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Bookworms and Blunder Traps

ShelvesIn the basement of Pembroke College Library, over 30,000 rare books and manuscripts are stored in the rolling stacks of a low-ceilinged, air-conditioned room.

Caring for old manuscripts such as these is a specialised job. A team of conservators based at Corpus Christi College provides conservation services for many of the Cambridge Colleges, including Pembroke. Kit Smart padded down the basement steps with Pembroke’s Librarian, Pat Aske, to take a look at some conservation work in action.

“We come round usually whenever Pat calls us,” says Bridget Warrington, Conservator at Corpus Christi College. “Sometimes she gives us projects to work on and we bring them back when we’re finished; sometimes it’s for exhibitions. We also do some in-house work, like creating book-shoes for the shelves.” A book-shoe is a specially designed structure which can be inserted between books on a shelf to prevent the larger or heavier books from falling over or leaning sideways.

Bookworm holesBridget visited Pembroke Library this week, along with her colleagues Veronica Zoppi and Claude Grewal-Sultze, to check up on some books which had been showing signs of insect damage. The books were mostly from the 16th century. Wheeling a trolley into place, the team took the books down from their shelf one by one and examined the pages carefully for signs of bookworm damage.

RustA tiny scattering of holes in the first manuscript reveals that something has been munching its way through the paper.

“We use blunder traps to protect against insect damage,” Bridget explains. “A blunder trap has a sticky surface, so the insect gets stuck to it and we can take a look and see what species we’re dealing with. You can also use pheromone traps, which have a tablet inside that attracts the insects, or insect sprays.”

One book has strange brown patches on the pages – these are caused not by squashed bugs, but by rust. “The way they used to manufacture the paper, sometimes tiny bits of iron would get caught up in it,” says Claude. “Then you get little bits of iron in the paper, and they gradually rust over time.”

ConservatorsThere are significantly bigger holes in the next book – long tube-shaped streaks which run downwards through the pages. “You breed them big here at Pembroke,” comments Bridget.

The conservation and care of old books is an important aspect of museum and library work. Many libraries have been running digitisation projects recently, such as the Parker on the Web project by Corpus’s Parker Library, but with digital technology advancing so quickly there are concerns that such projects will be unable to keep pace with the technology.

More topically, the current debate over the continued use of vellum (goat or calf skin) to record the UK’s laws highlights the importance of conservation on a national scale.

Breeding them big

Breeding them big

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