Working in Collection Care, we have a unique view of the documents that come through our studio. While the historical and societal value of the collection plays a key role in our decisionmaking, our job is to preserve documents to enable continued access to our collection, meaning that we are very interested in the materiality of our documents.
Often, our conservators work directly on a document, performing a range of treatments to stabilise and reduce the rates of deterioration that the documents undergo. This can include anything from repairing tears, researching a new treatment to consolidate pigments that have started to flake off, or rebinding a volume so that it can be safely handled.
However, when treating the documents we can sometimes find something special that changes our perspective. This is what happened on the day we found the quill.
My colleague, Maurice, was cleaning E 380/4 part 1, a large bound volume from the Elizabethan age containing draft land leases, and called us over to take a look at something interesting he had found.
Placed delicately on an open page in the middle of the volume was a quill – a quill in such good condition I initially thought it was modern! Although we cannot date the quill or confirm if it is contemporary to the document, we do believe it has been in the volume for quite some time as it has left an indentation in the surrounding pages.
Keeping the quill in the closed volume for potentially hundreds of years has meant that moisture, pollutants, and sunlight (which can all accelerate the deterioration of materials) were unable to penetrate the volume, resulting in a very well preserved quill.
Once we had the opportunity to take pictures, Maurice got right to creating a temporary enclosure for the quill. It initially never crossed our minds to fully separate the quill from the document where it was found, but as the quill could be easily damaged or stolen a more suitable enclosure needed to be created.
Prior to enclosing the quill, the feather was generally cleaned using a soft brush to remove any surface dirt or dust. The quill was then encased in Melinex – an inert, acid-free polyester plastic. The properties of the Melinex are archival grade so they will not cause any chemical deterioration and the sleeve enables the quill to be safely handled and photographed.
You may also notice that the top left corner of the sleeve has been left open – this is to ensure that there is adequate air exchange so a ‘microclimate’ does not form. A microclimate is where the climate inside the enclosure is different from the surrounding areas. In this case, if any moisture became trapped in the enclosure it could accelerate the deterioration of the quill, which we want to avoid. Having a good amount of air exchange between the outside climate and the enclosure will reduce this risk and create an equilibrium between the two environments.
Maurice also created a box for the sleeve, adding an extra layer of protection from hazards like ultraviolet radiation, pests, moisture in the air, greatly reducing the risk of damage when moving the quill around the archive.
Following this treatment, the quill can now be safely handled by readers and will be orderable with the document.
Reflecting on the find last month, I caught up with my colleague, Solange, who is the conservator that leads the conservation project where the quill was found.
How often do you find extra objects, like the quill, in documents?
Solange: I work with Maurice, on a project called “the invigilation room” – this project involves conserving documents so they no longer need to be seen in the invigilation room and can instead be seen in the general reading rooms.
Often, these documents need to be repaired so they can be safely handled, but sometimes they come to the studio because there are loose bits in the documents that can be lost or stolen. So you can imagine that this project is the place you’ll find a lot of interesting things!
Normally, the things are left there on purpose. While working on this project, I’ve found false teeth, coins, medals, loose photographs – but this is the first time we’ve found an accidentally left quill.
Why did we decide to keep the quill?
Solange: Well, we never throw anything away and this quill is part of the object’s history. We have bins but we don’t use them!
It [the quill] wasn’t attached in any way but we’re assuming it was part of the object because it has left such an impression on the opposite page – it must have been there for a very long time. Overall, it was a nice surprise to find in the document, and although it likely does not have historical significance, from a social historic point of view it is a very interesting feature that we don’t normally get to see alongside the collection.
While we are keeping the quill, we have removed it from the volume in order to best preserve and secure both objects. We’ll keep the quill with the document so when a reader orders the document they will also receive the quill, and we have highlighted where the quill was found in the volume with a note and images.
Are there any conservation issues associated with the quill?
Solange: While the enclosure we have created enables the safe handling of the quill, it will likely be a temporary solution, as Melinex can create a small electrostatic charge that can, over time, damage very fragile materials. We’ll probably look at creating a window box for long term storage.
The quill is an organic material made from a feather (keratin) so it is susceptible to pests, physical forces, environmental fluctuations, light, and pollutants. We’ll probably have to look at a deeper clean to remove the ingrained dirt and dust, then, as the feather is well preserved, good housing will help reduce the risk of the other hazards.
This story has really resonated with many of us – who hasn’t lost a pen?! What I really like about this story is that it reminds us that these records are living, breathing objects about people. As conservators, we spend so much time thinking about the materiality of the documents – it is nice to be reminded of the human element that these records hold.