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Historic Library Conservation

Historic Library Conservation – Oxford & Cambridge Club, Pall Mall, London

What is the project?

The  Oxford & Cambridge Club has an ongoing project to improve the visual and physical condition of the books in the historic library. The priority was to develop a conservation policy and strategy that provided conservation treatment across as many books as possible and achieve as significant a visual improvement as the budget would allow.

The Oxford & Cambridge Club is a member of the National Conservation Service, which offers advice and practical conservation to owners of collections without conservators. NCS has a studio in Mayfair but offers conservation consultancy to collections, archives and libraries up and down the country. NCS is advising the O&C Club on the project.

The project started with a survey to find all minor to medium levels of damage so that the books could be prioritised for treatments within a defined range.  As the survey progressed, books were cleaned and prioritised for treatment.  Many of the books in the library are difficult to handle due to dust, structural damage and ‘red rot’.The project aims to make books safe for handling, to treat degraded leathers and halt or slow the red rot and to improve aestheticallythe overall look of the library and its furniture in keeping with its historic design and the patina of age.  Maintaining the original purpose, character and fabric of the library is a key objective. Treatments where therefore chosen that restored books sufficiently to be functional and handled by members, but without the need for excessive and expensive rebinding and re-covering.

What kind of books are being conserved, and some of the challenges you have had to deal with and techniques used

The library books being treated are largely ½- and ¼-bound leather and cloth covered books dating from the 19th Century, as well as some full-cloth and full-leather covered books.

Common issues are split, damaged and detached boards, spine damage and loss, damaged corners, degraded and scuffed leather, as well as minor paper damage and tears.

All books are being cleaned with soft brushes and smoke sponges to remove any dust and dirt. The main structural techniques being used are board re-attachments using toned linen strips as new hinges, leather consolidation for degraded and damaged leather covers, toned paper and tissue repairs to torn and loose endpapers.

A consolidant is being used to stabilise damaged leather and a leather treatment solution, from the Leather Conservation Centre at the University of Northampton, is being applied to help slow the rate of decay as well as improve overall appearance. 


By surveying, sorting and grouping books with common problems and working on sets of procedures for these problems ‘en masse’, the conservation treatment programme is very efficient indeed.  The average cost of improving these books with the existing covers has been about £25 per book (which compares with at least twice this cost for applying standardised new bindings, a common recourse in libraries but which often appears out of place in an historic setting).

Red rot appears to be a problem with 19th century books – what is it?

Red rot is an acidic chemical deterioration of leather characterised by splitting or break-up of the outer ‘grain’ layer, resulting in a red/brown powdery surface.  The powder covers users’ hands and clothing, as well as book shelves, and has a characteristic acrid smell caused by inhalation of the dust.

From a period in the mid-19th century when books began to be mass produced, until the 1970s, the leather used in bookbinding was tanned with new processes that culminated in considerable acidic breakdown of the fibres. As a result , red rot is a commonplace issue throughout 19thand 20th century collections.  It is a cumulative decay that not only results in the breakdown of the books but at its worse is also a hazard to people’s health if decayed books are regularly handled.

What is the background training of the team?

The project was initiated by Chris Woods and Clair Walton, Accredited conservators.  Chris is the founding Director of NCS and has over 25 years of experience working in archives, libraries and museums as a conservator and manager.  A former Head of Preservation at the Bodleian Library, and Director of Collections Services at the Tate, he launched NCS in 2010.

Clair studied at the Royal College of Art and has 35 years of experience as a conservator, formerly responsible for archive and book conservation at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and several local government archives.

The project began with a period of training for a small team of book and paper conservators who have recently trained at Camberwell College of Art, University of the Arts London – Maudie Gunzi, Oriana Calman, Lisa Knight and Mary Garner.  Once under way, this team developed the treatment programme, working both on site at the library and in the NCS studio at the Royal Institution on Albemarle Street.

What advice would you give to Club members with book collections, in particular leather bindings, on how to care for them?

Avoid direct sunlight, periodically clean and dust (but not too vigorously or too often), store in covered shelving, store damaged books in archival boxes and avoid applying standard leather dressings as these attract dirt and speed degradation. If boards are detached use unbleached cotton tapes to tie up around the books, so the boards still protect the text block. Do not use ‘sellotape’ or other pressure sensitive tapes on any paper, cloth or leather. The below link will take readers to a free download on caring for books, provided by the Institute of Conservation: www.conservationregister.com/downloads/books.pdf

For advice or to arrange a visit to your library to assess conservation needs, contact us at enquiries@ncs.org.uk .