Post by Heraldic collection conservator Louise O’Connor

Science plays a central role in modern conservation of cultural heritage. By understanding the chemical structure of materials, a conservator can document the condition and potential degradation of historic objects, as shown in our last post. Now we’d like to show how conservators address damage in heraldic manuscripts through conservation treatment, making them accessible for digitisation.

To treat or not to treat 

Once damage to the manuscripts is identified and documented, conservators evaluate potential treatment options. The condition of the heraldic manuscripts prioritised for treatment was complex; tight bindings, corrosive iron gall ink, fragile pigments and many disfiguring stains and old repairs. A conservator’s decision-making process considers not only the chemical degradation of the object, but also its historical integrity. In collaboration with our library colleagues, the object’s function for today’s user is also considered prior to treatment. Ethically, conservation treatments follow the principle of minimal intervention, similar to the concept of ‘first do no harm’. The choice of materials and techniques follows the idea of ‘retreat-ability’. The choice to intervene is never taken lightly, yet given the immense fragility of the heraldic manuscripts – treatment was urgent.

 Selecting a conservation treatment

By consulting the collected body of conservation research, the treatments we choose for the heraldic manuscripts included disbinding, removal of surface dirt, chemical stabilisation of iron gall ink with calcium phytate process, removal of disfiguring stains and old repairs, pigment consolidation, tear repair and loss infill, and applying a conservation binding. Each unique manuscript was treated individually and we documented all processes. Here we show some of the steps from these conservation treatments, which resulted in an easily legible manuscript, preserved for present and future generations of the curious.

Treatments – step behind the scenes

The manuscript was first removed from its damaging binding. This involved removing degraded layers of glue and textile from its spine. Proteinaceous adhesives react to moisture. Applying a water-based poultice to the glue, allows it slowly absorb the moisture. As the adhesive film starts to swell, it’s possible to mechanically remove it from the paper. As the adhesive rehydrates it also stinks to high heaven!


Grey dirt particles, loosely held to the surface of the paper by intermolecular forces, were removed by gently rubbing a soft eraser across the paper’s surface. This improves both the look and feel of the manuscript. The ink is not affected by this action; and utmost care and skill is needed to surface clean very fragile surfaces, such as mould damaged papers.

The ink was then tested for iron components. Indicator papers impregnated with a dye confirmed the presence of soluble iron 2 ions in the ink. The paper turns pink if it’s a positive result.

Washing paper removes acidic degradation products and reforms the hydrogen bonds of its cellulose structure, making it stronger. The paper sheets were floated in a sequence of specially prepared aqueous solutions.

After a few minutes, chromophores, which cause paper to discolour, solubilised into the bath water. The calcium phytate treatment cycle converted the remaining ink Fe 2 ions into a stable chemical state and increased the pH of the paper.

While the folios were slightly humidified, old paper repairs, previously held in place with starch or protein glues that have solubilised, were gently removed inch-by-inch. This task is a precise skill, too much tension and original fibres can be disturbed.

Paper folios with pigments are very delicate. Damaged pigment layers were secured using a dilute cellulose ether consolidant. Using magnification, it was applied locally to the affected areas using a thin brush or with a nebuliser as an aerosol.

Removing discolouration from paper with colours is a delicate and precise treatment. The sheets cannot be treated in a bath, as the pigment could be damaged. Instead, moisture was applied to the areas of discolouration using a rigid hydrogel. The gel was made from a polysaccharide derived from seaweed. It was cast into sheets and cut to the size of the stained area. The soluble discolouration diffuses into the gel through capillary action of water.


Tears and losses in the papers were repaired and infilled on a light-box. This transmits the light through the paper, making it easier to see the damaged areas. The folios were then guarded into new sections for a new conservation binding.

Rebinding the manuscript volume was chosen to keep its historic integrity and its place in upright storage of the collection. The new conservation binding structure is a creative and skilled solution for the manuscripts. It has the look of an 18th century binding yet it also has a flexible spine and no adhesive. This means the binding can be easily reversed in the future. The new binding opens flat and this allows easy viewing of the manuscript folios for digitisation.

Though selective conservation treatment, the Heraldic Manuscript Conservation Project reduced the risk of damage to fragile and deteriorated folios. New information gathered during the treatments give greater understanding of these unique cultural items. These valuable manuscripts are now freely available online to researchers world-wide.




The conservation project (2015-2017) was supported by the Department of Heritage, Culture and the Gaeltacht.


