As one of the UK’s most iconic contemporary buildings (currently being honoured by appearing on a first class stamp no less!) the Library of Birmingham contains some amazing, precious and unique things. Some highlights include Shakespeare’s first folio, Audubon’s Birds of America, a small drawing of a kettle by James Watt, photos of models from Pre-Raphaelite paintings to our oldest surviving document from 1150’s , but have you ever wondered how these items are cared for? What the ‘Gold’ part of the building is? Conservator Lucy Angus explains.
As part of the Archives & Collections team my job is to care for the archival and special collections. A major part of my role is collections care. Collections care, which is sometimes called preventive conservation, involves any actions taken to prevent or delay the deterioration of cultural heritage. This could be anything from advising people on the handling of original documents, to making sure environmental conditions such as temperature and Relative Humidity (RH) are stable and are at the correct levels, to how something is packaged!
The collections held here are varied and vast containing every material type and size you can imagine! This ranges from miniature books to enormous maps, parchment and seals, photographs, paper and even a sitar! Therefore storage is a very important and vital part of keeping the collections safe for the future.
All the collections are kept in the gold part of the building. The stores were built with the intention of preserving the archival and special collections. All stores have set temperature and RH levels. These are set to the material type it houses and these are constantly maintained 24 hours a day. Maintaining constant temperature and RH levels stops the risk of mould growth and by maintaining a good housekeeping regime we are able to limit any pests (such as book lice and moths) and remove any dust and dirt.
To reduce the risk of a fire starting, the stores have a lowered oxygen level (don’t worry we can still breathe!), which is low enough for a match not to ignite! If you look carefully you may have noticed that the gold cladding on the building has no windows. This is deliberate. Light can be very damaging, especially UV. Too much exposure to light would damage documents causing paper to bleach and become brittle and for some pigments to fade. The stores therefore remain in complete darkness unless a member of the team needs to fetch a document.
All shelving within the stores is of an adequate size and is made from inert materials so it doesn’t release any pollutants. If we were to use wooden shelves we would be storing up problems over time as materials such as wood are not inert and release Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) which can cause damage to materials such as paper.
How a document is housed is another important factor for its longevity. Good housing gives protection from dust and dirt reaching the documents, protection from potential disasters such as flooding and can support fragile documents from becoming damaged from poor handling by supporting the contents.
When housing original documents a major factor to consider is the materials used to make the boxes themselves. Box board has to be acid free, have no wood pulp and have good aging properties. Any metal fastenings cannot rust or corrode. It might seem obvious but making sure that box is of an adequate size so it can house the document comfortably is essential e.g. not squeezing a load of paper into a box which is too small! The housing should be designed so the user handles the document as little as possible. Poor handling is probably one of the biggest risks to the collections. Simple things such as putting books on cushions or wedges, supporting documents with weights and not excessively touching documents goes a long way in preserving them.
If you would like to learn more about collections care, have the chance to see the archive’s treasures and to have a rare ‘tour of the stores’ join me on Friday 8th September at 2pm for this one-off opportunity to see the archives behind the scenes.