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.’
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 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!
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.
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!
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.
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.