Conserving a rare copy of the first-ever “Friend”
When a rare and precious copy of the first-ever “Friend” needed a little TLC, archive conservator Emma Fraser was called in. Alex Corlett finds out more.
EMMA FRASER is a book and archive conservator, and she is rather special. In fact, there are only a few of her kind in the whole of Scotland! Emma worked for 11 years at Dundee university before setting up on her own.
It was 2012, and her first client was none other than D.C. Thomson, asking her to take a look at the first edition of “The Courier” – Dundee’s local newspaper.
Emma set up shop in a top-floor flat in Dundee city centre. It was the former studio of an artist, and when Emma moved in she had to add some creature comforts like secondary glazing and heating to make it comfortable as a working and living space.
Before she knew it, she had a long list of clients knocking at her door.
The few tools of her trade are held on magnetic strips on the walls for easy access. Emma says they’ve spent so much time on the strips that they’re now magnetic themselves, and tend to move towards each other and stick together when they’re on her desk.
With the “Friend”, as with everything else, Emma’s first task when starting a project is to take photos of the objects.
“In case anything goes wrong – and just to keep a record of what has changed and what has been adapted.
“I have special insurance! I pay quite a lot of money eeach year to insure the oobjects that are in the studio, insure my work and – as I also teach – anyone who’s working with me.”
Much of Emma’s work sees her in the studio, but as we spoke she was about to start a project over at Dundee’s V&A museum.
“If I had to collect it and bring it here, I’d have to be insured to transport it, which is a whole other thing!”
Having worked on artefacts stretching back to mediaeval times, were our neatly bound back issues an easier proposition for her?
“The ‘Friend’ wasn’t so bad because of its age. By the nineteenth century almost all paper was made by machine – and almost all with wood pulp. The problem is that wood pulp is acidic and it needs quite a lot of treatment.
“It becomes very brittle and is really hard to repair because you will fix it and it breaks somewhere else.
“That is particularly true of all the ‘Beano’ stuff, too. It involved a really long process of washing, whereas that first ‘Friend’ wasn’t bad at all.
“I spend most of my time undoing other people’s good intentions. The ‘Friend’ issue had a big Sellotape repair, which I removed.
“What happens with adhesive tapes is that the plastic stuff that carries the adhesive will come away and you are left with a stain.”
Emma explains how she painstakingly removes old tape with a tiny spatula, sometimes heating up the tape to reactivate the adhesive and loosen it.
All of this work had to be done with the issue still inside the bound volume,
Only three copies of the first issue of the “Friend” are known to exist. But we’re delighted to announce that a complete replica copy of January 13, 1869 will be included with Special 169. It’s on sale from January 23, priced £3.99!
as to have undone it would have been a massive job.
Also not on Emma’s to-do list is filling in lost words or gaps in the page. That’s the work of a restorer, not a conservator.
“You are trying to keep as much of the original as possible, but stop it getting worse. We have a code of ethics that all conservators work to, one part of which is that you have to make sure that everything you do can be reversed.
“In some cases it is stretching it a bit. We do mechanical cleaning before we do anything – you can’t really reverse that. You can’t put the dirt back!”
Knowing the breadth of projects Emma works on, I’m curious to know what else she’s got on the go. Suddenly it all gets a bit secret agent.
“A lot of it you can’t talk about! I can tell you about what kind of people I work for, but not much more than that. It’s a security issue, more than anything else.”
Emma tells me she is bound by confidentiality agreements, but without naming names, she shares the story of work she’s doing on some firedamaged volumes.
“There was so much that was damaged that they needed to prevent it getting any worse until they could get to it, so they blast freeze it.
“Wrap it in a polythene bag, basically, seal it, freeze it and keep it that way until they need to work on it.
“Then they blast dry it so quickly that all the water is taken out, then it comes to me for work.”
Even though it needs a lot of love, time and attention, the interesting thing is that now – a number of years into the digital era – people are discovering that paper is still one of the best ways of storing things.
“Some of us have known that all along,” Emma says wryly.
The floppy disks and zip drives that folk rushed to store things on to save for the future no longer have any machines around that can read them.
“All the work from my Master’s degree is on a floppy disk, and I don’t know if I’ll ever get to see it again. Paper is going to be around for a while!”
Well, that suits us just fine, and it looks like Emma, too, will be busy for the foreseeable future. ■
Emma’s skills extend to working with silver.
Traditional, heavyduty book press.
A lot of Emma’s work is top secret!
The magnificent magnetised tools.