A Helping Hand

Mary Clayton-Kastenholz has been working as a conservation assistant at Lambeth Palace Library for the past month. Prior to this she volunteered with the printed books team assisting with cataloguing and collections care tasks. In this blog post Mary discusses her work as a conservation assistant.

In addition to assisting with the ongoing boxing and cleaning projects that are preceding the move to the new building, I have been helping to conserve some flat objects from the Church of England Record Centre. Most of these documents are from a series known as ‘chancel plans’; architectural drawings of the front section of churches drafted in the late 19th century, depicting proposed restoration schemes. These documents are an important, active legal record for the Church; in many localities, ownership of certain houses can still come with a formal obligation to care for the local church chancel (‘Chancel repair liability’). It is important for the Record Centre that these documents are accessible, stable, and clean for reader access.

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Starting to clean G.2774 (CERC) with a chemical sponge

To clean these documents, I have used a ‘smoke sponge’, so called because it can be used to remove smoke damage and soot, as well as effectively removing surface dust and dirt. To begin I would first carefully unfold the document, setting aside any other items that may have been stored inside. In the case of the chancel plans, the outer document often contained several pieces of tracing paper illustrating aspects of the proposed 19th century renovations; often these also required surface cleaning. Once unfolded, I would weigh the document in several places, and carefully use the sponge to lift the dirt using a diagonal dabbing motion. Tracing paper, which becomes extremely brittle over time, is only cleaned where dirt is visible, usually on a few outer edges. Dirt on the tracing paper usually sits very loosely on the surface, so it is possible to remove it with almost to no pressure. With the larger paper chancel plans I would clean the whole surface taking care not to disturb any inscriptions in pencil. I was expected to test any other media (ink and water colour) to make sure they are not going to come off. The smoke sponge is made of vulcanised rubber or a synthetic equivalent and is essentially an aerated eraser which can remove any material drafted in graphite.

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Deed 40966 (CERC) before and after cleaning

I then used a Stabler Mars eraser, to carefully rub away any particularly ingrained dirt areas, but only on the edges and at a distance from the media on the page. Once the surface had been cleaned, I used a soft goat’s hair brush to brush away any loose dirt and miniscule pieces of sponge. Both sides of a document are cleaned, and in some cases the reverse sides, before they were rehoused in archival boxes. It is important to note that conservation surface cleaning does not return an item to its original state. The process described only removes surface dirt that is not deeply ingrained. Documents that have been exposed to high humidity often look very similar before and after cleaning, as the dirt sinks in and sets in the paper when it is exposed to moisture.

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ECF/11/4/392 (CERC) before and after cleaning

Once cleaned, the documents are carefully encapsulated in Melinex (archival quality polyester film) which is cut to a size just larger than the document and sealed on three sides. Any pieces of tracing paper that had been folded inside the plan are fully encapsulated, as any handling risks immediately damage to these fragile documents. The encapsulated tracing paper elements are then stored inside the Melinex envelope with the outer plan, so that all the elements that were stored together when they came to the lab are also together when they return.

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G.2774 (CERC) after a full clean

An interesting consequence follows the flattening and encapsulation of documents; when they are returned to the storage facility they take up far more lateral space than when they left. In their new form they are best stored in plan chests or large conservation-grade portfolios rather than in archival boxes. In planning the equipment for the new library, more plan chests and wide shelves are being projected, so that there will be space to store objects that change format as a result of their conservation.

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