All posts by Jovana Ivezic

When the Paper is too Nice

There’s something special about a book made with handmade paper. You don’t come across it too often in general collections, but, when you do, you want to take extra good care of it. This week a beautiful example of this arrived at the lab in the form of The Poems of Sappho, printed in 1910. As you can see in the images below, the book was in rather rough shape. I could tell it would be the perfect candidate for a new case. This means I would need to make new covers for this book.

Upon opening it, I immediately noticed the lovely deckled edges of the paper and what appeared to be a watermark.

A watermark is an image or design that is impressed into the paper during the papermaking process. This is easier to see when you hold the paper up to a light like so.

The main purpose of a watermark is to identify the papermaker; however, this watermark goes even further and tells us where the paper was made as well. In this case, the paper was handmade in Italy by a group called “The PM co”, which could possibly refer to The Paper Mills Company.

Saving this paper and the vital information on it is going to be my priority as I treat this book. This should be relatively straightforward, but what happens when two of these pages have been glued to the covers?

Preserving the Paper

When the book was bound, the pastedowns were made with the first and last sheet of the textblock of the book rather than using a separate decorative paper.

In order to make a new case for a book, I have to remove the old covers.  I must lift the original handmade paper from the front and back boards to retain it. This can be done by taking an exceptionally thin metal spatula and running it back and forth under the paper to loosen and separate the paper from the covers.

This can be a tricky and time-consuming process if the paper is old and brittle, or if the paper is well adhered to the covers and doesn’t want to come off. Luckily, both pages cooperated with me and I managed to remove the covers without damaging the paper.

A lot of the original board material had to be lifted along with the paper, so the next step is to remove that material from the pages. Leaving it on would make it nearly impossible to neatly reattach the pastedowns when I made a new case for this book. So, I removed as much as I could mechanically before moving onto the rest of the treatment.

With the brand-new case complete, the book and it’s handmade paper are better protected and ready to be handled.

Books Can be Deceiving

As someone who repairs books for a living, the idiom “don’t judge a book by its cover” can have a much more literal meaning than expected. I’m regularly encountering books that seem to need only one kind treatment from the outside, but then have more problems than I realized on the inside. This can be a bit frustrating when you’ve mentally prepared yourself for one kind of project and instead find yourself tackling more than you had planned for. Even so, it is especially satisfying to finish a treatment on a book that you felt was going to be complicated. In today’s blog, I’ll be sharing my most recent encounter with a book that I misjudged.

The Problem

The Perkins Library has a great number of collections of Arabic books like the ones you see below.

These books are especially striking due to the eye-catching uniformity of their spines. Outside of how aesthetically pleasing they are, there is an added benefit to the fact that all the books are identical in design. Take a look at this collection of books below. Do any of them look different than the rest?

If you happened to notice the fourth book from the left in particular, then you can see what I meant earlier by “an added benefit”. Thanks to the collections precise design, it’s all the more obvious when something isn’t quite right.

In this case, this poor book seems to have been crushed under something as well as torn along the spine. We certainly can’t leave the book to be handled by patrons in this state, so back to the lab it goes.

At this point, I had assumed the only problem I was dealing with was the crushed spine of the covers/textblock. Unfortunately for me, I didn’t realize that this book had been through more than just some extreme pressure. Right as you open the book to its title page, you’re greeted by discolored paper and some significant black speckling. The spotting continues a good 20 or so pages.

These are the tell-tale signs that not only did the book get wet at some point, but mold had made itself at home here as well.

Now, luckily this isn’t a terrible amount of mold to be dealing with. However, it does mean I have to add several more steps to my treatment before I can tackle the original issue of the crushed spine.

The Solution

Let’s say there hadn’t been any mold in this book. What would my treatment have looked like?

First, I would remove the covers so I could assess the damage done to the spine of the textblock. Once I had addressed that, I would prepare the textblock as I normally would for a recase. Finally, I would repair the covers by making a new spine piece to replace the damaged one, and reattached the textblock to the case.

Now, I will have to remove all of the mold first before I can start anything else.

Based on the dry and powdery consistency of the mold, I can tell that it is no longer active and can be safely cleaned by hand. To do so, I used a soot sponge to manually clean the mold and debris off of every page.

You can see the immediate difference before and after using the sponge on the old mold, both on the pages and the sponge itself.

The soot sponge is mostly likely also picking up dirt and dust on the pages as well, but regardless it’s clear the book needed a good cleaning.

Now that the textblock is free of the residual mold, I can finally get to the treatment I had planned at the start. This book will be back on the shelves and ready for patrons in no time!

North Korea as Seen Through Stamps

Stamp collecting, often associated with philately (or the study of stamps), is a hobby that has been around since the first postage stamp was issued by Britain in May of 1840. Since then, stamp collecting has been one of the world’s most popular hobbies, resulting in the production of over 400,000 different types of stamp by the year 2000.

Many of the stamps produced are from smaller countries seeking to bring in much needed revenue, which they achieve through the printing of limited run stamps specifically for stamp collectors. One such country happens to be North Korea. This fact came to my attention when a collection of North Korean stamp albums arrived at our lab.

The collection of stamp albums stacked on top of one anotherThe collection consists of five stapled pamphlets and two bound books, all full of loose stamps in need of securing.

The stamp albums that are pamphlets spread out on a flat surface.

A top down view of the the stamp albums that are in book format.

I will mention that it is unclear whether these are actually functional stamps or just coated paper made to look like stamps. There is no noticeable adhesive on the backs of them, and even a UV light analysis and our ordering specialist couldn’t get us any closer to a conclusive answer.

