Collections Care taster day: Court of Arches

By Kris Massengale, Library and Information Studies MA student, University College London

During a two-week work placement at Lambeth Palace Library, I was invited to participate in a day’s worth of the Court of Arches act books restoration project at the Collections Care studio as a taster session of sorts to become acquainted with the Library’s approach to conservation. I was joined by both a new member of the Library staff and by a master’s student from a different university than myself who was writing an article on the damaging properties of iron gall ink, and for this reason sought the guidance of Lambeth’s experienced conservators. We were brought into the studio bright and early and given a comprehensive rundown on the terminology, methodology, and background of the project, as well as why it is important to the Library and its users before we tried our hand at conservation work in practice. The details of our preparation and the processes that followed will be outlined in detail below.

Methods of Evaluation

As an introduction to the Collections Care studio and the Court of Arches act papers restoration project, we discussed how and why collections decay, and what can be done to mitigate this process. The following elements were identified as possible agents of deterioration:

  • Dissociation
  • Fire
  • Incorrect temperature
  • Incorrect relative humidity
  • Light
  • Physical forces
  • Pests
  • Pollutants
  • Thieves and vandals
  • Water

Relevant to the conservation strategies used is the fact that the Court of Arches collection exists in varying states of physical degeneration or injury as a result of improper storage and exposure to the elements. The quality of most – if not all – of the documents were affected predominantly by dirt, either ingrained into the material itself or sitting atop the surface as a blemish, limiting the legibility of the manuscript text. That isn’t to say, however, that all of the damage can be attributed solely to environmental neglect. In the single day I spent working with the materials, I encountered, for example, fire damage that could be attributed most likely to instances of human incaution, such as a candle being knocked askew upon a desktop. Thus, it is important to understand the role of accidental mishandling, both contemporary to the time of their creation, and that which remains a risk when users and staff interact with archival materials in the present day.

The act books vary in size, composition, and material, with little consistency to their design. Typically, an outer layer of parchment will serve as the wrapper for the rest of the materials inside; this parchment will often have taken the brunt of the elemental damage, meaning that it is dirtier compared to the inner contents. Many of the texts are oversized, and weights are used to flatten them during the cleaning process. Inside the wrapper, there could be more parchment, or – especially true as one traces a progression through time, when the cost of paper production becomes less prohibitively expensive – paper folios (Andersen and Sauer, 2022, p.46).

An example of corrosive iron ink gall damage.
[Fig. 1] An example of corrosive iron gall ink damage

Iron gall ink is the most common writing material with which manuscripts were written. This is problematic in that, despite its popularity and accessibility during the Early Modern period, and as previously mentioned in regards to the research interests of the other postgraduate student who joined us on this day, iron gall inks are corrosive [Fig. 1]. Iron gall inks were created through an assortment of methods and ingredients, thus making the approach to their conservation complicated at best. Originally made the ink of choice for manuscripts due to its deep, black colour, iron gall inks fade over time into a characteristic brown; the reason for this transformation, however, is not fully understood (Díaz Hidalgo, Córdoba, Nabais, et. al., 2018, p.2-3). The solution itself is typically composed of iron salts, gum arabic, and, most significantly, gallic acid, which is extracted from tree galls boasting a high concentration of tannin by being cooked, soaked, or fermented; galls themselves were formed by the eggs of parasites such as aphids, wasps, and flies within certain types of trees (Ibid., p.5).

Though a single, agreed approach to the mitigation of corrosion from iron gall ink has yet to be decided, Lambeth Palace Library takes a preventative approach to further deterioration through careful handling of materials most susceptible to loss from iron gall ink-related fragility. That is, careful assessment and monitoring of the instances in which this damage has occurred, and restricting access to the documents most vulnerable to further cracking, tearing, and abrasion are some of the ways in which the Collections Care department works to ensure that the historical legacy of documents such as the Court of Arches act books will be preserved for future generations.

A damage code document was compiled by conservators working on the project, wherein acronyms have been assigned to describe the condition of documents for ease of assessment. Outlining the possible imperfections that one may encounter when handling the act books, the document is flexible and can be modified in response to new discoveries as they occur. This is the first step in the restoration process, which is undertaken by contract conservationists and members of the Collections Care staff in turn. The documents are assessed according to the damage code document by conservators before the cleaning process begins, with additional notes being added as one progresses through the material. As the act books had already been accessioned and catalogued by the Archives department in 2021, the burden of textual bibliography is not a concern of those working on the project. Let us now take a closer look at the meaning of the codes within the document, which are recorded on a sheet of paper during the assessment process.

At work in the Collections Care studio.
[Fig. 2a] At work in the Collections Care studio

The first line of assessment occurs when conservators note physical material of which the document is composed. As previously mentioned, a parchment (PC) wrapper (WR) was often used as a protective sheath for the internal paper (PP) documents. Similarly, all of the documents include writing, typically in iron gall ink (IGI). It is not uncommon to find evidence of applied wax seals (AWS) or embossed paper wax seals (EPWS) upon further investigation into the material. While some of the documents are sewn (SEW) together, others are pinned (PI), or held together by a parchment tacket (PTK). Evidence of revenue stamps (RST) also become increasingly common as one moves chronologically through the collection.

