SEAHA Centre for Doctoral Training


Survey assesses deterioration and conservation of paper collections in historical Italian library

3 November 2020

Natalie Brown, SEAHA student, contributes to non-destructive survey of large historical book collection at the Classense Library

natalie brown sept 1

Research by SEAHA student Natalie Brown, based at UCL Institute for Sustainable Heritage, has contributed to an innovative non-destructive collection survey of the historical Classense Library in Ravenna, Italy. The two part publication in journal Heritage Science explores both the current state of the collection through paper characterisation and conservation scenarios. 

Based upon increasing concern about the deterioration of book and paper collections, the researchers sought to conduct a collection survey to assess the extent of this degradation. In contrast to previous survey tests, the survey used only non-destructive and non-invasive methods such as near-infrared (NIR) spectroscopy. In this way, the researchers were able to analyse 297 books including incunabula and manuscripts from the 14th-20th century. As most of the books pre-dated the 19th century the survey allowed an in-depth analysis of rag paper degradation and the first set of quantitative data on this paper.

After characterisation of the paper, the study explored expected lifetimes of the historical book collection at the library under conditions of dark storage. Scenarios of conservation were modelled through the Collections Demography dose-response function and used to predict the degradation rates of books stored at different temperatures and relative humidity. Researchers found that for the books in the library in a controlled environment, conservation treatments may be needed to preserve books with iron gall ink, as these were not forecast to survive a long term planning horizon of 500 years. By contrast for those items in a non-controlled environment, the research found that cooling and drying the environment and deacidifying acidic books would result in the collection being fit for use in 500 years. 

Overall the study offers heritage managers predictions of the collection lifetimes in different environmental and conservation management scenarios, and enables them to strike a balance between preserving the collection and financial and energy expense.  

The research was carried out in collaboration with researchers from the Classense Library in Ravenna and University of Bologna (Italy), University of Ljubljana (Slovenia) and the company Lichtblau e.K. (Germany).


Image © Istituzione Biblioteca Classense