Sticky tape, rusty staples and other archive conservation challenges

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.

Mounting an Exhibition

Our Assistant Conservation Officer, Eugenie Karen, gives an update on plans for our new exhibition.  Preparations for the fifth changing exhibition in the Treasures Gallery are well underway.  ‘Rights and Romance: Representing Gypsy Lives’ showcases items from our Gypsy, Traveller and Roma collections.  It will open on 1 March.

Exhibition planning requires extensive teamwork and cooperation.  Given that this is now our fifth outing, our systems are running in a near well-oiled fashion.  However similar the processes are though, each show stands alone because the material going on display brings its own challenges.

As a conservator, I am tasked with assessing whether the objects are suitable to be put on display.  I am then required to ensure that each item receives what is in effect a care plan.  I need to ensure the object is as comfortable as possible for the duration of its exposure.  After the initial assessment and the green light is given, I decide what the object needs in terms of light levels, temperature and support.

Supports are not there to be seen.  We try to ensure that the object is showcased to its best advantage, but if you ever visit an exhibition and see a person contorting themselves to examine something behind the object, they are probably a visiting conservator getting inspiration.  Sometimes we make the supports in house, using polyester film, acrylic supports, foam, box board or simply paper or mount board.

Sometimes an object demands more to show it to its full advantage.  Included in the upcoming exhibition are two flowers crafted from wood shavings.  They are incredibly delicate and brittle.  There are not many objects in this exhibition so we decided that these two items ought to achieve an extra prominence by getting bespoke mounts made.

woodshaving flowers
Flowers made out of woodshavings mounted on Perspex stands. Image credit Leeds University Library.

It was felt that such fragile items ought to ‘float’ and I called upon the expertise of Jon Baxter, a local mount maker.  We devised a design whereby a clear Perspex mount would cradle the heavier ‘head’ of the flower counterbalanced by a hole through which the stem would slot which raises the whole thing above the surface of the case.

We won’t know how fully we have achieved our aim until we begin installation in February but I am confident they will look beautiful.

Learning, Sharing and Planning for the Year Ahead!

Special Collections and Leeds University Library Galleries started the year with a day of sharing, learning and planning at a staff away day. It was a great opportunity to bring everyone together and reflect on all that we achieved in 2017 across Special Collections and both Galleries.

We started the day with a few exercises to find out more about everyone in the room. We discovered that the most languages spoken by one person is three. We have many musical team members, with the cello, guitar and tuba among the instruments played, definitely enough to start a Special Collections band! Many of our team members hold multiple roles within the University, the most being three by one person. Lots of our wonderful staff have been on television at least once – so much star quality!

The core focus of conversation throughout the day was about further increasing access to our world-renowned collections for students, academic staff, researchers and the wider public. We heard about the ways in which our teams have already been working on this and shared with colleagues what have been the most significant changes.

In the Galleries we have had a Visitor Experience team restructure and welcomed two new wonderful Gallery Assistants, and a new Galleries Events and Marketing Assistant. This has helped us to provide consistent service to our visitors and focus on providing excellent customer service. The Special Collections Reading Room team have updated all of their manuals and documentation to make them more accessible to visitors. This will ensure that researchers using Special Collections have all of the information they need.


Collections and Engagement Managers working across the service discussed the huge amount of material bequeathed to the University’s collections last year and the on-going task of cataloguing it all and making it available for future access and display. Our Digital Content team shared their work around visitor enquires and setting targets to reduce response time. Their aim is to facilitate access to Special Collections material as quickly as possible and continuing to develop the fantastic service they provide.

Medical Manuscripts Image Capture
How the medical manuscripts were captured. Image credit Leeds University Library.

We heard about an exciting marketing campaign being developed for 2018. It will increase awareness of the Galleries in the Leeds to ensure that as many people as possible know what an amazing asset we are to the city, and that we are free and open to all! The Galleries are currently working with a design company to develop new concepts and create eye-catching visuals – be on the lookout throughout May and let us know where you spot them!