Regardless, we couldn’t risk all of these stamps being lost or stolen. I had to find a way to contain them all so that patrons could access these albums without leaving the fate of these stamps to chance.

How do we treat these items?

Each of these albums is made up of pages containing several small slips of mylar with the bottom edge adhered to the actual page.

A hand pulls back one of the mylar slips and also bends one of the loose stamps away from the page.

Within each of these slips sits either a single stamp or multiple stamps, which varies from page to page.

A page from one of the stamp albums showing an assortment of stamps focused on North Korean fine art.

A page from one of the stamp albums showing an assortment of stamps focused on North Korean natural landmarks.

Although the stamps don’t necessarily fly about or out of the slips as you flip through the pages, it’s obvious that they aren’t exactly going to just stay in place over time.

So, what is the solution here?

Since these mylar slips were already at my disposal, it made the most sense to use them to my advantage. After applying a thin bead of wheat starch paste to the top of each stamp, I tipped each stamp into the mylar and made sure the bottom of the stamp was placed as far down into the slip as possible.

Two photos side by side. The photo on the left shows a brush being used to apply wheat starch paste to the top edge of the back of a stamp. The photo on the right shows the stamp being placed back into its mylar slip and adhered to the page.

This way the stamp is secured in place without having to glue up the entire back of the item, and the mylar acts as a catch for the bottom of the stamp so that they can’t be pulled out as easily. With the stamps now safely secured, these albums are ready for a closer look at their contents.

How do we interpret these items?

These albums seem to be geared towards foreigners and tourists. Of the seven albums here, three contain text in Korean, Chinese, and English, one contains text in just Korean and English, and the other three contain text in just Korean and Chinese. Seeing as none of these are written only in Korean, it can be assumed that these albums were not intended solely for Korean audiences.

A page from one of the stamp albums showing a larger sheet that is perforated to hold multiple stamps. The stamps depict images of Kim Il-sung, various antique cars, and a music score. There is also accompanying text in Korean and in English.

As you have also probably noticed, these stamps cover a wide variety of subjects as well. It seems as though you can find a stamp on just about anything if you really wanted to. This is probably for the benefit of appealing to as many collectors as possible who might only collect certain kinds of stamps.

A page from one of the stamp albums showing an assortment of stamps focused on Kim Jong-il meeting with various international leaders.

The world of stamps is quite intriguing, especially considering how they can become vehicles for propaganda. Are you a stamp collector or a philatelist (someone who studies stamps)? Leave a comment with your thoughts on this collection if you are, and leave a comment even if you aren’t! We’d love to hear what you think about our new addition to the Perkins Library. If you’d like to find these items in our catalog, you can click any of these links.

Stapled Instead of Sewn

When you look at how books are generally made, you’ll find that a majority of them are either sewn with thread, glued together as individual sheets, or occasionally bound with a combination of sewing and commercial glue.

On rarer occasions, a book will be stapled together. As luck would have it, one of these books recently came across my bench in need of a new cover. At first glance, you can’t immediately tell the difference between a stapled book and a sewn book.

It’s not until you open the book up and look at the gutter of one of the signatures that you might be able to see whether the book is stapled or not.

An opened book revealing the gutter of the pages where a staple can be seen.

It’s even easier once you’ve taken the cover off and can look directly at the spine of the textblock. As you can see in the images below, there are staples running through a significant portion of the signatures of this book.

Now, in a perfect world where I have all the time and patience I could want, I might remove the staples, mend any damage to the signatures in the process, sew the book back together, and then make a new cover. In this case, such an approach would be too labor intensive and time consuming. As the only senior conservation technician charged with maintaining the general collections, I cannot devote that much time to one book when I might have as many as 25 other books also waiting to be treated.

Considerations

With binding structures like this, the treatment decisions tend to boil down to preserving the provenance of the object vs choosing to rebind the book for greater longevity. In this blog post by Peter D. Verheyen in 2011, it’s evident that these wire bindings are a curious part of the history of bookbinding. Since they’re unusual, and since our goal is to conserve as much of the original item as possible, one might think that saving the original binding would be the obvious choice.

But how do technicians in general collections conservation (such as myself) reconcile keeping as much of the original object intact when we also have to prioritize making sure that the book can withstand regular use from patrons? If the staples in the binding had been so rusted that they were breaking whenever I opened the book, I would most likely take a more involved approach to the treatment of this book. An example of such a treatment would be adhering a cotton cambric to the spine and sewing through it along with the textblock, which you can see an example of in this paper by our very own Beth Doyle.

Luckily, in this case, both the paper and the staples were in good enough condition that a secondary treatment wasn’t necessary. However, it could be argued that perhaps I should have gone ahead with the more complex treatment just in case the staples failed in the future. In the end, these are the dilemmas we face in general collections conservation.

Treatment

I decided that the best course of action would be to clean the spine of its original lining and glue and replace it with a strong Japanese tissue adhered with wheat starch paste. By doing so, the spine is stabilized and strengthened while the staples are also given additional support. This reduces the potential damage that could occur from future use and repeated opening and closing of the book.

A picture of the stapled textblock post spine cleaning being held in a hand. The spine and staples are protected with a thin Japanese tissue, so you can still see the staples.

With the textblock now in a stable state, I could prepare a new case for the book. The original case had already failed and since the original materials were too fragile to keep using, it didn’t make sense to try and reuse the case. Instead, I made an inset on the front board in order to preserve the original cover material. If you’d like to learn more about the book, you can find the catalog record here.