From the Archives: Oversize plan collection conserved

POST BY MAllen

One of the conserved plans: Farm Street Church interior (ref. PC/1/2/25)

The Jesuits in Britain Archives holds a substantial collection of oversize plans and documents. These include architectural plans and drawings of Jesuit churches, schools, and community buildings. There are also large prints, photographs, maps and Photostats. Their storage, an open-fronted wooden shelf unit, was proving insufficient and in some cases was damaging to the material, particularly the large items which protruded from the unit. It was therefore decided to have the collection surveyed, with a view that the plans would be conserved.

In September 2016, the National Conservation Service (NCS) surveyed a ten per cent sample of the entire collection in order to assess the condition of the plans, and to give an idea of the treatment that would be required across the whole collection. In total there were 50 packages of flat material and 76 rolls on the shelving unit. Of the material surveyed the number of items in each varied from one to 94, the rolled material being mostly housed in cardboard tubes or wrapped in brown craft paper, neither of which are archivally sound or beneficial to long-term preservation. In many cases the rolled material was difficult to handle due to the tightness of the roll, and any one package was likely to contain a variety of sizes and formats. In many cases the damage had been caused by the housing and handling related to the difficulty in opening rolled material. Some items, for example a plan of the East side of Farm Street Church by Williams & Winkley, were also very brittle, and the action of unrolling and rolling served to exacerbate any damage. In this case a tear ran across almost the entire plan and was made worse with each unrolling so that it had to be classified as too fragile to produce. Overall, the condition of the sample plans varied from good to poor with some items having no damage, some with surface dirt, folds and creases, minor edge tears, to items torn in half, losses, items too brittle to unroll and old pressure-sensitive tape repairs.

The oversize material was previously stored on an unsuitable shelving unit

As a result of this initial survey, NCS recommended that the rolled material be humidified, flattened and rehoused, and at the same time that a condition survey should be carried out across the entire collection in order to avoid duplicating the unrolling procedures and thereby saving time and minimising impact. The survey would record the measurements, types of damage and estimated time to repair the damaged material.

The plans were packed into storage boxes for transportation

In January 2017, the archives team removed the rolled plans from the shelving unit, wrapped each roll in acid-free tissue paper secured with cotton tape, and packed them into plastic storage boxes ready to be transported to the conservation studio. A box list was created for each box, which has proved invaluable since many of the items are uncatalogued and some did not have reference numbers at all. When digitised, each uncatalogued plan was given a reference number which began with the box number followed by a running number. This has helped greatly with re-identifying the plans and matching them to the digitised images.

Once the plans were received at the studio, the conservators began the enormous task to document, flatten, digitise and re-package the collection. In total, there were 1,054 items. Of those, 21 items, mostly tracing papers, were too fragile to flatten and digitise without proper treatment, and 35 were so dirty that they could not be humidified and pressed without being cleaned first. Outstanding problems for the items that had been flattened were dirt, creases, edge tears, large tears and losses. The survey showed that just over a quarter of the items would not require any treatment after they had been flattened, over half would benefit from a clean or the odd tear repair, about an eighth of the collection would need a moderate amount of repair, and a few items need reconstruction. The largest collection – plans of St Francis Xavier’s (SFX) Church and School, Liverpool – of which there were over 300 items in generally poor condition, required 600 hours of treatment.

Before the conservation work commenced, we had to decide if we wanted to prioritise certain collections on grounds such as whether items had been withdrawn from public access due to fragility, items with tears and losses that made handling difficult, or items that were particularly significant or popular. We also had to decide whether to leave some of the collections as future projects in their own right, such as the SFX and St Aloysius’, Oxford plans, given their size and poor condition. In the end, it was decided to have the whole collection treated at the same time.

Whilst the plans were being worked on, the archives needed to find a new storage solution to replace the unsuitable shelving unit, which had in any case been disposed of in the refurbishment of the reading room in January 2019. We decided to purchase a set of plan chests – four in total, with eight drawers each. This is housed in our processing room and has the capacity to hold the 1,000 plus rolled items, as well as the oversize items that were not conserved, and the collection that came from the Holy Name Church in Manchester. In October last year, the plans were finally ready to come back to the archives, and delivery was scheduled for early December.

The plans were delivered in December 2019 in 27 packages

Most of the plans have now been put away in the plan chests, though this is a slow process due to the sheer volume, and because the new locations must be noted down and amended on the old finding aid. The next steps will be to create a new finding aid, to catalogue plans that belong to collections that were catalogued while the plans were away, and to create conservation records in our cataloguing software for the plans which have already been catalogued. Thanks to their new housing, in sleeves and folders, handling has been made much easier, and due to the digitisation process, the need to produce the plans themselves has been minimised, as users on site and remote will be able to access the plans digitally, which will ensure their long-term preservation.

Right: larger plans stored in archive-quality tubes on top of the plan chest; Left: A1 plans fit side-by-side in plan chest drawer

If you are interested in the collection, would like to find out more about the work of the Jesuits in Britain Archives, or to book an appointment, please contact us: archives@jesuit.org.uk.

Mary Allen, Deputy Archivist