Brought to books

15th June 2001 at 01:00
Comic Relief, Marwell Zoo's pot-bellied pigs and Macmillan Cancer Care have all benefited from one school's charitable efforts this academic year. But the generous pupils of Robert May's school managed to find room for one more good cause - a faded Victorian charmer long overdue a makeover, writes Geraldine Brennan.

The 1,200-pupil 11-16 school in Odiham, Hampshire, was one of the first to respond to the British Library's Adopt a Book scheme, which has just signed up Chelsea footballer Gianfranco Zola and children's author Jacqueline Wilson. Watch out for the new Adopt a Book flyers and posters, starring some of the pupil librarians at Robert May's.

For pound;150 (the minimum fee for individuals), schools can secure a piece of heritage between covers and build a connection with the home of the Magna Carta, Nelson's last letter, the first draft of "A Hard Day's Night" and the ninth-century Diamond Sutra, the oldest surviving printed book. After a year, up to four school representatives are invited to a "meet your book" event at the new British Library building in London's Euston Road.

The British Library is the third or fourth largest library in the world, depending on whether you measure the building or the collection. It has 200 miles of shelving, 1,000 staff and desk space for 1,200 readers. It also has a 100-year backlog of conservation work. Hence the public launch last year of Adopt a Book, following on from a lower-profile scheme started 13 years ago by a frustrated reader at the Reading Room in the British Museum, who paid for repairs to the book he needed to consult. "We made the scheme more affordable and accessible alongside a drive to educate the public about the need for book conservation," says Paola Barbarino, the development officer in charge of Adopt a Book. Since January, the scheme has funded three conservators and made 40 newly repaired volumes available to readers.

Zola has taken on an 1860 travelogue about his native Sardinia, but the library cannot guarantee a book of the adopter's choice. When Robert May's joined the scheme last year, however, Ms Barbarino pointed the school towards a collection of late-Victorian picture books published by Ernest Nister. The school librarian, Andy Small, teaches art and runs a Year 10 project on origami and paper engineering, so one of the two Nister pop-up titles seemed ideal. On their visit to the British Library the pupils are able to study "their" book, Pantomime Pictures, published in 1896, alogside Model Menagerie, published in the same year, which has been conserved: its yellowing acid-damaged pages and brittle card pop-up mechanisms have been treated to prevent further crumbling around the edges, and it is now in working order. Pantomime Pictures, a similar "novel surprise book" published for middle-class families' parlour entertainment, is a sorry sight by comparison.

"It's knackered, basically," says Gail Whitby, one of three conservators funded by Adopt a Book. The boom in cheap factory-made paper in the late 19th century, using wood pulp treated with acid rather than the traditional rags, is the usual suspect. "It's a nightmare - as the chemicals break down, the paper damages itself even if it's not being handled." The Nister collection was neglected and uncatalogued until the British Library acquired it. Of around 500 books in the collection, 30 have been treated, meaning they should be available for study for another 50 to 60 years. Some are too far gone to be saved but, with children's literature scholarship increasing, the collection is a valuable resource.

"Someone in the future will be able to look at our book and understand more about it," says Neil Owen, a Year 9 pupil at Robert May's, one of the 16 pupil librarians who sold off their own old or damaged library stock at 5p and 10p a time to help raise the school's pound;150 contribution. Neil and his colleagues know all about the demands of conservation. They don't have to face the nasty cases of mould or vermin damage tackled by the British Library's specialist team, but they do have to patch up some popular titles with sticky tape every few weeks.

This term's most wanted book is Dorling Kindersley's Eyewitness Guide to Fish, with waiting lists for novels by Terry Pratchett and Jacqueline Wilson. Pantomime Pictures has found a niche in Robert May's cross-curricular literacy strategy, and the head of humanities, Bob Rose, is looking forward to incorporating it into work on Victorian social life. The pupils have also linked their visit to the British Library with their knowledge of Winchester Great Hall and its illuminated manuscripts. And with King John's Odiham Castle just down the road from the school, the home of the Magna Carta is likely to become their home from home.

More Adopt a Book details from the British Library. Tel: 020 7412 7047; fax: 020 7412 7168; email or British Library education department:020 7412 7797

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