It is not the conservators job to restore or renovate documents but to conserve them.
What is conservation?
Conservation is the active protection of an archive using the minimal physical and chemical treatment necessary to prevent further deterioration and which will not adversely affect the integrity of the original document.
Methods and techniques are chosen following the principal of 'the least amount to do the most good'. As far as possible the original make-up and features of the document are retained. It must always be clear where new materials have been used and no attempt is made to make those materials look like the original although they are chosen to blend sympathetically. Missing words or letters are not added to the text since this would be regarded as forgery. Repair treatments must be reversible and materials used must be tested for archival quality and longevity before they are approved for use.
Another aspect of the conservator's work and indeed a responsibility of all archive service staff is the preservation programme. Preservation is defined as the passive protection of an archive where no direct physical or chemical treatment of the item occurs. In its simplest form preservation can be the provision of protective enclosures of archival quality materials, however beyond this it is an all embracing process that includes storage and accommodation provisions, policies, techniques and methods involved to preserve not just the physical item but also its intellectual content.
Before any treatment is carried out, a detailed conservation record is created including notes, measurements and photographs to record the original make-up of the item or any unusual features. The folios or pages of a document or volume are carefully numbered before it is taken apart so that the correct order of all parts is maintained.
Sometimes documents have been affected by mould, mildew or insects which can cause staining and weakening of the fibres, they are also very often dirty. As a first step these may be cleaned using a soft brush and sometimes a vinyl eraser. Often paper documents are tested for acidity using a pH meter and high levels of acidity may then be neutralised. All inks or pigments will be tested for stability as this will affect the choice of treatments. Any self adhesive tapes that may have been used in a well-meaning though misguided attempt at repair, must be removed using suitable solvents.
When repairing paper the conservator usually works over a light box. The document is often dampened in order to "relax" the paper and to enable it to be flattened. Any damage within the area of text is then repaired using a transparent acid free tissue. Missing areas are replaced with good quality, long-fibred Japanese papers. These papers are chosen by weight and colour to match the requirements of each job.
Where required, the repair papers are either:
This can be done quite easily because the light shines through both the document and the repair paper.
The repair is pasted to the document using pure wheat or rice starch paste. When the repair is completed the document is dried under a light weight between sheets of paper makers felt to keep it flat and prevent distortion.
As an alternative to the wet treatment there is a dry method of paper repair which involves the use of acid free tissues applied with a heat sensitive adhesive.
Parchment, which is usually sheep skin, was used for documents from the earliest times. During the Middle Ages, parchment was almost always used and it continued to be used regularly for legal documents until the early 20th century. It is much more durable than paper.
Parchment documents are repaired using new parchment. The document is first relaxed by humidification to enable it to be flattened. Repairs of new, dry parchment are used to infill any missing areas. The new pieces are cut slightly larger and their edges are pared down using a scalpel. This makes a chamfered edge which will blend into the original document when pasted to it.
If the document needs further strengthening, then a transparent membrane such as fish swim bladder or pre-formed collagen (sausage casing) can be applied over weak areas in the same way that tissue can be used on paper documents. The parchment document will need to be dried under carefully controlled conditions to prevent distortion.
Maps present special problems for conservators. They are often very large, and in their original surroundings, they become badly damaged by being rolled up and pushed into odd corners.
Because of their size they often have to be repaired on a wall board. In many cases it is necessary to remove the old linen backing from a map before repairing it. The map will then be placed on a support and dampened to relax and flatten it.
The next stage is to paste the new lining, either Japanese paper or archival linen, to the wall board. The map is then picked up with the aid of its support and pasted to the new lining. The support is then removed and any holes in the map are infilled with repair paper. When the map is dry it is removed from the wallboard and the new lining is trimmed.
Maps require special types of storage. Very large repaired maps are rolled onto tubes and wrapped in linen to protect them. Smaller maps are placed in polyester folders and stored vertically.
It was usual to authenticate a legal document using a wax impression on a seal. These wax seals were made from beeswax and resin and are particularly vulnerable to damage because they are often attached by a tag which hangs from the document.
The conservator repairs seals using new beeswax and any breaks or missing areas are filled with hot wax which will quickly harden. A broken seal is pieced together and sometimes together using hot steel pins which are pushed in to it to hold the pieces in place. The new beeswax will protect what remains of the original seal. Repaired seals are stored in specially made containers to protect them.
The conservators also repair a large number of manuscript volumes, a number of which are parish registers. Sometimes a whole volume needs to be disbound and each page may have to be repaired individually by one of the techniques already described. The volume then has to be rebound in its original style using traditional craft bookbinding techniques.
Where possible materials from the original binding will be reused if they are in suitable condition. Spines are lettered as appropriate, either directly onto the book or onto a label which is then applied to the spine. The lettering is tooled in gold leaf, either with a blocking press or with traditional hand tools.
Repaired volumes are always housed in a purpose made box for further protection before being returned to storage.
It is essential that all original documents are correctly stored. Our strongrooms have controlled levels of temperature and humidity which ensure that documents will not deteriorate.
Temperatures should be at a constant level of between 16 - 19º C with a tolerance of 1ºC either side and Relative Humidity (RH) of between 45-60% with a tolerance of 5% either side. Clean air is essential to avoid deterioration through atmospheric pollution and there should also be a good circulation of air.
The conservators monitor these conditions to ensure stability. They are also called upon to solve many particular storage problems and to produce protective systems for a wide diversity of different forms of archive collections.
Emergency control planning
We also have a full emergency control plan for its collections. This means that in the event of a fire or flood, immediate action can be taken to minimise damage to our collections.
It is updated every year and all staff are trained to take an active role as part of the team should the plan ever be used in an emergency.
Since the conservation section was established in the early 1950s, the conservators have treated hundreds of collections and thousands of documents, manuscript volumes, maps and plans, prints, drawings and seals. Using their expertise and skills, they are helping to preserve Staffordshire's written heritage.
The conservators are happy to advise members of the public about the preservation and conservation of archives. It is easy to forget that documents are extremely vulnerable and irreplaceable.
We do not advocate that individuals should undertake any active procedures themselves. If you think that remedial work is required you should seek the advice and guidance of a qualified conservator.