Conservation of maps by John Speed in the Russell Library.

The Russell Library used to have vibrant seventeenth century maps by John Speed on the end of the bays, remember? Possibly not. They had become part of the furniture with visitors regularly walking pasted without fully appreciating that these beautiful hand-tinted maps were originals. This one case highlighted a number of questions we routinely see in conservation. 

Most of the collections of St Patrick’s college are on open shelves in the Russell Library, so why were the maps a cause for concern? There are multiple ways that the environment in the Russell library is monitored. We have data-loggers strategically placed around the reading room to capture the temperature and relative humidity, blunder traps to catch pests and blinds to block out the UV rays. However, whilst ultra violet (UV) is the more dangerous end of the spectrum, all light causes fading. We try to quantify this by using blue wool ‘textile fading cards’. These fade at a standardised rate so we can see the cumulative damage of the light over a set period. As hand-tinted areas of the maps are particularly susceptible to fade, the risk of damage caused by their long-term display was high.  

Removing maps from the wall. From left: map of Ulster in situ at end of bay, removed maps on reading room table, edge of map wrapped around glass and damage to edge of map from nails and oxidation.


To get a more thorough look, the maps were removed from the ends of the bay and taken down to the conservation studio. The frames were comprised of two sheets of glass pinned into a wooden surround, making them very heavy. Some of the maps showed signs of oxidation where the by-products of deterioration could not escape the glazed microcosm, allowing the paper to yellow and become brittle.  

The edges also suffered because of this enclosure, especially were the maps were folded around the glass and left in direct contact with the wooden frame. Wood is a mixture of cellulose and lignin. Lignin is three-dimensional and binds the cellulose together, it ‘gives woody plants their physical strength’1 but is removed from reasonable quality papers. The main exception is newspaper (and this is why it yellows quickly if left in the sun). Produced cheaply, it removes the step of de-lignification and is therefore prone to oxidation. The unvarnished wood on the inside of the frame is probably what caused the edges of the speed map to discolour. 

All four maps before treatment. From left: Province of Connaugh, Leinster, Mounster and Ulster.


The condition of the maps were initially surveyed and photographed. It is important to record the original condition for documentation. Then the methodology and scale of intervention by conservators is fully explained in the treatment report. The recommended treatment was to wash, remove historic repairs and consolidate with lightweight Japanese paper and wheatstarch paste. 

Before any of this can start, tests are carried out to establish the solubility of the coloured washes and acidity of the paper. Each colour is tested and none indicated that they would move if submerged in water. The paper was slightly acidic and so washing would have the combined benefit of lowering the acidity and removing ingrained dirt and reactivating the adhesive from the historic repairs. I kept the maps in the bath for almost an hour in total but refreshing the de-ionised water twice. When the maps are wet, it crucial that the maps are properly supported as they are being moved and thoroughly dried to avoid mould growth or cockling. After this, the tears and losses could be repaired. 

Treatment of Leinster. From left: blotting paper to test solubility of colours, washing map, repair to top edge and map before rehousing in acid-free mount board.

Storage and Accessibility: 

The maps will stored in individual acid free mounts and a custom-made, boxboard enclosure. They will only be exposed to light for approved reader access. The Russell library will be decorated instead with high quality reproductions of the map.  

The need for interventive treatment is based on the condition of the material and future access or use. However, conservation as a whole also requires a comprehensive approach to preservation, display, environment, storage and rehousing which were incorporated in this project. 

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