‘Dude, the place artwork thine quill?’

Working in Collection Care gives us a unique view of the documents that come through our studio. While the historical and social value of the collection plays a central role in our decision-making, it is our job to preserve documents in order to allow further access to our collection. We are therefore very interested in the materiality of our documents.

Our restorers often work directly on a document and perform a series of treatments to stabilize and reduce the deterioration of the documents. This can include anything from repairing cracks, researching a new treatment to consolidate exfoliated pigment, or rebinding a volume so it can be handled safely.

However, when editing the documents, we can sometimes find something special that changes our perspective. This happened the day we found the feather.

You may have seen the Twitter thread or even read about the feather in the press, but here is the full version of the story (with a few additional tidbits on the subject of conservation).

My colleague Maurice was cleaning E 380/4 Part 1, a large, Elizabethan-era bound volume of draft land leases, and called us to look at something interesting he’d found.

A nib was neatly placed on an open page in the middle of the ribbon – a nib in such good condition that at first I thought it was modern! Although we cannot date the nib or confirm whether it is contemporary with the document, we believe it has been in the volume for some time as it left an indentation on the surrounding pages.

Keeping the feather in the enclosed volume for potentially hundreds of years has prevented moisture, pollutants, and sunlight (all of which can accelerate the deterioration of materials) from entering the volume, resulting in a very well-preserved feather.

The nib found in the record E 380/4 Part 1

When we had the opportunity to take photos, Maurice immediately set about creating a temporary enclosure for the pen. It never occurred to us at first to completely separate the pen from the document in which it was found, but since the pen could easily be damaged or stolen, a more suitable sleeve had to be created.

The temporary enclosure for the spring

Before enclosing the quill, the quill was usually cleaned with a soft brush to remove any superficial dirt or dust. The spring was then coated with Melinex – an inert, acid-free polyester plastic. The properties of the Melinex are archival so they do not cause chemical deterioration and the sleeve allows for safe handling and photography of the nib.

You may also notice that the top left corner of the envelope has been left open – this is supposed to allow sufficient air exchange to prevent a “microclimate” from forming. A microclimate is when the climate inside the enclosure differs from that of the surroundings. In this case, if moisture gets trapped in the case, it can accelerate the deterioration of the spring, which we want to avoid. A good exchange of air between the outside climate and the housing reduces this risk and creates a balance between the two environments.

Maurice has also created a box for the sleeve that provides an extra layer of protection from hazards such as ultraviolet radiation, pests and humidity, greatly reducing the risk of damage when moving the pen around the archive.

After this treatment, the pen can now be safely handled by the readers and ordered with the document.

As I was thinking about the find last month, I met with my colleague Solange, the restorer who heads the conservation project in which the nib was found.

How often do you find additional items such as the feather in documents?

Solange: I’m working with Maurice on a project called “The Monitoring Room” – in this project documents are kept so that they can no longer be seen in the monitoring room, but in the general reading rooms.

Often times these documents need to be repaired so they can be safely handled, but sometimes they come to the studio because there are loose pieces in the documents that can be lost or stolen. So you can imagine that this project is where you will find a lot of interesting things!

Usually these things are left there on purpose. While working on this project I found false teeth, coins, medals, loose photos – but this is the first time we’ve found an accidentally left quill pen.

Why did we choose to keep the pen?

Solange: Well, we never throw anything away and this feather is part of the history of the object. We have trash cans, but we don’t use them!

It [the quill] wasn’t attached in any way, but we assume it was part of the object because it made such an impression on the opposite side – it must have been there for a very long time. Overall, it was a nice surprise to be found in the document, and while it probably has no historical significance, from a socio-historical point of view it is a very interesting feature that we normally don’t see next to the collection.

While we keep the nib, we have removed it from the tape in order to preserve and secure both objects in the best possible way. We will keep the pen together with the document so that when a reader orders the document, he will also receive the pen, and we have highlighted the location of the pen in the volume with a note and pictures.

Are there any conservation issues related to the feather?

Solange: While the case we developed allows the spring to be handled safely, it will likely be a temporary solution as Melinex can create a small electrostatic charge that can damage very fragile materials over time. We will probably try to create a window box for long term storage.

The feather is an organic material made of a feather (keratin) and is therefore susceptible to pests, physical forces, environmental fluctuations, light and pollutants. We’ll likely need to do a more thorough cleaning to remove the deep-seated dirt and dust, and then, since the nib is well-preserved, a good case will help reduce the risk of other hazards.

This story really touched many of us – who hasn’t lost a pen ?! What I really like about this story is that it reminds us that these records are living, breathing objects about people. As restorers, we spend so much time thinking about the materiality of the documents – it’s nice to be reminded of the human element that these records contain.

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