In March of 2014, I was asked to advice on the conservation treatment of a group of early printed books from Westminster School Archive. Consultation was sought for the treatment of a unique collection of 7 early books from the Busby Library that had suffered bomb-damage during World War Two (WWII).
The seven volumes were regularly consulted and survived in a fragmentary and extremely vulnerable state. Several had non-functional sewing, bindings or endpapers and were often incomplete in terms of their contents. Their survival and condition in the collection was integral to the identity of the Archive and the history of the school.
The Busby Library
The selected books were part of the important Busby Library forming the core of Westminster School’s rare book collection. Dr. Richard Busby was Head Master of Westminster School for nearly 57 years until his death, aged 89, in 1695. His period in office was incredibly successful - some of the school’s most famous ‘Old Westminsters’: John Locke, John Dryden, Robert Hooke and Christopher Wren were tutored by Busby, a leading educator of his time. His collection was housed in a purpose-built ‘museum’, a place for older pupils to study and a home for his considerable library.
The museum was completed in the 1680s. The books moved into their new presses and remained there for the next 250 years, augmented over the centuries by Busby’s successors and their pupils.
With the escalation of WWII, the decision was made to evacuate the school in 1939. Many of the books from the library had been evacuated, to Christ Church, Oxford, an arrangement which their librarian commented would have ‘been very much to the liking of Dr. Busby himself’, having studied there as an undergraduate. The evacuation proved a wise decision as Busby’s museum was hit by an incendiary bomb on 14th October 1940. Unfortunately, the books which had been left behind at the school were very badly damaged – suffering not just from the collapse of the room’s ceiling and the heat of the fire, but also the water used to extinguish the blaze.
When the school returned to Westminster in 1946 most of these volumes were repaired under the guidance of Nicolas Barker, then a pupil at the school, who went on to become the first Head of Conservation at the British Library and current editor of The Book Collector.
Elizabeth Wells, the current archivist recalls, “When I took over as Archivist in January 2011, there remained just a few boxes of bomb-damaged books which were in much the same state as when they had first been salvaged from the rubble. Several of the volumes were in Hebrew, Syriac and Chaldean, which might have made them difficult to identify and resulted in the books being treated as a lower priority for conservation. Having survived the initial attack and subsequent neglect made the books powerful objects.
The texts had acquired a value as artefacts which could tell the story of the library in a visceral way. It was therefore important that any conservation work preserved their unique character, whilst ensuring that they could be safely handled and consulted by our pupils and other researchers.”
Aims of Conservation
In their current state, they provide excellent material evidence of the history of the school archives collection. As such the aims of conservation were not to reconstruct their bindings using period styles, but rather excavate damaging debris; stabilise the evident mould damage and consolidate their fragmentary structures to prevent further damage from handling. It was important that the volumes remained protected. The primary concern was to provide protection to the text blocks with the minimum of intervention. The main aims of the proposed treatment were to enable handling so that these rare, early texts can be consulted without harm or potential loss.
In consultation with the Archivist, it was proposed that the text blocks should be stabilized and long-term storage protection to be provided by the production of a loose and detachable limp paper binding. This solution enables the safe handling of the delicate openings and closings of the texts while bespoke double-walled drop-backed boxes would provide secure, well-fitting long term protection and support.
Softened, mould-damaged paper was locally resized using methylcellulose in isopropyl alcohol so that the pages could be safely handled. Infills were only performed on the paper where required for safe handling and tears repaired with minimal repair material. Many of the pages at the extremities of the text blocks had been crushed and subsequently interlocked meaning that their contents were not accessible. These were opened up to enable repair and consolidation. There were large lumps of rubble, sand and plaster embedded in the pages of the texts, which were both causing discoloration and physical damage to the paper itself, but they were also vulnerable to loss. The rubble was an essential element requiring preservation itself, as an integral element in the understanding of each volumes’ history.
The mould damage has been dehydrated and requires regular monitoring. This means that the longevity of the books depends on their maintenance within a stable, managed environment as damp and/or humid conditions may reactivate the mould.
Westminster School Archive has a closely monitored and managed environment and is an ideal setting for such vulnerable artefacts. The adhesives were chosen as less attractive to the growth mould spores. All rubble and other removed material has been kept in clear suspension boxes alongside the books in their bespoke drop spine boxes. These boxes provide excellent long term protection for the text blocks and a complete record in each box of the physical impact of the bombing.
Limp detachable paper bindings provide a removable protective shell without seeking to replicate period bindings. These were made using handmade paper covers with the cord sewing supports laced into the covers. The existing sewing and spine structure was supported using a lightweight lining of kozo-shi Japanese paper but no adhesives were used to attach the bindings. New sympathetic endpapers of Queen Anne laid paper type were made as a means of further integrating the sewn text blocks and the loose covers into whose turn-ins they are inserted. The sewing was preserved and repaired in-situ using undyed linen thread and cords extended using undyed linen thread where necessary. This means that the text blocks can still be examined safely, in their fragmentary state. The damaging rubble has caused staining and deformation of the support leaves and is now safely preserved alongside the volumes. The text blocks have not been heavily pressed or subjected to flattening, so that the original location of the rubble is still discernible. Full photographic documentation records the treatment of the books and any new materials remain distinct and readily discernible.
Overall the treatment has been very effective in preserving these complex and multi-layered books as both educational texts and the manifestations of the collection’s history
About the author: Ann-Marie Miller is an UK accredited book and archives conservator based in London. She works for a broad range of institutional clients and private collectors. Previously, she worked for 7 years at the British Library, achieving accredited status in 2007. She attained a post-graduate diploma and masters in conservation at Camberwell College of Arts, after studying the History of Art at the Courtauld Institute of Art.
All images used in this article are used by kind permission of the Governing Body of Westminster School and Codex Conservation