State Library of Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 45 Autumn 1990


Conservation: A Joint Effort

As long as documents have been created they have suffered the ravages of time and the need has arisen to repair them. Similarly, the conservation of library materials has been practised as long as libraries have existed. Traditional methods of conservation evolved using similar materials to those used in the first place for making the scroll, book or whatever. Such methods still have their place in the conservation of cultural property such as in the case of Japanese screens which may be totally dismantled, the pictures cleaned and the screen reconstructed every century or so: just an extended spring clean. However, less traditional conservation techniques have developed using materials closer to hand or thought to be better. This has lead to many restorations themselves resulting in further and sometimes worse damage. What has been different about conservation in museums, including art galleries, libraries and other institutions in the West in recent times has been the introduction of more rigorously based scientific conservation. In theory, scientific conservation practices are based on a thorough understanding of the materials being conserved, of any materials employed in conservation treatment and of the factors that contribute to the appearance, stability and deterioration of the object. ‘In theory’ is used advisedly since, in actual fact, to some extent fashion still prevails and very questionable conservation treatments have been carried out under the guise of scientific conservation. Modern synthetic chemicals considered as stable and durable have in some instances proved to be prone to oxidation, yellowing in the process and are then difficult to remove. However, the profession has reached a stage where a great deal more caution is evident and treatments tend to be more conservative in their execution and less ambitious in their objectives. No longer do conservators endeavour to make objects look new. ‘Learn to live with your spots’ is one colleague's motto. And if the spots are not harmful and do not pose a serious problem aesthetically, then so one should. However, not many years ago it was considered quite appropriate to use strong oxidizing agents to remove stains and spots from prints and drawings, ignoring the weakening of the paper that must accompany such treatment.
Controversies of some moment have developed around such issues and will continue. The cleaning of the paintings in the collections of the National Gallery in London became a matter of debate in the newspapers of the day in the 1960s, resulting in the establishment of a scientific section. It is arguable whether this has been the solution as the general issue is not dead and has been raised in more recent times by a highly qualified paintings conservator Sarah Walden. Of course such discussion is healthy and if nothing else should signal caution to those working in the field.
It is issues such as these that have led to the establishment of professional bodies dedicated to the practice of soundly based and adequately documented treatment. In Britain the International Institute for the Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works was founded at much the same time, and more recently the Australian Institute for the Conservation of Cultural Material has been established.
Thus from the craft tradition has emerged a new profession based on awareness that if objects of cultural significance are to be preserved for posterity then the process of deterioration must be understood and realistic preventive measures taken. When treatment of an object is necessary it is recognised that the result can often only slow the deterioration and thus allowance must be made for the possibility of further future treatment such as removing a consolidant, adhesive or varnish. Such considerations lie behind the ethics of selecting reversible techniques whenever possible and ensuring that adequate records of any treatment are retained.
This has been recognized in institutions with responsibility for the care of cultural property in the way conservation problems are approached. At the Library of Congress the care and repair of each collection was the responsibility of the associated custodial division of the Library, so for example the Manuscript Division had its own staff to undertake its own repairs. However, it was recognized that the conservation problems of the Library were so grave that a comprehensive approach was required if the limited resources were to be used most effectively in the battle against time to save the country's printed and documentary heritage. As a result conservation activities and the monitoring of the implementation of conservation policy were brought together in a Preservation Division.
The flooding of the river Arno in Florence in 1966 damaged so many of the books and paintings stored in the Biblioteca Nazionale, Centrale Galleria degli Uffizi, surrounding churches and other treasure
