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RCB Library Conservation Fund

RCB Library Conservation Fund

The RCB Library holds thousands of unique and distinctive items: parish records, including registers of baptisms, marriages, and burials; manuscripts; architectural drawings, and rare books. All of these items are made of a variety of materials, including vellum, paper, leather, glue, or cloth and so are vulnerable to changes in the environment, particularly light, temperature, and humidity. This means that all of these items are susceptible to wear and tear if left in less than ideal places and that when they do finally arrive in our permanent holdings, they are not always in the shape that we would ideally like them to be. It can be easy to forget the work that goes on in the background of small record repositories such as the RCB Library to ensure that the manuscripts and records that are held for the Church of Ireland community and the wider world will still exist in generations to come. As a small record repository, we rely on an external specialist to maintain our records.

An image of conservationist Declan Browne at work. Courtesy of Westmeath Independent.
An image of conservationist Declan Browne at work. Courtesy of Westmeath Independent.

To demonstrate how specialised, time–consuming and expensive the process is, we decided it would be useful to tell the story of the conservation of one particular record, a vestry minute book spanning the almost 100 year period from 1710 to 1806. This was transferred from its local parish custody a few years ago, and was in a state of deterioration that meant there were loose pages, rotting spine, and a seriously compromised cover, amongst many other issues. This meant that the Library staff was unable to make it available for public inspection.

As we have previously demonstrated in November’s Archive of the Month: www.ireland.anglican.org/news/6687/the–killoughter–vestry–minute–book a vestry minute book documents the administration of the parish. Elsewhere we have explained how over the course of time a volume that may originally have simply existed as loose pages, was only later gathered together as a volume, and originally kept in a parish chest, was almost inevitably going to be knocked around and suffer wear and tear: see the previous presentation on the unique features of the Killucan parish register 1696–1786 here:  www.ireland.anglican.org/news/6358/killucan-parish-register-16961786-transcribed.

To repair such items, the Library relies on the services of specialist craftspeople like Declan Brown of Liturgical Book Restorers. The more eagle–eyed of our readers may recognise Declan as featuring in a regular television broadcast of the Angelus.

The volume in its original binding, RCB Library P.611.5.1
The volume in its original binding, RCB Library P.611.5.1
Many of the pages were loose and in a state of disrepair, RCB Library P.611.5.1
Many of the pages were loose and in a state of disrepair, RCB Library P.611.5.1

As you can see from the images, this manuscript was completely unsuitable for public inspection by visitors wishing to use it for local and family research. The damp had caused significant damage to the pages, and the binding had nearly deteriorated to almost nothing, resulting in serious legibility issues. Even in the stabilised environment that the Library provides, such is their condition, these fragile pages will likely further deteriorate without further intervention. The two key factors required in this intervention are time and expertise.

The binding had become completely separated from the pages, RCB Library P.611.5.1
The binding had become completely separated from the pages, RCB Library P.611.5.1
Another look at the fragility of some of the pages, RCB Library P.611.5.1
Another look at the fragility of some of the pages, RCB Library P.611.5.1
Here we see that the disrepair is having an impact on the legibility of the records, RCB Library P.611.5.1
Here we see that the disrepair is having an impact on the legibility of the records, RCB Library P.611.5.1

What Declan is providing is professional craftsmanship, not a mass–produced service. In a case like the one we have here, Declan is literally rebuilding the volume from scratch, so it is perhaps unsurprising that the process is incredibly labour intensive. Declan estimated that he and his team spent some 100 hours from beginning to end on this project. This involved physically building complete pages in certain cases, sowing the spine which had become rotten over a long period of time, as well as drying out each individual page.  Declan explained that he utilises some ingenious techniques, including melding a blank white page to reconstruct loose or damaged pages, as we can see below:

The individual pages will need to be separated before being combined again, RCB Library P.611.5.1
The individual pages will need to be separated before being combined again, RCB Library P.611.5.1
The long process towards constructing each individual page so that it is uniform throughout, RCB Library P.611.5.1
The long process towards constructing each individual page so that it is uniform throughout, RCB Library P.611.5.1
The binding is beginning to be reconstructed, RCB Library P.611.5.1
The binding is beginning to be reconstructed, RCB Library P.611.5.1
An insight into the technique that Declan utilises in repairing the spine, RCB Library P.611.5.1
An insight into the technique that Declan utilises in repairing the spine, RCB Library P.611.5.1

Central to any project in conservation is restoring the spine. As we can see from the above images, there was essentially no spine to speak of, as it had become completely separated from the volume. Declan and his team thus completely rebuilt the spine, and supplied suitable cover ends. Declan spoke about his innovation for the spine of volumes and books which means that opening the volume does not cause any further damage to the pages, in that it ‘opens flat’, similar to an accordion. What is so beneficial about this innovation is that the product is ‘future proofed’ against further natural damage caused by pressure in repetitive openings of the volume.

An example of a page that was previously in disrepair. Now we have a legible text, which is uniform and can be read by our many visitors to the Library, RCB Library P.611.5.1
An example of a page that was previously in disrepair. Now we have a legible text, which is uniform and can be read by our many visitors to the Library, RCB Library P.611.5.1
This is a wonderful example of the finished product: a clear, fresh view into the past, RCB Library P.611.5.1
This is a wonderful example of the finished product: a clear, fresh view into the past, RCB Library P.611.5.1

As you can see, we now have a finished product that we can produce for readers to peruse in the reading room without any fear of further damage. Not only that, but it’s a beautiful piece of work in and of itself. The pages perfectly fit the new binding, the legibility is vastly increased, and the attention given to the cover and leather spine (with buckrum sides) is wonderful to behold.

The RCB Library holds a vast array of completely unique Church records that continue to draw visitors from all over Ireland and abroad. These are utterly distinctive items that are essential to academic and genealogical research. However, there are currently some 20 volumes that remain inaccessible as they require further specialist conservation intervention. Conservation of the featured item in the Archive of the Month presentation cost the Library €1,600. With public support, the Library will be able to undertake other projects and thus ensure future public access to these materials.

If you would like to contribute to the Library Conservation Fund, please click here.

Bryan Whelan is Assistant Librarian

For further information please contact:

Dr Susan Hood

Librarian and Archivist
RCB Library
Braemor Park
Churchtown
Dublin 14
01–4923979

susan.hood@rcbdub.org