The British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership behind the scenes – an interview with NiC. By Flavio Marzo + Anna Hoffman + Barbara Borghese

User menu

Copyright Barbara Borghese

In summer 2013, News in Conservation was invited behind the scenes of one of the most interesting and forward-looking projects currently taking place at the British Library in London, UK. The project is based on a co-operation between the British Library and the Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development with support from the Qatar National Library. NiC interviewed the conservators taking part in the project

The British Library/Qatar Foundation partnership is a collaborative project to digitise half a million pages of archival material relating to the Gulf, creating an online portal that will be available to a diverse range of audiences around the world. The partnership between the two Institutions was agreed for a period of 10 years with the aim of working on shared projects relating to Gulf history. Divided into phases, the work will see an initial stage (phase 1) costing £8.7 million. During this time the work will include the conservation and digitisation of maps, photographs, manuscripts, letters, audio and video files consisting of 475,000 pages from the India Office records and 25,000 pages of medieval Arabic manuscripts. The India Office Records include archives of the British East India Company (1600-1858), the Board of Control or Board of Commissioners for the Affairs of India (1784-1858), and the India Office (1858-1947).
The official archives of the India Office Records are complemented by over 300 collections and over 3,000 smaller deposits of Private Papers relating to the British experience in India. Over 25,000 pages of medieval Arabic manuscripts will be digitised and made accessible online for the first time. These items will be made available with descriptions in both English and Arabic.
The project’s vision, as explained by the its leaders, is based on the desire to make important collections as accessible as possible for researchers and future generations with the goal of creating a world-class, 21st-Century online library to transform the study of Gulf history and Arabic science. The partnership aims to improve understanding of the Islamic world, Arabic cultural heritage and the Gulf’s contribution to modern civilisation.
It is envisaged that the partnership will both push research into new directions, and pull academic communities together.

One of the aspects of the project that News in Conservation was particularly interested in was the central role of Conservation within the general project’s framework. The project includes a dedicated conservation team to ensure
materials are in a suitable condition to be digitised. A conservation studio was specifically set up in order to accommodate the work and was strategically placed in close proximity to the other operations to optimize the digitisation workflow. The newly set-up conservation studio has the capacity to accommodate standard conservation treatments on books and paper-based material from a range of collections. Specifically, the Conservation Team is responsible for:
- Liaising with other members of staff involved with other aspects of the project,
- Assessment of items to determine their suitability for digitisation,
- Establishing treatment requirements,
- The development of treatment options to ensure improved condition, longevity and accessibility of collection items,
- Minimisation of risk to items by providing handling training for staff.

Flavio Marzo is the Conservation Team Leader and together with Conservator Anna Hoffmann was available to answer NiC’s questions on the project and generally about life as a conservator within a large-scale digitization project.

NiC - Flavio, as you know there has been a growing interest towards digitisation and in particular in the role of conservators in relation to digitisation projects. You are in the perfect position to give us your view on the topic. Starting from what prompted you to go for this job.
Flavio Marzo - My career as a book conservator started in a very peculiar way; I started training in a Benedictine Monastery in the small village where I grew up in the north of Italy.
The beauty of the place, coupled with the ideal of a religious communitarian life were the first driving factors to attract me to the place and gave me the chance to become an apprentice at the book restoration studio that was already active in the monastery. Once I started working with the monks I discovered a natural disposition for manual artistic work that I channelled with the love that I always had for history behind objects. When time was mature for a change I graduated in book and paper conservation in Spoleto near Perugia and moved to London where after different experiences in other institutions, I settled at the British Library (BL).
At the British Library I almost immediately started to interact with the “digital world” by joining the team working on the Codex Sinaiticus Digitisation Project, one of the pioneering projects in digitisation of library treasures and a starting point for the development of policies and procedures to apply in future projects within the BL. The Greek Manuscripts Digitisation Project followed and it is from this experience that I have actually started to build up a real “expertise” in digitisation projects of library material and its processes.
At this point in my career I consider a great achievement to have joined the Qatar Foundation/British Library Partnership Digitisation Project as conservation studio manager and this achievement is clearly due to the previous experiences and the knowledge acquired on the ground.