The material is then assessed based on observable damage. There are three categories of assessment, indicating that the items are in “Good,” “Fair,” or “Poor” condition, respectively. Just as well, these fields are open to modification; I was told that the conservators have recently decided to add a “Very Poor” condition category due to the extensive damage present on many of the documents. Dust (DU) and ingrained dirt (ID) is common, especially on parchment wrappers; the internal papers are typically cleaner, with the wrapper preserving its internal contents. There are several categories which allow for granularity when describing physical damage resulting in loss to the documents. Small edge tears (SET) are set apart from large edge tears (LET), just as creases (CR), which indicate unintentional creasing in the paper, are differentiated from folds (FLD), indicating likely intentional, permanent folding of the material. Instances of brittle paper (BP) and brittle parchment (BPC) are also recorded, so that decisions can be made in terms of the suitability of the documents to be handled by the public.

Used chemical sponges and vinyl erasers after a full day of restoration work
[Fig. 2b] Used chemical sponges and vinyl erasers after a full day of restoration work

The final two columns, “Treatment” and “Conservation materials used,” are handled by the head of the project; thus, my involvement in the process ended here, aside from the use of vinyl erasers (VE) and chemical sponges (CS) by the other volunteers and myself to clean the documents to the best of our ability once we had assessed them and recorded the appropriate damage codes [Fig. 2a, Fig. 2b]. A “before” and “after” of the cleaning process, that of my own work, can be seen in [Fig. 3a, Fig. 3b]. After the materials have been assessed and cleaned (in this case by myself and the two individuals who joined me on this day), repairs are made by the head of the project, who looks at the damage codes we have recorded throughout the process and decides on an approach to take in the repair of the materials. This can include unfolding material that ought not be folded (UF), traditional repair to paper (TRP), humidification (H), pressing (PW), or washing the documents by hand (W). While the collection was assessed for the presence of mould by the archivists who accessioned it, and was deemed clear, the possibility of mould still exists and is reflected in the “Treatment” category on the basis of whether the mould removal was done chemically or mechanically (MOURM, MOURC).

 A Court of Arches act book document before cleaning
[Fig. 3a] A Court of Arches act book document before cleaning
The same document after being cleaned
[Fig. 3b] The same document after being cleaned

An anecdote – perhaps legendary in conception – was supplied to me by the Collections Care team to illustrate the importance of staff literacy in conservation. It went like this:

An older individual had served as the sole librarian tending to a rural library for approximately half a century. When conservators arrived for an appraisal of the collection, it was discovered that an observable portion of the books suffered from similar patterns of damage to the spine. This librarian had, over the course of many years, pulled books from the tightly-packed shelves by the spine. Over time, this constituted long-term damage to the binding, and the spine began to separate from the text block until, eventually, it would become detached altogether. It was not that this librarian did not care about the preservation of the library’s holding; rather, it was an issue of ignorance on the topic of best practice in collections care.

This instance of one librarian causing so much damage to a collection was meant to drive home the point that damage is always cumulative. The books were not damaged by one or two instances of mishandling, but by the same act being performed repeatedly over a number of years. Each time we interact with an object, we are subjecting it to wear. Even delicate handling only serves to slow the process of deterioration. Beyond user requests and subsequent handling in the Reading Room, all interactions with printed and archival materials serve as points of departure for aggregate deterioration of the collections. These include, but are not limited to:

  • Retrieving
  • Carrying
  • Shelving
  • Reading
  • Issuing
  • Cataloguing
  • Browsing
  • Exhibiting
  • Copying or imaging

Therefore, it is important to note that the everyday tasks we perform as librarians have just as much potential to damage materials as misuse by patrons – perhaps more so. Because we handle these items everyday, there runs the risk of overlooking their importance, and subsequently our personal responsibility in their preservation. In one example of combatting dissociation during conservation work, Lambeth Palace Library encourages employees to take frequent breaks so that they can separate themselves from their work and refocus when necessary.

Collections care in libraries and archives should be a task allocated not only to conservators, but the duty of everyone who interacts with the materials – staff and users alike. Lambeth Palace Library has taken a robust approach in their conservation training, making it a priority rather than an afterthought in their policy. It is important to note that damage to collections is not only cumulative, but that the role of library staff as the people who interact with the materials more frequently than anyone else plays a significant role in this cumulative damage. The opportunity to participate in the Court of Arches act books restoration project as an introduction to the Collections Care studio is a visionary initiative to involve staff outside of Collections Care, as well as external students and professionals, with the department, allow them to ask any questions they may have about conservation, and try their hand at the craft. To analyse materials for damage using a clear methodology is crucial in teaching users and staff alike to identify and isolate these instances of damage as they come across them.


Andersen, J. and Sauer, E. eds., 2002. Books and readers in early modern England: material studies. University of Pennsylvania Press.

Díaz Hidalgo, R.J., Córdoba, R., Nabais, P., Silva, V., Melo, M.J., Pina, F., Teixeira, N. and Freitas, V., 2018. New insights into iron-gall inks through the use of historically accurate reconstructions. Heritage Science, 6(1), pp.1-15.