Meet the Volunteers: Brian Nash, conservation volunteer

2 June 2017

‘We love coming in and have formed long-lasting friendships with others in the group’

The newspaper archive is one of the most popular and widely used resources at The Keep – and it keeps on growing. Last year, approximately 437 bound volumes of local papers dating from 1831 to 2003 were transferred from Hastings and Battle libraries to The Keep. Brian Nash, a volunteer at The Keep, has begun making bespoke boxes and packaging for each of the volumes, which will protect them from damage and preserve them for the future. He talks to Lindsey Tydeman about his work on the Hastings newspapers and about his wider role as a volunteer with the archive.

‘I was taught to make boxes by The Keep’s Head of Conservation Melissa Williams and now I, in my turn, am teaching others! Today I’m working on a bound volume of the Rye Observer from 2001-2002. I take the measurements of each volume and transfer them to a plan on a piece of card, scoring along the folds before cutting out and folding into shape. Once the volume is inside the box, the box is tied with thick tape. I’m a quick worker but it depends on the size and shape; these are large so I’ll probably make six today. It would be nice to read the newspapers which are going into them but there’s no time for that!

‘Before retirement I worked for Brighton and Hove City Council as a care officer looking after people with dementia. My wife, Jennifer, managed the Search Room at the East Sussex Record Office, based at The Maltings in Lewes. She encouraged me to join her in the office every other week – Thursday evening was known as ‘Volunteers’ Night’ – where several groups worked on different projects. I was involved with transcribing the East Sussex Baptism Index, transferring baptismal records from 16th century church registers in Rye on to cards and creating a card index. Even in normal circumstances this would have been a challenge as the writing of that time isn’t easy to read, but an added complication was the fact that at least ten per cent of births in Rye at this period were to French immigrants, whose names were recorded phonetically or scribbled down quickly by the English parish officials. Sometimes these officials didn’t even bother to try and write the surname but simply recorded the family as ‘French’ or ‘Frenchman’. That accounts for so many people with the name ‘Frenchman’ living in the Hastings area today!

‘When Jennifer and I retired we decided come over from Shoreham once a week to volunteer in Conservation. We knew about the planned move of the Record Office to The Keep, so started work on the thousands of documents which had to be cleaned and packed before this could happen. All of them were filthy and we had to wear masks and protective clothing before tackling them. The whole process took about two years, finishing just in time for our move here.

‘Since then I’ve concentrated on making boxes for a whole variety of archives stored at The Keep. It’s repetitive work but never boring as the archives themselves are changing constantly; you never know what’s going to turn up next. Recently I made a box for the earliest document we hold, a seal and charter of Henry I. It was dated 1101 – I couldn’t believe I was holding it in my hand! Then there were scores of boxes which had to be made for the glass plate negatives of photographs from The Argus. My local knowledge of Brighton proved invaluable here as many of the photographs came without identification, and I could help the archivist identify the places and buildings featured. I also enjoyed being involved with the conservation of the WW2 Book of Remembrance for St Peter’s Church in Brighton. That is beautiful.

‘I’ve lost track of the documents which have passed through my hands in Conservation. If I had been a student I would have taken notes of them all, but, of course, as a volunteer you don’t think about doing that. What we do know is that very little of this work would get done without us. We love coming in and have formed long-lasting friendships with others in the group. All you need is a common link; ours is an interest in local and family history and all the ‘old stuff’ that goes with it!

The collection of East Sussex newspapers at The Keep dates back to the middle of the 18th century, while those for the Brighton area start with the early editions of the Brighton Herald in 1806. The bound volumes recently transferred from Hastings include the South Eastern Advertiser, Hastings and St Leonards Observer, and the Hastings and St Leonards Pictorial Advertiser. The earliest is the Hastings and Cinque Ports Iris; St Leonards Chronicle or Sussex and Kent Advertiser, 1830-1831. Details of these and other newspapers in our archive can be found in our online catalogue and in our Guide to Newspapers. There is also a paper copy of the listing that can be consulted in our Reference Room.




Conserving the Ashburnham family archive

7 February 2017

By Lindsey Tydeman

The Ashburnham archive constitutes one of the largest and most important collections of family documents in East Sussex. Settled at Ashburnham Place near Battle from the end of the 12th century until the death of Lady Catherine Ashburnham in 1953, the family accumulated vast estates throughout Britain through marriage and royal service. When the estate changed hands in 1953 the archive presented archivists with problems of classification and distribution. Equally challenging has been the conservation of the 4,500 title deeds which are now housed at the East Sussex Record Office (ESRO) at The Keep. They arrived in bundles of loose deeds and were packed between sheets of strawboard which were then tied together with cotton tape. Any attached seals had been wrapped in cotton wool and placed in hand-sewn greaseproof-paper pouches. Keep Conservator Melissa Williams comments wryly that this was, ‘Very bad news. Strawboard and greaseproof paper are now considered far too acidic to use for conservation.’

