Sabina Pugh: Getting on Board: rebinding three medieval parchment manuscripts as a conservation training project

This paper will describe a complex treatment of rebinding three medieval parchment manuscripts as a joint training project in the Bodleian Library. It will be concerned with issues of training and transference of skills, addressing the question of how specialist skills can be maintained over time within the conservation department of a busy institution, and what factors will either enable or obstruct the continuity of skills within a changing workforce.

In late 2012, the Book Team Supervisor proposed that two conservators would each take on a medieval parchment manuscript to rebind. This would constitute a training project which would be lead by a third, more experienced conservator who would rebind a third manuscript as the same time, so that the three manuscripts would be taken through the rebinding process together. One of the manuscripts selected for the project had already received external funding to be rebound, as it was lacking any cover and was quite unfit to be handled. Partial funding was also available from a bequest for treatment of two priority items that were unfit to be handled, which enabled two such manuscripts, each with a strong case for rebinding, to be selected through consultation with the curator of Western Manuscripts.

The aims of the project were firstly to rebind the manuscripts so that they could be accessible to readers and secondly to provide a training opportunity for two members of staff who had not had previous experience of the complex interventive work of conserving and rebinding a medieval parchment manuscript. A group project was suggested to provide opportunities for both shared and individual learning. However, a wider and more fundamental aim was to maintain and transfer the specific skills needed for rebinding medieval manuscripts within the department. This project was quite radical when seen in the context of the work usually carried out by the Department. The desire to respect the historic integrity of special collections material meant that the option to rebind with new boards and covers was not adopted unless there were strong grounds to reject any other less interventive treatment. In fact, only a small amount of total rebinding work on medieval manuscripts had taken place in recent years.

The preliminary work of examination, description and documentation provided opportunities to learn through a common approach as the group worked through different stages of the process together; but each individual gained valuable experience in getting know a particular manuscript through interpreting and describing the physical evidence of its history and production. Similarly, the binding structure, materials, repair, sewing and binding techniques were all shared territory, but separate decisions were needed to adapt to the idiosyncrasies of each manuscript.

A range of resources were drawn on to aid learning during the project. The level of existing skills and experience within the Department meant that there was a wealth of images, models, notes and records from previous training initiatives and projects. The department was well stocked with a wide choice of materials including parchment for repair and endleaves, and a variety of alum-tawed skins. Well-established links with a cabinet maker ensured our supply of pre-prepared oak boards, to be planed and shaped to size as required. This was not so much the time-honoured paradigm of the ‘old master’ teaching the ‘young novices’, but more a team effort, with strong support from the Department, the Library, and the wider Oxford conservation, academic and fund-raising community.

Some background will be given to the context of the project: how it came about at this particular time and why it might be difficult to sustain a variety of high level skills within an institution. Selection of work can have a crucial impact on the set of skills that can be developed and maintained within an institution: in-situ repairs and simple boxing solutions may be specified in preference to complex rebinding treatments. More fundamentally, critical staffing levels are needed to facilitate the establishment of teams dedicated to preservation, exhibitions, book storage and protection so that complex interventive treatments can be carried out without being undermined by too many other demands on conservators’ time.

In conclusion, there will be an evaluation of the project, looking at training methods, resources and the structure, organisation and conditions within the Library that supported the project and enabled it to take place. Important issues were raised as to what extent skills and knowledge reside with an individual, and to what extent they can be institutionalised to ensure continuity over a longer period of time. The question of how to nurture and sustain initiatives such as this well into the future has implications both for our own Library and for the wider world of conservation.