Friday, May 18, 2007

Damaged Diary: The BL's Side

On Tuesday I wrote briefly about a diary which had been damaged while under the care of the British Library. The BL's full statement on the incident follows:

"This is an isolated incident dating back to a service we offered in the 1990s. We are of course doing our best to find out what happened to the diary since it was left in the Library in 1994.

The Library used to operate a binding service specifically for private clients. In 2000 this service was stopped but we regret that a diary belonging to Mr Tyldesley, which was assigned to this service in 1994, was not returned at that time.

In the intervening period since 1994, it suffered accidental damage causing staining to the pages and the front cover was removed. The book had been kept in safe storage in a protective box and it was not until the box was opened that the stains were discovered.

As soon as this unfortunate incident came to light earlier this month we took steps to rectify the situation. We can conserve the book to remove the stains and rebind the front cover, which we have offered to do immediately. We have also apologised to Peter Tyldesley for any distress caused.

The Library takes the care of its collections extremely seriously and aspires to the highest standards of conservation.

(signed) Helen Shenton, Head of Collection Care, British Library."

There are some very important things to note here. First, the original Times story does not mention that the book was at the BL for rebinding (in fact it says that the owner "transferred it to the library in 1994 because he was nervous of looking after it"). Second, this explains the removed front cover; obviously this step would be taken if the book was to be rebound. That leaves the spilled liquid as the accidental damage, which can be chalked up to an unfortunate accident. Third, the BL's pledge to conserve the document by removing the stains and completing the rebind was omitted entirely from the Times article.

As I noted on Tuesday, there was something weird about the way the Times portrayed this incident. Clearly there was rather more to the story than they shared. Yes, there still seem to have been some missteps along the way, but they seem on the whole much less sinister than the Times would have had us believe.

[h/t to Christopher Edwards, Ex-Libris, for the BL's full statement]

[Update: See here. There's apparently still more to this story ...]

[Additional update: Mr. Tyldesly has responded further in a comment to this post.]

1 comment:

Peter J Tyldesley said...

Even the British Library now accepts that their statement is - to put it politely - not entirely accurate. Let me take it point by point:

1. "This is an isolated incident"

This statement was issued on the very day that BL Management became aware of the damage. Do you think they had time to complete an investigation of sufficient rigour to justify such a conclusion?

2. dating back to a service we offered in the 1990s.

Red herring. The diary is known to have been in good condition and to have its original cover in 2002. Of course the BL want to push the incident back as far as possible so it can be dismissed as the aberrant behaviour of a member of staff operating under a different regime.

3. We are of course doing our best to find out what happened to the diary

This is probably true.

4. since it was left in the Library in 1994.

Red herring. If we keep repeating irrelevant dates in the 1990s perhaps someone will be fooled.

5. The Library used to operate a binding service specifically for private clients.

Red herring. The diary was not deposited to be rebound, and I have the BL's own documentation proving this.

6. In 2000 this service was stopped

Red herring. Never started as far as the diary was concerned.

7. but we regret that a diary belonging to Mr Tyldesley, which was assigned to this service in 1994,

Red herring. How many times can we get the 1990s into one short press release...

8. was not returned at that time.

Red herring. No attempt was made to return it and periodic correspondence continued with a member of staff until 2007.

9. In the intervening period since 1994,

Red herring. You thought we couldn't get 1994 in again - but we did!

10. it suffered accidental damage causing staining to the pages

Misleading. This was an item to which only BL staff had access. So how did it come to be badly stained with what smells like cooking oil which isn't kept in the BL? Why is it heavily affected by damp, mildew and mould?

11. and the front cover was removed.

Misleading in the extreme. This makes it sound as if this was a legitimate conservation process, conducted with the consent of the owner. I was never asked or told about this work. The cover was removed in such an unprofessional manner that the inner pages of the diary itself were torn, leaving fragments on the cover. As far as I know, no-one has yet admitted committing this vandalism. Indeed initially no-one admitted to knowing where the original cover was, and it only came to light during the British Library's investigation.

12. The book had been kept in safe storage in a protective box

Ha Ha Ha Ha. Oooh, BL, it's the way you tell 'em. It was not in the protective box or in safe storage. The book was open when the oil was spilt as evidenced by (a) the pattern of staining and (b) the fact that the oil reached the inside of the cover but not the outside. And how "safe" is storage that allows a book to be affected by damp, mildew and mould?

13. and it was not until the box was opened that the stains were discovered.

Misleading - at least one member of staff clearly knew about them, because they occurred BEFORE the item was returned to the box.

14. As soon as this unfortunate incident came to light earlier this month

Misleading. I repeatedly asked the member of staff who had been dealing with this to report the damage. He never did. I also made several abortive attempts to report the matter via the BL switchboard. The BL Management became aware when contacted by The Times on the same day as this statement was issued.

15. we took steps to rectify the situation. We can conserve the book to remove the stains and rebind the front cover

Misleading. I think that much can be done to stabilise and conserve the diary and I believe the BL are very well-placed to carry out this work. However, it is clear that some sections are gone forever. You can't "conserve" what has been destroyed - look at the photograph on my website.

16. which we have offered to do immediately.

The offer has certainly now been made, and for that I am grateful.

17. We have also apologised to Peter Tyldesley for any distress caused.

An empty gesture if you continue to cause distress by downplaying and obfuscating what has happened.

As you can see, the statement is more fishy than Billingsgate on a hot summer day. Anyone doubting anything I've written - please, contact the BL and ask them. You could, of course, take the view that this was a rushed statement, and some inaccuracies are inevitable. Yesterday, 17 May 2007, I was contacted by the BL with a draft press release. It contained much of the same misinformation.

I think the BL is a wonderful institution which deserves our support. However, it will inevitably lose the taxpaying public's trust if it is not open and honest when incidents like this occur.

My own view is that a rogue member of BL staff at some stage removed the diary from BL premises for purposes which have not yet been established. This is obviously speculative but given the facts seems the most plausible explanation. Certainly the possibility needs to be fully investigated and, if it proves to be true, the member of staff needs to be identified. Full checks will then be required to establish whether other items were also removed.