Are they sitting comfortably? Putting books on display

Special Collections & Archives was a contributor to the recent Knowledge is Power exhibition at the Victoria Gallery & Museum, lending several items from its collections.  Focusing on the development of two of Liverpool’s oldest surviving cultural institutions, the Athenaeum Club and the Liverpool Medical Institution, the exhibition showed how libraries shaped elite culture in the Liverpool, but also how the power of books was opened up to the wider population in the reforming decades of the early Victorian era.  The exhibition items loaned from Special Collections & Archives, chosen to reflect the long history of libraries in Liverpool, included a view of the Lyceum building (1 Bold St) painted onto the fore-edges of a printed catalogue.

A room from the Knowledge is Power Exhibition in the VG&M

A room from the Knowledge is Power Exhibition in the VG&M

What are the main factors which need to be considered when preparing books for display in an exhibition such as this?  Before any loan is agreed, the institution making the request must be able to guarantee appropriate environmental conditions and security.  The relevance of the item for the narrative context of the exhibition is also important.  How will it be displayed?  What is the opening required in the book? Will text, illustrations or bindings need to be shown?  Special Perspex cradles are constructed for each item based on the specific opening required; large, heavy books will need a cradle with a thick lower edge to prevent the text block moving; in the example of the Lyceum catalogue mentioned above, the mount needed to display the book at such an angle and with just the correct amount of light to allow the viewer to see the fore-edge painting without exposing it to damage.

Of course, there would be no question of considering mounts and cradles if the basic condition of an item meant it was too fragile to display at all, and perhaps the major factor influencing exhibition loans is the physical condition of the item itself.  At a basic level, the physical state of a document is influenced by the manner of its production and this, along with knowledge about the impact of environmental factors upon materials, informs how we look after collections and make them accessible.  Special Collections & Archives contains many different types of material: medieval and modern manuscripts; early and finely printed books; modern printed collections including newspapers, posters, photographs and ephemera; audio-visual and digital media.  These all present different preservation challenges.

It can be easy to assume that the older an item, the more at risk it is, but there are some important factors influencing physical condition which are not necessarily related to the age of the item. The technology of printing, binding and paper making remained more or less the same from the beginning of printing in the mid-15th century right up until the early 19th century.  Letters were set by a compositor, inked and pushed against a sheet of paper by a hand press machine operated usually by two men, one to apply the ink and one to operate the levers.  Paper was made of pounded linen rags, mixed with water and sieved, and then stabilised with animal gelatine. Books tended to be sold unbound, and though some remained in paper covers, if money allowed leather bindings were created and the text block was hand sewn with cords well secured to the boards.  These processes, though laborious, used natural materials which stayed strong.  However, in the 19th century the growth of a mass market and the concomitant increase in mechanisation meant linen rags couldn’t meet the demand.  It was replaced by wood pulp (which is chemically and mechanically weaker) and binding also became cheaper and more mechanised.  The effect of these changes can be easily seen when a flaky 19th century newspaper, discoloured by acidification, is compared with the thickness of laid (chain-lined) paper in a 16th century church Bible.

Examples of perspex book rests made for displays.

Examples of Perspex cradles made for displays.

It stands to reason that books couldn’t be exhibited at all if they weren’t cared for properly on a day to day basis.  To preserve material, we need to understand its physical composition.  In Special Collections & Archives our holdings date from the 1st century BC to the present day and include papyri, parchment (prepared animal skin), vellum (specifically calf skin- from the French veau), photographs, and audio-visual material and digital files.  Even in one single printed book there will be different types of paper, glue, ink and binding materials, which will decay at different rates. The chemical stability of parchment and vellum is good, but is very susceptible to the impact of moisture in the atmosphere, and as humidity fluctuates the material will crinkle (known as cockling).

Environmental guidelines are set down in Public Document 5454 – A guide for the storage and exhibition of archival materials. Light is of course the main cause of damage, explaining the low levels of light in exhibitions. Coupled with humidity and temperature, the stability and level of these environmental factors are key considerations the borrowing institution must agree to maintain. Light damage is cumulative and irreversible – cellulose weakens, paper bleaches and darkens, and ink in type and illustrations will fade. UV light is the most damaging, so it is important that no natural light enters storage areas and artificial light is only turned on when needed.  Protection can also be provided via storage in archival quality boxes. Items on long term loan in exhibitions will have the pages turned regularly.

Temperature and humidity are mutually dependent – a high humidity level will hasten chemical reactions and mould growth, whereas a low level dries out paper and parchment, making it brittle.  Fluctuations are the most dangerous as materials will expand and contract as they absorb and release moisture – as well as cockled paper, the finish on photographs may crack.  Photographic media benefits from very cold conditions and benefits from specialist storage, such as that available in the North West Film Archive. The ideal for a mixed media store is that conditions are controlled to achieve a temperature between 13 and 16 degrees Celsius and a Relative Humidity between 45 and 60%.

