Thursday, 3 July 2014

Preserving FJ’s Files

If you have ever used archives will know that when you request an item to look at it will usually be delivered conveniently packaged and labelled. As you can imagine, most collections don’t come to us like this. In the past we have had files deposited with us that have been tied together with string, elastic bands, ribbon, and (weirdly) ladies tights (hopefully clean!). We have had files covered with scrap paper, reused folders, manila envelopes, and even plastic fruit and vegetable bags (not always clean!)

The process of transferring them from their original coverings to archival quality packaging designed for long term storage is a very important stage in processing collections. This is part of our preservation work and is usually undertaken by the archivist whilst they are cataloguing individual records.
Conservator’s Corner... ‘We use archival quality folders to protect the documents, as they are acid and lignin free. They are also chemically inert and they have an alkaline buffer which protects documents from pollutants in the air.’
Generally this is a fairly standard process of removing potentially damaging coverings, recording any information on the original wrappings in the catalogue description, and repackaging into nice new acid-free folders.

Files as they came to us - wrapped in 'scrap' paper!
With Francis Johnson we hit a bit of a stumbling block. When we took in the collection it looked like the majority of the files were wrapped in scrap drawing paper, held together with sticky tape. Whilst tape is not ideal, it was on the outside of a covering that would eventually be disposed of and which had no integral value as part of the file contained within.

However… once we got to the first file wrapped thus, it was found that the ‘scrap paper’ was actually a plan and elevation drawing relating to another project for which we also had a file. I hoped that this was a copy of a drawing already included in the relevant file but this was not the case. I checked a few more of the files and found a similar situation.

So we were then faced with a dilemma. We needed to unwrap the files without damaging the tape covered wrappings and also find a way of recording that there were additional plans, not part of the actual project files. Part of the solution to this seemed to be to note in the catalogue description that the file had originally been wrapped in a plan relating to another project and to give a cross reference to the relevant project file (and vice versa).

File wrapper before preservation treatment (plan and elevation
drawing of cottages at Langton, North Yorkshire, for Lord Barnard)
We also had to deal with the potential damage to the plans. To have our conservator open each file would have been impractical to the cataloguing process and time consuming. After discussion with the conservator we decided the best thing to do would be to carefully score the tape open so as not to damage the paper. This would allow us to open the wrappers without damaging them further. Once removed, the wrappers, as you can imagine, were creased, torn, had tape adhered to them, and were dirty from having been used as covers.

File wrapper after preservation treatment (plan and elevation
drawing of Greenacre Cottage, Rudston nr Bridlington)

So they needed conservation treatment to flatten, remove creases, clean surface dirt and remove tape where possible. This was a whole area of work that we had not planned for (pardon the pun!) and we didn’t really have the staff capacity to undertake such work. We decided we could only really do the bear minimum to make them accessible, so over the last few weeks we have started to flatten and surface clean the plans.

Conservator’s Corner… ‘We flatten creased paper by firstly putting them between papermakers’ felts and applying gentle weight. For badly creased papers this process is insufficient. In this case we apply gentle humidity to relax the paper before putting them under weights.’

And the effort has already been worth it. We have found plan and elevation drawings relating to the Earl of Halifax’s estates at Hanging Grimston, the Thornton Dale development for the Joseph Rowntree Memorial Trust, and Somersby House for Lady Maitland. With this rudimentary work we will be able to make these unexpected archives available to researchers when the main project files become accessible at the end of the project.

Claire Weatherall 
Project Archivist

Christine Brown
Conservation and Preservation Manager

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