Refurbishing the library at St Paul's Cathedral allowed audit and conservation work to take place. Photo: St Paul's Cathedral

Opportunities in store

Jasper Hart, 15.10.2018
The benefits of decanting a collection for a capital project

Museum stores tend to house the vast majority of an institution’s collections, so the decision to move them, even temporarily, is not taken lightly. 

St Paul’s Cathedral Library is undergoing a temporary decant of its collection while its library undergoes a refurbishment to improve the environment for its books. Its collections team is in the enviable position that the library has always existed with book storage in mind. It also stopped collecting books in the late-19th century, so there is no need to expand existing storage space. Current storage projects elsewhere, such as at Paisley Museum and Doncaster Central Library, have involved the building of entirely new collection centres, but St Paul’s has avoided this.

This is the first time since the second world war that St Paul’s has moved its entire collection out of the library. Back then, the collection was transported to Wales. 

“The books were transported in three lorries,” says Simon Carter, the head of collections at St Paul’s. “The drivers stayed the night in a pub on the way – it was a slightly more relaxed approach.” 

Since then, professional storage companies such as Bruynzeel and Link 51 have carved out reputations as experts in the museum sector. In the case of St Paul’s, the site of choice is a former RAF base at Upper Heyford called Restore. However, the process of packing the books was done largely by freelance paper and book conservators.

“We had to look at options to find various places, but Upper Heyford was the closest, and the conservator in our team looked at the conditions so that we were happy where we were going,” says Carter.

The aim of refurbishing the library is to give the collections a more accessible and environmentally better-controlled space – made possible by electronic racking, more visible display cases, blinds and air tightness measures – but it has served a dual purpose, allowing conservation and auditing to take place.

As part of the project planning stage, a National Preservation Office survey of the library found that 98% of the library’s 12,000 books needed cleaning simply to remove excess dust, which can get ingrained into pages. 

“Having cleaning as part of the packing process was essential, so just doing that has made a huge difference for when the books come back and the rooms have been cleaned,” says Carter. More positively, only two books were found to have mould on them.

The Museums Association is running Open Up: Making More of Stored Collections at the British Museum on 3 December, exploring new approaches to designing and utilising museum stores. Click here for more.

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