Conserving Gaelic Manuscripts for Digitisation

A significant 18th century collection of Gaelic song is held in the University of Glasgow Library. The Rev. James McLagan (1728–1805) amassed over 600 works, many of which he transcribed from contemporary oral tradition. McLagan is the focus of a current research project, led by Dr Sìm Innes and Dr Geraldine Parsons, of Celtic and Gaelic at the University of Glasgow, funded by the Royal Society of Edinburgh. The University’s College of Arts has supported the conservation and digitisation of the McLagan collection by the Library. You can see a selection of material in the current Library Level 12 foyer display.

The Library undertook a conservation project to facilitate the digitisation of 260 items in the collection, with a view to undertaking any necessary conservation work to allow for the digitisation process to be completed without additional damage being incurred to the objects.

All items included in the project were surveyed individually to assess condition and identify potential issues:

• Anything that may impede capturing a clear image of the text, including pins restricting the opening, folded areas, tears with gaps, large amounts of surface dirt etc.

• Any physical damage or vulnerabilities likely to worsen with minimal handling
For the most part, the issues encountered were relatively minor. However, it was identified that a subset of the collection had been badly affected by damp and/or mould, requiring extensive conservation treatment to these items in order to facilitate any level of handling.

Items were separated into three groups:
Group 1: Conservation not required (121 items)
Group 2: Item has damage, but conservation not required for digitisation (64 items)
Group 3: Conservation required before digitisation (75 items)

Further testing was carried out for the mould-affected items (all in Group 3) to determine if treatments involving immersion in water could be an option considering the inks present. Resulting conservation work was mostly limited to Group 3, with a few additional items also treated as time allowed. Treatments ranged from pin removals and tear repairs of single sheets, through to full complex conservation treatments involving multiple pages per object (case studies included below). Pins removed from items were also labelled and stored in a portfolio alongside the other items in the collection.

Treatment Examples:

MS Gen 1042/4: The paper was extremely soft (likely from mould/damp) with extensive losses and tears. It was not possible to handle at all without losses. After testing the inks, the sewing was removed and all leaves were individually washed and resized to return strength to the paper. Where possible, loose fragments were also re-positioned. Areas of loss were carefully filled with Japanese tissue fills. Due to the extent of losses, all sheets were also then lined on both sides with very lightweight tissue to support weak areas and enable safe handling. If the correct location of a loose fragment was unclear, the fragment was stored separately in a polyester enclosure and stored alongside the object with the original sewing thread.

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MS Gen 1042/181: A number of tears and folds were obscuring the text, with one section at immediate risk of detachment and loss with any amount of handling. Lightweight Japanese tissue and wheat starch paste was used to repair the tear and stabilise the vulnerable attachment of this sheet in a number of other places. Low-moisture gelatine-coated tissue repairs were made overs areas of water-sensitive ink.

Categories: Archives and Special Collections

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