The Foundling Hospital, which continues today as Coram, was the first dedicated children’s charity in the UK. It has a rich history recorded in a large archive, spanning over 275 years and touching the lives of 25,000 children. Its medical records provide detailed and complete accounts of the health and medical treatment of children from the 18th to the 20th century.
The collection, consisting of over 250 metres of shelving, is preserved at the London Metropolitan Archives (LMA). Some records are also held by Coram, which owns the archive. The records are catalogued online; however, many are marked as unfit for consultation by the public because of their poor condition.
In 2015, London Metropolitan Archives conservators carried out a survey to assess the condition of the volumes and bundles of the Coram’s apothecary and medical records series (ref. A/FH/A/18/*). The survey identified 124 items that required various levels of conservation treatment. Most of the items were unfit (not accessible to users) because they had been damaged through years of extensive handling and inappropriate storage. In 2016, the LMA secured funding from the Wellcome Trust’s Research Resources in Medical History programme to preserve and conserve the items, as well as to digitise them to minimise handling and create an accessible online resource. The conservation project started in May 2017 and was completed in February 2018.
I was very lucky to work on this project alongside Lara Speroni. We collaborated closely, frequently discussing methodologies and options to keep our conservation treatments consistent. It was an invaluable opportunity to expand my knowledge and skills. It is always a good idea to collaborate with colleagues when possible.
We took a minimal intervention approach, preserving all the original features of the items as far as possible while also ensuring that they could be handled safely in the future. The volumes were bound in different styles, such as laced-case and tight back bindings, using a range of materials, like leather and parchment. They also differed in their physical condition and extent of damage. Some were fit for consultation, while others were not. Likewise, some were not suitable for digitisation because of their fragile condition.
Here I would like to discuss the challenges of conserving one of the badly damaged volumes, part of the prescriptions day book series, dated 1762–1794 (ref. A/FH/A/18/006/007).
Description and condition
The volume was bound in a stiff laced-case parchment binding (dimensions 144 x 204 x 53 mm). The textblock consisted of eleven sections, sewn on two parchment tapes. Each tape was split into three thongs, of which the two narrowest were laced through the cover, and the wider central one glued to the inner board. The document was handwritten in iron gall ink on handmade laid paper.
The manuscript was in extremely poor condition. Surface and ingrained dirt was present all over the cover and throughout the textblock. The cover was detached from the textblock and split at the joints. Parts of the spine were missing. The boards were distorted, stiffened and severely damaged by water and mould. The sewing supports were broken, and parts were missing. The sewing was broken in several places, loosening all the sections.
Five sections of the textblock were inaccessible: their leaves were almost entirely stuck together as a result of water and mould damage. The paper was weak and fragile, with many losses and tears throughout. Some leaves were so soft and damaged that they could not be handled at all. The leaves of the last section were stuck not only to each other, but also to the back board (Figure 4b). The leaves of this section seemed to be blank, as no writing was visible on the few accessible areas along the edges.
In some areas, the inks were faded and unstable because of water damage or exposure to high relative humidity. The ink was identified as iron gall. The iron gall ink test (Figure 5) was carried out on different areas of the textblock to detect the presence of iron (II) ions, which degrade both the ink and the writing support.
Treatment and a new binding
My goal was to stabilise the condition of the textblock and to find an ethically acceptable, functional and practical way to rebind the volume.
The first step was to clean the surface of the textblock with a soft brush and, where the paper was strong enough, with a vulcanised latex sponge. The fragile paper required washing, and the corrosion of the inks needed to be stabilised. Therefore, I chose to carry out a combined calcium phytate–calcium bicarbonate treatment, following the protocol established by the Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands (RCE).
While washing, I was able to separate the stuck-together leaves of four sections, but not those of the section attached to the back board. Since the risk of damage to the paper was very high, and considering that the leaves were blank, I decided to leave them adhered.
After washing, the leaves were left to dry between felts interleaved with Bondina®. When dry, the paper was resized with a solution of 2% gelatine in water, applied with a brush. Tears were repaired with Tosa Tengujo paper (7.3 g/m2), and the losses were infilled with Tosa Tengujo 9 g/m2 and Kawanaka 29 g/m2, using wheat starch paste as the adhesive.
The main challenge of this project was choosing an appropriate binding for the volume. The original cover was severely damaged by water and mould, and the boards were heavily distorted. Therefore, the binding was not functional and could not be reused. In addition, the leaves of the last section were still stuck to each other and to the back board.
After researching the subject and consulting with colleagues, I opted for a non-adhesive binding. This type of binding is fully reversible and very flexible. If necessary, the volume could be opened to 180 degrees, ensuring that both researchers and imaging staff could handle it easily and safely.
The cover was made from Natural Flax paper, purchased directly from the manufacturer, Cave Paper (Minneapolis, USA). This paper comes in different sizes and weights; I used a heavy paper with gelatine sizing. The cover was attached using longstitch sewing done with linen thread on six stations, reusing the original holes (Figure 8). I referred to the pattern described in Smith (1992: pp. 142–151), and I secured the wide turn-ins using a string made of cord. A sheet of handmade Bodleian 32 lb (120 g/m2) paper, the same size as the cover, was wrapped around the textblock and sewn along with it to the cover. The sheet protects the textblock from the turn-ins of the cover (Figure 9). Finally, the book, the original cover, and the inaccessible part of the textblock were housed in a bespoke clamshell box made of conservation-grade board.
This challenging project gave me a wonderful opportunity to learn more about the vast world of non-adhesive bindings. At the same time, it gave me a chance to strengthen my decision-making process for treating degraded iron gall ink. It was a rewarding journey, and as a result, this interesting and useful document is now available for researchers!
Smith, K. (1992) Non-Adhesive Binding. Fairport, N.Y., The Sigma Foundation, Inc.
Giorgia Genco is a freelance library and archives conservator based in London. After obtaining a BA degree in conservation science from the University of Viterbo (Italy), she completed an MA in book and paper conservation at the University of Palermo (Italy). She then spent a year studying library collection care with Caroline Bendix, ACR, as a part of the Heritage Lottery Fund Icon internship programme.
Giorgia has worked as a library collection care conservator for both private collectors and institutions, including the National Trust. She has project-managed the packing and moving of St Paul’s Cathedral Library and worked as a conservator on the Qatar Library digitisation project at the British Library. Currently she is working part-time as a book and archival conservator at the London Metropolitan Archives.