NiC -Anna, you have a very different story from Flavio as you are an emerging professional. I’ll ask you the same question – what attracted you to the job?
Anna Hoffmann - My interest is in large-scale conservation projects. I have worked on large-scale projects in my first job after graduating from university, and instantly fell in love with this approach… I think large-scale projects like digitisation projects are a big part of our future and I’d like to get to grips with it. And of course it is a pleasure to work in a renowned institution like the British Library!

NiC - How important you think it is to have conservation expertise when embarking on digitisation projects?
Flavio Marzo - It is essential! It is very important that Conservation/Preservation aspects and expertise are incorporated into the early stages of projects such as this one. Scoping is one of the most important foundation stones when building a project. Gaining as much knowledge as possible at the early stages is crucial in order to optimise the use of resources available. Conservation/Preservation brings very specialist knowledge to the project; using these inputs from the early stages of planning can secure vital information not retrievable in any other way.
Identifying right from the beginning the portion of the collection that is fit for digitisation can save time while at the same time giving an idea for estimating time needed for future conservation.
Having Conservation/Preservation expertise on board means being able to cover all aspects related to the security of the items. Conservators provide monitoring and risk assessment covering the entire workflow together with training for staff involved in handling the collection.
Anna Hoffmann – I agree with Flavio and I’d like to add that conservation should play a major part in any digitisation project although it doesn’t mean that everyone on the project needs to have conservation expertise.
In my opinion, every digitisation project within a cultural institution is a big chance for bringing the preservation cause forward. There is rarely a chance for every single item in a collection to be looked at systematically, and a well-conceived digitisation project gives us exactly that opportunity. Even if there is no or very limited time for treatment, there should be time for a proper condition assessment. This will not only ensure that most fragile items get the attention and care they need, but will also give us, if done in the right way, a lot of valuable information about the condition of the collection in general and insights into possible treatment selection at a later stage. Also, conservators can often act as communication links between different strands of a project as we hover somewhere in the middle between academic staff, curators or cataloguers on one side, and the more practically focused imaging or IT professionals.

NiC - Do you think that the conservator’s role within such projects is slowly becoming more accepted?
Flavio Marzo - It is really hard to clearly and visibly quantify the importance and the “omnipresence” that conservation inputs have in such projects. It is every day more tangible to people involved in the planning stages how vital Conservation is. One of the most challenging tasks I have as a manager of the conservation studio is to find clear key performance indicators (KPI). KPIs are used to evaluate the success of a project, or to evaluate the success of a particular activity. Sometimes success is defined in terms of making progress toward strategic goals but it is extremely difficult to clearly define conservation goals when conservation is in fact supporting the entire workflow and so helping to achieve the goals of other strands of the project.
If you look at the different stages of a digitization process from proposal and selection via fundraising, condition assessment and preparation for scanning to the actual imaging and the processing of the images through to the final delivery for example via a database and the long-term sustainability of both the digital file and the physical item (after A.E. Bülow & J. Ahmon 2011: Preparing Collections for Digitization), it becomes clear that conservation is only part of a fairly complex process. However, one realises, that conservation and preservation input is the basis for many of the steps. If implemented from inception, conservation can also enhance the value of the project contents by adding expertise that focuses on the physical features of the items and their degradation processes. These inputs together with improving the final results of the project can be instrumental if further funds are needed.
Anna Hoffmann - From my personal experience, yes. I so far had the luck to work in institutions where the conservator’s opinion is as valued as anyone else’s.