Grant in fee farm at 10 shillings (ASH 4500/52) indentures. Cleaned document with seal attached in felt pouch

Grant in fee farm at 10 shillings (ASH 4500/52) indentures. Cleaned document with seal attached in felt pouch

The new Conservation Studio at The Keep provides the ideal space in which these issues can be resolved. With large windows on its two right-angled external walls, there is space for each Conservator to custom-make their own work station where materials and tools can remain, rather than having to be packed away at the end of the working day. A Conservator can clean between ten and twenty title deeds each day before they are repackaged in boxes constructed on site. ‘The principle has to be minimal intervention and long-term preservation,’ comments Melissa Williams.

Jennifer Nash is a Conservator who has worked with Melissa for five years. She specialises in the mechanical cleaning of documents and is currently working on a ‘grant in fee farm’, a land contract involving elements of modern-day lease and sale, dated 1391. Written in Latin, the contract was written out twice, head to head, on the same piece of parchment and then the document was indented, cut into two halves with a ‘tooth’-shaped join – hence our term ‘dentures’ – and one given to each party. This guaranteed the document’s authenticity; when reassembled, any tampering with the text on either half would immediately become evident.

Working on a blotter, the document is first cleaned using a soft bristle brush and a section of dry chemical sponge, then any remaining marks are removed with a Mars Plastic Staedtler eraser. The ancient seal attached to the deed has been gently removed from its greaseproof paper pouch and Jennifer makes a ‘sock’-shape pocket from archival felt. The felt has a Tyvek© membrane which allows enclosed materials to breathe while keeping moisture out. It takes Jennifer a few minutes to stitch the drawstring pouch; this particular deed has only one seal attached whereas others can have up to five. Where smaller seals are attached to documents, the top of the pouch is left open so the seals can be slid out and examined easily. Conservation volunteer Brian Nash constructs the manila boxes used to store the deeds, the size of each being determined by the number of seals it must accommodate; usually 20 to 30 deeds will go into each box.

Melissa Williams thinks it will take a further six months to clean and repack the Ashburnham deeds. ‘But after that they will last for ever.’

Introducing The Argus Glass-plate Negatives

7 June 2016

By Kate Elms and Emma Skinner

The Keep’s conservation volunteers

The newspaper archive is one of The Keep’s best-loved local history resources – it’s rare for a day to go by without at least a handful of people coming through our doors to search through back issues of The Argus or one of the other Brighton and East Sussex papers that we keep on microfilm in our Reference Room. What we have never been able to offer, however, is the opportunity to view the photographs accompanying the published articles and reports, which range from events of national importance to family weddings and local sporting encounters. But thanks to some of our wonderful volunteers, we’ve taken the first steps to making digital copies of some of these images more accessible.

The Keep holds a substantial collection of glass-plate negatives from The Argus‘s photographic archive. Some came directly from the paper to East Sussex Record Office, others were part of Brighton Museum’s local history collection and have recently been integrated with ESRO’s holdings. They date from the early 1930s to the early 1960s and, potentially, offer a tantalising visual record of Brighton’s history at this time. However, before any of these images can be viewed, there is an enormous amount of work to be done.

The first phase, now complete, took place in our conservation studio, where a dedicated group of volunteers have been meeting every Thursday for the past 18 months to clean the negatives. Around 15 people have been involved in the project, some coming for a few months, others just in the school holidays or in between paid work. A core group have come in nearly every week since September 2014. Over the weeks, they all gained confidence in their manual handling of these fragile items and, after a few boxes, became highly adept at cleaning, documenting and repackaging something in the region of 40,000 glass plates.

The conservation process initially required assessment of the boxes in which the negatives had been stored in the delivery area of The Argus‘s office in Hollingbury. The completion of documentation is a core conservation task and serves to record all treatment carried out on the plates themselves. Gelatin silver glass plates are covered with a gelatin coating containing silver particles making up a negative photographic image. They are prone to silver mirroring (bloom) and delamination, whereby the emulsion comes away from the base caused by extremes in relative humidity and poor storage conditions.