Project conservators: Elodie Leveque, Noureen Qureshi, Elizabeth Randell, Claire Dantin.


Heraldic collection conservator: Louise O’Connor


Post by Heraldic collection conservator Louise O’Connor

All organic materials degrade. Historic manuscripts are handmade, unique artefacts combining parchment, paper, animal glues, pigments, inks, threads and leather. Unless left untouched in an oxygen free environment, these components may lose strength, discolour and can fall apart!

Treating unique and degraded manuscripts can be a key part of a digitisation project. Over the last 4 years, in a project  supported by the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht. the NLI team has been working to make 17th century heraldic manuscripts available for free online. These manuscripts come from the collection of the Office of the Chief Herald. They are part of a tradition of heraldry that originated in the medieval period, to regulate armorial bearings, or “coats of arms”, originally used to identify people on the battlefield and later to attest documents and indicate ownership. For a system of identification to be effective, it requires regulation – the use of the same arms by more than one person would result in confusion. Specialists, known as heralds, were needed to keep the necessary records and advise on all related matters, and this tradition continues at the National Library of Ireland to this day.

As part of this project, conservation treatment of damaged and delicate manuscripts was required to facilitate digital photography. Scientific visual investigation is key to understanding the physical chemical and biological ageing of materials. Let’s take a closer look at manuscripts through the eyes of a conservator:

Heraldic manuscripts with drawing of wyvern (dragon-like creatures) supporters; the binding is tight and hides the drawing (GO MS 31)

A binding is a mechanical object; it should open and close and is the sum of its parts. The heraldic manuscripts were poorly bound or restored (‘rebacked’) with too much protein based adhesives on the spine from the 19th century. Hot animal glue was used for centuries by bookbinders. It has strong adhesive properties, but will quickly degrade; shrinking and crosslinking. This prevents the binding from opening and means that readers can no longer see drawings and script along the inner edge.

Paper is an organic cellulose material. The paper in the heraldic manuscripts dating from the 16th and 17th centuries was hand-made using linen and cotton rags, from items such as old ship sails and old underwear. In fact, wonderful papermakers’ marks, known as watermarks, can be seen in the sheets with transmitted light (images recorded on ‘Watermarks Irish Documents project ‘.

Cellulose is a linear polymer. Acid catalysed hydrolysis of the cellulose polymer causes the polymer chains to break resulting in weak or brittle paper). It also degrades by oxidation, especially if exposed to light or excessive airflow. Oxidation forms carbonyl groups called chromophores which give degraded paper a distinctive yellow colour. Old manuscripts even have a distinctive smell.

Paper is organic and degrades by oxidation and hydrolysis. Dirt particles stick to the paper fibres with weak chemical bonds. (GO MS 19 – before treatment)


The heraldic manuscripts were covered in layers of surface dirt as a result of poor storage in the past. Small dirt particles are held to the uneven surface of paper by weak forces, called Van der Waals forces. Dirt particles can transfer from hands during reading, and airborne particles (i.e. dust) will slowly settle on paper over time. Surface dirt particles are disfiguring and abrasive, and will reduce the pH of the paper and catalyse further chemical degradation.

Purple blotches and brown lines are evidence of mould and water damage on historic paper. (GO MS 85 – before treatment)


Water can damage paper and it is something to which paper conservators working in rainy Ireland are accustomed! As cellulose molecules have many hydroxyl groups, paper has a high affinity for water. This is why water is used in papermaking and paper conservation (more on that later). Yet, it can take paper a long time to dry out and in this lag time (min 48 hours) mould can grow. Mould eats paper, making it fragile (think damp toilet paper) and very difficult to handle. Historic repairs added the some folios in the heraldic manuscripts, though well intentioned, only compound the difficulty in handling.

Iron gall ink canrust’ paper as it degrades. This is a huge problem, as up until the 19th century, ink made from oak galls was very common in Europe. Homemade recipes combined tannins (from crushed galls), iron sulphate (an ancient material known as copperas or green vitriol) and water to varying amounts. However, the ink corrodes with too much sulphuric acid and free iron (2) ions, in high relative humidity (it averages 70-85% in Ireland).

Ink containing iron can be chemically unstable and damage the paper. (GO MS 85)


Iron gall ink corrosion degrades cellulose in stages. Fuzzy ink lines are first noticeable as the iron ions move into the paper. Next the script becomes visible from the back as the iron ions move through the paper. Finally, the ink lines will crack or simple fall out of the paper leaving a lace-like pattern. This leads to loss of valuable text due to significant destruction of the paper along the ink lines.

