STEPPING BACK IN TIME: Conservation charity reveals challenges of historic books

Ahead of World Book Day last week, conservation charity the National Trust offered a behind-the-scenes insight into how the team at Florence Court care for the prized collection of 1,400 books at Florence Court in Co Fermanagh.

Saturday, 13th March 2021, 9:00 am
The Cole family bible. Picture: National Trust Images
The Cole family bible. Picture: National Trust Images

Collections assistant Heather Hamilton began working for the trust in 1987 and knows a thing or two about spring cleaning. She plays a key role in the house and collections team, caring for thousands of precious items housed at Florence Court in Co Fermanagh. Among these treasures is a collection of 1,400 books which are kept in the library and drawing room of this historic estate.

“Various members of the family added to the book collection here over the years,” Heather explains.

“Most notably, during the 19 century the 3rd Earl of Enniskillen became an avid collector of natural history books and Charlotte the 4th Countess of Enniskillen collected many books on flowers and gardening.”

The library at the National Trrust's Florence Court, Co Fermanagh. Picture: National Trust Images

Each spring, Heather and the team, supported by a group of volunteers, set to work cleaning and cataloguing every single book in the collection,

“All of our books are stored on shelves in the library and drawing room.

“Inventory checks are carried out using the trust’s collections management system and book cleaning is done throughout the season, mostly by a group of volunteers.

Each book takes roughly twenty minutes to check, clean and catalogue, but this varies depending on size, condition and fragility.

Heather Hamilton explained: “My favourite book in the collection is L’Histoire Naturelle L’Ornithologie des Oiseaux. This is a beautifully illustrated book with hand painted birds. The book was published in Paris in 1767 and even over 250 years later, the colours are still brilliant.” Picture: National Trust Images

Heather continues: “We use a variety of tools of the trade including nitrile gloves, masks (to prevent inhalation of any mould spores), HEPA filter vacuum, and a range of specialised brushes. We also prepare the work area, so the book is protected from any further damage, this includes sheeting the surface, and resting the books on bespoke supports during cleaning.

“The books are regularly checked for mould, bugs, woodworm and so on. We don’t thankfully have any bug infestations, but mould can be a problem at times. It is removed with care using a pony-hair brush, while wearing a mask and brushing into a box with a museum vacuum attached.”

During the 2019 season the team held book cleaning sessions most Fridays during the open season, with Heather continuing the cleaning when the house was closed.

“Pre-covid we would often have used these sessions for conservation in action, allowing the public to see how we care for our collections,” she explains.

“Currently Florence Court is closed to the public following government guidance, but we’re very much looking forward to being able to open our doors again, allowing visitors to see the work that we do caring for this special place.

During her years working with the trust Heather has got to know the books intimately and has a personal favourite: “My favourite book in the collection is L’Histoire Naturelle L’Ornithologie des Oiseaux. This is a beautifully illustrated book with hand painted birds. The book was published in Paris in 1767 and even over 250 years later, the colours are still brilliant.”

Once the house reopens the prized book collection will be on public view by guided tour.

Visitors will have the chance to view the impressive library that contains a number of special items, some of which date back to the sixteenth and seventh century including Sylva by John Evelyn, The Morall Law Expounded by Lancelot Andrewes, Respublica Hollandiæ et urbes by Hugo Grotius and the family bible which holds records of births, marriages and deaths.

For more information on Florence Court and it’s collections visit www.nationaltrust.org.uk/florence-court.