In-depth book condition reporting

Charlotte Burford, Conservation and Engagement Assistant Charlotte Burford Conservation and Engagement Assistant
Two volunteer examine books to create a condition report

The house conservation team at Polesden Lacey have successfully completed the mammoth task of conducting an in-depth review into the condition of every single book in the library – a total of 1787 historic books.

Reporting deterioration

The books are cleaned every year by a dedicated team of book volunteers using specialist tools. This painstaking task is spread out over the course of the year.

This year, for the first time, we have carefully examined each book looking for signs of damage and deterioration in order to create a permanent record and condition report.

Cleaned books ready to go back onto shelves
Vintage leather-bound books stacked on a table
Cleaned books ready to go back onto shelves

This condition report marks a significant achievement for the team; our duties range from cleaning literally every inch of the historic rooms to developing new exhibitions to showcase Mrs Greville’s world-renowned collection.

The dangers of mould

The new report will enable us to track deterioration more effectively and to focus on specific trouble areas, such as books with torn spines or, in the case of one particular shelf, recurring mould. The shelf in question, which holds both the memoirs of Sheridan and the works of Alexander Pope, was found to have sprouted a fuzz of white mould.

The team uncover some mouldy books
Blue fuzzy mould on some old leather-bound books.
The team uncover some mouldy books

White mould is a result of changes in humidity, a prevalent problem in old houses. It can be quickly dispatched using a pony hair brush and a specialist hoover, but it can turn an insidious green colour indicating that lasting damage has already occurred. Luckily the team’s timely actions stopped the mould in time and the new condition report will ensure that green mould never has the time to flourish.

Intern Grace delicately cleans a book
A conservationist brushes the spine of a book
Intern Grace delicately cleans a book

Bookworms debunked

Mould is just one of the signs of deterioration we have looked for when creating the condition report. The library is also at risk from light damage, environmental factors, and a variety of creepy crawlies.

When conditions are poor, museum pests thrive. Culprits include furniture beetles, carpet beetles, and even moths, all of whom like to graze on the cloth bindings on books, leaving behind the paper and cardboard of a naked spine.

A pesky carpet beetle
An illustration of a carpet beetle
A pesky carpet beetle

But what about bookworms? 'Bookworm' is a common misconception. Bookworms are actually just other pests like the death watch and furniture beetles. They prefer wood, but they’ll happily bore through some books on their way to the wooden furniture beyond. But there’s no such thing as a 'book worm'.

Explore Mrs Greville’s library when it reopens on Friday 31 March for Polesden Lacey’s seasonal programme ‘Mrs Greville’s travels to South America’. 

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