houses that it served better than any international congress to gather together the world's expertise on the salvage and restoration of cultural property. Of course many of the techniques already existed to repair these objects. However, in the case of books in particular it quickly became clear that new approaches were required if a successful recovery was to be mounted. Modern materials such as man-made adhesives in the hands of dexterous although previously untrained workers repaired the thousands of volumes to an archivally acceptable standard. The positive result of this episode was a strong impetus to take a fresh, more realistic look at the huge problems of preserving the disintegrating research collections in many of the major institutions such as the Library of Congress, the New York Public Library and the British Museum. In essence each of these was in need of salvaging not as a result of an overnight disaster but rather from the inexorable combined effects of handling and time on the unstable materials from which books and documents are made. Of particular concern has been the embrittlement of paper caused in large part by the development of alternative sources of cellulose fibre after supplies of cotton rag failed to meet the demand for paper. These problems are not unknown in Australia.
Until forty years ago the prevailing view was that high quality paper could only be manufactured from cellulose originating from cotton and that papers made from less pure sources were inherently less stable. It is true that cellulose obtained from other sources tends to be either modified in the process of extraction from less pure sources such as wood or grass (esparto grass was a popular source until processes for pulping wood were invented) or contaminated by natural products such as lignin present in the raw material and of no structural value to the final paper. However, research undertaken thirty years ago established that it was the acid in paper that was the common factor responsible for its embrittlement. In a private laboratory in Richmond, Virginia, funded by the Ford Foundation, William Barrow undertook a research programme on the chemistry of paper pursuing the notion that a paper made from a high quality wood pulp containing an alkaline buffer such as chalk would be as permanent as rag paper. As a result a neighbouring paper mill changed its process to manufacture only such acid free papers. A process for the deacidification of archival documents was developed and remains the basis of a method used by conservators today.
The process that Barrow developed involved moistening the paper with water-based neutralizing and buffering solutions. This was a time-consuming process often involving breaking the book up and rebinding it at the end. Two processes have since been developed in the United States that have overcome the problems associated with the use of water. One is based on the use of a deacidifying agent dissolved in an anhydrous organic solvent and the other on diethyl zinc vapour. The Library of Congress anticipates treating material being added to the printed collection with diethyl zinc to preclude the possibility of embrittlement from acid attack. The treatment does nothing to strengthen already deteriorated paper and a satisfactory method for the bulk consolidation of books has yet to be developed although a method has been devised for single sheet material by the Getty Conservation Institute in Los Angeles.
Ground wood pulp papers such as newsprint contain not only acid but also lignin, a resinous product in wood. Lignin is the substance responsible for the rapid browning of newsprint. It is readily oxidized producing acid as it does so. Unlike cellulose this oxidation is not inhibited by alkalinity and thus deacidification is not considered to be a solution to the problem of conserving newspapers.
The recycling of paper foreshadows even more complex problems as it may contain any of the materials found with paper. Papers have already been noted in which it is possible to recognize crumbs of rubber band and slicks of binding adhesive. Interestingly, locally made recycled paper is being made by an acid free process. However, it is not made to a very demanding specification and market pressure may induce manufacturers to add more size, probably acidic.
Only in the smallest and best financially endowed libraries is it possible to maintain the collections in pristine condition. In most institutions preservation programmes must involve activity at a number of levels ranging from the provision of a better storage climate to the treatment of individual items. It must also include training of staff and users to handle material safely, and protect items already in need of attention from further damage until conservators are available, if ever, to carry out the repairs. Thus taking preventive measures that delay the need to give treatment to individual items is essential to a balanced programme.
Paper and the other materials that books are made from are very responsive to the climate both physically and chemically. Adverse temperatures, humidity and the presence of pollutants must be taken into account. High humidity is conducive to the development of mould and microbes which
devour the size, cellulose and protein, weakening the paper and leather. Low humidity is less destructive but in drying out the book becomes more rigid and thus prone to fracture and tearing. High temperatures accelerate the chemical processes of deterioration and, all else being equal, lower the relative humidity. Conversely, low temperatures reduce the rate of deterioration and with effective humdity control offer the librarian an excellent means of reducing the effects of time. Pollutants such as sulphur dioxide, the active ingredient in acid rain, are extremely harmful to paper serving in this case to introduce sulphuric acid into the paper. Sulphur dioxide has been particularly destructive to the collections of the New York Public Library, one of the richest research collections in the world. Thanks to the use of fossil fuels for heating, electricity production and the internal combustion engine, all heavily populated areas are affected by this pollution.