The plates were lightly brushed on both sides to remove surface dirt, and then cleaned on the glass side only with cotton wool and a small amount of water. It was often challenging to tell the glass side from the emulsion side and, for the first few weeks, the volunteers would need a second opinion before they became confident in telling them apart. Once cleaned, the glass plates were repackaged; with nearly half of the original boxes damaged beyond repair, new ones were made with acid-free card. Gloves were worn at all times, and extra care had to be taken handling cracked or broken plates. These were packaged separately, with the contents clearly marked that extra precautions should be taken until further conservation treatment could be carried out.

We originally predicted it would take three years to complete this project, and so to finish in just 18 months is a testament to the hard work and commitment of our conservation volunteers. They did admit, however, that they were pleased they never saw the archive in its entirety at the beginning as it would have been overwhelming to see the extent of the task ahead!

An extract from one of the negative registers

The next step, which will be equally challenging and time-consuming, involves matching the numbered negatives to their corresponding entries in the negative registers. The registers were completed by Argus staff at the time the photographs were taken, providing details of their subject, where and when they were taken, and where and when they were published (the registers also refer to photographs published in the Brighton Gazette and Sussex Daily News). While one dedicated volunteer transcribes the registers, creating digital records that can later be uploaded to The Keep’s online catalogue, another is scanning the negatives themselves – one numbered box at a time – creating an archive of fantastic images.

The two strands of work are being carried out simultaneously and, when the job is done, it should be possible to search for images using a keyword, name or date. This is because the cataloguing process will cross-reference entries in the negative register with the scans of the negatives themselves. It’s a huge task – so please don’t inundate us with requests for specific photographs as we’re not at that stage yet – but it’s certainly a worthwhile one. Tests carried out so far suggest that the quality of these images is superb – although glass-plate negatives were disappearing from consumer use by the 1920s, some professional photographers continued to use them until about 1970 for this very reason.

Young women in 1950s Brighton, an image from The Argus archive

Young women in 1950s Brighton, an image from The Argus archive

We would not be able to undertake projects of this scale at The Keep without the time and skills offered to us by volunteers. We hope, in return, that they enjoy their time with us while developing their knowledge and skills, meeting other people who are interested in local history, and helping look after the wealth of material held in our archive.

Updates on progress with the Argus negatives will be posted on our blog and social media channels – watch this space!

Meet the Staff: a day in the life of a Conservator

Monday 27th July 2015                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    Melissa at work

Melissa, The Keep’s Conservator, is interviewed by Emma Johnson

“Where do I start? A conservator’s day is surprisingly busy- people often think that my work is always quiet and therapeutic. In the morning I spend some time planning the day and what I will be doing, particularly if I have other members of staff or volunteers in the Conservation studio with me.” (Melissa has a lovely team of volunteers working in the Conservation studio every Thursday- check out our blog on volunteering opportunities.)

Priorities in Conservation have changed since moving to The Keep in 2013; the majority of my work focuses on working through the ‘unfit for production’ list- documents that are not able to be produced in the reading room for researchers to view. I’m currently working on an Account and Memorandum book of Joseph Marten of Cookfield and Firle, 1775-1818. This book has been unavailable to the public since 1989. Every page needed repairs, and the parchment binding has been attacked by mould and pests- including signs of rat’s teeth! The book also needs complete re-binding. So far, every page has been cleaned, dis-bound, repaired and re-stitched. Next, I will recreate a parchment binding in its original historical structure.




“My favourite part of my job has changed also since moving to The Keep; time at my workbench took precedence but now I also enjoy the challenge of the new partnerships at The Keep and the variety of work it provides.”

If you’re interested in learning more about book-binding and conservation, Melissa is running a series of 3 workshops here at The Keep later on in the year.


Keep Asking Questions: what happens to mouldy and infested documents when they arrive at The Keep?

14th January 2015                                                                                                                                                    

By Emma Johnson

From leading guided tours around The Keep, one of the rooms which groups show the most interest in is the quarantine room. Members of the public will often ask questions such as ‘how do you treat a mouldy document?’ or ‘how cold do  those giant freezers get?’ After spending a couple of days working on some documents in the quarantine room and pondering over this, I thought that this room would make an excellent topic for a blog post. So, what happens to mouldy and pest-infested documents when they arrive at The Keep?

The quarantine room has been designed so that these documents can be treated  with minimal chance of contaminating other documents housed here at The Keep. There is a separate entrance at the side of the building so that these documents can be brought in, treated, and then sent on their way to be catalogued and stored.

