Aurelie Martin, et al: Fitting a quart into a pint pot at the Sir John Soane’s Museum in London: a new library management and conservation survey tool for historic libraries

Reorganising a large number of books in a library with limited available space and important architectural constraints can prove to be a difficult task without a proper management tool. In 2011 the Sir John Soane’s Museum in London initiated a renovation project with the aim of restoring the house in which Soane lived, and kept his books, to the state it was in when he died. Work on the library began with a survey of the books and the shelving in order to assess their condition and to facilitate their reorganisation within the original shelving after the removal of more recent shelving. The project was entrusted to the staff of Ligatus Research Centre, who designed and tested a new tool for this specific purpose. This tool, which will be made freely available on the Ligatus website, can be used by any library or book collection having similar restrictions and objectives. In addition to presenting the new tool and the context of its creation and use in Sir John Soane’s Library, this paper defines the methodology for collecting data in an efficient way, which has improved in the course of the survey, and the production of the reports.

The museum is the London house of the well-known British architect of the early 19th century, Sir John Soane (1753-1837), who designed the whole house as a setting for his collection of works of arts, antiquities, furniture and library. On his death, he left the house and its contents to the nation as a museum. During his lifetime, he accumulated an important collection of books, with over 6,000 titles, which has been preserved relatively intact, as no book has been added or removed from it since his death. Today, the great majority of the volumes are directly visible to the public, kept within the numerous bookcases of very diverse designs that are scattered throughout the museum. The renovation project of the museum involved building works, as well as conservation projects and room rearrangements, driven by the idea of returning the house to the state it was in when he lived in it. This meant the reinstatement of some original features of Soane’s time, one of which was the way his library was organised during his lifetime. As a result, some later bookcases were to be removed and the books to be re-shelved in the storage space arranged by Soane himself. However, as is often the case in historical houses, very few unused spaces were available for re-shelving the books (a significant number of which had not been shelved at the time of his death), and this created a vast logistical problem. In addition, the complex architectural plan of the building together with the wish to return the rooms to Soane’s arrangement of them did not allow for any substantial new storage space to be created. Finally, the historic shelving was of many different sizes and types of construction; some with fitted doors, others open, some with shelves on fixed battens and others adjustable, often with mechanisms of his own ingenious design. Some cases had been turned to other uses, such as display cabinets, or were being used to store non-library material.

Based on this set of constraints and the need to work to strict conservation criteria, a management tool was designed to help to assess the condition of the collection and, where necessary, to reorganise the books on the shelving. Although designed for a specific case, this tool could be used more widely in libraries and historic collections, which comply with similar criteria and restrictions as those encountered in Soane’s library. A first series of criteria is directed by the architectural constraints found in historical buildings, which limits the available free space for re-shelving the books and prevents new storage from being created. These constraints also influence the configuration of the shelving within the museum, distributed in different rooms with variable environmental conditions, and the type of storage, diverse in format and construction as it is. A second set of criteria is the collection itself, which is on public view, thus allowing for few aesthetic changes in terms of boxes and re-organisation, and must be assessed book-by-book, without random sampling. Finally, this tool addresses the problem of re-shelving books in limited spaces after adding enclosures to them, which is a usual recommendation in conservation reports and typically increases the volume of the books.

The database used to store the data needed was built using open-source software (the MySQL relational database with the phpMyAdmin tool as a frontend). The database consists of two different tables. The first table contains data relating to the books themselves, which includes basic bibliographical and binding information, the type and level of conservation treatments required, the type of enclosures that may be needed and measurements of the height and thickness of each book. The second table is dedicated to the shelving, with precise details of the measurements, the types of adjustment possible and their construction. This table also incorporates the condition of the shelves and calculates any restrictions on access to them, such as door obstructions or any structural or environmental elements that could damage the books or make the shelving unsuitable for housing library material. The extra space required to accommodate the necessary supports and enclosures (Soane, as an architect, owned many oversize books which require support) can also be factored into the calculations. The data recorded in both tables is queried in order to calculate the actual safe spaces available for re-shelving books. The queries and associated calculations can be run automatically by a script. Standard reporting tools can be used to rapidly extract data for conservation reports including cost estimates of treatments. The collected data includes the level of intervention (in situ or in a studio), the approximate time that should be allocated to them and the type of conservation treatments required. The type of enclosure can also be specified where necessary.

This paper aims to present a new tool that could be used in historic libraries, while showing at the same time a possible use of digital resources in conducting conservation surveys and reorganising books.


Aurelie Martin (research assistant - Ligatus Research Centre), Prof. Nicholas Pickwoad (director - Ligatus Research Centre) and Dr. Athanasios Velios (deputy director - Ligatus Research Centre)