Books as social history

Because I’ve just started a brief book cataloguing stint at Calke Abbey again, I thought I’d reblog this post by Emile de Bruijn from 2013. The Harpur-Crewe family (the surname underwent various transformations through time, this being the last one) produced some fascinating characters – some would say eccentric, others have speculated that some of the men in the family would these days be diagnosed with a form of Asperger’s.

If Calke wasn’t already a treasure trove of weird and wonderful stuff, in the nineteenth century part of John Gardner Wilkinson’s library was bequeathed to Sir John Harpur Crewe, 9th Bt. Gardner Wilkinson, a famous Egyptologist and antiquarian, and Lady Georgiana, Sir John’s wife, were cousins and he seems to have visited Calke on several occasions, the last time in 1875 when he fell fatally ill. Gardner Wilkinson died on his way back home.

In the spirit of Calke, the books from his library are displayed in the way they were found, which in itself makes an interesting time document: the collection was in chaos when the NT took on Calke. Although now fully catalogued, this presented a few headaches for the NT cataloguers having to work within the constraints of retaining the image of Calke as a “country house in decline”. For example: how to catalogue books in several rows of stacks on the floor? This of course also posed a conundrum for the book conservators: ideally, books are kept on shelves rather than on the floor!

The current display hides the fact that the collection itself provides a vivid portrait of a Victorian intellectual’s wide ranging interests, although it can at least now be accessed virtually through COPAC and the National Trust Collections online database. As Emile indicates in his blog, Mark Purcell and Nicola Thwaite have produced this interesting guide to the libraries at Calke Abbey.

Pests and other book related misery (3): getting rid of mould

As promised a while ago, today’s post goes into more detail about the removal of mould from books.

At the beginning of this year, I helped Ian Beaumont (freelance leather conservator) for a day and a half to clean the books in two bookcases in the Library at Kedleston Hall. Fortunately, the mould outbreak was spotted early on, which meant that most books just needed a little precautionary dusting. In a future post, I hope to talk a bit more about the dos and don’ts of book cleaning in general.

First things first: it is impossible to get rid of mould. Spores will always remain in the air and will always settle on surfaces if the conditions are right. Therefore, in an ideal world, one would create an environment which inactivates mould spores. Unfortunately, this is not always possible when books are kept in historic environments.

If the mould outbreak is minimal, a cardboard box lined with a bin liner is fine.

If the mould outbreak is minimal, a cardboard box lined with a bin liner is fine.

Once mould is detected, it is advisable to treat it as if the spores were still active – it is regarded a biohazard which could affect people’s health. Preferably wear disposable vinyl gloves and use a dust mask “conforming to EN149 category FFP2S” (National Trust Manual of Housekeeping, p. 84).


If the outbreak is not serious, it is possible to use a home-made extraction hood and a vacuum cleaner, fitted out with a HEPA (“High Efficiency Particulate Air”) filter. Above is a device I used at Calke Abbey recently. Note that the nozzle of the vacuum cleaner is covered with muslin, which is to stop any loose fragments from bindings being sucked up and to protect fragile surfaces.

Depending on the fragility of the binding, either a pony hair brush or a bristle shaving brush is used to clean the mould off the book in the direction of the vacuum nozzle.


Preparing the operation: taking the books off the shelves!

So, back to Kedleston. Here, the books in one of the cases were (of course!) rather larger than the octavos I cleaned at Calke. The first step was to take them off the shelves and stack them systematically, without disturbing the order of the books. Secondly, the empty shelves were wiped clean with a duster.

Then, Ian set about cleaning the books. Before I get any comments: yes, I know he’s not wearing gloves in these images! However, the book he’s cleaning only needed a dusting, and he most definitely wore them while cleaning the mouldy books…

Books waiting to be cleaned

Books waiting to be cleaned

Book cleaning

Ian cleaning the fore edge of this oblong folio

Using a smoke sponge, Ian gently rubs off some persistent dirt from the front of this book

Using a smoke sponge, Ian gently rubs off some persistent dirt from the front of this book

The actual removal of mould is therefore not rocket science, but needs to be approached with some care and awareness of one’s own health. Moreover, in the case of these eighteenth-century books, specialist knowledge of how to handle and clean them safely (i.e. without damaging them!) was also required.

Therefore, unless you know what you’re doing, when a serious mould outbreak is detected, get in touch with a professional book conservator for specialist advice, for example via ICON’s conservation register.


  • R.E. Child, Mould (London: Preservation Advisory Centre, 2004, revised 2011) []
  • The National Trust, Manual of Housekeeping (London: Butterworth-Heinemann, 2006), chapters 8 (Biological agents of deterioration) and 42 (Books)

With thanks to Ian for allowing himself to be photographed 🙂



Pests and other book related misery (2): mould

Mould growth is clearly visible with the naked eye on the front cover of the folio on the left

Mould growth is clearly visible with the naked eye on the front cover of the folio on the left

Mould is unfortunately a very common problem in book collections. It often manifests itself as fluffy white growth on the outside of a binding or on the edges. Mould occurs when airborne fungi spores settle on a surface in still air. This is why you often find it in environments which are in effect a micro-climate with little air-circulation and a high relative humidity (such as closed bookcases). The spores can be inactive for a long time, until the climate is favourable: within a temperature range of 10 to 35 degrees Celsius (the warmer the better) and a high relative humidity (RH) of over 65%, combined with organic material, mould spores will thrive! Mould is also regarded as a health hazard and suitable precautions need to be taken when handling objects affected by it. Serious outbreaks of mould should be treated by trained professionals.

