Conserving the past, whilst training for the future

The Conservation team were delighted to start the New Year by offering a student placement (4th– 22nd January 2016) to Laura O’Farrell. Laura is originally from Dublin, and currently a student at West Dean College, University of Sussex. She has spent the past three weeks with us as part of her post-graduate diploma work placement, and we’re happy to share this post from her.

CBL Archive:

The Sacred Traditions gallery (c) The Trustees of the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin

When at university in Dublin, between too many cups of coffee and too few hours spent in the library, a number of us would bail out on actual work and come up the road to the Chester Beatty Library instead. One of our first year courses was an Introduction to Early Christianity which explored many of the textual sources of the New Testament, but no amount of reading through any textbook compared with standing in front of the cases in the Sacred Traditions gallery and looking at the papyri there.

That fragments of anything so delicate could survive that long seemed magical to me. Even now, despite understanding more about cellulose and how it deteriorates, it still does. I’m not even sure I knew much about what conservation was then, but it seized my imagination, and in the years that followed, when I thought about potential careers, it was the thing I returned to again and again.

Nonetheless, it did take me thirteen years to get back to the Chester Beatty Library, (although some of those years were spent in Glasnevin Cemetery, where Chester Beatty himself is now one of the beloved permanent residents). I am currently studying for an MA in the Conservation of Books & Library Materials at West Dean College, in the UK. As part of our studies, all students are required to undertake a work placement. Jessica and the conservation department at the Chester Beatty Library very kindly offered to have me for three weeks, and so, unlike my peers who had to scatter across the UK or further afield, I got to stay at home, immensely privileged to be working with the very precious objects that lived right where I did.

Most of my time here has been spent working on two objects from the Hebrew manuscript collection which are part of an ongoing project to conserve the entire collection.


Heb 779, before and after conservation.

The first was a single folio fragment that was in a rather poor condition and in definite need of some tlc. The paper itself was extremely fragile, with a number of tears and losses, and a significant amount of surface dirt and discoloration. The manuscript appears to have been written in iron gall ink, an ink which, when fresh, can be an intense blue-black in colour but as it ages, turns to a brown and can be notoriously corrosive.

The first step was to support each of the tears and weaknesses with some very thin Japanese tissue, adhering it to the repair site with wheat starch paste. It was important to limit the amount of moisture used, so as not to risk the appearance of tidelines on the object or any general darkening or colour change on the areas of repair, and also to avoid accelerating the corrosion of this ink. Larger losses were then in-filled with a heavier Japanese tissue in a sympathetic colour to provide additional support. After the repairs had been trimmed, the object was then inlaid into some beautiful handmade paper from Griffin Mill, and a mount cut for it. The inlay provides extra support for the object when it’s handled, and the mount means it can be exhibited easily when required.

Although I had done repairs such as this before, the process of inlaying and mounting was completely new to me but I was patiently guided by Kristine at each step, and am now hopeful that this object should have a longer and happier life ahead of it.


Tear repair and infills on Heb 776.

The other object I had the opportunity of working on was a 19th century parchment Torah scroll. Because of the way it is manufactured and dried under tension, parchment can become quite hard and unwieldy as it ages. Working with parchment account scrolls has been described by some conservators as akin to ‘wrestling an octopus’ and can require a rather fantastical construction of weights to keep everything in the correct position. Thankfully, this scroll had none of those problems. The parchment was of a very good quality and in very good condition, and might not have required any treatment but for some sort of rodent having feasted on its edges at some point in its life.

Heb 776 (9)

The Torah scroll after conservation.

The tears and losses were in danger of creating more damage and so had to be stabilized. The repairs were done in the same manner as for the first object, with two weights of Japanese paper, but this time adhering them with isinglass. Isinglass is obtained from dried sturgeon swim bladders, and is particularly suited for repairing parchment as both materials are collagen-based. As isinglass can be used at a low temperature, it also helps when keeping additional moisture and heat to a minimum is essential. The paper chosen was a nice match in colour to the parchment, allowing the repairs to obtrude as little as possible on the appearance of the object.

