Figure 3.5: Cracking of surface layer

Conservation Research in Libraries: an extract

David Howell joined West Dean College of Arts and Conservation earlier this year as a tutor on the MA Collection Care and Conservation Management part-time course. As well as holding multiple roles in the science and practice of conservation in his career, he has also written extensively on science conservation topics and his new publication Conservation Research in Libraries (Current Topics in Library and Information Practice), was published in June 2020 by De Gruyter Saur.

The book is particularly interesting and relevant for students and professionals in the fields of conservation and curation, as it includes case studies of techniques that are available for use in libraries or on library materials; forming a useful reference point for conservation research.

We are delighted to share an extract from the introduction of David's book Conservation Research in Libraries below.


“The purpose of this long-requested work is to fulfil the demand for a book on science and heritage, particularly library materials. Most conservators and curators are from arts and humanities backgrounds, and science is not necessarily a language that is generally understood. At the same time, there are an increasing number of announcements in both the general and academic press that major discoveries have been made in heritage collections, using scientific methodologies. This results in a number of reactions from library professionals, sometimes including suspicion of techniques, often due to the fact that they do not know enough about it to feel confident that the techniques are safe for objects. On the other end of the spectrum of reactions is the wish for access to the same ‘magic’. So, the demand for access to analytical services is real, but the understanding of what is available and what techniques are appropriate for each specific question is not yet well formed.

The term ‘scientific methodologies’ requires some elaboration here. This is not a chemistry book, or a textbook on chemical analysis. It concentrates purely on techniques that are available for use in libraries, or at least on library materials. It elaborates on what they can be used to investigate, and a brief description of why they work and how they are applied. The techniques described here are also not limited to chemical analysis but encompass many of the various techniques that can be used to find out more about our library materials, not just in knowledge of materials but also revealing ‘hidden’ information. Thus, we are talking about using archaeological or forensic techniques to tell us more about the people and societies within which these objects existed, as well as increasing knowledge of the objects themselves. What all these techniques share, however, is that they require some form of advanced device to function. 

Cultural heritage science is a broad church. The United Kingdom’s National Heritage Science Forum set up in 2013 has members from museums, libraries, universities, as well as English Heritage and the National Trust. Interests vary from specialist investigations of individual items of specific collection types to the science involved with caring for whole buildings and their contents, and even the conservation of ruins and non-built heritage. This spread of interests would be of far too wide a scope for any single volume, particularly in a field which is evolving so quickly. Such a book risks being out of date before it is published!

This book is designed to show a snapshot of the current state of heritage science research in libraries. It has been revised up to the last moment in order to have currency for as long as possible. Technological advance is so rapid that new or improved methodologies are being devised all the time, but this book will lay the foundations of understanding to allow those advances to be followed and adopted with comprehension and discretion. For instance, a knowledge of the current state of Raman spectroscopy for identifying pigments in manuscripts, maps and works of art on paper will allow the reader to form an opinion on any new technique advertised as being ‘the latest thing’ in this field.”

MA Collections Care and Conservation Management

Study is flexible and teaching is delivered over eight five-day study blocks, spread out over two years. A unique study environment, the College has a large and diverse collection, comprising objects from all disciplines; the house and collection can be used by students to apply knowledge to real-life problems. It is also a great opportunity to build professional contacts and networks, and lectures are from a brilliant line up of industry experts. 

Applications are open for September 2020 entry and funding is available.

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