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Blantyre Works Library Rehousing Project - Creating Book Sleeves

Reading Time 3 minutes and 30 seconds
Date 13 June 2020

Principles of the Scottish Enlightenment, namely that one’s moral character could be improved through education, was a key factor in establishing the Blantyre Cotton Works’ library in 1846. Known as the Blantyre Works Library, workers (men, women and children) could access books in exchange for an annual subscription fee. All that remains of the Blantyre Cotton Works today is the tenement, Shuttle Row, where David Livingstone was born and where the Museum now resides.


It wasn’t until the decant of the Museum ahead of renovation works, that the surviving collection of 280 Works Library books were rediscovered. The remaining 19th-century titles – from a library likely to have been home to thousands of books – had weathered the passage of time. Repeated use from hundreds of readers as well as inadequate storage conditions had taken their toll. Dirty with loose boards, tatty covers and flaky spines, the books were too fragile for display. Access to the collection had been extremely limited in the Museum’s old store leaving the Library’s existence and its significance within Blantyre’s social and industrial heritage, largely unknown to Museum visitors.

In a separate project, Digitising the Blantyre Works Library (funded by Museums Galleries Scotland), a selection of books were digitised by Museum staff and volunteers. This led to further work being undertaken on the Works Library collection. In late 2019, a small team of conservators and technicians began creating customised sleeves to safeguard the books from further damage.

After a series of trials trying different approaches, the team agreed that a folding card structure was the best method considering the resources and time available to the project. The books were brought out of the Museum stores in small batches. Conservators would begin by carefully taking the book’s measurements. This information was recorded and used to calculate appropriate margins before creating a four-flap enclosure. Difficulties arose with books that had loose boards or spines, and those with inconsistent measurements caused by repeated handling over the years had altered the book’s shape and dimensions. Often a book’s opening could measure 1mm or 2mm larger than the height at the spine. It was important to account for these discrepancies to create a sleeve that would fit. However, the team also had to be mindful not to construct one that would be too roomy either as any movement inside the sleeve, which left sections of the book unsupported, could result in further deterioration. Occasionally, books with irregularities or significant damage were tied together using unbleached cotton tying tape before being enclosed in a sleeve. Ties were knotted along the book’s opening to prevent pressure on the cover and spine.

Satisfied that we had the correct dimensions, a template was then drawn out onto acid-free paper using rulers and 2HB graphite pencils. Once completed, they were cut out by scalpel on top of a self-healing cutting mat. Still using the drawn lines as guides, a bone folder was used to score the paper, creating neat folds. These guides were removed by an eraser before the paper (now shaped like a rocket) was folded around the book to make the sleeve. Provided there were no issues, the tailor-made cover was then labelled in pencil using the book’s catalogue number, title, author and date. Measurements were inputted into the Museum’s catalogue system (MODES) before the sleeved books were carefully packed horizontally on top of one another in conservation-friendly boxes. By packing them this way, rather than vertically, there is little pressure on the books’ spines and binding structure. In addition to this, acid-free buffering paper lined the boxes to minimise movement when being handled.

Such preventive measures of customised sleeves provide physical protection from the main deteriorating factors in museum storage: dust, pests, handling, light damage and abrasion when they are stored book to book. Covers also afford some additional protection for fluctuations in humidity. However, to ensure the long term survival of this collection, more invasive measures are needed. Each volume requires substantial remedial treatment by a books conservator which can hopefully take place in the future when more funds become available.

Even though it was set up after Livingstone’s time working at the Blantyre Cotton Works, the Library gives a unique insight into the Enlightened mentality of the Works’ owners and the literary taste of the workers. The Library’s foundation very much built on the existing education provision and access to books which Livingstone enjoyed while working in the mill. Visitors will be able to learn more about the Works Library and see some of the collection in the newly refurbished Museum.

Also see more postings at in the David Livingstone Birthplace Project Blog.

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Blantyre Works Library Rehousing Project - Creating Book Sleeves



National Lottery Heritage Fund
Scottish Government
Historic Environment Scotland