Last year Special Collections received a grant from the National Manuscripts Conservation Trust for the conservation of the Phillips of Hitchin archive. For over a century the company of Phillips of Hitchin was a prominent antiques dealer. Its archive contains a wealth of information about the company, its clients and the antiques it dealt in dating from 1882-2005.

Before the archive arrived in Special Collections it was stored in a garage where the damp conditions caused mould to grow on some papers.  Many of the staples, paper clips and pins had rusted.

The conservation team estimate that 36,000 loose sheets of paper and around 200 bound manuscripts need to be cleaned and repackaged before the archive can be catalogued and made available to researchers. We have recruited an enthusiastic group of volunteers to help with this huge conservation task and are making steady progress.

archives in parcel
Phillips of Hitchin archives arrive wrapped in paper and parcel tape. Image credit Leeds University Library.

Many of the loose papers arrived wrapped in bundles of brown parcel paper held together with sticky tape. Poor quality paper can turn acidic as a result of its manufacturing process or environmental pollutants.  If left the wrapping paper would damage the archive. We remove the packaging carefully before starting to clean the papers and take care to ensure the sticky tape does not stick to the archives.

High tech equipment is not always necessary for cleaning paper.  The majority of the cleaning is carried out employing fairly simple tools. The conservation team remove small amounts of mould and surface dirt with a chemical sponge and a natural fibre brush.  For very fragile items we grate eraser into a fine powder and use it to gently clean the surface of paper.

Items which are very mouldy are treated with a special museum vacuum. Stubborn areas of mould that cannot be removed are treated with industrial denatured alcohol to kill off any remaining spores. While cleaning away mould is a painstaking task it is rewarding to see the difference before and after!

As well as potentially damaging the archive, mould can be harmful to people so we wear face masks, gloves and aprons.  The team decontaminate brushes and equipment after use.

rusty fastenings
Rusty fastenings on archives before removal by the conservation team. Image credit Leeds University Library

Rusty staples, pins and paper clips are a challenge. Using sheets of polyester to protect the documents, the conservation team remove the rusty fastenings carefully with tweezers. Stainless steel paper clips are used to hold the sheets together afterwards.

The Phillips of Hitchin archive presents a lot of conservation challenges.  However it is a very interesting collection to work on as it contains records of the purchase and sale of beautiful historic objects by an important and influential company.