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Conserving controversial literature: access and safe handling

ErikaDelbecque20 May 2019

This blog post was written by Marina Pelissari, MA Book Conservation student at Camberwell College of Arts

For the Final Project of my MA in Book Conservation at Camberwell College of Arts I was given a semi-limp vellum binding to conserve by UCL Special Collections. This volume contains five early 17th-century controversial tracks, including texts against Islam, Catholicism, and Astrology, as well as a copy of Daemonology, written by King James I, about demons and sorcery.

The five books have a parchment cover with boards made of recycled blind tooled leather, which is an unusual re-use of materials for this kind of binding. The main problem concerning the use and handling of this volume is that the text block is detached from its cover. The alum-tawed sewing supports that make this attachment are completely broken.

This book is used as a teaching aid in seminars at UCL, where students can examine it closely. Being an interesting book for its content as well as its binding, it is important to ensure its accessibility and its safe handling. To ensure these, the conservation project included, along with the extension of the sewing supports to re-lace the parchment cover, surface cleaning, repairing the paper tears and losses, repairing and flattening the distortions of the parchment.

Left: Alum-tawed leather extensions of the sewing supports. Right: Parchment cover being tension dried by using magnets.

The parchment cover has yet another interesting feature: the spine shows faded manuscript writing. Thanks to a collaboration with the UCL Special Collections Conservation Studio and PhD student Cerys Jones (UCL Medical Physics and Biomedical Engineering), a further analysis of the spine cover by using multispectral imaging revealed the content of the writing and shone more light on the history of the book. We all accompanied Cerys in the imaging session, where she explained the process.

Multispectral imaging has been used to recover lost features in heritage materials, such as text and drawings. This process involved illuminating the object with ultraviolet, visible and infrared light, while pictures of the different steps were taken. The multispectral images enhanced the contrast between parchment and ink, so as to making the writing legible, since parchment is fluorescent under ultraviolet light, whereas ink is not.

The images obtained showed six sentences separated by horizontal lines. The last five were immediately identified as the titles of the aforementioned five books, and they appear in the same order as the books are bound. The first title, however, did not correspond to any recognizable book within the volume.

At the beginning it was thought that it could be a title given to the collection. After a closer analysis, Cerys and Erika Delbecque, the Head of Rare Books at UCL, identified the writing as “Anatomy of Abuses”. Further researches revealed that this is the title of a pamphlet written by Philip Stubbes, first published in 1583. In his book, Stubbs “condemns such vices as usury, gluttony, promiscuity and excessive expenditure on clothing as behaviour unfitting a true Christian, and further denounces both popular entertainments and traditional rural festivals as enticements down the road to hell and damnation.” (Kidnie, 1996).

This discovery has suggested the theory that the volume had a first pamphlet bound together with the other five. “Anatomy” had six editions. The last one, dated 1595, contains 144 pages printed in the quarto format, which is the same format as the other books contained in the volume. The presence of the title on the cover and the content of the tract, that matches the others in its controversial nature, make it seems plausible that “Anatomy of Abuses” was part of the volume. However, it can be argued that there is not enough space in the binding to contain it, since the cover is already somewhat short for the text block. At this point, it is only possible to speculate, without drawing any certain conclusions.

The conservation treatments are currently under way. The final result will be shown during the final exhibition of the graduates from the MA Conservation at the Camberwell College of Arts, between the 18th and the 23th of June, which is open to the public. The book will then be available as a teaching aid for UCL students and for research at the Special Collections.

Announcing our first UCL Special Collections Visiting Fellow

ErikaDelbecque26 April 2019

We are delighted to announce that Dr Adrian Chapman has been appointed as our first Special Collections Visiting Fellow. The Fellowship programme is an opportunity for external researchers to visit UCL to conduct research on a topic centred on the Special Collections holdings. Its aims are to raise awareness of our collections and to facilitate new research into our archives, records and rare books.

Adrian holds a PhD from UCL, and currently teaches at Florida State University. He has published extensively on psychiatry and the counterculture of the 1960s.

He will be spending six weeks with us in summer working on his project ‘Underground Psychiatry: R. D. Laing, Radical Psychiatry and the Underground Press’. Drawing on our unrivalled collection of Little Magazines and alternative press publications, Adrian will examine how the underground press circulated, contested and appropriated Laing’s ideas in the 1960s.

Adrian will participate in the programme of workshops, talks and lectures run by the Special Collections Department. The events will be advertised on the Special Collections website and on our Twitter feed.

2019 UCL Special Collections Visiting Fellowship

ErikaDelbecque23 November 2018

We are pleased to invite applications for a Special Collections Visiting Fellowship, which offers a researcher the opportunity to visit UCL to conduct research on our fascinating collections. Its aims are to raise awareness of the collections amongst the research community, to facilitate new research into UCL Special Collections, and to disseminate the research outcomes to academic and non-academic audiences.

UCL Special Collections holds one of the foremost university collections of manuscripts, archives and rare books in the UK. They include fine collections of medieval manuscripts and early printed books as well as highly important 19th and 20th century collections of personal papers, archival material, and literature, covering a vast range of subject areas. The core strengths of our collections are:

  • Language, literature and poetry and 20th and 21st century small-press publishing
  • A researcher looking at a rare book in the Special Collections reading roomPolitics and social policy, especially 19th and 20th century reform movements
  • History of science, especially medical sciences and genetics
  • Mathematics
  • History of the medieval and early modern book
  • Latin American history and economics
  • Hebraica and Judaica
  • History of education, especially 20th century
  • History of London, especially 19th and 20th century
  • Speech sciences and conversational data

The successful candidate will spend up to six weeks, or the part-time equivalent, at UCL researching the collections. The Visiting Fellow will receive a grant of £3,500 to cover travel, accommodation and living expenses. The deadline for applications is 10 am on 1 February 2019.

See our website for further details and an application form.