The C-word


Over the past month or so I have attended a cornucopia of online lectures and events – there was the Institute of Conservation’s Book and Paper Group conference, the Archives and Records Association’s Conservation Lecture Week and The National Archives’ Archives Supporting Environmental Sustainability event. All of which were brilliant and gave so much food for thought! A common thread through all of these events – aside from the obvious theme from The National Archives – has been discussions about sustainable practices within the archive conservation profession.

Sustainability and climate change are words that go hand in hand but can make so many people simply glaze over. We all know we are in serious trouble but old habits can be very slow and difficult to change. While the collective we have had plenty of time to unknot ourselves, time is really running out now. As COP26 in Glasgow winds down, we can only hope that all the talk will turn to quick action towards a more sustainable future.

Climate change is coming cartoon by Guy Parsons
Cartoon by Guy Parsons

In my personal life I have always considered myself as a bit of a green warrior. I do my best to try to make a difference as an individual in my daily choices. This varies from buying shoes made out of apple leather using leftover pomace and peel from the fruit juice and compote industry to using local refill shops for my oat milk and dry food goods in order to reduce waste.

In my professional life, same rules apply in buying pre-loved gadgets, improvising on tools and other aids and buying as locally as possible. However, when it comes to climate change and sustainability, there is always room for improvement!

While all-archives-digitised-now aids opening up collections for ease of globally accessible research, there should be more awareness of the effects digital preservation has on our carbon footprint. Even sending out one less email a day and avoiding large attachments makes a difference! In more general terms there should also be discussion about deaccessioning materials where possible. As we face more regular extreme weather conditions, the importance of taking into account the effects of climate change in archives’ Emergency Response Planning can’t be underestimated either. Who knows, we may even come across different pest migrations causing new problems in the future as temperatures rise.

I would say the one major change for the sector was the re-write of the collections standards in 2018 with EN 16893 encouraging passive archive environments. You may have read in my last blog post from February about our new passive store. To recap, the building works for it were finished in September 2019. We now have two years of temperature and humidity data for the store despite it being an unusual time with the pandemic. We started out well and I, rather optimistically, had hopes the store would remain stable without any intervention due to our basement location. However, during the summer of 2021 we had to plug in temporary dehumidifiers in order to stay within the allowed parameters. Every little helps though! The passive store is still a big help in reducing our energy consumption and is a success in that the space has not been purpose built and the conditions stabilised quickly with the use of the dehumidifiers.

Every little improvement can, and does, have an impact. It’s easy to want to do everything at once but the beginning is always at grass root and with one thing at a time. I think it is very important for us to share and talk about our mistakes and things that might have gone wrong to learn from one another, but we must also remember to celebrate the wins in order to remain optimistic about the futures of our collective collections. Any small(er) archives like us out there with preservation and conservation professionals who are finding it all a bit daunting and would like to join forces on a small-archives-sustainability-network mission, please send me an email – let’s put our heads together!

BSI and passive environmental controls

Let’s talk British Standards Institution and go for a bit of a version of a Throwback Thursday…

Back in 2018, I had the opportunity to attend a one-day conference at the National Archives in Kew, organised by the National Conservation Service and sponsored by Bruynzeel Storage Systems, titled ‘Passive Aggressive’? Changing the Climate in Archive and Museum Storage. It was the first of four conferences held across the UK and Ireland drawing the conservation profession’s attention to the newest standard EN 16893: 2018 Conservation of Cultural Heritage. Specifications for location construction and modification of buildings or rooms intended for the storage or use of heritage collections.

This standard, released in February 2018 and to which I’ll just be referring to lovingly as EN 16893, is used alongside BS 4971:2017 Conservation and care of archive and library collections as standards PD 5454:2012 Guide for the storage and exhibition of archival materials and PAS 198:2012 Specifications for managing environmental conditions for cultural collections have now been withdrawn. The BSI website states that EN 16893 “gives specifications and guidance for the location, construction, or adaption of any form of building, or any space in an existing building, specifically intended for internal storage and use of all heritage collection types and formats”.

With climate change being very high on the agenda, there has been a lot of talk (and some action, too) about a need to move towards energy saving and greener practices in all aspects of our existence. In archives storage, one obvious way in which to tackle this was a shift towards more passive management of the relative humidity and temperature conditions with an emphasis on all decision making being based on risk assessment practices.

In the now withdrawn PD5454, the ‘safe range’ concept was the combination of a temperature between 13-20°C with a relative humidity between 35% to 60% with any fluctuations taking place in a slow and steady manner. With the guidance stated in BS 4971, the annual average temperature for a storage space should be less that 18°C. For mixed traditional collections the cautionary maximum has been set at 23°C at the hottest time of year with a cool off to no less than 13°C in the coldest, with relative humidity guidelines remaining the same. There is an emphasis on monitoring the conditions inside storage boxes as opposed to focusing on monitoring the air around them, as enclosure environments can be more stable than that on the outside.

