Book Conservation at Sissinghurst Castle

The Long Library at Sissinghurst Castle. Picture by NTPL/John Hammond.
The Long Library at Sissinghurst Castle. Picture by NTPL/John Hammond.

Sissinghurst Castle Garden is home to around 11,000 books, making it the fourth largest book collection in the National Trust, and one of the most significant in-situ twentieth century libraries in the UK.

Vita Sackville-West (9 March 1892 – 2 June 1962) and Sir Harold Nicolson (21 November 1886 – 1 May 1968) are two of the most biographised figures of modern times, and their respective literary and political careers, their unconventional marriage and their garden have been discussed in print in considerable detail. Although Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson were never serious collectors, they were regular reviewers of books; reading was part of their everyday lives. The library is rich in personal character through the owners’ annotations, and the provenance inscriptions of family, friends and a wide range of interesting cultural figures. Additional material inserted in the books adds further interest. Items like letters, photographs and notes give us a vivid sense of their history and use.

Letters and other ephemera were stored in the books.
Letters and other ephemera that are stored in the books.

The National Trust took ownership of the entire book collection in 2008, when a condition survey undertaken by the National Trust’s Library Conservation Advisor, Caroline Bendix, noted some serious damage.

Then in 2012, whilst book cataloguing, Harvey James discovered that a US first edition of Emily Dickinson had been lost to silverfish, prompting a more in depth condition survey. As the library largely consists of twentieth century case bindings, the books are intrinsically weak showing clear signs of the effect of gravity and high relative humidity.

Picture 9

If a book stands on a shelf, whether used or not, gravity continues to put strain on the spine causing significant damage. Initially the book becomes convex at the tail of the spine and concave at the head, then the joints split and the boards eventually become detached. Twentieth century books are particularly prone to this, as they are generally mass produced, made using inferior quality materials.

The conservation will take place in the Long Library, with visitors able to see preservation and maintenance on a daily basis on books which are not normally on display. A large proportion of the work being undertaken happens in the library during the months of March and October.

A range of different specialist skills will be used including bookshoe technology, repairing torn dust wrappers and damaged leaves with European handmade papers and Japanese tissues, sympathetic adhesive binding repair and preparing textblocks to protect against gravity. The aim is to stabilise the books so that they can be handled and used in the future without risk of damage.

Picture 12

Bookshoes are being used to preserve the books.
Bookshoes are being used to preserve the books.

Book Conservation at Sissinghurst Castle
October and March until spring 2016
National Trust – SIssinghust Castle
Biddenden Road, near Cranbrook, Kent, TN17 2AB, UK


Have your say