1091 Project: The Good, The Bad, the Past Repairs

1091 graphic

This month on the 1091 Project we discuss old repairs, when to remove them and when to leave them alone. Sometimes the decision to undo an old repair is an easy one, sometimes not, and sometimes it really is a conundrum because there are valid arguments to be made on both sides. Let’s look at some recent items that have been brought to our attention, and be sure to check out Parks Library Preservation’s post.

Old Repairs: The Good

A “good” repair is one that is sympathetic to the original object in both form and function. It may not be immediately obvious that something has been fixed, but it shouldn’t be so transparent that it hides the fact that damage occurred. In a perfect world, a trained eye would catch it upon close inspection, but the lay-person might not realize it unless you pointed it out.

prior repair
Fugitive Sheet: Prior repair on lower right corner of sheet. Note the in-painting of the printed border.

bleau atlas
Bleau Atlas, prior fill also has new media applied to fill in the map.

The repair on the lower right corner of one of our Fugitive Sheets (top left) is a prime example of a good repair. The color of the newly incorporated paper matches the existing paper very well, and the border was even simulated to provided as to not disturb the eye with a break in the printing.

You can see a similar repair in one of our Bleau Atlas volumes (top right). Here you can see a well-crafted fill that includes the application of new media to fill in the illustration where that information was lost. We may not do that level of infilling today, but you cannot deny it is an effective repair that if removed may effect the way the object is interpreted.

Old Repairs: The Bad

Taped binding
A DIY repair that does more harm than good.

I think nothing says “bad repair” like packing tape. We’ve talked about this before, but it is good to reiterate that self-adhesive tape of almost any kind is very damaging to books and can be difficult to remove.

Because of the damage these sorts of tapes cause, it easy to decide to remove the tape and give the book a more sympathetic and reversible repair.




spine repair
An old library repair done with “book tape” with infilled title.

“The Open Polar Sea” is the sort of prior repair that makes it a little more difficult to decide what to do. This repair was clearly done with care and it is still holding. It is not reversible and will likely result in some scarfing when/if we remove it.

The real issue is how much time do we spend undoing these repairs? There are so many in our stacks. If the repair is holding up and not causing further damage, is it better to spend our limited time and resources on these knowing that they ultimately will do damage to the book, or do we work on items that are in more immediate danger of losing materials if they are not repaired? I tend to lean towards the latter, but the argument is worth having, and the decision changes based on a lot of factors (ye olde “value, use, risk, resources” discussion).



Old Repairs: The Past (With Provenance)

The four pictures below represent prior repairs that we would likely not choose to remove because they are

  • well executed
  • not significantly harming the original
  • still functioning as repairs
  • traditional to a time or type of material
  • tell a significant story about the life of the object

If one of these repairs were to fail, then we would address the problem in a more modern way, that is by using stable methods and materials that would not harm the original materials either physically or chemically, that would be visually sympathetic to the original structure and components, and would be reversible later if the repair failed.

Ethiopic MS 5_3
Ethiopic codex with damaged board, repaired by sewing the two halves together.

ethiopic scroll
Ethiopic scroll, repaired traditionally by stitching the two sides of the tear together with heavy sewing thread.

leather book repair
Leather patches carefully stitched to the binding to repair a damaged spine.

Ethiopic MS 30_2
Tear in the leather is carefully sewn back together. This may have been done at the time of binding to make a usable piece of leather, rather than repaired later as a result of damage.

Deciding on removing an old repair is both objective and subjective. The decision is based on your knowledge of the physical and chemical nature of the original materials as well as the repair materials. It also helps to know the collection and the provenance of the item. Luckily we have great working relationships with all our curators and together can make sound treatment decisions when we come across these sorts of quandaries.

4 thoughts on “1091 Project: The Good, The Bad, the Past Repairs”

  1. These are wonderful examples and photos. I must admit, I find the Frankenstein repair of /The Open Polar Sea/ somewhat charming. And I was so happy to see you included packing tape, too!

  2. I have another “Frankenstein” repair image that I love even more, but somehow forgot to put that into the post. Ah well, I’ll post it later.

    Packing tape is so ubiquitous! I do like the Polar Sea, too, but wish it wasn’t that old book tape (which, for some reason, is still for sale!).

  3. Interesting article. It is not surprising that tape is hard on books. I myself am on a committee to rejuvenate my church’s library, and one issue we are facing is the fact that many of the books are ex libris copies that still have call numbers taped onto the spines. We want to remove this if possible without damaging the books. Do you have any suggestions for how we might proceed? Are there good products that we could readily obtain for this purpose? Any advice would be valued.

    1. Michael, advising can get tricky when you don’t have a sample of the item in your hands. The success of removing any self-adhesive tape or label (carrier and adhesive) depends on many factors including the type and age of the adhesive, the condition of the cloth/leather/paper that it is stuck to, the value of the item (both artifactually and intelectually to your collection), and your acceptance of further loss due to mechanical or chemical damage done by the removal of the label.

      Without seeing exactly what you are dealing with, it is hard to tell what can be done, and I don’t know your wxperience with book repair in general or adhesive removal in particular. It is likely that anything you try (mechanical removal with a thin microspatula and crepe eraser, or chemical removal with a mild solvent like Isopropyl alcohol, etc.) may cause damage. The question is how much of that sort of damage are you willing to incur to try to get the labels off? It may be that just leaving the labels on is better for the materials than attempting the removal yourself.

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