Eneas MacDonnell Letters for Conservation

The Russell Library undertook a re-housing project for a collection of letters written to Eneas MacDonnell (1783-1858), who was Parliamentary Agent in London for Irish Catholics between 1825 and 1829, prior to Catholic emancipation. He had been a student at the lay college in Maynooth.

The collection spans the period 1823-55 and contains letters and a few contemporary printed items.

As is not uncommon, these had come to the library closely folded, tied in bundles and stored in a non-archival box. They had both surface dirt and minor handling damage, but were mostly robust.

The collection is a rich and varied resource which provides an elegant snapshot of the period. The letters are themselves of interest for their content but it is also interesting to link the individual authors of the letters to the wax seals present. Furthermore, the handwritten paper has both makers’ watermarks and, on some of the sheets, the paper type is embossed on the pages. All of these are interesting from an historical perspective, thus the material provides a very diverse collection of research and study material.

Our aim was to catalogue the archive, flatten the pages, carry out minimal repairs, and provide archival housing that would ensure safe reader access.

The challenges that this body of material posed were many; the pages were not of uniform size, many of them had text on both sides, and there was sensitive secondary media present such as fragile wax seals or fugitive postal franks.

While the material was lightly surface cleaned, conservation intervention was kept to a minimum, as some of the media was known to be fugitive and unsuitable for washing or aqueous treatment. Larger tears were repaired using lens tissue and wheat starch paste, but it was decided that the housing chosen would provide stability and durability for the material.

Each letter is to be housed in an archival polyester sleeve after treatment. This allows visual access to and physical support for the paper, as well as some breathability within the binding structure. Archival polyester is perfect for this task. All the sleeves are uniform in size but have been internally modified to accommodate three different dimensions within the collection. The bindings can be housed vertically on open shelves, preventing the risk of crushing to bottom documents which can arise where collections are housed loose in boxes. It also reduces the risk posed by direct handling of the pages.

Once bound, it is possible to dismantle the binding without any risk to the collection, either for access or rearrangement should the need arise. It has been a pleasure to be involved in preparing this material for readers to enjoy and to address the challenges posed by such a rich and historical body of work.

The following links may be of interest for further reading:

The North East Document Conservation Centre Preservation leaflet: [see unbound flat paper]


Housing single sheet material at the Bodlean Library, Oxford: