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 (II) 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.




by Maria Ryan (2016 Web Archivist)

Since our last blog, we have successfully completed four major crawls for our project “Remembering 1916, Recording 2016”. That’s almost 280 more websites for our 2016 web archive.  In our last blog, I said I would take you through how we archive the web, our main processes and how we present our archived websites to our users.

There are four main stages in the web archiving process. First up is the selection process. The National Library undertakes thematic crawls, which is to say we crawl websites according to certain subjects or topics of relevance to our collection development policy. This year, as you know from our previous blog, we are capturing and preserving Irish websites and websites of Irish interest on the 100th anniversary of 1916 and the key events of that year, in particular the 1916 Rising and the Battle of the Somme. We choose websites that reflect Ireland in 2016 and that will tell the story of this year to future generations. This year, we looked firstly to the official commemoration programme, identifying the key events and who was involved. Some examples of these websites include government departments, local history groups, cultural institutions and events organised by the Irish diaspora. In addition to those websites we identified we also collaborated with over 70 experts. These included local historians, relatives of those involved in the Easter Rising and also professionals from libraries, archives, museums and galleries. We also engaged with all levels of the education sector from primary to post-primary and third level. We received significant input from historians and also experts from other fields including political studies, music, the Irish language, English, drama and theatre studies and digital humanities. We received over 130 suggestions in total and these helped us build an inclusive and wide ranging web archive. Later in the year, we will be asking your opinion on what websites you feel reflected this centenary year.


We were delighted to archive the ICA‘s website. For this centenary year, they organised a  special commemorative event that was held in March. The National Library of Ireland also holds their archive; it is wonderful to bring the physical and the digital together.

The next step is to seek permission from the website owner, outlining our project and what we hope to achieve. We have received an overwhelmingly positive response this year. Many of those who we contacted recognised the need for such an archive in Ireland and were thrilled to have their work captured and preserved in the National Library of Ireland for many generations to come.


1916 Sackville Street is an inspiring project that we are thrilled to have in our web archive.  It remembers and reflects on the many civilians who lost their lives during Easter Week.

Our technical partners, the Internet Memory Foundation carry out the web crawls on our behalf. We schedule a time and date for crawling with them and provide them with the list of websites we wish to archive. Once the crawl is carried out, they assess the archived version of the website from the point of view of quality assurance. We also participate in quality assurance, checking how the archived copy of the site looks and feels. A copy never behaves exactly like the live version, but we aim to get as close as possible. We receive regular copies of our archived data from IMF to ensure the digital preservation of these websites.


Search our A-Z list of websites we have archived to date.

Finally and most importantly, we provide online access to the web archive. The wonderful thing about the web archive is that it is freely available to anyone, anywhere in the world. It is important to us in the National Library of Ireland to make available to our users as much as we can for those who cannot visit us in person. You can search our online catalogue, or browse our A-Z list of websites captured and find out more about our different collections in our web archive.   We want everyone to use and enjoy our web archive, whether you are studying history, politics, are a teacher or a lecturer, or you just fancy a snoop through the websites of yesterday.  Websites collected and archived this year will be going live throughout the year; you can keep up to date with our web archiving activities on Twitter and Facebook. You can also join us in person in the National Library, as part of our Heritage Week programme, on August 23rd when we discuss web archiving in more detail. For more details, please visit our website.

Maria Ryan

2016 Web Archivist

Digital Collections