Archives restores fragile registers

A man wearing latex gloves handles pages of an old parish register.
Archives conservator Vincent Dion restores damaged and fragile parish registers at the diocese’s Archives on Nov. 24. The registers record weddings, baptisms and burials. The registers being restored by Mr. Dion range from the 1830s to the 1960s.
 on December 29, 2022
Michael Hudson

Efforts part of conservation revival

From 1986 until 1994, the Diocese of Toronto’s Archives had a conservation program in place wherein short-term contracted conservators carried out treatments on various registers, artworks and artefacts. Subsequently this conservation program lost traction due to funding challenges.

Since 1994, the Archives’ collection has grown extensively, with the addition of more than 500 accessions of material from 219 parishes. It has also become evident that some of the registers received need conservation treatment to stabilize and preserve the unique information they contain. Archives staff determine if a register needs conservation when it is accessed to either conduct genealogical research or to prepare copies of baptism or marriage records. If it is in critical need of conservation, the register is added to a conservation planning spreadsheet and categorized by the level of need.

In an effort to revive conservation work, the Archives connected with Vincent Dion of Conservation+Culture in August 2021 and collaborated to apply for a grant from Library and Archives Canada’s Documentary Heritage Communities Program (DHCP) to get the funding needed to begin conservation of 25 of the most at-risk parish registers. On March 31, 2022, we learned that we had been awarded a DHCP grant of $20,310 for this work. Since April 1, Mr. Dion has been working on the necessary conservation treatments. He has been able to work on-site so that the registers remain safely accessible in the vault, since such fragile registers could be damaged in transit. On the days that he comes to the Archives, he spends time evaluating the register for what damage exists and what repairs need to be done to remediate it, then proceeds to implement the repairs. He further documents the process to produce a report.

The registers that are part of the grant application may need conservation work for a variety of reasons such as broken bindings, brittle or damaged pages, degrading tape and damage caused by iron gall ink. Conservators have been trained in methods to help remediate those issues.

When registers have damaged bindings, the text block and pages are carefully removed as a preliminary step. For registers with brittle pages, the concern is that the edges begin to break off, causing important and irreplaceable information, such as an individual’s name or date of birth, to be lost. Many of the registers that are being treated have at least some brittle pages that show signs of flaking. It has been interesting to find that some more recent registers have more serious damage. One reason for this is the use of heavily processed wood pulp in recent paper-making that produces finer pages that are more susceptible to embrittlement and breakage than earlier papers made from cotton and flax fibers. The conservator uses Japanese papers and stable adhesives to create an edging that stabilizes the page, preventing any additional breakage.

In some cases, non-archival tape, such as regular transparent tape or even duct tape, have been used to try and secure pages to the bindings where they have pulled away, or to fix tears. These have caused pages to yellow and deteriorate where they have been exposed to the unstable adhesives. Additionally, in some places where they have been used to secure pages to the binding, the pages are beginning to split at the edge of the tape, causing loss of information. Where possible, the tape is removed using specialized tools, heat and/or solvents. Japanese paper strips are then used to join the two pieces of the page. The repair papers are thin enough that inscriptions remain visible through the repairs.

Some registers may have entries where very acidic iron gall ink was used and, with exposure to damp prior to coming to the Archives, the ink is beginning to eat through the page, leading to loss of information. Here again, Japanese paper is used, but with an alcohol-based adhesive. The most severely affected pages are then interleaved with an archival paper containing an alkaline reserve to buffer the acidity.

Specialized conservation work is not inexpensive and the market rate for such services range from $75 to $150 an hour for treatment time alone, with additional funds needed for supplies. While we are thankful for this grant to complete work on 25 registers, we currently have another 25 registers where we have identified conservation treatment is required and hope to find additional funding to move forward on their treatment when our current grant work is complete.


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