Did you know that archives can sometimes contain hazardous materials? We learned what to look out for and how to take precautions when dealing with potential risks in our collections. Did you know that degrading film negatives emit vinegar fumes, called ‘vinegar syndrome’ or that toxic arsenic was used in a 19th and early 20th century conservation technique for damaged paper called ‘silking’? We were encouraged that our Collections Care Team are making sure collections hazards are being logged and managed safely.

With everything from marketing to archives, we had a fantastic day of sharing, reflecting and planning and are looking forward to an exciting year to come! Special Collections and the Galleries are open to staff, students and the public six days a week, so come along and find out more about the amazing exhibitions, displays, archives and research resources we have to offer!

Our invaluable volunteers

Objects before conservation
Leeds School of Medicine objects before conservation work. Image credit Leeds University Library.

Leeds School of Medicine objects before conservation work. Image credit Leeds University Library.

Our Conservation Officer, Sharon Connell, talks about the contribution of volunteers in Special Collections.

Volunteering is a key element in making our collections accessible for research, teaching and public enjoyment. The Collections Care and Conservation Team has a longstanding commitment to welcoming volunteers with the skills, dedication and goodwill they bring.  Volunteers help us deliver projects as well as carrying out routine work, such as cleaning and repackaging collections.

Our volunteers have diverse backgrounds and a variety of experience and interests. This can make for lively interaction and has inspired some volunteers to explore further potential avenues of research and study based on the collections they have been working on. Some have gone on to work in conservation.

Apart from being lovely, community-minded people, united by a passion for history and heritage, why do they do it? Generally speaking, they want to build new skills or apply their existing ones in a new way, learn about what happens ‘behind the scenes’ in conservation or just meet like-minded people.

Recently, volunteers have been helping with our Medical Collections Project. Once soiled and difficult to access items are now clean and rehoused. Gone are the weird and wonderful packaging solutions of yesteryear like manila envelopes and ancient Kapok stuffing material, which were damaging the collections. Thanks to our volunteers these have been replaced with beautifully crafted paper wrappers and boxes, each made bespoke for particular items.  Medals, for example, are nested in inert foam in boxes and wrapped in archival quality acid free tissue.

Not only are the collections more stable and protected as a result of these simple actions but we all derive great satisfaction seeing how well cared for they now look!

Objects after conservation
Objects from the Leeds School of Medicine Collection after repackaging. Image credit Leeds University Library

“I was happy with the repackaging of the medals because I felt it paid tribute to all the medical staff who had received the awards”, Helen Utting, retired Senior Lecturer, Leeds University School of Healthcare, and conservation volunteer

Anyone can become a volunteer – no experience is necessary as training in handling and basic conservation techniques is given. Look out for roles, usually advertised as and when they are available, via Twitter @LULGalleries or Volunteer Connect.

Action Stations

Karen Mee and Remi Turner from our Reading Room team give an update on Special Collections’ annual Action Week.

The end of August saw the completion of another successful Action Week. Teams from Special Collections, Customer Services and enthusiastic volunteers work to conserve and care for, sort and label, reorganise and re-shelve the valuable collections housed in the library’s stacks and storage areas.

The reading room and conservation studio were bases for volunteers and staff to clean and repackage. In total staff cleaned and rehoused 38  Liddle museum objects and textiles including an armoured vest and a flag so large it took 3 people to hold, as well as 16 boxes from the Philips of Hitchin antique dealers archive.

Staff removed oversized maps in the Yorkshire Archaeological and Historical Society archive to the reading room and unrolled them fully so they could log information such as weight, dimensions and fragility before relabelling. Some maps are wrapped in a protective material called Tyvek and all are reshelved with up-to-date location data, much to the reading room team’s delight.

The stacks were a hive of activity with a lot of re-organising and shelf pitching. The Whitaker map collection was removed from shelves, the shelves cleaned and items with loose or damaged bindings tied with conservation tape. The maps were re-sequenced and re-shelved to make retrievals easier and safer for staff. Very large and heavy atlases were stored on lower shelves and smaller items higher up. This reconfiguration also gained 11 shelves of space – always a good outcome in a library.

Re-shelving activities
Re-shelving the Quaker Collection

The Quaker collection comprises bound and boxed items and was rearranged to ensure it was stored together in a clearer sequence, requiring lots of shelf repitching and box passing.