All this ongoing activity must be complemented by correct handling procedures.  Although white gloves often seem to function as media shorthand for precious material, their use is not general recommended by conservators, archivists and librarians. As there is a higher chance of gloves being dirtier and affording a less sensitive touch than clean, bare hands, their use is more liable to cause damage.  Archival quality plastic gloves are recommended for handling photographs.  Opening books without special supports strains spines, hence the use of book cushions, snakes and weights.  Familiarity with handling guidelines and use of such supports are an intrinsic part of using any special collections and archives reading room.  Rules forbidding use of pens and wearing of coats are not solely based around security – ink can easily be inadvertently transferred and coats bring moisture and dirt into what needs to be a controlled environment.

What is the difference between preservation and conservation? Preservation covers the type of environmental issues we’ve considered and is perhaps best seen as an ongoing management process.  Conservation is generally taken to mean a specific treatment involving intervention, which may be required in order to make an item suitable for display. Modern conservation ethics mean the historical integrity of the item is respected and professional conservators will understand both the history of an item, its production, physical characteristics and the scientific qualities of the materials it is composed of. Conservation work can include surface cleaning of pages, de-acidification, removal of old repairs, sewing, mending tears using Japanese papers, re-backing, rebinding and box making.  Conservation is not about trying to restore something to a perceived original state, or trying to make it look nice – it is primarily undertaken to ensure the unique history and provenance of an item is preserved for research and for posterity.

This blog post is based on a talk given by Jenny Higham, Special Collections & Archives Manager, at the Victoria Gallery & Museum in March 2016, as part of the associated programme of events accompanying the “Knowledge is Power” exhibition.

Knowledge is Power

Knowledge is Power

Knowledge is Power exhibition at the Victoria Gallery & Museum

The current exhibition at the Victoria Art Gallery & Museum – Knowledge is Power -reflects on the Liverpool Athenaeum and Liverpool Medical Library (now Liverpool Medical Institution) as Liverpool’s oldest surviving cultural institutions. Items loaned from Special Collections & Archives, chosen to reflect the long history of libraries in Liverpool, include a view of the Lyceum building (1 Bold St) painted onto the fore-edges of a printed catalogue. A portrait of William Roscoe presides over the exhibition, watching benignly over important books and manuscripts from his own collection.

Knowledge is Power exhibition at the VGM

Knowledge is Power exhibition at the Victoria Gallery & Museum

The business of war at 30 Bold St

In celebration of the International Festival of Business, the University has opened a pop-up shop in Liverpool One. It will show visitors to the city what life is like on campus for today’s students and researchers. Meanwhile, Special Collections & Archives is showcasing a story from Liverpool’s business community 100 years ago.

Liverpool Philomathic Society crest on session card (LPS 2/6)

The Liverpool Philomathic Society was founded in 1825 as a debating and dinner society for businessmen. Membership was men-only and restricted to those ‘in business on their own account’ – i.e. the proprietors of their own businesses. Its purpose was to  ‘advance knowledge by discussion’, prove the compatibility of commerce and culture, and enhance Liverpool’s cultural image. The Society’s invited speakers and dinner guests included the American Consul and Ambassador for their Jubilee in 1899, Winston Churchill in 1901, and the Earl of Rosebery in 1908.

Seventy-five years after its foundation, the Society was described as “one of the few remaining bulwarks against the flood of feminine invasion of men’s privileges and prerogatives”, and membership remained men-only until 1920. The catalyst for change was the First World War.

Members of the Liverpool Philomathic Society reacted swiftly to the outbreak of war: C.Y.C. Dawbarn wrote to the Honorary Secretary, Mr Martindale, on 8 August 1914,

There must be in the philomathic a lot of chaps like myself who want to do their share. I put it no higher and no lower…. Well I am over fifty five and I am told I am not much good in the ordinary way … yet I am sure there must be a lot of clerical work – letter writing store keeping organizing – they must want help over which I feel I would be of some use. Now there must be numbers like me. War is not all shouldering a rifle.

The Liverpool Philomathic Society’s answer was the Liverpool Civic Service League Intelligence Bureau at 30, Bold Street – the present day location of the Halifax – set up by a Philomathic Sub-Committee “to give information to applicants for relief and assistance”. The LPS list of members was annotated to show who was available on which evenings to give information and advice – later annotations showed LPS members’ war service and, increasingly, casualties.

h1406LPS booklet

The Intelligence Bureau struggled to find a lasting purpose, or surviving members with spare time to staff it, but the effects of war continued to be felt by the Society. By 1915, special wartime arrangements included admitting ladies to meetings. By May 1919, James Tyson could write,

as regards the admittance of lady members I quite approve

and less than a year after the end of the war the Society held its first debate opened by a woman. On the first anniversary of the Armistice, in November 1919, an LPS member, H. Cunningham, wrote looking for advice on a suitable post for his daughter, recently demobbed from the RAF.

