edges and a heavier weight Usumino paper (28gsm) was used as it was similar in weight and thickness to the pages of the manuscript. The infill was ‘cut’ out using a needle to ensure a fibrous edge and attached to the page on either side with Tengujo and wheat starch paste.

Figure 3: Infilling loss of paper; before, during and after treatment.
©Maynooth University

There were no structural problems with the binding. Both boards were firmly attached and the spine was intact. However, the leather had split at the head and tail of the left board joint and leather had been lost from the corners. The corners were originally made of leather but I chose to repair with a toned Japanese paper. It is a strong and quick repair and the tissue can easily be matched with the original leather. However, it is different enough in texture and depth to look like a contemporary intervention in the volume.

Figure 4: Front of binding before and after treatment
©Maynooth University

The privileged position I am in as a conservator means I have the time to become familiar with these beautiful volumes and see them in a temporary deconstructed state. It is so exciting that this often time-consuming and always delicate work has allowed more people to see the lovely handwriting within. The original may be in a four-flap enclosure on a secure self in the Russell Library but its digital surrogate is publicly available.


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