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On the move: before and after

Published 21 February 2012

A row of books

Everyone is probably familiar with the popular image of the conservator as a kind of modern-day alchemist, tucked away in a laboratory, effecting mysterious transformations on decrepit artefacts.

In fact, conservation is far more diverse, and sometimes prosaic, than this: whole collections need to be cared for and managed with conservation input.

Not least of the challenges is finding enough suitable space to accommodate ever-expanding collections. That is why we are currently in the midst of a project to prepare more than 30,000 special collections of books and periodicals for transfer to a brand-new climate-controlled store on the University campus.

The store is the result of an exciting partnership with Marks & Spencer, whose Company Archive shares the new site. Moving the material - much of which is in a poor physical state - will free up precious space for growing special collections, particularly the archives which make Leeds University Library so distinctive.

It's a significant challenge and the risks and benefits have had to be weighed up carefully. There isn't the time or resources to mend all the broken bindings before the move so we have had to adopt practical, cost-effective measures: detached covers are being secured with unbleached cotton tape; missing covers are being replaced with acid-free board to protect vulnerable pages; wrappers of acid-free paper are being custom-made to stop loose binding elements getting dislodged in the move; quick repairs, like securing loose labels, are done with pure wheat starch paste.

All of this has only been possible with the tireless efforts of three volunteers and eleven project staff. Building on the preparatory work done by volunteers and a member of Library staff seconded to the project for a day a week, the project crew has just 22 days to undertake the work that would have taken almost seven months for just one person. To date, they have processed over 20,000 items.

Despite their diverse backgrounds and lack of previous conservation experience, the team has pulled together and, impressively, maintained their motivation. This is due partly to the very visible progress of the project and perhaps also to the team's engagement with the collections themselves and the stories or personal resonances engendered by the material. Or maybe it's simply down to the provision of a radio and a ready supply of biscuits (not in the store, mind you...!).