In December 2014 we began a new work-placement scheme for MA students at Camberwell College of Arts, part of the University of the Arts London and one of the country’s leading providers of professional conservation training. This has proved to be a collaboration which has benefitted both the Library and the students themselves.
Twice a year two students from the MA Conservation course join us a for a preservation placement in the Collection Care Department; they come in one day a week for 12 weeks, fitting the time in between their college-based studies, which include studio time, tutorials on conservation techniques, environmental science and organic chemistry lectures and seminars on preservation management.
The students are first introduced to the theory of boxes as a simple and cost-effective preservation practice; boxes help protect vulnerable books from light-exposure, dust and the damage that can occur on the shelves or in transit. Once the students have mastered the basics of making customized, acid-free boxboard boxes in the house style, they are given a specific project to complete.
The students have helped us to find innovative solutions to difficult storage issues – from ‘upsizing’ tiny books in danger of being lost behind their larger neighbours to creating a box for an enormously wide volume, with heavy-duty handles that could be used to pull the box off the shelf.
When planning their boxes, the students have had to consider some of the special features of the London Library collection. Some of our Special Collection volumes have attractive bindings which we want our members and visitors to see and enjoy. When students have been working on books in one of our glass-fronted display case, we specifically asked them to make boxes that would fulfil all the criteria of protection but were not opaque, so that we could continue to display these volumes. Another challenge for the students has been to create boxes that enhance protection for our collections but do not involve much loss of shelf space. One intake of students helped us to create boxes that would allow us to store rare newspaper issues in a space-efficient vertical position – making strong, heavy-duty boxes that would provide support to the flimsy paper; the boxes needed to be light enough to safely ease off a shelf, but still sturdy enough to withstand handling.
Other past projects have included making portfolios for an unbound series of reproductions of medieval documents (preserving the original wrappers in such a way as to not allow their acidic paper to damage the items, whilst still keeping that element of the object available to the members) and making boxes for a range of extremely slim books with light-weight bindings – the task here being to produce thin yet inflexible boxes that are still strong enough to support their contents.
Throughout our time with the students we have discovered that it is best for us to talk over the task with them, highlighting the problems and requirements and then to allow them to discuss it with each other, draw sketches, mock up small-scale models, either in paper or using the different weight boards available and then to make up a prototype in the chosen board. This can then be put through its paces by the team, looking for design elements that don’t quite work and need to be rethought. Occasionally we have enlisted the help of a passerby to ‘road-test’ a new style box to make sure it is easy to open or manhandle by someone who hasn’t been involved in the planning process. Once the design is perfected they set to work.
We ask the students to draw an instruction sheet for future use and we are slowly building a portfolio of these new-style boxes for any problem that may turn up in the future.
Our intention is always that both sides should benefit from this arrangement; by giving them a discrete project with no known solution, we have intelligent, problem-solving, post-graduate students rather than just box-making machines, and they have the chance to develop analytical skills and practise decision-making, whilst learning new materials and processes that will be of use to them in the future.