I am the Library’s Exhibitions Conservator and some people might say I have the best job in the Library, travelling the globe and taking our collections with me, to let the rest of the world see what we have here in the National Library of Scotland.
A recent trip couriering items to Rome – the Eternal City – whose history makes those of most cities pale into insignificance, was a real treat. This was the second time the Library had lent items to Keats Shelley House, which sits at the bottom of the Spanish Steps in Piazza di Spagna and is dedicated to John Keats and Percy Shelley. We had previously struck up a real bond with the organisation and its curator, Giuseppe Albano, so we were pleased to be able to help with their ‘Illuminating Poetry’ exhibition.
So what’s involved in couriering collection items to other places? On the face of it the task might seem quite simple: bring together the items requested, pack them, book the flights and you’re off!
However, the reality is somewhat different: it takes a massive team effort to ensure that our collections reach and return from their destination in the safest and most economical way, and the planning for a trip typically starts months in advance of the exhibition’s opening.
The process begins with an enquiry from the potential borrower; most requests come to our registrar or to one of our curators. There is a lot of paperwork to be completed, starting with assessments which allow us to value the items for insurance, and, from my conservation perspective, include checks of whether the items are in good enough condition to travel and be displayed, or whether conservation treatments are needed first. Additionally, details about the venue are obtained, and I check the nature of the building our items are going to, the type of cases to be used, and most importantly, the security arrangements in place.
The digital age has helped enormously with the loans process: email attachments allow me to examine conditions in advance better than any written description, and decide if the loan can go ahead. Assuming all is well, the registrar will start the loan agreement process with the borrower.
Once the loan is agreed, any conservation work required will be undertaken; next, all items are digitised, since it is the Library’s policy to make copies of items before they are lent. I also discuss the style of the display with the borrower, and agree upon the mounts and stands that will be required to display the items safely, which for books will depend upon their size and weight.
With regards to display considerations, Keats Shelley House posed a challenge because their case is wall mounted and very shallow, meaning that the positioning of the books had to be considered carefully to ensure they would fit inside. On the plus side, environmental conditions were not a concern because the case has a built in humidifier.
The borrower will often provide their own display stands, but for the loan to Keats Shelley House it had been agreed that we would make them in our Edinburgh workshop. Given the shallowness of the case we had decided to display the volumes at 80°, which was safe for the books we were lending but would not always be possible, because the stress created would be too great for weak book joints.
We were also lucky in that no conservation work was needed, but this didn’t mean they could be sent to the borrower without any further work. As for all loans, I completed condition reports with text and images describing each item in detail. These reports were signed off before books left the Library, and will be checked again when I return to collect the loan to ensure there have been no visual changes to the items.
With so much planning and preparation, it is unlikely that items will suffer damage or deterioration while on display. However, it is always the responsibility of the borrower to let us know if problems arise during the loan period, and we often request regular reports from their environmental monitoring system, in order to check that the temperature, relative humidity and light levels remain within our target bands.
The final stage of preparations is to decide the safest and most economical way to take the loan items to their destination, and this is organised by the Library’s registrar. Items may be couriered by car, van, train or plane, either by ourselves or using a professional transportation company. Journeys on planes and trains are usually done in business class, but for the journey from Edinburgh to Rome this would have meant a change at Heathrow, which we wanted to avoid if possible. We therefore decided to flight direct with a low cost airline, using their priority boarding service, and this worked well.
As a courier it’s my job when travelling to make sure the case containing the collection items is safe and secure at all times, which even means taking it with me when I go to the loo! On the aircraft the case has its own seat or is placed under the seat in front of me, and I prefer to be in a window seat to keep the case well away from accidental knocks or spillages of food and drink. We usually ask the borrower to provide transport from the station or airport to the venue, so for the trip to Rome I was met by someone from Keats Shelley House and taken directly there in a taxi.
In conclusion, I hope it has become evident that for all courier trips, whether it be to Rome or to Rothesay, the same amount of care and attention is given to our collections from a very professional team, consisting of the registrar, the curators, the conservators, the digitisation staff, the staff who process the travel bookings, and not least, myself!