Making Memories of the World: the Katherine Mansfield Notebooks Project at the Alexander Turnbull Library
Sarah Askey and Laura Van Echten
Alexander Turnbull Library, National Library of New Zealand Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa
Sarah Askey currently works as a Conservator at the Alexander Turnbull Library. She has been part of the ATL conservation team since 2019 after returning to New Zealand from the United Kingdom, where she graduated with a Post-Graduate Diploma Conservation of Books and Library Materials from West Dean College. Sarah has previously interned at the Bodleian Library and worked on several preventive conservation projects in the UK.
Laura Van Echten is currently working as a Conservation Technician at the Alexander Turnbull Library while studying towards a Masters in Preventive Conservation from the University of Northumbria. She was drawn to conservation via two archaeology degrees and her work as a Library Assistant. She supplies the Library with all their archival housing needs and loves the problem solving involved with both large-scale projects and individual custom enclosures.
Both Sarah and Laura are looking forward to sharing their work at the conference.
Actions speak louder than words, and the costly work of conservation is a tangible expression of the significance that people ascribe to particular objects and the memories associated with them. Conservator’s actions play a key role in giving substance to statements about the value of heritage items, as well as shaping how future generations continue to perceive the value of that heritage. Conversely, lack of action or neglect can contradict such claims.
The Alexander Turnbull Library’s Katherine Mansfield Notebooks Project is an example of how the practical work of conservators supports statements about value. 2019 saw the completion of treatment and rehousing of MS-Group-0038, a collection of 46 of Wellington-born writer Katherine Mansfield’s notebooks. This conservation project commenced following inscription of the ATL’s collections of Mansfield material on the UNESCO Memory of the World Aotearoa New Zealand Register, the intention of which is to promote awareness of documentary heritage that has worldwide significance and ensure its ongoing preservation and accessibility.
Prior to conservation, the main condition issues for individual notebooks in MS-Group-0038 arose from leaves having been torn or cut out and removed by Mansfield or her husband, John Middleton Murry, resulting in partial or complete detachment of their conjugates. These detached leaves protruded from their bookblocks, resulting in edge damage, and were at risk of loss during retrieval and access. For the collection as a whole, the extreme range of item dimensions combined with flimsy, ill-fitting housing failed to adequately support and protect the items even when shelved and not in use.
Treatment and rehousing of this collection supported the aims of Register inscription by preparing the notebooks for digitisation and optimising their long-term preservation, but was more than a tick-box act of preservation. Conservation decisions were carefully considered in terms of their impact on what future users may or may not value about these notebooks, and how they may interpret the documentary significance of not only the text but also of the material evidence of these notebooks history of use and alteration. This paper discusses the practical details and problem-solving challenges of treatment and rehousing, and reflects on the ethical implications of conservation for this significant collection.