An update from our conservation volunteers

Our two volunteers in the conservation studio have been with us since October last year. Both Fiona and Sandi have contributed blog posts before, but these were relatively early on in their placements. Now that they’ve been here for a while, have undergone extensive training and have started working on their own individual projects, this week’s blog includes their reflections on their volunteer placements to date.

From Fiona...

I have been a fortnightly volunteer here for six months and I feel quite confident in the work I am doing now. I am working to my own schedule, with Ruth always there for advice and help if I need it, and have tackled some really interesting repairs.

Much of what I have been doing for the last few visits has involved tear repairs and infills, and that has led to an understanding of how to make an item more secure and stable for people to be able to handle it in the future. For instance, one piece I have just finished is a technical drawing for the construction of a medical instrument. It was very fragile along one edge especially - it felt like fine suede to touch and was fragmented into tiny shards, held together only by a few fibres. Several pieces along the edge and at the corners were missing also. With patience and care, I have filled in the gaps with Japanese paper (a fine, fibrous paper) and wheat starch paste, and used some strips of the Japanese paper on the back of the item to hold all the tiny pieces together along the edge. It now feels strong and stable when I handle it, meaning people will be able to do so for a long time to come.

Today I am learning how to join together two parts of an architectural plan which have become completely detached. It involves making small strips to temporarily hold the two pieces where you want them, a bit like stitches in a wound, and I have been shown me how remove wheat starch paste when necessary too. When I looked at the pieces of the plan a fortnight ago, I was fairly sure it would be beyond me to fix it, but actually, by applying some of that special virtue which I am often short on - patience - I have been able to carry out a good repair and recreate a plan which was very hard to look at before. It is so satisfying!

I love planning out my day, laying out a room full of my work in progress - some tear repair jobs with drying paste, some which are ready for rehousing, others which need further repairs or which need to be pressed. I have finished the Edinburgh Fire Plans conservation project and am amazed by the difference I have made to it. It is all very enjoyable and I really look forward to my visits!

Fiona with her work in progress

From Sandi...

I have had the privilege to be working on some of the Carmichael Watson (CW) papers which Edinburgh University Library has in its Centre for Research Collections. These papers date from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and are transcriptions of secular songs collected in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland.

I practised surface cleaning and rust removal on some sheets of test paper before doing the same with the CW papers. This is a long process as there are 548 sheets to be worked on and I’ve been doing this for some months now, having worked on just over a third of the pages. Ruth showed me how to clean the paper first with a chemical sponge and then use a piece of eraser to clean even more. Some of the pages are really dirty and it’s very satisfying cleaning off the surface dirt. However, this has to be done with care as some of the pages are torn. Rust which has accumulated as a result of pages being stapled together has to be removed very carefully with the tip of a scalpel. This is where I put on magnifying glasses - essential to see the paper close up so as not to scrape the actual paper away instead of just the rust.

Today I’ve learnt how to do tear repairs and infills using Japanese paper and wheat starch paste on what is termed our sacrificial pages (waste paper with tears and losses lovingly made by Ruth!). Much practise is needed before I can be let loose on pages of any worth. Again, this is a fairly tricky business but satisfying knowing that I will have helped in bettering the condition of these papers for future researchers.

Sandi learning how to repair tears on some scrap paper