British Library Day Thirteen: Conservation and Picture Library/Studios


A bit of a sad day today as it hit me that I only have two days left after this. I’ve just gotten my balance it seems, and now I’ll be leaving. I’ll actually miss everyone – strange as it seems after spending most of my time outside of the department. Without a question though, everyone has been lovely. They all have a smile or nod for you. People who I’ve shadowed with have been extraordinarily willing to take time out of their day to show me their work and collection – as well as show me back to where I need to be. One person even helped make the cafeteria experience a lot less stressful just by stopping and asking if I was alright and did I need a card because they don’t take money (I did, thankfully, as Lynn had set me up with one, but I have no doubt this person would have offered to get my lunch otherwise).

Anyway, this morning I came in earlier than my schedule said, and went out onto the science desk with Lynn. Apart from a log in query it was extremely quiet, even when Leslie arrived, and we ended up talking about transport issues, and movies.
After a break for some food, I had a tour of the conservation centre, which was absolutely fascinating. And unfortunately we were moving so fast that I didn’t have time to make many notes and have to rely solely on memory.

The conservation Centre Leader, Robert, met me at the entrance to the conservation centre, which is one of those areas like the basements where you need special clearance to enter past the welcome area. He showed me some of the stamps on display for creating engravings in leather covers (they have a specific name, but I can’t remember it) and in themselves they are impressive objects. Also in the entranceway he told me about a particular ‘cursed’ volume which had been crafted so beautifully it sold for a huge amount of money, but was lost the way to the buyer as it was being shipped on the Titanic. Not long after, in an unrelated event, the maker drowned himself, saving another swimmer. The volume was remade, but lost again in a fire. Luckily, the third time was the charm.

Robert explained that the conservation jobs are not assigned or decided upon by cost, but by man hours available. He keeps a running list of all the budgeted hours for the department. Curators put in bids for items to chosen for conservation, which must include information such as the value of the item, its use, rarity and condition.

Robert spoke to me about the structure of the team, saying that each supervisor had a particular area to look after e.g. accounts, public outreach, security. Robert was more on the accounts side of things (though naturally there is bleed-through, and all members of the team seem to do some hands on conservation work) and he showed me both the systems used for tracking jobs and signing them in and out, as well as how he tallied up the hours each project took.

Robert also showed me some examples of the bids curators sent in, and the queries that went back and forth about them, along with some images of the items in question. He also showed me a few of the items that were on his desk, either completed or needing work. Part of this particular section of the tour meant that I got an explanation of some of the different rebinding and boxing options. Among the things I do remember from this chat is that often archival cream paper is insert between or around the fragile content. This paper is Ph neutral, with a high cotton content and comes in several weights, all super-fine. We looked at a book where some of the pages had been resewn and I honestly couldn’t see anything along the join, which is pretty amazing.

We talked a bit about security, and Robert pointed out the locked cupboards along the room for storing items which have been/will be repaired. These cupboards are also fireproof. The conservation lab has a storage area protected with gas as well, so if a fire does break out it can be chemically suppressed.

The rest of the tour was walking around the lab. Among other things, I got shown the baths used for cleaning or liquid-treating items. I still can’t quite get my head around that concept, to be honest. I saw the stamping workshop, and how the gold imprints are applied. Robert dumped some gold in my hand and it got all over everything.

We spoke a little about the requirements to become a conservator, where-in I admitted that it interested me, but that I didn’t think I had the right type of brain to get through the pre-requisite science. Robert himself had entered through an apprenticeship some 40 odd years beforehand (precise year-span subject to faulty memory) and hadn’t had a chemistry background, however having done the job for so long he knows exactly what he needs to.

After lunch, I had the afternoon in the picture studios. The department has what was described to me as a three-pronged approach, which makes sense when you know that it is one of the only commercial departments of the library.
The department is comprised of studio, picture library, and administration. The department is responsible for commissioned image digitisation (patrons and companies requesting images to keep), as well as for the picture library which I have to admit I never explored in detail.

Administration is in charge of approving or denying requests (usually down to copyright – if consumer signs a form saying the item is for personal use they can usually have 10%), checking whether there are already surrogates available, and handling invoices. The services are remote, so copies can be ordered from anywhere.

The studio and photographers are responsible for digitising the content. I’d seen a little of this in the Qatar project, so the technological set-up was familiar, however it was still interesting to see it again. The photographers work with raw image data so they can make adjustments without compromising the integrity of the image. This large file size is also why I was told that most of the commissions are posted on CD or similar to the clients, as many emails would crash if the full file size was sent through them.
We had a bit of a chat with two of the photographers, who showed me some of the things they had been working on. What stuck in my mind was the fact that the safety of the items always came first, and that the photographers would consult with, or ask for conservator help if they were unsure about the durability or handling of an item.

The image library/lab serves the library internally, as well as catering to outside clients and sometimes curators will send items down to be digitised. Other times, admin will request access to an item so it can be added to picture library.

The picture library is also making links with outside agencies, and doesn’t just contain images from the British Library, instead building partnerships whereby they distribute images from other collections – and have their images distributed overseas by some other agencies in the same manner.

After the brief tour, Sandra (the Picture Library Manager) had a talk with me about the aims and goals for the picture library. These could be oversimplified to ‘retain current useage patterns, and attract more national and international business’. It was pretty interesting to see the library from a commercial perspective and I was fairly familiar with the promotional theories and activities Sandra employed, such as networking during business conventions and balancing prices with user expectations.

I was very impressed with how passionate Sandra was about crusading for the Picture library, and how she was able to translate every idea she had, or heard about, into something which could benefit the department. She is also a huge believer in nurturing students, and wants to give them the opportunities to gain the experience they need to find a position in the workplace. In this fashion she has gone out of her way to contact photography and marketing schools. Sandra definitely understands the barrier that many face when they exit a degree, and I admire her pro-activity in supplying a means of support for those students needing some help. Many people don’t work in an apprentice-based industry, and yet employers still look for experience which can be hard to come by.

Before I left, Sandra gave me a few of the items they keep around for conferences and things, which was really nice.


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