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Abby Logan is a student of architectural history and archaeology at the University of Boston. She has spent two and a half months as an intern at the City of Westminster Archives Centre. In this, the first of two blog pieces, she takes us through the conservation process.
Working in paper preservation can be a messy job, as I found out on my first day! My task seemed simple enough: clean three boxes of programmes from the Theatre Collection; however, it involved a lot more dirt, rust and time than I thought it would. Using two smoke sponges, a brush and staple remover I was able to clean the programmes and prevent further damage caused by the rusty staples. At the end of each day I would have a substantial pile of dirt and staples from all the programmes I had cleaned.
One of the hardest parts was determining when a programme was sufficiently clean because I was unsure how much of the dirt I was supposed to be able to get off. Eventually I learnt what was clean and what could not be taken off by the sponge.
Once all the programmes were clean it was time to move on to the sewing and repairing stage. Those that were once held together by staples needed to be put back together in some way. That was done by taking organic string and sewing the area where the staples used to be. This was a simple task for some of the programmes; however, for the majority of them it was not, because there was too much damage caused by the rusty staples.
Rust is incredibly damaging in that it creates holes and makes the paper weaker. To combat this problem a special paper called spider tissue is cut into an oval to cover the area that has been damaged by the rust. A paste is put on the paper and it then dries and fixes the holes, allowing the paper to be sewn together. Some other small tears are also fixed by this spider tissue so they do not tear further.
The repairs done to the programs can get more complicated if the spine of the programme is weak or there is more severe damage to the paper. These damages require spider tissue that has been cut specifically for the shape of the tear. Once all the damage has been fixed as far as possible, the programmes are then sewn together and the preservation process is complete.
On Friday 20 November the City of Westminster Archives Centre, Maida Vale Library and St John’s Wood Library participated in the Kids in Museums‘ national initiative ‘Takeover Day’. This initiative aims to give young people the opportunity to participate in a work environment, assisting staff and volunteers in their work and contributing to the life of an organisation.
In the final of three posts today about #takeoverday we find out how the day went at Westminster City Archives:
At Westminster Archives we welcomed students from St Matthew’s CE Primary School, hoping to give them a flavour of future employment, a sense of achievement and a fresh perspective on the Archives Centre’s role within the community.
Our pupils worked at different stations throughout the day, allowing them to fully appreciate the variety of roles at in our establishment. At the reception desk pupils spoke with our readers and spent time assisting our Archives Assistant Michelle in rejuvenating our children’s book display. Assessing our book stock encouraged children to think creatively about ways of drawing readers into our building. Ishmael especially enjoyed working at reception; he “enjoyed welcoming the public and talking to them.”
Donning their lab coats our young workers had the chance to be conservators for part of their day. Georgia taught pupils about the special paste used to repair paper. Working in this significant role really appealed to our students, with Hanifa especially pleased at being able to “make a paste that would fix torn paper with the right material.”
Acting as ‘History Detectives’ St Matthew’s School also spent time in our search room discovering the resources we have available to the public. Pupils looked at historic maps, photographs and learned how to use our microfilm readers; vital tools for any building and family historians. Looking at historic photographs of Old Pye Street gave our students the chance to see how the area local to their school has changed.
Kyode especially enjoyed learning about our resources and the microfilm reader;
“The ‘History Detectives’ job was the best. We got to use the microfilm and we looked at pictures (most of them from Old Pye Street) and on the map we found our school”
Pupils had the chance to demonstrate their knowledge to our volunteer Jelena, Cllr Tim Mitchell and the Deputy Lord Mayor in our closing ceremony.
Staff and volunteers at Westminster Archives were really pleased to be able to work alongside the pupils of St Matthew’s CE Primary School for the day, demonstrating to them the varied and interesting roles of our employment. The positive feedback from staff and pupils alike highlighted the fun-filled day had by all! We were pleased to hear similar comments from those taking part in the day at Maida Vale Library and St John’s Wood Library and hope to participate in next year’s event.