Last week, Melissa myself and a volunteer began working on some books that had been identified as needing conservation treatment. Dressed in aprons, masks and gloves and armed with our museum vacuums, we set about tackling the infestations.  There was evidence of pest infestation with tiny bore holes in the spine of the book and, before being placed in the freezer, they needed hoovering with a museum vacuum to remove dirt and debris that had collected over the years. Pest infestations can usually be found within the spine of the book, as pests such as carpet and spider beetles are attracted to the high content of animal glue that is used on older books. We firstly tapped the case bound books to loosen any frass (insect faeces) that we couldn’t reach with the Museum vacuum. We then carefully hoovered the front and back pages and intermittently along the spines of the book, as this is where the majority of insect matter collects. However, it is not just pests of the creepy crawly variety that can harm documents; bird droppings are also very harmful to documents and human health. One book was so badly covered that Melissa decided to remove the front board of the affected book, but was extremely careful to preserve the stitching, so that the physical structure of the book was left intact. Luckily, we did not find any live infestations, just their remains, but it was interesting to see the trail of little holes where insects had burrowed into the book and eaten their way along the paper.

Evidence of pests                    Frass

The books were then labelled, bagged up in freezer bags, vacuum packed and placed in the freezer, to ensure that any pest or mould had been completely dealt with.  The freezers can reach up to -40 degrees centigrade, so there would be no chance of any pests or mould surviving as this process kills the entire life cycle of the pest and the mould spores.


Working in the quarantine room has made me much more aware that the conditions these documents had previously been kept in were not ideal.  Mould and pests thrive in damp and humid environments, so it is important for documents to be housed in a cool environment, with a low level of relative humidity. The conditions and facilities here at The Keep are much more suitable for the documents and support their long term preservation and care.

If you would like to take a look behind-the-scenes at The Keep, join us for a tour. Additionally, if you are interested in learning about historical bookbinding structures, The Keep Conservator Melissa Williams  is running a book-binding workshop on 31st January.




Behind the Scenes: the art of book binding in conservation

Friday 31st October 2014

By Emma Johnson

Last week I was very fortunate to see Melissa, the conservator, working on binding an early 17th century book. This book has been considered unfit for production since 2002. The initial plan had been to carry out surface cleaning, undertaken by a volunteer, but as this process was carried out, pages began to come loose. Melissa believed that this had happened due to the book having been rebound in a cheap fashion in a later period and that it had been overstitched close to the edge, causing great tension to be placed on the pages. This had then been exacerbated during the handling process. Due to this, the book was now deemed a high priority repair. Melissa stated that the move to The Keep had created the opportunity for this book to be effectively cleaned and repaired.

To begin with, Melissa had to order the pages, and using a Japanese tissue and wheat starch paste as the adhesive, joined the pages together into 31 sections, which would then create the spine of the book.

Using a sewing frame, Melissa began to sew the sections onto chords. The design of the sewing frame and the process of book-binding have remained unchanged for centuries. A thin thread covered with beeswax was used to ensure that the thread would make the smallest holes possible through the paper and would glide through smoothly. This process can prove tricky; the stitching must remain fairly tight and the conservator must maintain a contact on the thread, but if pulled too hard this can cause tears to the paper and weaken the binding.  A single hole is made; aiming at the centre of the chord, the thread is looped round the chord and is threaded back through the same hole to attach the section of paper to the chord. At each side of the section, a kettle stitch is sewn to tie off the sections of paper.

From observing Melissa carrying out this repair and having an attempt at it myself, I learnt that it is important to learn to feel what you are doing rather than just using your eyes; at first I found it difficult to know where to prick the paper in order to thread through the section as the sewing frame can obscure your vision from both sides of the paper. Melissa advised me to feel where the chord was instead, in order to aim for the centre of the chord and create a neat and accurate stitch.





Behind the Scenes: the Paris Commune documents

27th October 2014

by Emma Johnson

From 18th-28th March 1871, French insurgents rebelled against the French Government and took over the city of Paris. The French citizens called for ‘liberte, egalite and fraternite’ against what they believed to be a corrupt government. I have been working on some of the posters that were used to incite rebellion against the Government; the University of Sussex Special Collections has the largest collection of these documents outside France.

The first stage in the process of conservation was to surface clean each document. I have undertaken this process before on an 1805 map made of parchment and could be fairly vigorous due to the nature of the material. The Paris Commune documents, on the other hand, are incredibly fragile and were printed on thin paper; they were not designed to last a great length of time. Many also have rips and tears, particularly around the edges or within the centre of the paper because many of them had been kept folded in half.

