Reporter 428, 30 November 1998

A happy accident helps the yellow and spineless

The phasing out of ozone-depleting CFCs was good news for the environment but a disaster for many old and valuable books preserved with the chemicals. After years of trials the Library's conservation workshop has now developed a successful alternative to help reduce the number of classic works dissolving into pulp fiction.

Millions of books world-wide have quite literally fallen to pieces as residues in their ageing poor-quality paper produce acid. This destructive process is accelerated by moisture and pollutants in the air but can be slowed by neutralising the acidity.

The old CFC-based sprays allowed the acidified books to be treated page-by-page with no need for time-consuming and expensive disbinding, but environmental concerns left conservation officer Dr Paul Green with no convenient way of treating the Library's collection of rare books.

"No commercial supplier could produce a stable alternative for us so we teamed up with a local company to develop our own. We tried loads of different combinations but couldn't get it quite right. Then, in the best tradition of scientific discovery we mixed two together one day, and found we had it cracked," said Dr Green, who holds a PhD in cellulose chemistry.

In recognition of its fortuitous birth the team nicknamed the new solution HA (happy accident) fluid. "It has already proved invaluable in preserving our historic collection of books," he said.

The conservation workshop was set up in 1995 to protect and restore the Library's collection of valuable books and manuscripts, particularly rare and unique documents used for research. Many of the manuscripts are on poor quality paper, which leaves them susceptible to the acid produced. In time this turns the paper yellow and makes it very brittle, before it is eventually destroyed.

Early projects in the workshop included treating the manuscripts of Russian writers held in the Leeds Russian Archive, and the Liddle Collection of letters, diaries and photographs from the First World War.

Dr Green has estimated it would take over 1,000 years to carry out full conservation work on these collections, but a small proportion of the rarer documents have been cleaned, washed and neutralised by hand.

So far, these have included the papers of people awarded the Victoria Cross and writings from the turn of the century by the Russian revolutionary Leonid Andreyev. To slow down the degradation of the remainder of the collection, the fragile material is wrapped in neutralising alkaline buffer solutions and much of it is recorded on microfilm, preserving at least the paper's contents for future generations.

The workshop has also been treating other valuable items from the Library, including original letters of the Brontë sisters' unfortunate brother Branwell and the personal collection of the prominent Jewish scholar Cecil Roth for an exhibition.

Perhaps one of the most ambitious projects carried out in the workshop was the restoration of an unusual collage by the artist Vanessa Bell, who covered a 1914 oil painting in tiny pieces of a copy of the Times newspaper. "The newspaper had degraded and come away from the canvas," said assistant conservation officer Sharon Connell. "We tracked down an identical copy of that day's newspaper and were able to restore the picture with the exact parts of the page that she had originally used."

To assist in very delicate work, such as removing rubber band residues from photographs, the workshop uses a stereo microscope, complete with a television camera and monitor. "It's painstaking work, it can take hours of careful scraping at the surface to remove the stain left by a single paperclip," said Dr Green.

Japanese tissue, a thin yet extremely strong paper made from mulberry bushes, is used to repair brittle or damaged documents. They are then kept between sheets of inert clear polyester to provide support.

"There is an enormous amount of work for us still to carry out, probably many lifetimes' worth in fact," said Dr Green. "It's a shame that we can't do it all but it's really satisfying to help save what we can. We were very lucky to win a special grant of £395,000 from HEFCE to set up and run the workshop until 2000, but the big challenge now is to keep going after that."

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