Alison Forsey, a volunteer in the City of Westminster Archives Conservation Studio, writes:
It is easy to classify an archive as being an intimidating and secretive place. I myself once thought this too; however, once I had an opportunity to explore the archives and meet the people involved, my opinion changed. In my time volunteering for the Westminster Archive Centre I have learned perhaps the biggest secret there is about archives – just how much team work is required for a well-functioning and successful archive.
A range of people and their respective skills is what creates an informed and helpful atmosphere. Watching items brought from the stacks into the conservation room for repair and cleaning, and then seeing them returned for a future scholar to explore is thrilling. Everyone at the archives has taught me much about the local history of Westminster, because the team know the collection so well and are so great at sharing their knowledge.
Whilst working on preservation management projects such as cleaning, repairing and rehousing the glass plate slide collection, I have had the chance to see for myself the evolution of the borough from photographs in the collection. The project was an adventure: trying to match obscure photographs to what was already in the collection, while occasionally finding something completely new and unique requiring research to place the photo in context; it provided a rare chance to see the evolution of various areas in Westminster.
The cataloguing activity in which I participated on this project means the collection is now available to the public for research. Some of the photographs showed places are still standing and representing the community, and other places have been lost to us over time.
I have also been part of the preservation project to clean and rehouse records from St. Margaret’s Parish. Whilst surface cleaning with smoke sponge and brush, I have been fortunate to learn anew from the team, reading letters written to the Parish warden and learning of conspiracies and architectural plans (both those imagined and those completed!).
Being able to assist the conservator with repair and cleaning of a wide range of items has taught me how important something as simple as a surface clean is to a document. Surface cleaning and repairing the theatre programme collection, for example, not only improve the appearance of each document, but also significantly help with removing of substances that could potentially harm these ephemeral documents.
To watch the archive work together for a common goal of preservation, maintaining important knowledge and engaging in the community has been delightful and educational to witness. Every person at the Westminster Archive Centre strives individually for the greater good of the archive, from the moment an enquiry is made on a topic, to the final step of returning material back to storage.
I have been lucky to assist with speaking to guests and tour groups to help them understand the role of preservation and conservation within the greater framework of the archive. Without this team working together, the archive would in fact, appear as a silent and intimidating building forever holding its secrets away from the world. Seeing how the team works together using their unique talents and skills has been perhaps the best experience of all, to see just how much of an open and helpful space the archives are for locals and learners alike. During my time as a volunteer I have felt that I have been a part of living history, and I have the Westminster Archives Centre to thank for that.
In the conservation studio of Westminster Archives Centre, our volunteers are embarking on a new preservation management project – cleaning thousands of records for St Margaret’s Parish.
At some point in their history, the records were stored in a smoky environment and the clear scent of wood smoke wafts from the boxes when they are opened. The residue from the smoke and other environmental grime can cause the paper to weaken. To slow down the process of degradation, our volunteers are surface cleaning each piece of correspondence using a smoke sponge and a soft haired brush. In addition to cleaning, the volunteers prepare enclosures for the records that are physically delicate.
While cleaning the records the subjects, descriptions and people included have intrigued and fascinated our team. The correspondence includes requests for funds, complaints about a neighbour’s pigs affecting the price of real estate and requests for young people to be sent north to work in one of the first manufactories. Mr Stephenson was the Parish Warden for approximately 50 years and kept together his personal and business correspondence. It is the interrelated letters from family and friends that have specifically captivated volunteers and staff alike. As we learn more about each family and friends, we are recording the information on an informal family tree.
Mr Stephenson’s brother seems to financially struggle and the correspondence is littered with requests for money as evidenced below:
January 26 1802
Being in want of a Temporary Assistance and having on former occasion applied to some few friends who have always contributed with my request in the most dreadful manner as such in would be engrossing too much on their liberality to apply to them on the present occasion. I have therefore to request the favour of you to accommodate me with the Loan of Thirty pounds which I shall hold myself responsible to return by instalments at a short date which if you shold think convenient to furnish me with my request I should consider myself infinitely obliged…
In addition to his brother, Mr Stephenson’s eldest son Edward is boarding with the Blomfields in Bury St Edmunds. The correspondence contains letters both from and about Edward, including many letters from the grammar school master, Charles Blomfield, at Bury St Edmunds:
January 27, 1802
Re: Son’s arrival
Your son arrived safe and well last night and delivered your letter for which I beg to thank you – the contents fully discharge the X Acct.