Despite these advances, G.J. Hodgson wrote on 15 December 1922, referring to a forthcoming debate on the Victorian Age,

I must try to whip up the young blood of the Socy to support me but shall lose to a dead cert. The Phil. Soc. is the most Victorian thing I know!!

Highlights from the archive of the Liverpool Philomathic Society, and other items from Special Collections & Archives showing the changes brought about by war will be on display at the University of Liverpool  as part of the forthcoming Liverpool Libraries Together exhibition Over by Christmas? Life in Liverpool during World War One.





Temperance in Liverpool

A group of first year undergraduate students in History have put on an exhibition in Special Collections and Archives drawing on their research into food and drink in Liverpool for the module HIST 106.  Having decided to focus on alcoholic drink and the way in which it shaped nineteenth-century Liverpool, they found that the Library holds particularly interesting materials relating to the Temperance Movement.

This is an edited version of the students’ own account of the exhibition:

‘The exhibition includes temperance pamphlets, an 1801 map of the town, the 2011 study published by Liverpool University Press of The Liverpool Underworld and a graph representing the number of public houses between 1860 and 1914 which, displayed together give an insight into the problems the town faced with alcohol and drunkenness.

Reactions from the upper classes to the opening of new public houses which, at the time, were frequented by the working classes, were mostly negative: this can be seen in contemporary sources such as the 1865 Liverpool Life, which describes public houses as ‘very dirty’. The pamphlets show the attempts made to pull the city up from the notoriety it had garnered, while the quotations on the labels give first-hand views on alcohol at the time.  Temperance was a popular movement in Liverpool due to the reputation the city had.  To showcase this reputation we selected a quotation from the Liverpool Review of 1891: ‘In no other town in Great Britain, perhaps, have the evils of drunkenness and immorality been so paraded and so rampantly offensive as Liverpool…’. Another source which emphasises this matter is M. Macilwee’s The Liverpool Underworld Crime in the City, which we opened to display the chapter on ‘The Demon Drink’. We also quoted a passage from the book which both portrayed drunken behaviour but also introduced debates over why Liverpool had developed in this way.

As a contrast with these two items, we found the pamphlet The Direct Veto at Work by the Owners of the Land, which argued for the positive effects of the temperance movement, revealed in quotations such as ‘Within the prohibited area [where drink was not sold] the people are clean and respectable’ and another pamphlet which described the results of the prohibition movement, claiming that these areas are ‘very bright spots’ in the ‘black spot on the Mersey’.


The map shows some of the public houses that existed in 1801.  It doesn’t represent every public house within the city centre but it’s clear that alcohol was important to the contemporary economy.  We emphasised our point by using plastic houses placed on the map; red houses near to important focal points, such as the docks and green houses outside the city centre.  Although there were fewer pubs than there are today, many of them were in locations which are still home to many bars and pubs today, such as Hanover Street and Bold Street.

The graph shows the number of public houses between the years 1860 and 1914.  We were interested to learn that the numbers of public houses proceeded against and convicted correspond with the period in which the temperance movement was launching effective measures against drunkenness.

Overall, the exhibition offers a glimpse of the nineteenth-century temperance movement in Liverpool. Although the movement did not succeed in its aims, it is revealing to identify the nature of its concerns, the way in which it linked alcohol, physical dirt and anti-social behaviour and tried to overcome the latter by eliminating the former.’

The group’s tutor, Dr Alexandrina Buchanan, commented: ‘One of the strengths of History teaching at Liverpool is that it demands primary research through direct engagement with contemporary sources from the first year onwards and encourages students to think about history as a public resource, which can be used to inform debate on present-day issues. Putting on this exhibition has given the students a valuable experience in terms of group work and project management, understanding the practical problems faced by curators and learning how to create a narrative through things rather than words. I am very grateful to Katy Hooper and the staff in SCA for all their work helping the students to put on this display.’

Libraries in the Atlantic World

Featured at #3 in Rough Guides’ Top 10 Cities to visit in 2014, Liverpool is being hailed for its “full-blown cultural renaissance”. From the 18th century onwards, libraries have been part of that culture, as shown in a new display in Special Collections & Archives.

Designed to accompany the Liverpool colloquium on ‘Libraries in the Atlantic World’ on January 24-25 – the launch event for a new international research network on community libraries – it showcases some of the books in SC&A’s collections which provide physical evidence of historic libraries around the city, selected by Dr Mark Towsey, from the University of Liverpool’s School of History.