EN 16893 was released at a perfect time for us in the Design Archives as we were in the beginning stages of planning the re-design of our spaces in preparation for our Archives Accreditation application and we were able to incorporate these principles into our planning. Since the building works were finished and we gained accreditation, we have had both environmentally controlled and ‘passive’ storage areas for our materials. Both of these areas have been monitored weekly by yours truly with a special interest in the performance of our newer, passive storage addition. Data is also collected on the temperature and humidity outside in order to make comparisons on its effects on the storage space. The building works were finished at the end of September 2019, so I have now gathered just over a year of data (with a break for a few months, mind, due to Covid and full closure of the campus…) to start analysing – something for me to get my teeth into in the not-too-distant-future, so watch this space!




So…. let’s talk news! None of us can deny that it has been a bit of a time for breaking news, ranging from the U.S. election to the COVID-19 vaccine trial success – and everything else in-between.

I’ve returned to Brighton from my month in Finland. On the 31st October there was an article in the daily newspaper Helsingin Sanomat, written by Anni Lassila, about the last of Finland’s newsprint paper manufacturing machines being turned off in December this year – with a title stating ‘The End of Paper’ (see above), which certainly caught my attention! The article explores Finland’s history of newsprint making – for example, I was fascinated to read that in the 1920s, newspapers in England were printed on newsprint made in Finland. Finland’s first newsprint machine was switched on almost a hundred years ago in a town called Varkaus and this year the last remaining one will be switched off in Kaipola, resulting in over 400 job losses. According to the article, and to give you a better idea of the trend, production of printing and writing paper in Finland was at over 10,000 tonnes in the early 2000s, but has now fallen to around 2,300 tonnes.

I spent some time researching similar stories in the U.K. and the scene is much the same – as an example, the newsprint plant in Shotton in North Wales is also closing and up for sale at the end of this year.

Screen grab of online article about newsprint plant closing in North Wales

As we move at what often feels like breakneck speed towards everything-digital-now, it’s easy to forget about where we started: paper. Work memos are now online, newspapers are online, in fact it feels like most of our lives seem to be lived online – and very seldom do things get printed out. You can, of course, also extend the last statement to photographs.

To bring this back around to the general theme of this blog, the Finnish article got me thinking about newsprint from the conservation perspective.

Newsprint is notoriously acidic and from a paper conservation perspective, I’d go as far as stamping it a bit of a nightmare. It is made in huge quantities from machine-made wood pulp and has never been produced for longevity – after all, it is usually discarded or recycled the moment the day’s paper has been read. Newsprint contains lignin, which is there to hold the fibres of the paper together. Lignin is a three-dimensional polymeric material containing acids which cause the paper to break down and yellow over time. It is not only newspapers that use newsprint: I am sure we are all familiar with old paperback books that have gone a hideous brown colour over time – below is one (not too badly deteriorated, yet) example from my bookshelf at home!

Image of a book printed on newsprint

So what can we do to help? First and foremost, good storage is massively important with newsprint – it should always be stored flat and completely supported, ideally in room temperature and with a relative humidity of around 35%. Newsprint should also be kept away from light and heat – we all knows what happens to a paper left outside in the sunshine (when we have some)! With a nudge to my last blog post and the role of the conservator in digitisation, it is clear that newsprint is a good candidate for digitisation prioritisation in collections. With light being one of newsprint’s enemies, digitising newsprint on a scanner will expose it to a very strong light, but since this moment is brief and is done with the item’s (digital) longevity in mind, it feels an acceptable thing to do. It is strongly recommended that newsprint doesn’t get exhibited, which means making a facsimile copy from a digital file is the best way forward for exhibition purposes.

There is a conservation method which can be used to neutralise newsprint. This takes form in a process called de-acidification and weirdly enough, involves many chemicals! Soaking up the cellulose in water alone can restore some of the paper’s strength but to neutralise the acid, the paper would require washing in a mild alkali bath. Obviously with newspapers this is quite often not feasible merely due to the size, volume and fragility of the newsprint (it may well simply disintegrate when introduced to water), so the general guidance would be to store them as best you can and to digitise, while being mindful that your digital preservation measures are solid too.

Conservation and digitisation

For the past two weeks I have shifted my working-from-home to my native Finland, where I have been experiencing quarantine existence prior to being able to take some time off and see family and friends – within the restrictions in place here, mind. As I mentioned in my previous post, since March I have taken part in a variety of online lectures and events in connection with the conservation profession – including a good handful during these past two weeks. They have prompted me to thinking about the shifting role of the Conservator in the 21st century – so I thought I would type down some of these musings with the hope that they might spark food for thought to others!

Conservation has always been a very ‘live’ profession – techniques and approaches have changed a huge amount even since the 1980s, and keeping on top of the latest is a very active role. My path into the world of (paper) conservation didn’t start until 2010 and I came into it from an archive digitisation role, having started work at the Design Archives in 2002. A deep understanding and expertise of the role of the conservator, collection care, preservation and archival digitisation processes have definitely placed me in a very interesting, and in some ways privileged, spot at a cross-roads between these different aspects of the field. As with other professions during COVID-19, conservation and preservation professionals have had to adapt to new ways of working, bringing to the fore many innovative ideas and approaches. This has also resulted in borders between areas of responsibility blurring around the profession – not necessarily always a welcomed phenomenon. The importance of collaboration and openness about all the challenges (and successes!) we have experienced – this year in particular – are very clear, and it has been very positive to notice that this has been a running theme in the online events I have attended since March.