In the processing room a constant stream of helpers sorted, tidied, relabelled and re-shelved the Freemantle music collection.  This was a large project that took all week to complete. Lots of different tasks were going on in the Brotherton Room, including  sorting through a scientific archive, reordering books in the cabinets and replacing book ties on items in the Herbert Read library. The Feminist Archive North sorted through some of their collections too.

Work going on in our offices included checking and relabelling the Coin Collection, a welcome break from the physical demands of clearing and re-shelving books and boxes. Interest in this collection has increased so it is important to make it more accessible to staff and researchers. Photographs of the collection are available on our website.

Action Week is very thirsty and hungry work and everyone involved is sustained by the treats brought in to share at communal break times. One of the highlights among this year’s selection has to be a most impressive batch of home-made doughnuts. After all the hard work is done and everything is tidied away ready for re-opening after the Bank Holiday, the team celebrate on Friday with a traditional visit to the pub.

team photo
The team relaxes with well earned drinks at the end of Action Week

This year was also a celebration of our colleague John Smurthwaite’s last action week and retirement. For some of us it is also the time to start planning next year’s action week.

100 years of nurse training in Leeds

The Leeds General Infirmary Nurse Training Registers.
The Leeds General Infirmary Nurse Training Registers (MS 1656)

A new catalogue is now available for our collection of Nurse Training Registers, which record 100 years of training nurse probationers at the Leeds General Infirmary.

The 32 registers contain details of the training each nurse received, and date between 1856 and 1956. Four of the registers are enrolment registers for the Territorial Army Nursing Service (formerly the Territorial Force Nursing Service). The new catalogue has been produced as part of our Medical Collections Project, funded by the Wellcome Trust.

The Infirmary began formally training nurses in 1868. Nurses had to spend a year training as a probationer before becoming qualified. This was upped to three years in the 1880s, and four years in 1905.

1919 was a turning point, when the nurse registration process came into action after the passing of The Nurses Registration Act. This led to the formation of the General Nursing Council and nurse examinations. That same year, the Leeds General Infirmary established a Preliminary Training School for nurses. The University of Leeds was the first university in Europe to introduce a University Diploma in Nursing, in 1921.

Leeds General Infirmary Nurse Training Registers
Leeds General Infirmary Nurse Training Registers (MS 1656)

Alongside the cataloguing, our Project Assistant Riza Hussaini has been working hard with our volunteers to care for and improve the physical condition of the registers. The registers have undergone repairs, cleaning, and many now have bespoke “book shoes” or polyester covers for added protection. This has been a big job and a fantastic achievement for the team, making sure the registers can be better preserved for the future. For more information on the preservation work Riza has been undertaking, see her recent blog post To Protect and Pre(Serve).

Explore the Leeds General Infirmary Nurse Training Collection

All Change!

The month of May saw many changes in the Treasures of the Brotherton Gallery.

Travelling Library
Travelling Library, 1617

Some of our items had been on display since 1 February 2016 so they have now been retired to the cool, dark conditions of our stacks in order to give their pages, spines and print time to recuperate.  Thanks to the vastness and variety of the diverse collections within Special Collections, picking alternative items was akin to being children in a sweet shop for our curators!

Several objects have been replaced with material by the same author, for example, we have a new Branwell Brontë letter and a French notebook by Charlotte, however, with other items, we have opted for something completely different.

We welcome material by Tolkien, William Hey, Persian poet Sa’di and artist Fred Lawson, not to mention an adorable World War One mascot, a spectacular Ovid and the literal, literary treasure chest that is the Schatzbehalter. We also have two new Artists’ Books colourfully displayed alongside a leaf from the Gutenberg Bible.

Arguably the change that has made the biggest impact is the departure of Shakespeare’s First Folio. After 15 months on show in the huge case that greets visitors as soon as they enter the Treasures Gallery, it’s time for the Bard to take a break. We needed an item that was equally jaw-dropping so we’ve brought out our glorious Jacobean Travelling Library, one of only four of its kind in the world. See our video to discover how and why Shakespeare’s Folio was replaced.