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Conservation Projects

Conservation of ‘MS 119’
Letters Principally of Foreign Reformers.

Loose or bound?


MS 119 contains a series of 16th century correspondence between significant figures of the European Reformation. The collection includes correspondence from many of the most famous people of the era, such as Anne Boleyn, Edward VI and Erasmus. The letters cover many subjects, and occasionally offers intimate insights into the lives of the writers, such as with the autograph letter of Edward VI to Catherine Parr and the autograph letter of Anne Boleyn to her father, Sir Thomas Boleyn.

Letters and loose items like pamphlets, cards or notes, are often gathered and bound together in Library collections, for storage or for collecting purposes. The conservation of these type of miscellaneous items present serious and problematic ethical and practical concerns when performing interventive treatment.

This specific collection, stored at the Parker Library, came to the Consortium conservation studio for repairs due to the failure of its unsympathetic 20th century binding.

The aim of the work was to improve the housing and guarantee the safe handling of the object when consulted.


The guarded volume with wedge shaped book-block and loose sections. 

The letters were bound within a late 20th century guard-book sewn on five unevenly distributed, single cord supports. The book was quarter bound, with an orange tanned leather spine, and recycled 19th century parchment covering the rest of the boards.

The binding was poorly executed, and was failing at various points. We could also see that the movement of the pages and their guards caused strain between the two substrates, with tears and losses occurring close to the join. Further to this, we were able to ascertain from physical evidence within the binding, discussed below, that the present enclosure was the second or possibly third binding that had been used to house these items.

The inadequacy of the existing housing provided an opportunity to propose a substantive alteration of the object. Was this an opportunity to return the letters back to their loose ‘original’ status, or re-bind them within a volume as they were when arrived to the studio? The dilemma of how to treat the item centred around whether the letters had a historical context in their bound form, and if a method of protecting them whilst bound, was possible.

The letters within the binding are annotated at the head corner in red pencil, characteristic of annotations made by scholars working with Matthew Parker, and Matthew Parker himself. This fact, alongside other historical records indicate that these letters were collected and bound into a volume following a scheme that Mathew Parker may have commissioned; consequently the binding of the letters had a historical significance within the object. Whilst the original binding was now lost, the bound state of the letters expressed a link between them and the Parker Library.

The guards within the binding were varied in character and date, some of the sheets were guarded or had joint repairs at the fold made of reused 15th and 16th century manuscript documents. The guarding and repairs made to the letters constructed sections within the binding, orientating and sequencing the material. Some of the guards had accretions of adhesive and tanned leather on the outer folds, these appeared to be remnants from an earlier tight-back binding.


On the left, reused strip of parchment manuscript document (red outline) adhered onto the fold with various other paper repairs stuck onto the tail edge of the sheet (yellow rows) and on the right remnants of tanned leather still attached to the outer face of the fold.

A second type of guards and joint repairs, made with machine-made paper showed that the book had also been repaired, guarded and placed into sequences more recently. It showed that alterations to the original binding had occurred in a second binding campaign, which may have also been distinct from the present 20th century construction.

Many more layered paper repairs marred the pages, especially at the joints. Some of these repairs were made using heavy Western papers adhered with animal glue, and may have been historically significant, whilst others were obviously very recent, and had been made with pressure-sensitive tape.


Pages joined together by various repairs/guard made with different materials from different restoration campaigns.

To help comprehend the complex structure of the binding, and the layers of repair, very thorough diagrams of the arrangement and sequence of the sections were drawn as part of the conservation treatment record. Colours were assigned to material types, and distinctions were made to indicate substrates of the object, or the repairs applied to them.

Diagram of section 3

After consultation with the Librarians at the Parker Library, it was decided to only conduct essential repairs to the letters, and leave historical repairs in place. The binding would be removed and the letters would be re-housed using a fascicule system.

A fascicule is a well-established method of rebinding that allows diverse material to be collated within a uniform structure of blank sheets of paper. The fascicule guards loose material within a binding but provides greater support to the material enclosed (see note at foot). This method of repair and rehousing was found to be a suitable compromise between the bound and the loose options. A solution not only improving accessibility of the collection by facilitating possible future loans and exhibition of specific letters, but also increasing the safety of the historical precious documents during consultation reducing direct handling of the letters when turning the pages.

Eight blank fascicules, each composed of 12 single sheets and 3 bifolia plus a limp paper cover were prepared. Into which, the treated material would be incorporated.

Diagram of a fascicule made of bifolia and single sheets with stubs plus the cover and sewing.

The letters were removed from the guard-book within their existing sections. The binding cover, along with its guards was removed and housed separately. In treatment, only the pressure-sensitive tape repairs were consistently removed, the majority of the other repairs to the letters were stable, and did not cause major distortions or impair clarity were left in situ. Tear repairs were carried out throughout using Japanese tissue and wheat-starch paste (WSP).

It was also decided to not try to recreate gatherings where sheets or bifolia became detached when the modern adhesive tape used as joint repair was removed. Single loose sheets were secured to the blank fascicule pages with Japanese paper hinges adhered with WSP and sections were sewn to guards created by folding pages of the fascicule. In certain instances pages were also removed from the fascicule structure before and after the guarded section to compensate for the bulk of the inserted sections, and to avoid swelling and a recreation of the wedge-like formation of the previous binding.

Diagram of fascicule with hinged single sheet on the left and guarded section on the right.

The housed letters within the fascicule (Guarded gathering)

Each fascicules was numbered and labelled to indicate the correct order. This ensured the historic foliation would remain coherent. The fascicules were then housed within two drop-spine boxes and labelled with gold foil blocked shelfmarks.

The fascicules housed within their drop-spine boxes

[i] For more information on fascicules see Helen Lindsay and Christopher Clarkson, ‘Housing single sheet material: The development of the fasciculing system at the Bodleian Library’, The Paper Conservator 18 (1994) 40–48


A brief outline of one of the projects currently being undertaken by the Cambridge Colleges' Conservation Consortium