A Century of Conservation at the National Library

This year, one of the Library’s most intriguing departments is celebrating its centenary. That department is the Conservation Unit, and its expert, specialised and interesting work has ensured that many of the most important collections belonging to the Library and the nation are now in better condition than they were a century ago!

The Unit was established in 1912 as a result of the Library’s commitment in its Foundation Charter to collect, retain and preserve printed books, manuscripts and other collections relevant to Wales.

The first Head of department was Carl Hanson, from Norway. He was responsible for the Library’s conservation unit from 1912 until his retirement in 1959 at 87 years of age!

Most of the collections are made of organic materials and will therefore deteriorate in time, if neglected. Because of this, the Unit’s work in saving some of the collections can sometimes be a race against time. The use of specialised methods can prevent, or substantially slow down this deterioration, thus preserving our treasures for future generations.

There is also an emphasis on ensuring that collections do not get damaged in the first place, to this end 10,000 non-acidic boxes are produced annually. Collections such as old books are kept in these individual boxes, which fit closely around their contents, keeping humidity, as well as damage resulting from light, heat and acidity, at bay. An environment that is constant in temperature and relative air humidity is essential for the collections.  The Unit monitors the atmosphere of the storage display areas to ensure that conditions are not too dry or humid. An atmosphere that is too dry can make materials such as paper, cloth and leather brittle, while one that is too humid can endanger the collections by attracting mildew and insects.

Recently, a quarantine building was established within the Unit to deal with infested acquisitions. On a regular basis, the Library receives donated items that have been stored for many years in poor environmental conditions - in cellars or damp chapels etc. It is common for such collections to contain mould growth and live insects. Our conservation cleaning team use specialist equipment to get rid of these infestations in order to safeguard our existing collections, staff and readers from cross contamination.

The work of the Unit is varied and includes Preventative and Treatment activities.  The Conservationists have years of experience and are experts at repairing paper and parchment, and are have the skills to rebind volumes in their original style. They also treat photographs, wax seals, maps and all sorts of other objects which are part of the Library’s collection. Our conservationists have already started to do detail conservational work on the Boston Manuscript of the Laws of Hywel Dda which was recently purchased with HLF grant.

‘Some of the tools used date back to the Unit’s early days at the beginning of the twentieth century. But many of the techniques have completely changed!’ explained Iwan Bryn James, Manager of the Preventive Conservation Unit at the National Library of Wales.

 ‘It’s important that we, as conservationists, continue to emphasise and teach others that conservation – in particular traditional conservation involving the treatment and repair of items – has an important role to play in the digital age. Without such work, no collection could be digitised in its entirety.
I hope that traditional archival conservation has a secure and bright future, and that there will be people like us celebrating the bicentenary of conservation at the National Library a hundred years from now.’

Further information

Elin Hâf, Press Office LlGC 01970 632534 or post@llgc.org.uk

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