Photographic plates, film and prints respond to the climate even more dramatically than books. Some colour film fades even in the dark. Magnetic recording media have special storage and handling requirements.
Storage materials and equipment — shelving, plan cabinets, boxes and folders — should all be designed and constructed to provide safe storage and allow risk-free handling of the items. Simple boxes are playing an ever-increasing role in protecting books that previously would have sat unprotected on open shelves. Experience has shown that even without being issued, books in mint condition can be worn out just by being on shelves with busy neighbours, such is the amount of moving about that a book may be subjected to. Given the huge number of books in a state of disrepair in any of the major public research collections, the limited funds available to carry out repairs and the need nevertheless to take some action
to contain the damage, the principle of a phased conservation programme has been developed. Arising from this has been the ‘phase box’ a simple box designed to fit the book exactly, prepared from acid free board and requiring little skill to construct.
Much material is of value more for its information content than for any intrinsic value. Where the material is of a poor physical quality such as newsprint then the preservation needs are met to a large degree by transferring the information to another base by creating surrogates. To date microfilm production and facsimile publication often on acid free paper have been the main methods used. However, electronic storage media can be expected to take the leading position as industry standards become more allied with archival needs. Even for material with high intrinsic value surrogates are a useful way of deflecting use away from archival material. Here the optical disk is already proving to be an exciting new tool. Whilst the images may not be of a high resolution they are quite adequate to ascertain whether an original pictorial source is relevant or useful for a particular enquiry. Combined with a computer this system makes pictorial material more accessible than ever before, at the same time minimizing the handling of original material.
As can be seen the conservation of library collections requires the participation of not just conservators but all staff who handle the material or have a part to play in its storage and use. Art galleries, museums and archives along with libraries all have conservation responsibilities and in all cases effective programmes of preserving their collections depend on the accurate assessment of priorities. This is a particularly complex issue in libraries where an understanding of the significance of each book or item on the basis of its value as a source of information now and in the future, its vulnerability to the effects of time, and the amount of handling the item must endure, must all be taken into account in determining what are appropriate conservation measures. Thus, for example, a rare book of unquestionable value in poor condition may be left untreated as it is basically stable and unlikely to be used by anyone who will not handle it having regard for its condition. Indeed the damage may permit the user to learn more about the book's structure than if it were to be repaired.
The purpose for which the book was acquired may also affect the conservation treatment it receives. Thus one copy of a Victorian title may be acquired for archival purposes, that is preserved for posterity, while a second may be acquired to meet the needs of readers expecting to find their needs met from an “open access” collection. The first may receive minimal treatment as it will not be handled whereas the second may be reinforced to meet heavy usage and thus protect the archival copy.
Developing strategies to deal with those often conflicting requirements is the task of the Library Conservation Department working closely with other Library professionals. Indeed it can be argued that our success at this is crucial in reinforcing the State Library of Victoria to take its rightful place amongst the great Libraries of the world.


  • A. D. Baynes-Cope, Care for books and documents, (London, British Library, 1989).

  • British Standard Institution, British standard: Recommendations for the storage and exhibition of archival documents BS 5454 (London, BSI, 1989).

  • Tamara Lavrencic, Storage and preservation of paper records (Brisbane, Queensland State Archives, 1987). Helen Price, Stopping the rot: a handbook of preventive conservation for local collections (Sydney, Australia Library and Information Association, N.S.W. Branch, 1988). Recent setbacks in conservation Vol 1 (Ottawa, International Institute for Conservation — Canadian Group, 1985).

  • Sara Walden, The ravished image or how to ruin masterpieces by restoration (London, Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1988).

Carolyn Dew from the Photographic Section copying Australian Manuscripts as part of the Preservation Microfilming programme.