NiC - How much did your training and skills help you in the new role?
Flavio Marzo - The conservation studio deals primarily with library material, paper-based items in a bound or loose format. In the context of a digitisation project such as this one, my paper and book conservation background is clearly the core from where all my working decisions are taken. Being now the studio manager I had to develop my skills in managing a team and having being appointed at a very early stage, I also had to set up the conservation studio, carefully managing the budget that was assigned to the task.
Many new and different skills are needed in my new role compared to the ones that were required during my previous work as a bench conservator but working in a big institution like the British Library gave me the opportunity and the facilities to attend a lot of internal training sessions that helped me to gain new knowledge and skills.
Anna Hoffmann - My previous four years of work experience as a project conservator at Landesarchiv (State Archive) North Rhine, Westphalia in Germany provided the foundations for this role. I worked in the main conservation centre as well as in the conservation studio of one of its branches and was involved in large-scale deacidification and conservation/digitisation projects. My former manager was - and still is - a mentor to me. His approach to large scale conservation projects, with a strong focus on efficiency, opened up a completely new area of conservation which I hadn’t come across during my course at university and which is, as I instantly realised, totally ‘my cup of tea’. But of course my formal practical and academic education – more than 7 years in total – both in Germany and the UK were a brilliant qualification and starting point.

NiC – Just to recap - what are the skills required for conservators dealing with digitisation projects?
Flavio Marzo - There is always a strong need of good manual dexterity and in the case of library and similar institutions, a sound knowledge of paper/parchment and bookbinding conservation skills. The conservator is responsible for the treatments he is carrying out on items taking into account the increased pace of working and the very tight deadlines. This pressure needs to be carefully evaluated meaning that the conservators need to have a good knowledge related to a wide range of treatment options to apply to a very diverse range of materials. Conservators have to be able to prioritise and to organise very well their daily work. On top of those standard requirements, the conservator also needs to have the ability to look and to understand the bigger picture. Conservators working in projects involving mass processing of collection items need to be interested in the analysis of the various aspects related to workflow processes and their conservation and preservation implications.
Risk assessments and creation of databases are integral part of the work; these skills have not been part of the common conservation curricula at least not until recently, although I’m not excluding the possibility of their inclusion at some stage in the future.
Anna Hoffmann – Adding to what Flavio said, I think that conservators should be excellent communicators and not be afraid to interact and engage with people. Working on digitisation projects also means we need to be open-minded to other strands of the project and willing to attempt to understand their workflows and our impact on them, for example on cataloguing, IT and imaging.

NiC – Flavio touched upon the subject of ‘standard education’ - Do you think that standard education institutions are providing such skills or there is a need to re-think training for conservators at the most basic levels?
Flavio Marzo - Teaching in conservation is a vast and very complex issue and the debate is today more alive than ever. The situation is exacerbated by differences in training provided in an international context. Without too deeply analysing such differences, one of the most controversial topics remains the balance between the teaching of theoretical and practical skills. My personal experience is that of someone who started his career as an apprentice in a book restoration studio and only later received his formal academic training.
I don’t think there is a right or wrong answer to this question but I strongly believe that the formation of a conservator should include theory and practice in equal amounts. Hands-on skills are invaluable when treating items, especially when preparation treatments are carried out at a fast pace on a great range of material. On top of a deep understanding of material composition and behaviours and a sound knowledge of traditional skills, new skills in other fields like IT and management processes are also required.
Anna Hoffmann - I was lucky enough to train both in Germany and in the UK; I am therefore able to compare the two educational systems and draw the best out of each. Looking back at my training in both countries I have to admit that neither digitisation, nor large-scale conservation were topics included in the programmes. Still, I think there’s always only so much you can learn at university, as for certain things experience is simply the best teacher.

NiC - The project’s approach to conservation is based on minimal intervention. Do you think that this type of approach sacrifices more advanced treatment skills that consequently become redundant?
Flavio Marzo - In the context of such large-scale projects, the level of treatment needs to be customised to specific requirements; the British Library for example has implemented a “fit for purpose” approach, implying the understanding of the scope and purpose of the treatment, the resources available in the context of the life cycle of the item treated, contextualised within the project.
Practical conservation treatments are therefore carried out on items in need of conservation up to a certain level. This approach not only reflects the more general requirements of the “minimal intervention” philosophy, but also keeps in mind the concept of “re-treatability”. The success of the treatment is measured based on the achievement of the goals of the project, in this case to obtain a good image at the end of the imaging process. Degradation, especially of organic based material is unstoppable and what conservation does is to try to slow down these processes and to minimise risks related to the use of the objects that are part, in this specific case, of a public collection.
It is essential to have a very profound knowledge of the conservation field to be able to stop at the right point when treating items. We are all well aware of the negative effects of over-treating objects and it would be wrong to think that to customise the level of intervention means automatically to sacrifice the skills of an experienced conservators or making his professional life boring.
There are different aspects in this debate that are interesting and have to be considered.
In a project involving the mass digitisation of collection items, the conservator has the opportunity to process a greater number of items in a short period of time and this can become an amazing opportunity for gaining

