Conserving the Scottish Session Papers: A Pilot Project

In this week’s blog, we find out more about an interesting new project taking place at the University of Edinburgh to conserve a large collection of bound volumes….

The Centre for Research Collections (CRC) at the University of Edinburgh is currently undertaking an exciting 6-month pilot project to conserve the Scottish Session Papers in preparation for digitisation.

The collections are held across three institutions: the Advocate’s Library, the Signet Library and the CRC. The collections consist of around 6,500 volumes, comprising of multiple case papers in one volume. The case papers of the Scottish Court of Session are the most significant untapped printed source for the history, society and literature of Scotland from 1710 to 1850.  They cover an extraordinary period in the nation’s history from the immediate aftermath of the Union of 1707 through the Jacobite wars, the Enlightenment, the agricultural and industrial revolutions and the building of Walter Scott’s Edinburgh.

The aim of the project is to determine the most efficient and effective way to conserve the volumes before digitisation, as well as to calculate the time needed to do this, and the associated costs. Efficient workflows that focus on minimal intervention are key to ensure the collections are conserved quickly and are robust enough for digitisation. For this stage of the project, we have taken a selection of 300 volumes from all three institutions in four different condition categories:

  • Good – the volume has minimal surface dirt
  • Fair – the volume has moderate surface dirt, and/or detached labels
  • Poor – the volume has moderate or extensive surface dirt, and/or detached boards
  • Unusable – sewing has broken and the text block is split in multiple places

Example of an ‘unusable’ book. Text block has broken in half

Treatment varies depending on the condition of each volume. Almost all require surface cleaning which is carried out using a museum vacuum on the fore edges and smoke sponge on the pages. Due to the time constraints and volume of work, not all pages can be surface cleaned so instead the end papers are cleaned as well as any areas where dirt has ingressed into the text block.

Many of the volumes have torn pages leaving them susceptible to further damage during digitisation and these are repaired using wheat starch paste and thin Japanese paper. This is a reversible repair which is strong enough to prevent further damage whilst being almost translucent ensuring that vital text is still visible.


Torn pages within the text block

Other treatments include consolidation of red rot, and inner and outer joint repairs to secure loose boards. In some cases, the boards have completely detached from the spine leaving the text block vulnerable to damage and the pages at risk of becoming detached. The boards are reattached using tabs of archival linen which have been toned with acrylic paint to match the bindings.

Linen tabs - lifted leather

Boards reattached using toned archival linen

As well as the project conservator there have been two interns (Claire Hutchison and Jordan Megyery, recent graduates from Northumbria University) who have taken part in the pilot project, each for six weeks, helping to conserve the volumes ready for their digitisation in August.

Throughout the pilot project, a number of the volumes have presented particular problems in terms of conservation and digitisation; some of the volumes have been tightly bound which will make it difficult to digitise the text fully, others contain fold-outs within the volume that have been trapped in the binding making them inaccessible. In some cases, the volumes are extremely wide, meaning that they are too large to fit on the scanner and are at risk of splitting when opened. So that they can be digitised safely, larger volumes and those which are tightly bound will be rebound into smaller volumes.

Tight binding 2

Volume with a tight binding. Unable to digitise

You can read more about this project, and other conservation work being carried out at the CRC on their blog.

Nicole Devereux (Project Conservator) and Jordan Megyery (Intern)

Centre for Research Collections, University of Edinburgh


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