Wednesday 27 May 2020

A Conservator's Blog

Being a bit of a technophobe not having a PC or broadband was never really a problem; mobile phone reception was problematic and occasionally warranted running up the lane to the second oak tree on the right and waving my phone wildly about. But when lockdown was announced I did wonder if I’d made the right decision in being so unconnected with the outside world. How was I going to get any work done? All the other Record Office staff were able to work from home online.  Luckily I had a few days to think about it as I was on leave that week.

Being a conservator I decided that I’d conserve (if my manager agreed to it and luckily she did!), but what? I was limited to what materials and equipment I could take home, so it needed to be fairly simple. Also, what could I work on? Taking unique and valuable documents out of the safety of the Record Office would not be right. Second edition Ordnance Survey maps (25 inch) were the answer.  They are not unique and have no real financial value but they are often consulted in the searchroom and a very useful resource. The first and third editions have already been conserved as these were the most often looked at, but there were still a considerable number of second edition maps that were dirty, tatty, torn and creased with odd areas missing and in need of conservation. This I could do at home, although the encapsulation of the maps (custom made protective sleeves made of clear, inert polyester film) would have to wait till lockdown ended.

Close-up of a 2nd edition Ordnance Survey map.

Setting up a makeshift conservation studio was the next challenge. I’d decided upon the back sitting room which had plenty of light and space.  I’d moved house the previous summer and this room was still very much a work in progress. Bifolding doors had been put in, but there was still plenty of bare plaster and I’d been using the room as storage for boxes and furniture.  The remaining days of my leave were spent decorating, cleaning and tidying. The dining room table was utilised as my work table (for cleaning) and an old desk was used to do the repairs on.  I repainted on old cupboard which was to be used for storing materials and equipment. The O.S. maps are large objects (measuring approximately 1.05m x 0.72m) and I needed space to store the maps when I wasn’t working on them.  A redundant door (I’d just had a doorway bricked up) was employed as a makeshift table which was propped up by three dining room chairs – conservators are nothing if not resourceful!

My home conservation studio was soon up and running and working pretty well.

Faddiley annex of Cheshire Record Office.

As a conservator one of my duties at the Record Office was once a week to monitor and record the environmental conditions in each of the seven strongrooms, this still needed to be done. As I have a car I drive to the office once a week to check on the strongrooms, catch up on emails and check on the post. While I’m there I pick up a batch of O.S. maps to take home and bring back the ones I’ve conserved. I also cook up fresh paste once a fortnight as it soon starts going mouldy and needs to be kept in the fridge.

I love looking at maps, even O.S. maps from 1898. While I’m cleaning the maps my mind starts wandering and I wonder how the areas have changed over the past 120 years. I really wish I had the internet to look at our tithe map website, which not only shows all the tithe maps we hold, but all three editions of the 25 inch O.S. maps, aerial photographs and a current map. It’s a fantastic resource, you are able to zoom in and out of the maps and compare two different maps of the same areas. It also gives you such details as field names, owners/occupiers and land use. On thinking, it’s probably a good thing I don’t have the internet as I’d spend way too much time looking at the website each time I worked on a new map.  

Some of the names of buildings and places spark my interest, such as ‘Black Jane’s farm’ near Daresbury, who was Black Jane? And who ever lived at ‘Hades Nook’ (near Whitley)? I love the descriptive names such as ‘Thatched House Farm’, does the farm still exist and is it still thatched?  And the slightly surreal ‘Waterless Bridge’ (near Tabley) which goes over ‘Waterless Brook’, does it have any water in it? The tithe map website might just have the answer. 

Cleaning maps is a relatively simple technique and involves using a pure vinyl eraser which you rub over the surface of the map. Care, skill and experience is required in order not to leave any dirty streaks or create or worsen tears. Any pencil annotations have to be carefully cleaned around, a slip of the eraser and the pencil marks would soon be lost. Removal of surface dirt is necessary as dirt is not only visually distracting, but can be harmful to the map; it can be abrasive, acidic; act as food for insects and for mould to grow on.

Once cleaned the maps are repaired. Tears are repaired with a strong acid free lens on the back or, in professional speak, verso and a finer, transparent Japanese Kozo tissue (made from the fibres of the mulberry tree) on the front or recto. The tissue is cut out with a mattress needle and pasted down with a pure wheat starch paste; the tissue is smoothed down with a Teflon bone folder and pieces of paper maker’s felts and boards are place over the repair with a weight placed on top until the repair is dry.  Missing areas are filled in with a heavy weight, long fibred Japanese paper called Bunkoshi which has a similar colour, weight and texture as the original map paper. The repair paper is shaped to the missing area with a rotring pen filled with water. Once dry the repairs are trimmed to the size of the map.

Tools of the trade.

What am I enjoying working at home? Watching the garden birds, I can see the bird feeder from my work room and love watching the male pheasant strutting through the garden. My greenhouse – for a break I’ll take my mug of tea out there to see what has germinated and which bulbs are coming through; the plants are getting very well looked after at the moment. Getting to know my lovely neighbour, sometimes my morning break consists of talking to her over the garden fence mug in hand (and at a safe social distance).

Fezzy the tame pheasant on top of the hedge.

What am I missing? The staff, especially fellow conservator Angela, who, after over 10 years of working together is a good friend as well as colleague; not having the internet makes you feel more isolated from everyone. Cake, the staff tearoom is always well endowed with cake and biscuits kindly supplied by staff and searchers.

Excitement – it was silage week last week, the quiet lane was turned into a scene from wacky races with many tractors and trailers going up and down, and the fields change by the minute. Unfortunately it’s muck spreading week this week.

Thanks – to Radio 4 for keeping me entertained and sane.

Working from home has been an enjoyable challenge and brings back memories of doing work experience here 27 years ago, when cleaning O.S. maps was my first task. So far I have cleaned and repaired 54 O.S. maps.  I have cleaned an area of 82.04 metres squared, which is the equivalent of a fifteenth of an Olympic sized swimming pool.  I am less than halfway through the maps still to be repaired, so I should be able to be kept busy if lockdown continues.


  1. Thanks for a fascinating article which made me, as a volunteer and archive user, feel rather nostalgic for the old 'normal' days. What could be a better way to WFH than having a pile of early OS maps to work on? S.

    1. Thanks Susan, glad you enjoyed reading the blog!