Behind the scenes Long read

Keyhole Surgery: Maintaining the Rylands Bookcases and their Locks

Jane Donaldson, Reader Services Coordinator writes:

Around the Historic Reading Room at the John Rylands Library you can see many volumes of books behind large glazed bookcases. These locked cases keep items secure but also show some of the wonderful riches of the book collections. Furniture restorer Tim Phelps has been maintaining these cases for many years and has recently finished a project to ensure that all the locks are in working order across the library.

I interviewed him about his work just before he finished his latest project and he started by showing me the cabinet of keys that the librarian would use to lock and unlock in the morning. This didn’t completely unlock the cases but was an extra layer of security to protect the precious items.

Key cabinet 1
Key cabinet with sliding door, closed
Key cabinet 2
Key cabinet open, showing keys for individual bookcases.

Please tell me about yourself

I run a small specialist furniture restoration conservation workshop in North Yorkshire. Of the work we do, most of it is for private clients, whether it’s things they’ve inherited, or things they’ve used that have become knocked about. We also carry out insurance work. When people move from Australia or America to this country and things do wrong, we’re called in by insurers to tidy up furniture gets damaged in transit. And it’s not always old things: it can be modern items as well.

How did you get involved with the work at Rylands?

Initially I was contacted by John Hodgson, and this was on the back of your major extension in 2007. He said, I think you’ll need to come over to see what’s involved here.

He had initially got in contact with me through the conservation register, ICON. I’m an accredited conservator-restorer.  That means we have we have been examined in all aspects of practice to provide appropriate advice.

Everybody refers to me as the locksmith, but actually, in terms of the work that I do here, something like 80 or 85% of the work is actually adjusting cabinets and doors. 15% might be what a locksmith would recognise. And I suppose technically, the right-hand door mechanisms on each pair of doors are bolts rather than locks.

But in terms of conservation of the locks and the cabinets, we’re always seeking to minimise what’s taken out – in terms of material removed – and to retain as much as possible of the original mechanisms.  By contrast, after having trained, my first experience in work was with a leading East Anglian antiques dealer. And I can remember, not exactly aghast, but surprised that my foreman’s way of dealing with a lock was to knock out as many of the bits that caused an obstruction to the key so that it was easier to fit the keys. Needless to say, that isn’t the way that I tackle things.

Over the years, I have built up a working stock of historic and antique keys. And if I take an antique lock apart, I can have a good idea of the type of key that will be required. If you have in stock a selection of period keys, according to the shape of the keyhole and the size of the barrel and the size of the tang (that is the working end of the key), very often if you can find something that’s basically the right period, you’ll find three quarters of the work to get the key shaped correctly is done for you. Occasionally, we can drop straight onto a key that needs no adjustments at all.

There are no replacement locks here as far as I’m aware: all are original. One of the issues that we regularly have to deal with here is that there has been slight movement in the cabinets, giving a vertical misalignment at the centre of the pairs of doors.

Misaligned doors
Example of misaligned doors, the right-hand door being higher than the left.

You’ve been working in public areas.  How have you found that?

It doesn’t worry me at all. I know what I’m doing, but I’m also happy to explain what we’re doing to the public. And I feel that’s just part of what as conservators we are called to do: to communicate the understanding, communicate the quality of what’s here, the interest and the way we’re doing our work.

Open cabinet 2
Locking mechanism with a square-section bolt inserted.
Jeakes lock
The locks are very substantial in nature. We have a lockmaker’s name there.  And you have L F 5 which is library floor five, indicating where it goes. This is the seven-lever lock with the lockmaker’s name, Jeakes and Co., London.

What’s the strangest question you’ve been asked?

I can’t think of an easy answer to that. I know that once I explained to someone the various ways in which the right-hand doors bolt and he was fairly aghast. He had worked for Chubb and thought the multi-point locking system that they’d come up with for things like patio doors in the last 30-40 years was a great innovation. And here were cabinets that a hundred years ago were using exactly the same mechanism. He was quite surprised.

Open cabinet 1
Open cabinet, showing slots to receive the bolts, and the velvet linings.

The cabinets have velvet dust seals; they are silk velvet, they get very dirty sometimes, but they are beautiful. I think they have a spongy wool centre, and they’re held in place by bronze strips. These have machine threads into the side of them. And just occasionally you do end up with this being misaligned.

What have you enjoyed most about working on this project or working here at Rylands?

I think there’s a real sense of the body of knowledge that’s here. I can appreciate the stunning quality of the work that’s gone into the doors and the lock mechanisms. But I know behind this is a fantastic book collection, and all the knowledge and skills that go into keeping those in place.

What we have, it’s the things like the quality of the hinges. It’s just stunning as well.

Cleaning dirt
Cleaning years of dirt and grease from the lock mechanisms.
Lock mechanism
Detail of lock mechanism.
Open cabinet 3
Open cabinet.


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