I have been particularly interested in cross-overs and collaborations between the areas of digitisation and conservation, because of my position of wearing both of these hats in my professional role. During the COVID-19 times we live in, both bench work and digitisation of materials came to an unnatural halt for many as institutions and archives closed their doors. While places have tentatively started opening up again in the past few months, access issues and safety concerns still exist for many, and will possibly continue to do so for many months to come.

Last week a friend and conservation colleague Emma Skinner did an online talk and Q&A about her Conservation for Digitisation internship experience. Conservation for digitisation is an accelerating field of the profession as demand for digitised items from archives increases. In the Design Archives we are in a perhaps more unique position where the vast majority of our collections are from the 20th Century. This means that digitisation of materials doesn’t necessarily provide major conservation challenges and considerations (such as rolled up parchments or ‘oversized’ pieces), but certainly doesn’t come without its challenges either! The Design Archives have been at the forefront of many innovative digitisation projects since the early 2000’s and we very much hope to continue on this path. As technology, such as 3D imaging, becomes more and more ‘everyday’, it will be fascinating to see what the Digitisation Conservator field will come up against in the coming years. The two areas of work are certainly going to need to head forward very much hand in hand.

Naturally all this talk about digitisation and its possibilities for ease of access is very exciting, but we must not forget about those that digital technology and its advances alienates. The lack of inclusivity can very quickly become an issue as we, as a world I guess, move deeper into the digital age. Talks about 3D exhibitions and other non-traditional methods of exhibiting fill me with joy and dread at the same time, and we will have to be mindful of finding a balance between the ‘new and exciting’ and the ‘old and traditional’. I guess all the advances will ultimately take us back to the question which initially prompted me to study conservation: what about ‘the stuff’? Because nothing beats ‘the stuff’! So I feel that the importance of the conservator’s role can never be underestimated – be it a more ‘traditional’ Conservator or a Digitisation Conservator.

To finish on a light note, here is an image I found in the depths of the internet. I’m sorry I can’t credit the maker or the photographer, but I’m hoping you might appreciate as much as I did when I came across it! Good ole pencils, eh?

A picture of a pencil on yellow paper with text

Small notes from a home-office island

It appears some time has passed since I last wrote anything on my beloved blog – and what a ride it’s been since the last post! A lot has changed in the Design Archives in the past two years, and now we continue to be in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic.

I’m sure I echo a lot of people’s thoughts when I say it has been an incredibly surreal and difficult year so far. We must all brace ourselves for the inevitable changes that are heading our way – and I am, of course, not just referring to the archives and conservation sectors. While we can only wait and see what the fallout will be, I truly only hope that the majority of you have managed to stay safe and sane in the middle of all the madness.

To give you a quick update, our currently 3-strong team has been taking on this working-from-home since the 20th March, when the University closed its doors. For me personally this has obviously meant no conservation, preservation or digitisation work as access to the Archives was on hold, so I have been working around the other aspects of my job as far as I am able. I’ve also had the opportunity to take part in some online courses, seminars and panel discussions organised by International Academic Projects, Institute of Conservation and the National Archives , so continued professional development has been possible, albeit online, and these events have kept my brain ticking at times when I thought I didn’t have any left! I would thoroughly commend the inventiveness of colleagues that has risen from this completely new situation we are all facing despite the adjustments we have all had to make being far from an easy ride.

Design Archives staff member standing next to the grey, square conservation table at the Design Archives
Grinning with joy under the mask

Just two days before the University closed its doors, we took delivery of a beautiful new height adjustable conservation bench made by Willard Conservation Equipment Engineers –  in these weird times it only takes the lure of more surface space to get me going… It’s the little things, right? She has been sitting in the office all by herself all this time… until this week!

A view of an area of paper requiring conservation with heat-set tissue
Preparing the heat-set tissue repair on the minor tears present along the edge of the poster

I have been arranging a loan of a single poster from the Design Council Archive to go to the Design Museum’s upcoming display entitled Margaret Calvert: Woman at Work. On my weekly pre-arranged visits to the Archives to read the hygrometers and do a general check on things, I was also able to have a look at the condition of the poster the Design Museum requested. Forgive me if this is going to sound a little wrong: I was quietly happy that the poster required some (very minor) tear repairs. This gave me a chance to get some tools out and give the table its maiden mission. There was really not a lot to do but it was so much better than nothing!

A red, rollable pouch filled with conservation tools
How I have missed these beautiful tools

Before I go (and in case the news might have passed you by), I want to shout about our biggest news… We were just over a week into the lockdown when we were able to officially announce that we achieved Archive Service Accreditation. We are desperate to celebrate this enormous achievement in style but this, like everything else, has had to be put on hold for the time being. We are still planning on doing just that when it is safe to do so – and it is definitely good to have something positive to look forward to!