It’s Rare Books Week here in Melbourne, and today I went along to a very interesting session about Caring for your Collections.
As I may have mentioned here before, I collect Booker Prize winners in first edition hardback, and also Miles Franklin winners. (Recently some Miles Franklin winners have been published only in paperback so they’re not as collectible as the others.) The collection isn’t complete: some of them I have only in paperback until I track down an affordable hardback, and some I don’t have at all. (If you look closely at the photos you can see slips of paper where my wishlist titles are). But I do enjoy the hunt, especially since I have to keep within my budget.
I also collect some of my favourite authors – David Malouf, Kate Grenville, Richard Flanagan, Patrick White, Alex Miller – and you can see some of those in the blog header. Whether these books have any great monetary value or not, I’m very fond of my collections and so of course I want to take care of them properly…
Checkpoint Charlie 2012
A hobby of more recent years is scrap-booking: I make scrapbooks of my travels and my family life. Like many people I discovered that those oh-so-convenient sticky plastic photo albums of the 1980s were ruining my photos, and so I have gradually been putting them all into new albums where they won’t deteriorate. I’ve also made special albums like the ones celebrating the life and achievements of my parents, The Offspring’s school days, and so on. In the process of teaching myself to do this, I’ve learned a bit about using materials that won’t deteriorate, but I discovered today that there is more to learn.
The speaker at today’s event was Belinda Gourlay who is a conservator for the Melbourne Museum, and her talk covered caring for paper-based collections, books and photographs. Her topics included handling, storage, storage environments, framing and restoration after disasters such as flood or fire.
She began with a brief explanation of the work they do as conservators, and it is obviously more complex than it might look at first. They don’t just conserve the books, they also document what they’ve done, with a record of the item both before and after conservation, what materials they used and so on. It sounds like fascinating work – who knew you could have a career doing something so worthwhile?
Anyway, she began with discussing works on paper: anything from letters to labels on bottles, and dealing with papers made from all kinds of fibres from plants to linen and nowadays also recycled paper. Conservators also need to know what kind of inks have been used: pens, ink, modern copying processes, paints, pigments, dyes, and oil-based or water soluble. She showed us the component parts of a book too, and discussed the materials used for the book boards (#technical term for book-covers) which can be wood, leather, fabric and card.
Books are of course designed to be handled, they’re not static objects, but if you have precious books you ought to be careful with them: don’t force them open to 180° if they don’t like it. Put rolled up towels or fabric ‘sausages’ underneath them at their edges so that they are supported – or you can make book cradles if you are so minded. Never remove a book from the shelf by its cap (i.e. from the top). Push the books on either side of it out of the way and hold the book by its strongest part, the centre of its spine. Avoid dragging heavy books across a table and don’t carry stacks of books or books that are open. Books should always be stored either upright or flat, not slightly tipped to one side which will damage the spine and the boards. Very large books or fragile books should be stored flat, not more than three in a stack…
Photos are tricky beasts. I think most people know by now that if you print your own photos at home you are storing up disappointment for future years because the ink will fade and the cheap photo paper will deteriorate. As you know if you’ve ever seen very old photos, the image-forming materials used are critical: she mentioned gelatin and albumin amongst others but primary support materials – which can be paper, glass, metal, plastic film and fabric – also affect how well a photo will last. Sometimes we come across photos attached to secondary materials such as backing cards, window mounts, album pages, hinged cases and frames and any of these can cause heartbreak if they are poorly constructed.
The causes of deterioration can be temperatures too hot, too cold or too unstable, and humidity can cause mould. Pollutants mess up photos, and so does exposure to light, pests and physical damage. “Inherent vice” is the term used to describe the way the item was made: if it’s poorly constructed (e.g. gelatin photos) or was poorly processed, it’s not possible to control in the way that external factors can be controlled. Deterioration can only be slowed down.
Handling photos carefully is just common sense: don’t touch the image area, hold the photo by the edges. If you must label them, use a 2B soft graphite pencil, place the photos face-down on a clean hard surface and press very lightly. Avoid working around food, drink, textas and pens, and make sure hands are clean and/or wear Nitrile gloves. (You can buy these from Bunnings). Don’t remove mounts or housings, and be careful moving things around so that you don’t drop a whole pile of photos in a muddle on the floor.
For storing things properly you need archival quality materials. Belinda suggested the National Archives of Australia website as a resource but if it gives advice about what to use and how to use it, I couldn’t find it. Archival Survival and Gaylord are much more user friendly IMO. They have all kinds of mountboard boxes, plastic pockets, folders and sleeves and you can expect that their products are acid and lignin free, with no metal particles or plasticisers or bleeding colorants.
Other things to know:
- Avoid using PVC materials, use PE (mylar) or PP. (I forget what these acronyms mean but anyone selling you materials will know).
- Avoid laminating photos. Use photo corners and no sticky tape!
- Use good quality paper bookmarks.
- Don’t use sticky notes (oops, I do, in paperbacks…)
- Don’t store newspaper clippings or pressed flowers inside books.
- Remove paper clips (they rust onto the photo or document), blu-tak, sticky tape or rubber bands if possible without damaging the item.
- Make sure that photos are not in contact with the glass of a frame. Use spacers or a mountboard to keep them separate.
- Acrylic glazing is actually better than glass, and it can have UV filters to protect a precious photo even more.
- Store your treasures away from damp, in very dry or hot places e.g. near heaters, or in sunlight. Watch out for insects and pests but don’t use mothballs. Vacuuming and dusting is the way to go!
- In the event of a disaster: handle things as little as possible. Get them dry and into protective containers and then get them to an expert – most things can be salvaged!
All in all this was a most interesting session, and amazingly, it was free, as are all the events for Rare Book Week. Many thanks to all the organisers and sponsors, and of course to the presenters as well.