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Manuscript Conservation at the Parker Library

The digitisation of the Parker Library created one of the largest conservation projects for the collection since the 1950s, when two commercial bookbinding firms in Cambridge rebound approximately half of the collection. All conservation work for the digitisation project was undertaken in house by the three staff members of the Cambridge Colleges' Conservation Consortium, housed in a purpose-built workshop at Corpus Christi College. The Consortium was founded in 1987 as a result of Dr Nicholas Pickwoad's survey of the Parker Library. Dr Pickwoad's report made many recommendations for improving the long-term preservation of the library's collections, and resulted in the employment of the first conservator to undertake work on the manuscripts. In order to ensure a sound financial footing and to share the insights and expertise gained in the Parker Library, other Cambridge college libraries were invited to join what came to be known as the Conservation Consortium, now serving eleven member libraries and archives, as well as working on commission for a number of other university institutions.

The great majority of the Parker manuscripts lost their original bindings over the centuries; the two most significant rebinding programmes being those that took place in the early eighteenth century and the mid twentieth century. In both cases, printed book techniques - the rounding and backing of the textblocks, the sawing-in of cords to make sewing quicker, and the heavy gluing and lining of the spines - resulted in manuscripts which do not open well, making the books difficult to read and almost impossible to photograph satisfactorily. Although these somewhat heavy-handed rebinding programmes represent an incalculable loss of evidence to codicologists and historians of the book, the resulting structures were judged not to be so historically important that they could not be interfered with, and thus offered possibilities for adaptation by the conservator to enable the books to open. Ideally, one would have liked to put all such manuscripts into more sympathetic structures, but rebinding such a large collection in the time available was not possible. A single conservator's time was devoted to the project (although all three staff members contributed some effort towards the conservation work), and the manuscripts were, and continue to be, in constant demand by readers.

Presented with the challenges the digitisation project presented, the Conservation Officer, Melvin Jefferson, experimented with modifying the existing modern bindings on the manuscripts. The leather covering of the 1950s bindings was generally in fairly good condition and was able to be carefully peeled back to allow access to the spine. Removal of the numerous linings of paper and cotton mull, not to mention copious amounts of hide glue, allowed the books to function properly with the spines able to arch and the leaves to flex from the spine fold, rather than at some point in the text towards the spine edge. The spines were then lined with a flexible yet strong 'barrier' layer of Japanese handmade paper adhered with purified wheat-starch paste, and books sewn on recessed cords were given a hollow back of archival paper before the binding was replaced. In cases where there was raised-cord sewing, the spine was lined with Japanese paper before the leather covering material was replaced. The books rebound in the eighteenth century have tanned sheepskin spines, now much decayed, with sides of reused parchment documents. The leather on these volumes was so degraded that it had to be removed completely, and the spines of these books were covered with toned Japanese handmade paper to allow for easy opening until the manuscripts can be rebound in the future.

Conservation and preservation issues were always at the forefront of the digitisation project, and close collaboration existed between the library, digitisation staff and conservators to ensure the safety of the manuscripts during digitisation. All manuscripts were assessed for damage to the leaves and the state of the binding, and conserved appropriately before photography took place. Conservation treatment involved a range of actions, from repairing small tears in the leaves and improving the opening characteristics of the book, to consolidating friable pigments, flattening cockled leaves, supporting paper weakened by mould-damage, and complete disbinding. Although it was possible to adapt many of the bindings (in the manner previously described, by removing old spine materials and lining with Japanese paper), some 30 manuscripts were so badly damaged by previous rebinding work that they had to be disbound in order to be properly conserved. The conservation staff also worked with the photographers to make protective wrappers for delicate bindings and cradles to hold disbound and particularly fragile manuscripts, as well as being on hand to provide advice on proper handling when the need arose.

-- Melvin Jefferson, Cambridge Colleges' Conservation Consortium