Category Archives: Circulating collections care

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!

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.

Tours, Tours, Tours!

It’s so nice when folks come down to the Perkins Library basement to visit the lab, and this week we had quite a few visitors from very different parts of the campus community. Early in the week, around 20 incoming freshman came to learn about the conservation program as part of Project Search, a program designed as an introduction to undergraduate research at Duke. Then this morning, we were visited by a tour offered through the Duke Alumni Association.

Sara Neel shows a damaged book to six individuals as part of a tour.
Technician Sara Neel describes circulating collections repairs.
Conservator Erin Hammeke describes the conservation treatment of a very large book to seven tour attendees.
Senior Conservator Erin Hammeke describes a recent conservation treatment.
Conservator Henry Hebert shows two bindings undergoing treatment to six tour attendees.
Conservator Henry Hebert describes some in-process conservation treatments.

It’s always a pleasure to share our work with Duke students (both current and former), because they are just so personable and naturally curious about the process of conservation and the library materials we have to show. Thanks for dropping by!