Though we are well into January, here’s a look back at some of the exciting and varied work done over the past year to preserve the Library’s collections for future generations of users.
We were delighted to have back the final two volumes in our Swarthmore Manuscripts conservation project, dis-bound, conserved, photographed and sewn into slender fascicles, thanks to a grant from the National Manuscripts Conservation Trust. This was the last phase of a programme, carried out over several years, to preserve one of our most well-known, and well-used, collections, a key resource for the study of early Quakerism and seventeenth century history. Cause for celebration – and an opportunity to explore the Swarthmore Manuscripts through a forthcoming Quaker Strongrooms blogpost later this year.
One of the most frequently consulted items in the Library reading room is a bound set of The Friend: the Quaker weekly journal, published continuously since 1843. Rich in articles, reports, biographical detail and photographs, the heavy leather bound volumes take a great deal of use. Despite careful handling (including using an unbound set or microfilm for any copying), the sheer weight of the volumes means that simply lifting them off the shelves and opening them causes strain to their structure and consequent damage. Three volumes of The Friend were re-cased in 2015.
Users of the Library will know that the reading room also houses a wealth of 19th and 20th century books of vital importance for Quaker studies, including an unparalleled collection of Quaker biographies (men’s and women’s shelved separately – an unusual feature of our 1920s classification scheme with unexpected resonance for researchers in the era of gender studies!). Ostensibly less rare and vulnerable than the older closed stack material, many of these heavily used books show signs of wear and tear. Last year we started a programme of repair to books on the open shelves: 25 of them were repaired, re-sewn and re-bound or re-cased, always retaining unique characteristics, such as former owners’ bookplates, inscriptions, or special bindings.
Our ongoing retrospective cataloguing project provides the opportunity to note the condition of items being catalogued. Under the direction of the project cataloguer, our fabulous NADFAS team of volunteers has been visiting the Library once a fortnight for several years to prolong the life of many 19th and 20th century pamphlets by removing staples and re-sewing. As they steadily progress through the collections, they highlight more serious problems that require professional conservation. Several dozen have received treatment over the past year – cleaning, skilful paper repair (and removal of damaging old repairs, such as the dreaded sticky tape), re-sewing and re-casing, as necessary.
A rather more visually appealing conservation project was Benjamin West’s Elements of drawing, a set of engravings from West’s paintings published in 1820, the year of his death. The engravings (not previously catalogued) were welcomed as a donation to the Library in 1935, because of West’s Pennsylvania Quaker origins. We know of only one other copy in the country, held at the British Library. The sheets were dry cleaned, treated for foxing, repaired and rehoused in a clamshell box.
We continued our programme of conservation of the Library’s tract volumes – over 600 bound volumes of pamphlets dating back to the 17th century. They have a varied and fascinating provenance, including many identifiable as from the personal libraries of early Friends. And they present the conservator with equally varied problems. Is the volume’s structure still working? Can it be handled and contents still read without risk of further damage? How can we preserve the volume, which may have folded, damaged or protruding contents, while retaining important original features and ensuring that any treatment is reversible? Over the past year 16 tract volumes have received professional conservation treatments, including sewing, surface cleaning, paper repairs, attaching loose items, strengthening and consolidating leather covered spines, boards and corners, re-hinging boards, and repairing joints and headcaps.
By their very nature, broadsides – large single sheet publications – are unlikely to survive as long as books. Which makes volume 67 of the Hawkins Collection particularly remarkable. Frequently consulted, it was an unwieldy composite of three substantial works (George Fox’s Great mistery of the great whore unfolded, the Battle-door for teachers & professors to learn singular & plural – Fox’s wonderful defence of plain speech, and For the King and both Houses of Parliament, the 1660 appeal to King Charles on behalf of those suffering for their testimony against oaths) sewn together with a whopping 58 broadsides, mainly published during the years 1659 to 1661. The volume’s structure was damaging to its contents, the sewn-in broadsides with multiple foldings were dirty and torn – and a nightmare to unfold for use. After careful consideration of treatment options, the broadsides were withdrawn from the binding, flattened, repaired, and stored in a new clamshell box alongside the conserved volume, preserving the original components of the earlier binding. You can read more about the fascinating story of the Hawkins Collection in an earlier blogpost.
Unless otherwise stated, all this conservation work was made possible by our BeFriend a Book fund. We are hugely grateful for the generosity of BeFriend a Book donors, who have enabled so much to be done to preserve the Library’s unique and irreplaceable collections.
It is wonderful to realise what skilled work is possible these days, and to know that our history is being so meticulously preserved. Well done!.