Tuesday, 7/23: British Library Conservation Studio
A little seen place inside the British Library is the Conservation Studio, where they perform a series of repairs and renovations to items in need. It was really interesting to see the "behind the scenes" work that goes on at one of the largest libraries in the world.
When items are sent to the Conservation Studio, it's not as easy as slapping on some duct tape and calling it a day.. there is serious work, sometimes delicate and intricate, to get the items back to usable condition. Hours are a form of currency, and therefore the jobs are billed by the hour, and it is rather impressive to find out how many hours may go into a job. Departments work closely to determine the best, and most cost efficient way of proceeding with a certain job, possibly varying techniques and materials to allow for the best possible result for a specific item. One of the most common materials used is Japanese tissue, a fibrous paper-like material with varying thicknesses that can repair tears in the pages of a book.
We had the unique opportunity to see the Finishing Room... and it's not what you think. It's all about the gold! Finishing is the art of gold, and gold leaf application to books and other items. It is a skill that requires a lot of training and even more experience, and only the brave of heart make a name for themselves at this delicate procedure. The small, gold sheets are so thin and fragile, and it only takes the slightest pressure for it to rub off, though it takes immense pressure and rubbing to make it stick to the covers of books. Gold leaf is even more so, requiring a suede-covered block and special knife for application. Very little finishing is done anymore, and I think that that is such a shame. It is a dying art that is losing ground quickly due not only to costs, but also the ever-increasing amount of non-physical items in a library (i.e., digital books and journals). Additionally, the average item will not need to have gold finishing applied to its binding.
This was one of my favorites, not only because it's super interesting, but also because it really shows the book as an object itself, rather than just a source of textual information. The physical aspects are sometimes forgotten, and can be taken for granted as we think we can just replace an item if it gets worn out. But books are not indestructible, nor are they cheap, and some are even irreplaceable. It is organizations such as this conservation studio that allows institutions to maintain their collections for longer period of time, thus allowing users to have more complete and better access to information.