Tower of London

Tower of London

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Academic-The British Library Preservation Department

The British National Library boasts the world's third largest collection, so it makes sense that there is a conservation center on the premises. In fact, the British Library is one of the first libraries that was designed with the preservation of its collection in mind. With over 170 million items to care for, no one wants to let pieces of their collection go to outside vendors for any period of time unless it is an absolute necessity.

Many of the preservation techniques are in place long before the books ever need to be sent to the repair room. The library is kept at 16-17 degrees Celsius and 50% humidity including the tower which stores the books 74 feet below sea level.

Unfortunately, age and wear and tear are unavoidable, so each year department heads will make a list of their top items that need to be repaired. The preservation center looks at the scope and cost of each project and sets their calendar based on their operating budget and time restrictions. Not all requests can be approved, but the department does its best to ensure the quality and availability of the entire collection at all times.

One thing that surprised me on this tour was that the preservation center's mission was to make the books accessible only, not to replicate the original book exactly. So, once a book has been repaired, it may not look the same as the original item. The repairs are done in this manner so that the life of the book can have the greatest possible extension. It is mandatory that all repairs be made with completely reversible materials and adhesives must be able to be removed with water.

This strategy made a lot of sense to me. Because funding is limited- even British libraries are facing a crunch- it is important to preserve the most books possible with the budget they have. Since a good portion of this library's collection is irreplaceable, it is more important to maintain the quality of these items rather than making sure they are perfect replicas of the originals-which could put the book in danger because it may not be able to withstand the techniques that would be necessary to make it exact.

The conservators are free to choose the method which they are most comfortable with for repair so long as they are within the allotted budget and they follow the rules of all actions being reversible. I was very impressed with the team spirit and can-do attitude of the preservation team. They truly seemed to enjoy one another's company and are always willing to teach one another a new technique or coach someone on a task that has alluded them. It is this type of teamwork that allows them to be so successful at what they do-and with such a small team in comparison to the large collection, there is no room for egos and petty disagreements. Luckily for the British Library, the preservation staff encompasses the vision and personalities that are needed in order to ensure a strong future for the library.

For more information about the British Library, click here.

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