Conserving 17th-century university records

Housed in the Tower of the Five Orders in the Old Schools Quad since the seventeenth century, the records of Oxford University Archives include papers from the Chancellor’s Court dating from the sixteenth century.

Over the past year a conservator has been working on the papers dating from 1634 to 1665. Amounting to just over 3000 items, these consist of single sheets and bifolia mostly on paper and occasionally parchment.

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One manuscript may consist of several pages pinned together or tied with a twist of parchment. Some feature wax seals which interestingly have leaf fragments pressed into the surfaces. (Fig. 1)

The condition of the papers was mixed. Dirt, mould damage, tears, dog-eared corners and brittle seals being the main concerns regarding safe handling. Each item has now been surface cleaned to remove dirt. (Fig. 2)

In the past the papers were probably subjected to a damp environment and high levels of relative humidity.

Mould thrives in these conditions and organic materials such as paper are a good food source for mould. The mould weakens the paper by drawing water and nutriments from it. (Fig. 3)

Fragile papers previously affected by mould were sized with a non-aqueous solution to strengthen them (Fig. 4)

Japanese papers, shaped using a water brush, were adhered to vulnerable areas to lend support. More Japanese paper was then shaped with a needle and pasted into place to fill loses. (Fig. 5 & 6)

To reduce handling, small groups of papers were re-housed together in labeled, archival quality paper folders before being returned to archival boxes. (Fig.7)