The equipment I used for this process was a Mars Staedtler eraser and a chemical sponge. It was also important to weight each document correctly on particularly vulnerable areas such as rips and tears, to ensure that the document was still and stable during cleaning. I found that I had to use the eraser with care as the paper was very fragile. However, using the chemical sponge also posed difficulties as the text on some posters appeared fugitive when using the dab and twist method to lift the surface dirt. I took extra care when treating documents that had large sections of ink.

It is important to document your work when conserving documents so that you can see the condition of the document when it arrives in the workshop and the work that the conservator has then carried out.



The next stage was to repair any rips and tears on the documents. This was achieved by using a hot tacking iron and tissue paper lined with adhesive that activates when heat is applied. Large repairs are applied to the verso (back) of the document, so as not to obscure any text. If repairs are made to the recto (front) of the document, the repair is generally made no larger than 5mm from the rip or tear, generally for aesthetic reasons.

If a document was badly damaged, the entire back of the document was lined in order to make it more stable. This was achieved by tacking the repair tissue over the most vulnerable areas of the document; in this instance, where the document had been folded into quarters.



Behind the Scenes: conservation update

10th October 2014

By Emma Johnson

In my last post I spoke about the humidification process on the 1805 parchment map. Unfortunately, this process did not work as effectively as it could have, so we had another attempt. This time, we made a smaller cold humidification chamber, so that the map could absorb more moisture. The document reached 94% humidity and was very damp when removed. The map was left, pressed down with weights, overnight. In the morning the map had dried well and was now happy to lie flat. The document has now been encapsulated into a melinex sheet and has left the conservation workshop.




Behind the Scenes: taking a closer look at conservation

3rd October 2014

By Emma Johnson – Asa Briggs Intern

For the past couple of weeks I have been working on a survey map, which shows the land and property of Mr Remington from Wadhurst in 1805. Firstly, the surface of the document had to be cleaned to remove any surface dirt that had collected on the document over the years. I was surprised to be told by the conservator, Melissa, that the most effective way to clean the map was with an eraser! I used a Mars Staedtler eraser and carefully rubbed both sides of the document in small circles, until the document began to lighten in colour. Particular care had to be taken on the edges and creases. The colourful areas of the map needed greater care and attention as there is always concern that the colours are fugitive and will come away. Instead of using an eraser, I used a chemical sponge to gently dab these areas.

Before  After

This map is made of parchment. Parchment is made from the skin of animals such as calves, sheep and goats. The skins are stripped of the hair and flesh and then dried over a frame. Although it is difficult to determine the type of animal that the skin has been taken from, it is important to identify the animal, as this may influence the method of treatment that the conservator will choose. In calf skin, the follicles are of equal size and arranged in regular rows. In goat skin the follicles are coarser and in sheep skin they are more even and dense in size.

I looked at the survey map under a digital microscope to see if I could match the pattern of the follicles to those I had seen in a textbook. The follicles did look evenly spaced and roughly the same size. Tiny little hairs were also present, which meant that they were missed off when the skin was initially cleaned!

To see how much I had taken in about the follicles of parchment, I was given an unknown piece of parchment to identify. I used the digital microscope at roughly 60x magnification. I determined that this piece of parchment was also calf-skin as the follicles were also evenly spaced. It was interesting to look at the weaknesses and blemishes of the skin, particularly along the middle of the parchment where the backbone of the animal would have been.

The next stage of conservation for the survey map was humidification. The map has been rolled up into a scroll for many years and needs to be flattened so that it can be best used and accessed. Unlike paper that naturally lies flat, it is unnatural for parchment to do so. Humidification must be carefully monitored as too much can cause unalterable damage to the parchment. For the parchment to regain some moisture that will allow it to be flattened, we created a cold humidification chamber. Two pieces of blotting paper were washed and the excess water removed. Material called Remay was then placed on top of the damp blotters, and the map placed on top of this. We then covered this with plastic sheeting and made sure that there were no air holes. The chamber has to be completely sealed to allow the air temperature to become more humid. Although the document reached 80% humidity after a couple of hours, the parchment was not pliable enough and rebelled against lying flat. We will carry out this process again and the map will hopefully flatten successfully.

A conservator must always be careful, patient and mindful when working with these unique documents. The document dictates the time you need to spend on it and the most important thing is that a document must always be ‘happy’! Working on this survey map has also taught me that if at first you don’t succeed with one method, you can reassess and try again but always with preservation in mind.