information about the collections. This is possible only if time has been allocated at the early stages of scoping and if the right kinds of skills are available. To define its role and making it meaningful is in my opinion one of the greatest challenges faced by conservation. This can be done only by understanding how conservation can enhance the value of the collections during the conservation process not only by providing practical treatments and minimising risks but also, I believe, by adding contextual specific knowledge.
Anna Hoffmann - I would like to speak about degrees (or levels) of treatment – we only treat items to a certain degree if preparing for digitisation. I don’t think this approach sacrifices other treatment skills, and I don’t think they become redundant. As with abstract art, you need to know how to draw properly to be able to judge what you can leave out… We should keep in mind that conservation is still a very young profession in constant evolution. By no means should we generally replace high degrees of conservation treatments by the more focussed treatment we apply for digitisation preparation! Both sides need to co-exist and complement rather than compete against each other. We should also take into account the financial side of conservation. If we want to secure our jobs in the future, I believe we need to be more aware of efficiency and how we can optimise the level of care. To this end, digitisation projects are a perfect learning opportunity.

NiC - Are you able to fit within your work routine any bench work time at all?
Flavio Marzo - As a manager I have many duties related to my position that are purely administrative and so my bench work time has drastically diminished. The pace of the Qatar Digitisation Project has seen many changes in the last few months and at times I had to spend more than the expected time carrying out practical treatments but I envisage that at normal pace I should be spending approximately 50% or less of my time on practical work.
Anna Hoffmann - My role within the project implies that most of my time is spent at the bench working or assessing objects. I am however available to support the manager in carrying out administrative tasks if required and I have to say that I really enjoy the organisational side of the project. We also regularly give handling training and support for our colleagues on the team.

NiC - Finally, what are in your opinion the key factors that make this project a success story?
Flavio Marzo – As far as I can tell, this is the first time that conservation has been so deeply imbedded in a digitisation project at the British Library. The conservation studio is located on the same floor as all the other elements of the project making the interaction easier.
Three conservators of various levels of seniority have been appointed to carry out treatments for the unfit items but most importantly to implement the entire process from a conservation/preservation point of view.
This unique situation has created a very interactive environment where problems can be solved efficiently with minimal waste of time.
Communication has become, more than never, a vital element of our work and also an invaluable learning tool. The implementation of processes can happen in real time and the different expertise have in this contest found the common ground where they can easily interact and naturally generate solutions.
During the early stages of the project we had the opportunity to spend time to prepare a very comprehensive document about conservation policies and procedures. Creating the policy document was a great opportunity for us to improve our understanding of the needs of a digitisation project and its processes and consequently to provide a document that could be used as a reference for other similar projects.
The Qatar Programme, part of the wider partnership agreed between the Qatar Foundation and the British Library, aims to digitise and make available to scholars and general public 500,000 pages of documents ranging from medieval manuscripts to recent documents related to the history of the Gulf area.
This material will be made available online in a multilingual format, English and Arabic, enriched by contextual pieces that will culturally and artistically support the technical content.
This is an amazing goal, especially in the challenging times we live in. We are not only increasing the value of the British Library collection by enhancing its access, but we are also creating a multicultural platform where different and geographically distant worlds can meet under the common intent of knowledge and mutual understanding.

To learn more about this project visit: http://www.bl.uk/ and www.qf.org.qa

All Images in this article are copyright ©The British Library Board