Working on this scroll was a really nice introduction to treating parchment objects, as well as to the structure of the scroll, which is obviously very different to that of the codex but fascinating to look at and use.

Icon wall Installation 18 Jan 2016 (25)

Cécilia, Laura, and Julia with the new icon display in the Sacred Traditions Gallery.

During my time here I’ve also had the opportunity to see some of the many ways the Conservation department is involved in different aspects of the Library. I was able to assist in the installation of icons in the Sacred Traditions gallery, and had an up close and personal view of some extraordinary objects as they came through the studio.

As my placement here comes to an end, I will be both loath to leave and re-enter the real world, but also hugely appreciative of the opportunity I’ve been given. Everyone here has been so kind, encouraging and supportive and, despite the intervening years, this place has remained as magical to me as it always was.

Board reattachment for a 12th century Syriac manuscript

In preparation for the rotation of the CBL’s permanent collections, I have been working on a large 12th century Syriac manuscript. This beautiful manuscript will shortly go on display in our Sacred Traditions gallery.

This large parchment volume was produced in the Monastery of Tella, near modern-day Aleppo, Syria. It is a copy of the Harklean Gospels written in Syriac. The text is a 7th century translation of the New Testament by Thomas of Harqel. The Syriac language and alphabet developed from Aramaic and has been used by the Syriac Orthodox Church for liturgical purposes from the 1st century AD to the present day.

Syc 703 Front board.JPG

The upper board of CBL Syc 703

It is most likely that the manuscript’s large, heavy binding is contemporary to the textblock it houses but the structure has been repaired and the spine rebacked with new leather. It is likely that these repairs were carried out in the early 20th century, when such a treatment was a very common practice.

The textile spine lining and endband tie-downs are no longer attached to the textblock due to the previous repairs. This has weakened the binding and placed extreme pressure on the sewing thread which forms the board attachment; resulting in the breakage of the thread joining the textblock to the front board, leaving a very loose board attachment and a number of loose quires. The absence of a functioning spine lining and endband tie-downs has left the text-block with very poor opening characteristics, and a weak and uneven spine profile, making it extremely vulnerable to further damage whenever handled.

Syc 703 weak attachment to the board

The extremely weak upper board attachment, and fragile textblock

In order to allow the manuscript to be opened safely for display, it was clear that repair would be necessary. However, it was preferable that any treatment be minimally interventive to avoid further disruption to the historic binding.

Fortunately, the exposed spine granted easy access to the original sewing. I used an unbleached Blake linen thread and a curved needle to repair the damaged, unsupported link stitch sewing between the first three quires following the existing sewing pattern. Continuing the link stitch sewing allowed me to strengthen the board attachment by wrapping new thread around the weakened existing attachments.


Original threads and new sewing repairs side-by-side.

As the last folio of the first quire was fully detached and its conjoint folio was missing, I re-inserted it using Japanese paper tabs. The tabs were adhered to the spine edge of the loose folio and slipped between the historic sewing stations. The tabs acted as a comb guard and were further secured by the new sewing which has reinforced the existing broken threads as it passes through the centre of the gathering.


Attaching the detached folio with Japanese paper tabs.

These small structural repairs to the sewing and board attachment have greatly improved the opening characteristics of this manuscript. It now opens comfortably on a book cushion, and can be handled by scholars without risk of further damage, or loss of the previously vulnerable detached folio.

When the manuscript goes on exhibition in the Sacred Traditions gallery it will be mounted in a bespoke Perspex cradle which will fit the spine profile exactly and give the manuscript the best possible support whilst it is open on display.

Julia Poirier, Book and Paper Conservator

The Chester Beatty Library Conservation team would like to take this opportunity to wish you all a very Happy New Year!