Conservation of the Collection: one year in


It has been a year since Project Archivist Rebecca’s first introductory blog and now seems an ideal time to overview what has been going on in the paper conservation studio.

In this first blog I aim to talk about setting up a studio and how I approached the task of conserving a large and varied collection.

Setting up the studio

In January 2015 I was fortunate to gain the post as Project Conservator and my first task was to equip the studio space. I was given the Medical Simulation Room where students previously learned how to treat patients, which was well set up as a laboratory space with a sink, units and storage. However I had no real working area so quickly starting acquiring basic items. I should point out that because the project is funded by the Wellcome Trust I needed to be mindful of the budget and purchase only what items were entirely necessary.

The Conservation Studio

Photo 1 The Conservation Studio at the Royal London Hospital Archives

I ordered large work benches from a shelving and racking company that were a fraction of the cost of specialist desks, the desks also came with large shelves and when put together could hold large papers and boards. I also purchased daylight lamps (being unfortunately based in a basement with no natural light), a guillotine, basic materials (tissues, blotter, manila, paste, gelatine, glassware), a basic range of chemicals, a microwave and a free standing fume cupboard (the most expensive but essential item). To enable the washing of larger documents and mindful of cost I also purchased a paddling pool! I provided all my own personal tools also and equipment I had gathered over the years.

Once the basics were on order I turned my attention to the project.

Project Planning

There were summaries of the various parts of the collections that make up the project divided into Hospitals – Royal Brompton Hospital, Harefield Hospital and London Chest Hospital (see Rebecca’s earlier posts for more detail) as well as some Private Papers of various medical professionals.

However there was not sufficient detail to start conservation work and nothing at item level. I therefore spent my first few weeks surveying all the material. What I discovered was that there was a lot of work considering the Wellcome Trust had funded a 9 month contract (of which I had already spent around one month setting up and surveying. There were approximately 1,050 volumes throughout the various collections, 11,000 patient files in bundles, various photographic materials, 16 boxes of letters, numerous boxes of additional paperwork as well as mixed items making up the private collections of medical professionals, including a collection of philatelic items. Most of which was either un-housed or not in suitable housing.

How therefore could this be achieved? The answer was and continues to be, to take a wide-scale, minimal conservation approach – ensuring all items are stabilised and accessible although more in-depth conservation would be carried out where necessary. The other solution was to request a time extension based on the survey from the Wellcome Trust to make the project almost 2 years, which fortunately, was granted.

In addition I needed to come up with a practical re-housing solution.

The Conservation Approach

Through the survey I gained a good idea of the condition of all the material at item level which allowed a reasonably accurate treatment time estimate. In order to meet the time estimates a first-aid conservation approach was applied to items that were not in poor condition; this meant that volume bindings were given a clean using a museum vacuum cleaner and consolidated where needed. The text block was then repaired along the handling edge and any large tears supported. In order to maximise time and efficiency re-moistenable tissue (pre-coated with gelatine (3%)) was used to support tears, enabling quicker repairs than the traditional paste and tissue technique. An example of this repair method is shown below. The 11,000 patient files were also repaired using the re-moistenable tissue technique.


tissue repairs grouped

tissue repairs grouped final.jpg

Photo 2 shows the re-moistening of the pre-coated tissue, photo 3 shows the positioning of the repair, photo 4 shows the repair being pressed in place, photo 5 shows the final repair.

Some items including hospital plans were repaired using the traditional paste and tissue technique and items in poor condition received individual treatment.


Another important and time consuming element of the project was re-housing as many of the volumes were unhoused and other items not appropriately housed.


The majority of the volumes were stored vertically loose on the shelves, many suffering from distortion and red-rot and were at risk of further damage. After research, I concluded that purpose made phase boxing was the most effective solution. However, I quickly found this to be very time consuming to assemble and I therefore looked for an alternative. Some companies offer box making services and ready-made boxes (in standardised sizes) but this was both very costly and not necessarily made-to-measure. Thankfully I came across the box making service offered by Lancashire Archives and requested a quote. The extremely helpful Chris Gannon took on the challenge of pricing and eventually making the necessary bespoke boxes. He was also able to offer a solution for producing some extra rigid boxes for some very large volumes and constructed the boxes to save time. All the boxes were delivered in under 10 weeks and have so far have been a perfect fit.

Patient Files

The 11,000 individual patient files wrapped in tight acidic covers presented another re-housing dilemma. I started by looking for the best solution which was to house each file (which are multi-paged) in archival 4-flap folders however this would have been very expensive. I therefore considered using archival paper, cut and folded to size, but we were aiming to fit 30 files into a record box, so I was concerned the files would just slip out and possibly suffer further damage. Further, the time needed just to cut and fold the paper would work out at approximately 6 weeks; approximately 5% of my entire project time. I therefore contacted my conservation colleagues and Sue Hourigan, Senior Conservator at The Berkshire Records Office referred me to JvO Papers who sourced approximately 15,000 4-flap folders ready-folded.


Files and volumes before and after conservation

Photo 6 and 7 showing the files and volumes before and after re-housing.


conserved files

Photo 8 Inside one of the boxes containing the files in four-flap folders


Conclusion to date

I am currently on target to complete the project at the end of this year (2016). I have conserved and re-housed over half of the volumes, all of the patient files and have conserved most of the photographic material ensuring it is all accessible to researchers and members of the public.

It is vital as a Conservator to consider all options, research products thoroughly, do not be afraid to ask other Conservators for their advice and to build relationships with suppliers;  they can really help you to save time and money.

I hope my future posts shall showcase some of the more unusual items and those which have required more in-depth conservation treatment.


Alexandra McGuire, Project Conservator