Blog: Carla Danella from Sissinghurst Castle Conservation Project
Carla Danella writes about her exciting experiences (and heartbreaking discovery) at Sissinghurst Castle Library - shortlisted for the Icon Award for Conservation in the Community
"The Sissinghurst Castle Library Book Conservation Project has transformed my life.
I'm a book condition assessor. This means I dust and clean the books, inside and out, measure them and assess their condition. When the three-year project at Sissinghurst is completed, I'll have assessed thousands of books and played a (very) small part in ensuring that this important collection is conserved for the future.
I initially started volunteering at Sissinghurst, home of poet and writer Vita Sackville-West and her diplomat husband Harold Nicolson, several years ago. I was a steward, and showed people parts of the collection in the Long Library. My interest in the conservation project started because it sounded like such fun! I also wanted to join because I love reading – and I was also intrigued by our continued love for the book as a physical object in this age of the Kindle and iBook.
I realised that although I'd spent a lifetime prizing books more
than almost anything – I knew almost nothing about them"
After two days of training with conservator Caroline Bendix, I realised that – though I'd spent a lifetime prizing books more than almost anything – I knew almost nothing about them. I have spent the past year and a half learning about dropped text blocks, delaminating corners, torn dust jackets, loose boards and split joints. I've learned how to handle books in general, how to clean them without causing further damage and how to identify different condition problems.
I've noticed that the most frequent problem seems to be dropped text blocks (which makes sense as gravity really is a huge enemy of bound volumes). I've also seen how – at least historically at Sissinghurst – changes in relative humidity really do create the conditions that allow a pest infestation to flourish. Vita's Tower Writing Room must be or must have been pretty moist at one point because there is a lot of silverfish and furniture beetle damage to some of the books.
I've also learned that – for the most part – Vita treated books as things to be read rather than as precious objects. While she obviously carefully handled and stored (or perhaps never opened...) the hand-bound leather volumes her mother gave her as presents in the early 1900s, many of the other books in the collection show signs of heavy use, or look like they were read and left outdoors, perhaps in the rain.
This was the book my darling was reading when she died.”
For me, the most exciting moment came last spring, when we were assessing a 1960s volume from our last stack of books for the day. I was astonished to see Harold's pinched script: "This was the book my darling was reading when she died.” I was holding the same book that Vita had read on her deathbed. But what was most amazing was that I was able to immediately share this with visitors to Sissinghurst, who watched as we condition-assessed in the Long Library that afternoon. We all had goosebumps as we read Harold's words.
So how has the project changed my life? I've made friends with my colleagues and have been able to focus my energies on the things that fascinate me most: books and how to preserve them. It has also lead me to a further volunteer conservation placement at Knole. I was later invited by Susannah Mayor, House Steward at the National Trust's Smallhythe Place, to create an exhibition about suffragette, writer and actress Christopher St John.
I was also recently asked to join a research MA programme to continue my research into the life and writing of Vita, Christopher St John and their circles.
And, finally, the project has had such a profound impact on me that I've started to seek work either in conservation or as part of a curatorial department interpreting collections. This is a pretty dramatic career change and I'm not sure if it's even realistic for me to try – but I'll keep conservation assessing at Sissinghurst, start work on my MA, and cross my fingers that it works out!"
Photo: Carla Danella and Georgia Genco in Long Library at Sissinghurst c. Alison Cook