Mould can often be discovered by the naked eye, but usually it is only by shining a raking light over the surfaces that the full extent of the outbreak becomes clear. UV-light tends to be a good tool, although using a simple LED-torch will also work.

Shining a raking light with a UV-torch shows up the extent of the mould growth on the back cover of this folio

Shining a raking light with a UV-torch shows up the extent of the mould growth on the back cover of this folio

Cloth and leather bindings are generally more susceptible to mould outbreaks, although it can sometimes also be found on paper, such as on the edges of a text block (usually because of dust). As with the prevention of insect damage, maintaining a stable environment (as cool as possible) and a RH below 65% is important. Storing books away from external, north-facing, walls is sometimes a good idea, and ventilating areas containing books helps to improve air-circulation. The books in these images were found in the Library at Kedleston Hall, where the collection is kept in historic, Robert Adam designed, book cases. Although these are beautiful pieces of furniture, they do not necessarily provide the best environment for these books. Because the collection is monitored frequently, the mould outbreak was discovered before it had spread to too many books. It was also limited to two book cases which are placed against exterior walls.

Early in February 2014, I assisted Ian Beaumont, a leather conservator, with cleaning these books. In the next post I will talk a bit more about the procedures for treating mould-infested books.


  • R.E. Child, Mould (London: Preservation Advisory Centre, 2004, revised 2011) []
  • The National Trust, Manual of Housekeeping (London: Butterworth-Heinemann, 2006), chapters 8 (Biological agents of deterioration) and 42 (Books)

Famous authors – or not (2)

Title page of a 1920s Mills and Boon

Romantic fiction at Calke Abbey, Derbyshire

Sometimes I come across an item which makes me look twice. On this occasion, there were two elements of this, otherwise boring, title page which caught my eye: first, the author: Joan Sutherland. Secondly, the publisher: Mills & Boon – the first one I ever catalogued!

Since this book was published in 1920, the author was unlikely to be the famous soprano 🙂 Instead, she was an author signed to Mills & Boon in the 1910s, and she published with them titles such as The edge of Empire (1916) and Wynnegate sahib (1918). Like these, Desborough is set in India during the British occupation.


  • Haiti Trust digital library catalog (
  • Jay Dixon, The romance fiction of Mills & Boon, 1909-1990s. London: UCL Press, 1999.

Chronological collections (1)

IMG_2365This little volume can be found on the shelves in the Library at Kedleston Hall, Derbyshire, owned by the National Trust. The Hall was built by Nathaniel Curzon, 1st Lord Scarsdale,between 1759 and circa 1790, and it contains some of the most complete, unaltered, and stunning, Robert Adam interiors in the world. The book was actually catalogued by my colleague James Fishwick a few years ago, and because it does not have a title page or anything else obvious to identify it, he added the title from the spine to the catalogue record.

I came across it a couple of years ago, when I was preparing for a Library Open Day at Kedleston and doing some research into the 1st Lord Scarsdale’s family. Looking through the catalogue for provenance information, I found this book, Chronological collections. It had the following inscription on the back of the front flyleaf: “Carolina Curzon, June the 28th, 1756”.


Carolina, or Caroline, married Nathaniel Curzon in 1750 when she was sixteen years old. She was the daughter of Charles Colyear, the earl of Portmore, one of Nathaniel’s horse racing friends.

Since my initial interest was in Caroline’s education (Robert Adam designed a wonderful bookcase for her private apartment at Kedleston, which was unfortunately sold by the Curzon family in 2002), I decided to investigate this book a bit further. Almost by chance (which is why I love historical research!), I happened to find another copy of the same work in the Special Collections held at the University of Leicester’s David Wilson Library. The Leicester copy similarly lacked a title page, but had the same binding as the item in Kedleston’s library. It also had an inscription, which helped me to identify the contents of the book, as well as the possible author:

The gift of Lady Curzon, widow of Sir Nathaniel Curzon, who abridged Mr. Jackson’s chronology for the use of her sons. Twenty copies only were printed.

Therefore, Chronological collections would appear to be an abridgement of John Jackson’s Chronological antiquities, which was published in 1752 in three volumes (ESTC T136688). The name Curzon does not show in the subscribers’ list, but a copy was in the family’s possession soon after it was published, if the provenance information in the Kedleston copy is correct. It was certainly in the library at Kedleston by 1765.

According to his dedication, Jackson aimed to bring together the histories of all major civilisations in antiquity and to reconcile recorded events with the story of the Old Testament – a very ambitious project, which came in for some criticism the year after it was published.

The author of the abridgement, named as “Lady Curzon, widow of Sir Nathaniel Curzon” in the Leicester copy, could only have been Mary Assheton, Lady Curzon (1695-1776). The item itself looks to be a piece of vanity publishing with a very limited print-run, for distribution among members of the family and perhaps close friends.

Future posts will talk in more detail about Chronological collections and about Mary Assheton.