Blantyre Works Library Rehousing Project - Creating Book Sleeves

Reading Time 3 minutes and 20 seconds
Date 13 June 2020

One of the main principles of the Scottish Enlightenment, namely that one’s moral character could be improved through education, was a key factor in establishment of 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 dedicated to his life and legacy 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 sadly deteriorated over time. Repeated use from hundreds of readers over many years, as well as inadequate storage conditions have taken their toll. Heavily soiled, with disintegrating bindings, loose boards, tatty covers and flaking spines, the books were too fragile for display. Access to the collection had been extremely limited in the museum’s old store facility, leaving the Library’s existence and its significance within Blantyre’s social and industrial heritage, largely unknown to museum visitors.

Today, the collection belonging to the David Livingstone Birthplace contains many of the books that once made up the Blantyre Cotton Works’ Library. This library gave the Mill workers the opportunity to receive an education, not a common occurrence in those times. Access to education provided workers with an opportunity to improve their literacy and numeracy skills, which in turn, expanded a worker’s employment opportunities and their ability to provide for their family. In addition, education also gave them a better understanding of the world around them.

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 and deterioration.

After experimenting with various conservation methods and techniques, the team developed an effective process to create a card structure that they could then use to protect the books from further damage and deterioration, which is detailed below.

This process was as follows:

1. Conservators would begin by carefully taking the book’s measurements, with this information being used to calculate appropriate margins before creating a four-flap enclosure.

2. From these measurements, a template was then drawn out onto acid-free paper using rulers and 2HB graphite pencils, which would then be cut out by scalpel on top of a self-healing cutting mat.

3. A bone folder was then used to score the paper, creating neat folds. These guides would then be removed by an eraser before the paper (now shaped like a rocket) was folded around the book to make the sleeve.

4. The new tailor-made cover was then labelled in pencil using the book’s catalogue number, title, author and date, with these measurements also being added into the Museum’s collections database system (MODES).

5. The sleeved books were then carefully packed horizontally on top of one another in conservation-friendly boxes. Packing them this way, rather than vertically, ensured that there was 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.

The creation of these customised sleeves, provided physical protection from the main deteriorating factors in museum storage: dust, pests, handling, light 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 specialist book 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 former Library collection provides us with a fascinating 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 provision of education 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.

Blantyre Works Library Rehousing Project R2
Blantyre Works Library Rehousing Project - Creating Book Sleeves



We are very grateful to our key funders the National Lottery Heritage Fund, Historic Environment Scotland and the Scottish Government for their support in helping us deliver the Birthplace Project.

National Lottery Heritage Fund
Scottish Government
Historic Environment Scotland
Note: Please note that David Livingstone Birthplace (and the David Livingstone Trust) is no longer part of National Trust Scotland (NTS). NTS members will therefore no longer receive discounted/free entry to the Birthplace Museum.

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