Colour is an essential element of heraldic art; the use of each colour is symbolic. On manuscripts, ground pigment or dyes were mixed with a water-soluble binder, such as gum arabic and finely applied onto the surface of the paper or parchment. Unlike oil paintings, there is no varnish.

Blue pigment particle loosely held to the paper surface by weak chemical bonds and binder and are easily detached through handling. (GO MS 32)


Colour on paper is very fragile. The pigment particles are loosely held to the paper surface by weak chemicals bonds and a thin binder layer which forms a film. In the Heraldic manuscripts, the colours appear opaque and matt due to a low ratio of binder to pigment or high ‘pigment volume concentration’. Cleavage is the term used to describe the break between the paint layer and the paper substrate.

Under magnification, it’s possible to see damage and loss to the red pigment layer. (GO MS 85 – folio 166)


Repetitive use, like flexing the paper support, results in the loose pigment particles flaking off. Pigment layers can also turn into powder. This can happen from abrasion.By looking at the pigment layers with magnification, conservators can assess the extent of damage.

Pigments can also dramatically change colour due to chemical changes in their structure. White lead is a pigment made from basic lead carbonate, 2PbCO3·Pb(OH)2. It was used for centuries by artists but was so toxic it was eventually banned. White lead was often used to highlight the flesh tones of figures in manuscript illuminations. It reacts with trace amounts of hydrogen sulphide in the air to produce black lead sulphide. This can impact how researchers read these images today.

Blackening of white pigment, possibly lead white, is visible on the face and arm of the woman in this image. (GO MS 31)


Science plays a central role in modern conservation of cultural heritage. By understanding the chemical structure of materials, a conservator can document the condition and potential degradation of historic objects. Have you enjoyed taking a closer look at the heraldic manuscripts through the eyes of a conservator? Find out more on how science helps the treatment of delicate and damaged manuscripts in our next blog post.


by Maria Ryan, Web Archivist.

This week marks six years since the National Library of Ireland (NLI) began collecting and archiving websites. It is also six years since the 2011 General Election and furthermore, a year has passed since the 2016 General Election. Given our longstanding tradition of collecting political material, it was natural that the NLI would begin to collect online election material.

The NLI’s collections are full of wonderful election ephemera. This includes election posters, pamphlets and leaflets, all of which are still being collected to this day. For example, take a look at this notice of results of a County Tipperary election from 1830.

The library is also home to the personal papers of many leading Irish political figures. These fascinating collections include those of Daniel O’ Connell, Erskine Childers and Douglas Hyde, to name but a few.  These papers are available for consultation in the Special Collections reading room in 2-3 Kildare Street and offer invaluable insight into the lives of some of Ireland’s leading politicians.

Erskine Childers


Douglas Hyde

In 2011, we embarked on our first thematic web archive collection which collected the online representation of GE2011. The election was scheduled for Friday the 25th of February and in total one hundred websites were selected for inclusion in the collection. These sites were crawled both before and after the election and included cross party, nationwide candidates’ websites. Party websites along with commentary websites and blogs were also included. A more detailed breakdown of how the various candidate websites/social media accounts were selected for inclusion in both General Election web archive collections can be found here. Websites like the official government news site were also archived.

Here’s a breakdown of the type of websites that were collected.

Last year, with the aim of recording GE2016, we embarked on our largest election collection to date. Like GE2011, this collection includes cross party, nationwide candidates websites which were collected on dates before and after the election. Twitter accounts were also captured which reflects the growing part social media plays in Irish elections. The Twitter accounts of the ten candidates for GE2016 which had the greatest number of followers were also selected for archiving.

Here’s a breakdown of the sites collected.

With both GE11 and GE16, we contacted a number of academics with a known interest in this area, with a view to obtaining recommendations of websites to archive and we were thrilled with the level of response.

Follow the link to read more about these individual collections.

The political collection included in the web archive allows researchers to analyse the online representation of Irish elections since 2011. Every election and referendum held in Ireland since 2011 has been archived and is available for researchers to use, free of charge, anywhere in the world. In addition, the NLI collects continuously on ongoing political events that relate to Ireland such as Brexit. The NLI collected a number of sites relating to Brexit last year and will do so again this year.

The nature of political websites and social media accounts mean that they are at high risk of loss and deletion. The NLI’s web archive protects and preserves this vital data for future generations of researchers.  Follow the link for more information on the web archive and to access our collections.

Above website from 2011 and below from 2016.