Conservation work on the Headlam-Morley papers
Our archivist, Katharine Thomson, has just catalogued this collection. As soon as she had completed the listing of section 6, I was able to start the process of conserving the correspondence files.
This collection has been open to readers for many years but unfortunately had only a very basic box list and was poorly packaged and boxed. The letters of each correspondent were clipped and folded up tightly together and the name written on the outermost part of the bundle. Each bundle was then grouped with others by tying with tape, including old red legal tape and the group was then packed tightly with other groups, on their edges within an archive box. It was difficult to see what was in each box and the process of extracting groups risked physical damage and also displacement. In addition, within the box, these tightly packed papers were proud of the top of the box meaning that when the lid was placed on and other boxes placed on top, significant pressure was placed on them.
Even before full listing, they proved quite popular with researchers which is why it was a relief to me to be able to improve their storage and physical accessibility. We expect them to get even heavier use now that they have been catalogued in detail.
Katharine has respected the original groupings which meant that some of these were quite big. Here you can see several files, after listing, in a box awaiting conservation.
This photograph of HDLM 6/1/2/13 after listing but before conservation, illustrates the issues.
Anybody handling these as a group like this would have risked physical damage, over handling and mixing them up or getting them out of order.
In addition, many were quite dirty with heavy surface dirt that would have transferred easily from one to another during handling.
I worked steadily through these papers, keeping them strictly in order, and carrying out a process of surface dry cleaning, relaxation using humidity and flattening. This was a very slow process as every single sheet needed to be treated but also kept in the group and in the original order. Therefore the work was very methodical.
I cleaned them mainly using a a latex sponge (also known as a smoke sponge) which you can see in this image.
And then placed them into a large humidity chamber consisting of a damp layer (capillary matting) under a gortex membrane over which is placed a rigid clear plastic ‘lid’. The environment within became humid, allowing the papers placed inside the chamber to take up the humidity gently which ‘lubricated’ the paper fibres allowing the tight creases to relax.
The papers were then removed from the chamber and immediately placed between clean dry blotting papers under a light weight to dry and gently flatten.
Here is a document before and after cleaning and flattening.
The final part of the process was to package each group in high quality buffered alpha cellulose (archival) folders. Each bundle (individual correspondent) was placed into its own fold of archival paper within this folder, making the access and keeping of the order much easier.