In this week’s blog post Archives Assistant Emily Rawlings details her recent work rehousing illustrations from the Printed Collections.
As well as several hundred manuscript collections, and over 10,000 rare books, the Archives at Southampton is home to numerous prints of engravings, lithographs, etchings and woodcut illustrations from the 18th and 19th centuries. There are two collections of these: the Cope illustrations were part of the original bequest from William Cope (http://library.soton.ac.uk/cope) and provide an important visual record of the history of Hampshire and the Isle of Wight. The Main Library sequence of illustrations was acquired by the Library of the Hartley Institution in the late 19th century, and covers a wide range of subjects, including portraits, landmarks, wildlife and interpretations of Biblical scenes.
The illustrations were originally housed as loose sheets in plan chests, for anyone to consult in the Special Collections Open Access reading room. This arrangement resulted in mechanical damage from poor handling as drawers were rifled through, so the decision was made to move them to the environmentally-controlled archives strongroom in the early 1990s.
Once moved into the secure accommodation the illustrations were assessed for preservation needs. The resulting treatment involved surface cleaning and rehousing in inert polyester wallets to protect them from further damage during handling. The original long-term proposal was to mount all the illustrations and store them in bespoke boxes. In the short-term, watercolour collections which had previously been separated by subject were reunited as collections, conserved, mounted and boxed; photographs were also removed and the prints and drawings were stored in their original folders flat on archive shelving. As an interim measure this was not successful as the folders were not rigid enough to adequately hold the slippery polyester sleeves, items that were larger than the folders were vulnerable to damage, and the folders were too large and unwieldy to move securely.
Over time individual illustrations were conserved and mounted, often for exhibition, but the plan to mount all the illustrations proved too costly in both time and materials. It was decided instead to re-house the collections in acid-free archival print boxes. These provide rigid enclosures for the prints and are lightweight to enable easy handling, as well as being easier to label and identify than the large, flat folders. Two sizes were chosen to represent the variety of supports, meaning that each collection of illustrations could be divided into two sequences according to the size of the individual prints and therefore held more securely, with less risk of damage to the smaller prints from slipping about in boxes that were too big.
Just like library books, the illustrations are classified according to subject, and they are stored in classmark order with a corresponding manual index. Re-housing the illustrations involved creating a running print-number sequence of illustrations in order of classmark, dividing up the prints into two sequences according to size, placing the prints into boxes in classmark order, and giving each box a number. As the project progressed, I maintained lists of which print numbers are in which box and made labels for each box detailing the class mark range held within.
The illustrations are now housed in the boxes, and are much easier to locate and handle safely.
The re-housing project was also an opportunity to carry out a simple condition survey of the collection to identify items requiring conservation treatment. This survey allowed a thorough inventory of the collection, which enabled cross-referencing with the manual index to check that the correct information for each print was recorded. It also gave a simple description of the condition of the collection so that a conservation plan for the illustrations could be formulated. Common examples of damage found in the collection include insect damage, surface and ingrained dirt, surface abrasion, staining and discolouration often due to acidic degradation of the paper, foxing caused by mould or bacteria, tears and lacunae to the object and damage caused by adhesion to poor quality paper supports and mounts.There are many ways to treat damaged artefacts, and all treatment decisions are made after careful examination and analysis of each item. A stained and discoloured print can be washed in water and/or solvents to both reduce and remove the cause of the staining. Tears and losses can be repaired using suitable tissues and papers and conservation-grade adhesives, most commonly wheat starch paste. Conservation treatments are both time consuming and expensive: the re-housing project and the basic conservation condition survey have allowed us to plan for this as well as ensuring the preservation needs of the illustrations are met.
The alphabetical subject/author index to the illustrations can be found in the Open Access area of Special Collections, accessible whenever the Library is open. The illustrations are available for researchers to consult in the Archives and Rare Books reading room.