A few weeks ago whilst browsing in Lakeland, I was confronted by bottles of moth killer and moth traps. It was a timely reminder that this is the time of year where people (myself included!) try desperately not to become infested and have holes appear in jumpers when taken out of the wardrobe come October. But, did you know that archival documents are just as at threat from pests as is a treasured woollen coat?
The vast majority of the collections held in the archives are made from organic materials such as paper and leather. These provide a great food source for pests. Pests we have to watch out for include silverfish, common book lice, and clothes moths amongst others. These pests survive on eating the surfaces of paper, textiles, books, some adhesives and animal skins, which unfortunately is the majority of our collection! You may be thinking just get some insecticide and kill the damn things. Unfortunately insecticides come with health and safety issues as well as not being very safe for the documents.
An example of where pests have caused damage to one of our documents. The wood and parchment in this document has provided a good food source for a wood-boring insect.
A recent accession to the archives which has piqued interest amongst colleagues and public alike is the Trans – Atlantic Cable Chart (MS 2680 Acc. 2017/079) from the records of Webster & Horsfall Ltd., now Webster, Horsfall, Latch and Batchelor, the oldest continuously running Birmingham company, manufacturers of spring steel wire who won the contract to supply the telegraph cable in the 1860s.
Background to the laying of the cable
Prior to the 1860s, communication between the UK and the USA was largely made by letter. The popularity of telegrams in the nineteenth century led to developments in laying underwater cables. In the 1850s, the Telegraph Construction & Maintenance Company was formed by an American businessman, Cyrus Field and a Manchester cotton manufacturer, John Pender in an attempt to lay a cable across the Atlantic. In 1866 after several failed bids, a successful attempt was made with Horsfall & Webster supplying the cable.
Trans – Atlantic Cable Chart, ref MS 2689 (Acc 2017/079)
The Trans – Atlantic Cable Chart
The chart was published by the Hydrographic Office of the British Admiralty of Deep Sounding and shows the bed of the Atlantic overlaid with daily written accounts of messages sent from the Great Eastern, the vessel responsible for laying the cable, back to Greenwich providing news of progress on completing this perilous task. The chart is believed to be the only one in the UK, the only other copy is held in the papers of Cyrus Field at the Smithsonian Institute in America.
The chart is representative of the technological work taking place in the nineteenth century and the part played by Birmingham and other British cities in engaging with pioneering techniques. The chart also contains a far more human quality in the record of daily messages from the vessel back to Greenwich. One can only imagine how arduous a task it was for those working on the laying of the cable, on work which today has burgeoned into a world of global inter-connectivity.
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.
Watt’s Kettle. One of the priceless treasures held in the archives
Example of the types of boxes we use to store archives at AH&P
Many of you have read about our preparations for the move and the careful packaging of thousands and thousands of items. Whilst contributing to the wrapping of the book stock in Archives and Heritage, I often wondered about where these items had come from – how had they made their way into our collections and where had they been kept before. Inevitably some items were more in need of attention than others but it occurred to us that there are untold numbers of collections in private, community and business hands that, if looked after properly now, would hopefully find their way to an archives such as ours, in a good condition sometime in the future.
Archives are not just paper documents; they can be made of parchment, be photographs, maps, plans, bound in volumes, loose in a drawer. If you think something is important enough to be kept long-term, it’s best to start looking after it now. Although each circumstance is different and each location where archives are stored will have its own unique conditions, we thought it might help to give a few basic pointers – things to be aware of when storing personal papers. We will be looking at photographs specifically in a few weeks’ time, but there are some simple steps that can be taken to help protect archives, and some things that should be avoided!
Choosing a storage location
- Avoid storing items in attics, garages and basements as they can be damp and are prone to leaks, flooding, mould, pests and extremes of temperature. If these areas must be used ensure all shelving is at least 15cm from the floor and keep items away from exterior walls.
- Avoid storage near to vehicles, aerosols, paints and varnishes, windows and exterior doors, as chemical fumes and everyday air pollution can accelerate deterioration.
- Keep items away from heat sources, electrical equipment and magnetic fields as these accelerate damage and aging.
- A clean, dark environment with a fairly constant temperature and humidity, such as an above ground cupboard in the centre of your home, is ideal for storage.
- Block out direct sunlight and switch off any lights when not in use.
- Keep all pets, food and drink away from items.
Handling and storage basics
- Avoid directly handling fragile items where possible. Ensure hands are clean and only hold photographs, negatives, artworks and films at the edges (ideally cotton, vinyl or nitrile gloves should be worn).
- Try to keep items on a flat surface for support. Place a rolled up towel on either side of a book’s spine to help support the structure when open.
- Do not force curled/folded items or stiff books to open as this will cause damage.
- Avoid using elastic bands as they may perish or stick to items causing staining.
- Avoid the use of metal pins and paperclips as they can rust and tear items.
- Never use adhesive tapes to repair items as they can cause staining and adhere to other things.
- Avoid storing photographs in plastic ‘magnetic’ albums with adhesive surfaces. Photo corners or ‘pocket’ albums are preferred. Also avoid contact between facing images.
- Store different types of materials (photographs, negatives, paper documents, objects, textiles etc) separately, keeping a note of items which belong together.
- Keep newspaper clippings away from all other items you wish to preserve and use acid-free tissue paper rather than newspaper to wrap items for protection. (Newspaper is very poor quality, acidic paper which can harm other items).
- Avoid the use of plastic and PVC wallets, plastic/bin bags or cling film for storage as these yellow and become sticky with age, often lifting the ink from documents. Also avoid wooden storage boxes and drawers as they can contain chemicals which can transfer.
- Try to store items flat and unfolded where possible.
- Avoid marking items with ink (which fades and can bleed if damp). If necessary, write lightly with a HB pencil on the reverse. Continue reading