We are very happy to hear of Mrs Stephenson’s recovery, who I ? say, is beginning to wonder whether the next will be as large as Mrs. Jane Mildred. Mrs B is quite well and George is now beginning to improve in his health – hitherto he has been rather ailing. Pray make our kindest remembrance to the Abingtons etc. I was in hopes of seeing you but was prevented going to Town this Xmas – my ? friend is going on as I could wish and I think in due time will answer all your wishes about him. Mrs B. unites with me in best compl. To Yourself and Mrs. Stephenson & I am Dear Sir.
Your sincere friend and Servant
A few months later not all is well with the families as Charles Blomfield communicates about an illness that is affecting many around him:
April 16, 1802
My dear Sir,
I ought some time back to have acknowledged the rect. Of your valuable present of paper etc. but the prupose of ? and anxiety of mind must be my apology and I know your kindness too well to doubt your admitting it. When I say “anxiety of mind” I mean the hourly expectation of some of my family being taken with the fever which has (I may say) raged here for months past. Indeed, till this time, the town has never been free from it since last August – our fears are now nearly subsided as the Medical Gentleman assure me the danger is over. My ? folks, thank God, have all escaped but the caution we have used has been extreme.
Our friend lost his 3 eldest children in a fortnight. Your Son has enjoyed a perfect state of health and continues to have the good report of his Masters, he desires Duty etc.
Mrs. B will offer my best regards to Mrs. Stephenson and yourself and I am dear Sir your much obliged friend and Serv.
If you have enjoyed the three snippets of the lives of the Stephensons and Blomfields, we will be posting more of their correspondence on the Westminster Arhcives Facebook page in the coming weeks and months.
The following story, from the perspective of a piece of archival material, was written as part of a nationwide ‘Explore your Archives’ project which launched this week.
Take a look at the ‘Archive Explorer’ pages to find out how you can
Explore your past,
Share your story and
Use Westminster Archives for your work.
The light of the storage room was suddenly on and before I had time to recover, I heard a voice and a pair of hands was carrying me away. Where was I going? To the conservation studio to be cleaned and treated, someone said.
“Farewell!” I shouted to my dear friends and neighbours, “See you soon!”
My trip was rather short, in a small book lift which moved upwards, and finally here I was, at the conservation studio with people’s voices around me. They were conservation volunteers, someone said.
I was still held, when a female voice who was in charge, called ‘The Conservator’, enthusiastically said to all these volunteers around her, “We are going to be starting on a new project today; here is a significant part of Westminster theatre history which is in a rather desperate need of attention. Please come and have a look at this box of Gaiety theatre programmes from 1895 and I will train you on what to do”.
“Goodness gracious, they are talking about me and my friends”, I thought, “in my presence and in such indelicate tones – I am almost shocked!”
I was placed down and several hands touched me, went through my pages, and made the most improper comments and uncouth criticism about my present condition. Well, in all fairness they did also observe and express laudatory remarks on my text, and extremely beautiful images and advertisements.
Then, if I can remember everything well (my memory is not what it used to be), every single one of my pages was meticulously brushed and cleaned, my old rusty staples were removed and some rather unfortunate holes on my pages were tenderly repaired with handmade Japanese paper and wheat starch paste. My old staples were replaced with bookbinding thread, and I was put back in an acid free box. I had to stay a bit longer in the studio so the rest of my friends in the same box could be looked after as well. The conservator on the other corner of the room was carrying out complicated treatments to some WW1 posters, apparently.
The day after, another surprise! A group of students from the Central School of Speech and Drama visited the studio, and the conservator displayed me proudly and explained my treatments. I can still hear her saying that “Being a paper conservator, no two days are the same, as you need to assess and treat objects individually and treatments can vary”. She also mentioned that some of my pals will be mounted and framed to go out to a theatre exhibition. What a joy – getting out to see the world!