Liverpool Library bookplate

A map of Liverpool shows the libraries’ locations, whether they have long since disappeared, or still form part of Liverpool’s rich architectural heritage. Liverpool firsts include the Liverpool Library, founded in 1758 and one of the first subscription libraries. It moved to the Lyceum building at 1, Bold Street (built 1800-02) which can be seen in the fore-edge painting (c.1813) by William Ball on a copy of the 1801 catalogue.

Nearly one hundred years later, in 1850, the Liverpool Free Public Library was established, followed in 1852 by one of the first major libraries to open under the Public Libraries Act (on Duke St) and in 1860 by the first purpose-built public library. This is Liverpool Central Library, recently splendidly refurbished in its original building on William Brown Street, which was renamed for the Library’s benefactor.

First class Library onboard the CaroniaWe could not resist extending the Libraries in the Atlantic World theme into the 20th century, to show photographs of libraries actually on the Atlantic, onboard the Cunard Line ships documented in the Cunard Archive.


Advent and After: 8. Handel’s Messiah

For the Second Sunday in Advent, the theme for readings and the lighting of the advent candle in Church services is the Biblical prophets, whose writings also inspired Handel’s oratorio ‘The Messiah’. The work was premiered in April 1742 in Dublin but is now associated with Advent, including the annual performance by the Huddersfield Choral Society, who also performed it on their foundation in 1836.

Signature of Thomas Dawson in SPEC G35.11

Signature of Thomas Dawson in SPEC G35.11

19th-century performances of the Messiah and other oratorios in Liverpool were recorded by Thomas Dawson, a surgeon on Rodney Street, in his pamphlet collection of annotated musical programmes (1805-1861) .Alongside glees, and performances by the splendidly-named Italian singer Madame Pasta, Dawson’s bound volume of oratorios records that the Messiah was performed by “numerous and complete band and chorusses, assisted by the celebrated Lancashire singers” for the opening of St Philip’s Church on Hardman Street in 1816, by the Liverpool Choral Society in 1817, at the Liverpool Musical Festival in 1823 and 1827, and for the opening of the Liverpool Philharmonic Society’s new concert hall in 1849.

Title page vignette from Spec G35.11Charity performances of selections from the oratorio were given by the pupils of the School for the Indigent Blind, at the Music Hall on Bold St in 1819; at Great Neston church for Neston National School in 1820; and at the Isle of Man Musical Festival in 1825, for the Insular Charities.Through such performances, massed choirs and audiences could listen to The Messiah, but a much smaller number would see a very different local publication of the text from 1960. Bert Jackson’s publication for the Lilac Tree Press at Wallasey, on the Wirral, with original illustrations by Gareth Davies was printed in a run of only six copies.

February Highlight: Flu season is here!

image of Dawson W. Turner's Rules for Simple Hygiene

Dawson W. Turner's Rules for Simple Hygiene

 The flu season is in full swing and whilst many of us will be heading to the doctors or staying at home in bed, those who had the misfortune to be ill during the Victorian period had different methods of self-treatment. In Rules for Simple Hygiene, compiled by Dawson W. Turner (1815–1885), Head Master of The Royal Institution School at Liverpool, a set of 23 rules were given for hygiene along with remedies for 40 accidents and diseases.

According to such rules a person should:

“eschew all hot and heavy suppers unless [they] wish for an attack of nightmare”
“not plaster down [their] hair with hog’s lard . . . the hair is meant to assist in carrying off perspiration and should not be clogged with grease”.

And when having a wash in the morning be sure to

“put your face deep into the basin; open and shut your eyes two or three times looking at the bottom of the basin . . . turn the head on one side, in turns, and fill each ear with cold water, shake the head and the water will run out”.

image of Advice no.12 from Rules for Simple Hygiene

Advice no.12 from Rules for Simple Hygiene

Many of these rules would be seen today as entertaining rather than informative but at the time they were taken more seriously. Revised and corrected by “seven eminent Medical Men” who had some connection with hospitals in London and Liverpool, Rules for Simple Hygiene was produced from 1869 and ran to seven editions, the second of which is held here in the University Archives in poster form.

Spec G35.9(8): Report of Cases before the Liverpool Pathological Society

Spec G35.9(8): Report of Cases before the Liverpool Pathological Society

Other collections within Special Collections and Archives relate to the health of the public and the progress of medical knowledge, for example the Liverpool pamphlets collected by the Liverpool surgeon Thomas Dawson. Two volumes are devoted to Medicine, including the Report of cases before the Liverpool Pathological Society, Session 1843-4. The drawing shown here depicts a lung suffering from gangrene which was drawn from the pathological findings of a 31-year-old market-woman who had been suffering from bronchitis.


These and other collections of Medical books, all of which can be searched through the Special Collections & Archives webpages, give an insight into how illnesses were interpreted and treated.

Sian Wilks, Archivist