Louise O'Connor and Élodie Lévêque, National Library of Ireland

Heraldic manuscripts at the National Library of Ireland: Implementing the conservation of complex volumes

The Office of the Chief Herald of Ireland is the State heraldic authority in Ireland, granting and registering coats of arms to individuals and corporate and civic entities. Since 1943 the Office of the Chief Herald of Ireland (also called the ‘Genealogical Office’) is part of the National Library of Ireland (NLI) where its collection of 1,000 volumes is stored. This collection provides a unique and fascinating perspective on pivotal events and personalities in the history of a nation for over 400 years. The volumes were bound in the 18th century onwards. Many are composite textblocks of correspondence of the heralds containing a huge variety of paper and parchment folios. Many folios have heavily pigmented layers of media and iron gall ink.

In 2012 a condition survey of 300 volumes was undertaken by the NLI Conservation Department as the collection was prioritised for digitisation. This found that over 22% of these volumes were bound too tightly; making much of their unique content inaccessible. The issue was due to the binding method which lacked a sewing structure used extensive layers of animal glue and a heavy spine treatment. The reverse calf leather coverings were friable and releasing in red dust on handling. Moreover 76% of the folios were in fair or poor condition with iron gall ink corrosion, mould damage, brittle paper, discoloured and stained paper and damage from old repairs. It was clear that conservation of these volumes would require customised and lengthy solutions.

As the NLI faced the biggest funding and resource shortages in decades, a process of applying for external funding for this project was initiated. A pilot conservation project was undertaken in 2014 to fully understand condition problems and trial numerous treatments. The pilot proved vital in understanding the many decisions required for the treatment of the volumes to reach the most efficient yet ethically sound treatment plan. Despite underestimating the treatment timed needed, due to the presence of excessive amounts of adhesive on the spine, the pilot showed that the treatment proposal worked and this allowed correct time estimates to apply for external funding.

As well as discussing the route to establishing the conservation project, this paper will also detail the conservation treatment of complex composite manuscript volumes.

This conservation treatment included the application of calcium phytate process, consolidation of media layers, multiple repair techniques, sectioning and guarding of the folios and re-binding. Three rebinding options were considered and compared in the pilot. A non-adhesive structure was chosen to retain the historical integrity and consistency of the collection. The binding was aesthetically close to the original in terms of colour and size, but with a more adequate structure and the use of archival materials to ensure accessibility for digitisation and long-term preservation.