Archive store shelves holding the Workhouse and Poor Law Union collections
In the Past Caring project, there are approximately 2000 bound items and boxed paper documents of the York Workhouse and Poor Law collection which are in need of some form of preservation or conservation action. That’s a lot of items to go through! Before their arrival to Explore, the collections were housed first in the Workhouse and Poor Law Union’s deposit and then the York City Art Gallery. Through general use and non-ideal storage conditions of the collection’s 200 odd years, some of the documents and books are in a physical state where they can’t be produced for users without incurring further damage. The purpose of the conservation aspect of the Past Caring Project is to make sure the collection is stored, produced, and used in a way that will help maintain its longevity. Items that are especially damaged or vulnerable will be given remedial repairs and practical treatments to stabilize and help avoid future damage.
An overview of the historic damage
While some of the collection is in relatively good condition for its age, many paper documents and volumes have issues that present challenges. The following types of damage are common for archive material, but in this collection the problems have been exacerbated by its previous storage conditions.
One of the major challenges to be addressed is the significant amounts of powdery red rot in the collection’s leather bindings. Red rot is the acidic degradation of leather, which over time causes the leather to become weak, often splitting or breaking on areas it should flex. Many of the affected bindings are in the later stages of deterioration, the leather becoming powdery and coming off. This is problematic for users as it is a skin and respiratory irritant, but also because the powdery deposits easily transfer to shelving; reading room surfaces; on and inside other documents; and the readers themselves.
Bindings with red rot damage
Weakened leather coming off off volumes
At one point in its history, the collections have been stored in humid or damp conditions. This allowed for severe mould damage on occur a portion of the bindings. While the mould is currently inactive, large deposits remain on the volumes and documents. Inside the bindings, the text blocks are cockled and discoloured, with losses and pages adhered together. As the bindings are fragile and the mould deposits are a health and safety hazard for users, the bindings cannot be accessed in their current state.
Many bindings have physical damage from heavy use and improper storage. This includes abrasions, bumped corners, tears, covers falling off, spines detached, and more. The paper documents have rusting metal fastenings and severe paper tears, pleats and crumpling which limits readability and cause handling difficulties.
Metal fasteners rusting
Paper files stored vertically causing bowing and damage to files
Other types of damage include extensive sooty black dirt throughout the collection, brittle papers, and iron gall ink damage. Through the course of the project I will blog further about the conservation issues described.
What’s the plan?
The specialized archive store where the collection is currently housed was purpose built to hold Explore’s on-site collection (for more information, read about the Gateway to History project). The store operates within PD5454:2012 guidance. This means that the store follows published recommendations for the storage of library and archive materials, which include guidance for ranges of temperature and humidity levels within the store that the collection is best suited. This aids in slowing further degradation of the material. The archive store also has a security system and measures against water ingress and fire.
The items which have been damaged by improper packaging or storage will be addressed by repackaging to mitigate further damage when it’s used and moved.
Using a variety of conservation techniques, the project will address the most pressing of concerns for the collection, with the goal of making the material available to use. This includes surface cleaning of documents to remove heavy deposits of sooty black dirt; making paper documents accessible by unfolding and pressing; repairing severe tears and losses to paper documents and bindings; cleaning and removing deposits from mould damaged items; consolidating the leathers and providing protective covers on bindings with red rot to enable reader handling.
I will continue to post about the project and the conservation as it progresses, if you’re interested in reading about a particular topic, feel free to contact me with suggestions!
Thanks for reading,
For more information about conservation I’ve added some links that may be of interest
Institute of Conservation
Archives and Records Association