Literary Speaking at Sissinghurst Castle Garden

Book conservation in action

This spring sees the end of our four year book conservation project and we’re celebrating with book month which runs from 11th March. This huge project has seen volunteers, conservators and property staff working together behind the scenes to conserve our collection of 11,000 books.

Each and every book has been assessed for damage caused by age, handling and pests, such as silverfish. The damage is then repaired by expert conservators during the two book months which have been held every year for the past three years. This final book month sees the team coming to the end of the 11,000 books, focusing on books from Harold Nicolson’s collection in his book room in the South Cottage.

Harold’s study is a hugely atmospheric place, with books linking to his varied career as a politician and diplomat, current affairs such as pre-war Germany, his own research for books on Byron and gifts from famous friends such as the French President, Charles de Gaulle.

Harold Nicolsons' book room in the South Cottage
Harold Nicolsons' book room in the South Cottage
Harold Nicolsons' book room in the South Cottage

Before the project it was thought there were 8000 books in the collection but we now know it is over 11,000, making it the third largest collection in the National Trust and one of the most important 20th century, in situ collections. Now we know the extent of the library and that they are housed in the right conditions and in their custom made book shoes, we can make more of the exciting books that we look after.

We’ll be getting more books out on display for people to see, such as the extensive collection of radical, LGBTQ literature we have, linking in to the 50th anniversary of the decriminalisation of homosexuality this year, which the National Trust are celebrating with its Prejudice and Pride programme.

Vita and Harold’s collection has many well-known queer writers and contemporaries who often gifted books to the couple or sent them texts to review including Virginia Woolf, D.H.Lawrence, Walt Whitman and Evelyn Waugh.

With generous donations and money raised at the property, we were able to purchase a book scanner which will allow us to take scans of the marginalia inside many of the books. There’s often a running commentary in the books which encompasses comments by Vita and Harold as to their feelings on the book and notes to each other. Ephemera is also often left inside such as photographs or the bookplates used to show ownership. These scanned images can allow greater access to the collection, whilst keeping the fragile originals safe on the shelf as handling is one of the major causes of deterioration to books.

Even with the end of the Book Project, the book collection will stay at the heart of the conservation work carried out here for the house team, and is a reminder that the National Trust is the largest conservation charity in Europe, as this important project has cost £100,000.