A few days later, I was thrilled to bits when a primary school class visited the studio and I was able to show off my new repairs to the pupils as part of an education project called ALL ABOUT PAPER. The Conservator, who aims to showcase the paper collections of the Archives to different community groups, spoke to the children about the long history of paper, its diverse use, and taught them how to protect their own books by handling them correctly. The pupils were excited as they also had fun carrying out an art workshop using paper.
“How was it?” My friends asked a few weeks later when I returned back to my shelf. “Well, it was like having a rejuvenating cure in the spa town of Bath at the peak of the social season”, I replied coyly but happily, thinking back to my preservation treatment with gratitude and nostalgia. “I have so many stories to narrate to you during the long cold nights of winter!”
[Gaiety theatre programme, 1895 – AKA Georgina]
Starting work experience at Westminster Archives could have been a daunting prospect. There was a lot I wanted to get out of it: having completed my third year at Aberdeen University in English and History, I was looking to increase my experience of using historical sources and also to investigate archive work as a possible future career. However, there really was nothing to be afraid of.
My volunteer supervisor met me when I arrived at the Archives Centre and, after calming my nerves with her friendly approach, took me on a tour. I got a real sense of the outstanding volume of materials held at the Centre, which was almost overwhelming. Luckily most visitors don’t have to contend with wading through all this material, as there is always professional help on hand, and the experienced and approachable Archives staff promote a positive outlook on even the most complex searches. Their friendly natures certainly contributed to my settling in very quickly.
After being given a rota of my tasks for the week I got straight down to work. I was one of several volunteers working at the Centre that week. The volunteers are an invaluable asset to the constantly developing collections, helping the staff to maintain an organised system by assisting with the listing, indexing and preservation of materials.
Volunteers help with many different projects. I chatted with David Evans about his work on the Centre’s theatre collection, and he was more than happy to show me the theatre playbills and explain their intricacies and interesting features.
My own particular projects during the week included the listing of the photographic collections, and store room work, which, although a chilly experience, highlighted the vast number of materials which the staff work so hard to maintain. I also shadowed one of the Archivists for a morning, when she showed me how to tackle some of the more routine enquiries the service receives. I learned how to source local history information, how to use microfilm readers, the principles of collections care… the list goes on! It all vastly increased my knowledge of the complex nature of working in an Archive.
On Thursday, I spent the day with the Centre’s Conservator. Stepping into the Conservation Studio threatened to bring back the rather terrifying memories of art classes at high school. However, in complete contrast, the day was thoroughly enjoyable. Although I at first doubted my ability to carry out work on some extremely delicate items, re-binding theatre pamphlets with book-binding thread proved an involved yet satisfying job – bar frequent slip-ups threading the needle, of course! The meticulous work undertaken in the conservation room is essential to securing the longevity of materials and introduced me to yet another aspect of the Archive Centre’s activities.
My University studies had given me a real love of the history of London in the 17th and 18th centuries, and I really enjoyed coming into contact with numerous documents from that period. It brought my studies to life, and encouraged me to investigate the period further – a sign of the inspirational effect the Archives have on researchers.
My experience at Westminster Archives was extremely enjoyable and educational. Working with photos, theatre pamphlets/posters, in the store room and conservation room, and being shown the processes of enquiries and some of the rarer items, was invaluable. However, my favourite job – perhaps surprisingly – was book-processing, when I had the privilege of wielding the Westminster City Archives ink stamp!
Working in the Archives gave me an insight into the hard work and dedication that working with historical materials requires, whilst also allowing me to understand their ongoing value in society today. A special thanks to Judith, Trish and Georgia, who kept me busy during my week at the archives, provided me with plenty of interesting jobs, and showed me the ins and outs of an amazing building and its fascinating contents. It is a wonderful local resource, and one which is certainly worth visiting – or volunteering!
To find out more about volunteering in Westminster Libraries & Archives, visit our Volunteering page.
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