Preparing ‘The Ricardian’ for access – review of a conservation volunteering placement
A blog post by Elizabeth Hayslett, volunteer in University Collections.
The history of the University of St Andrews spans over 600 years, and St Andrews University Collections holds and cares for much of the university’s legacy, from the foundation charters to professors’ papers. This year, I got the opportunity to contribute to the preservation of this legacy by volunteering in the University’s conservation department under Erica Kotze. I learned many valuable conservation skills that I will take with me into the future, while securing the collective memory of the University’s past. My project focused on rebinding a set of 20th century journals called The Ricardian, a historical journal focused on Richard III of England. The journal has ties to St Andrews today, as Professor Julian Luxford, from the School of Art History, has written several recent essays for this publication. The set of copies in the Rare Books collection were acquired from a previous St Andrews professor, containing his own notes and annotations for his research.
The Rare Books collection holds volumes 1-4 of The Ricardian journal, about 63 issues, running from 1961-1978. Originally, these copies were in two different formats – pamphlets held together with staples, and single leaves (single pages) bound with pressure sensitive tape and staples. As staples rust over time and degrade the journal paper, they needed to be rebound. I started working on the journals after the staples and tapes had been removed.
To begin rebinding, I first had to make the single leaves into bifolia (plural set of two pages held together; singular bifolium). I used strips of Japanese paper to hold the pages together and wheat starch paste as my adhesive. Using the right amount of adhesive turned out to be a tricky learning curve: too much glue, and the Japanese paper would stick not only to the pages it was meant to hold together but also to other things when drying; too little glue, and the Japanese paper would not hold the pages together once dry. I tended to err on the side of caution, using too little glue at first, and had to reglue several pages. After the pages had been glued, I pressed them under weights to dry flat, using Bondina (a non-woven polyester material used as a release layer) and blotting paper in between the bifolia to keep them from sticking to each other.
After the pages dried, I trimmed off the excess Japanese paper at the top and bottom of the pages. Then I could fold and sew The Ricardian into pamphlets. Before sewing, however, I had to punch holes in each bifolium through which to sew the booklets together. This required a lot of detail-oriented focus because the holes had to be in the same spot on each bifolium and within the crease of the bifolia in order for the booklet to be neat. I practiced on printer paper first so as not to ruin weeks of work with an ill-placed hole. But after this step, The Ricardian issue was complete.
Finishing the re-sewing of all the copies of The Ricardian was not the end of the project however. I also learned how to make book boxes to hold stacks of the journals for safe storage. This task reminded me of carpentry classes I had taken in previous years; it required me to think three dimensionally while measuring and assembling the box, taking into consideration how the design would eventually fit together and how the thickness of the box material affected the measurements. I learned very quickly to always measure twice: my first attempt at a box ended poorly after I forgot to double check my box’s length measurements and ended up with a box much too skinny to fit the larger journal issues. But I enjoyed this part of the project just as much as the rebinding as it revived other skills I had not used in a while.
Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed my time volunteering in the University Collections conservation department. I learned many skills useful for someone like me interested in conservation, and I gained a lot of unique, hands-on experience. But beyond practical experience, I loved the opportunity to see the inner workings of a rare book collection and contribute to its preservation. Beyond my primary project, I got to learn about the preparation that goes into preparing objects for exhibits and hear topical discussions about object storage or collections management from interactions with other University Collections staff members and from observing other projects. Whether or not you are interested in conservation or just curious about the University of St Andrews’ collections, this volunteering position provides insight into the preservation of our University’s history and the broader, contemporary world of collections care and conservation. My sincerest thanks go out to Erica Kotze, the University conservator who let me volunteer with her, and Maia Sheridan, the manuscript archivist who helped set up my volunteer sessions with Erica, for this unique opportunity, as well as the other University Collections staff who were so kind to me during my time volunteering.