A 12th century Latin manuscript was brought down to the lab yesterday and we all had to stop work for a few minutes to ogle the colorful stitching used to piece together some of the leaves.
Parchment can be oddly shaped or become damaged during production, so it was a common medieval practice to mend or patch the leaves with colorful thread. Sometimes you can tell that the stitching was done before the scribe started writing. For example, this column of text just continues around the thread.
The colors of the thread are so intense that I began to wonder if they were original. What pigments or dyes could make such a vibrant yellow/green color? A few years ago, Beth had taken Cheryl Porter’s workshop, Recreating the Medieval Palette, and just happened to have the color swatches they made on hand. You can read some excellent reviews of that workshop here and here.
The buckthorn and cochineal are actually pretty close matches to the colors of the thread in our manuscript. Being closed inside a book would also have protected them from light exposure and potentially fading. If you’d like to see more examples of colorful stitching in medieval books, check out this post from Erik Kwakkel or the post it inspired on Colossal.
Today, as I was examining some items from the Lisa Unger Baskin Collection, I came across one of the longest armed manicules I’ve ever seen. This mark, whose name derives from the Latin meaning literally “little hand”, is a common annotation meant to draw the readers attention, like a highlight. This one just looks like it belongs to Mister Fantastic. If you’d like to read more about this mark and see other examples, these recent articles from Slate and Atlas Obscura may be of interest.
The treatment and decoration of book edges vary greatly depending upon the time period or style of binding. The edges of a textblock can sometimes reveal information about how the book was assembled or used over the years. I came across an example of this the other day in a 16th century printed volume with this small tear and flap of paper.
It appears that this little piece was torn and folded back before the edges of the textblock were trimmed down. When unfolded, you can get an idea of how much of the sheet was cut off that edge by the bookbinder’s plow.
There are a number of reasons why a binder might trim the edges of a textblock. For one, the edges of a sheet of handmade paper naturally have a kind of feathery undulation to them from the wooden mold used to make the sheet. These are known as a deckle edge and the image below illustrates the difference between a cut edge (left) and the natural edge (bottom) on a piece of modern handmade paper.
When a number of deckle edges are assembled together in a binding, they form a very rough, uneven textblock edge. This can allow dust to filter into the textblock and can’t be elaborately decorated like this example of a gauffered edge.
Book collectors may prefer a deckle edge on a binding, however, because it demonstrates that the paper has not been overly trimmed. Sometimes one will find just a few uncut edges within the textblock. This can be an example of what is called “proof” or “witness” (Zaehnsdorf, 1900, p. 178), demonstrating that the edges have been trimmed as little as possible to achieve the smooth textblock edge.
I’ve noticed that most of the modern hardback case bindings we are acquiring for our circulating collection come with an untrimmed fore-edge. It does imitate the deckle edge of older books, but I suspect that its popularity is primarily driven by cost-cutting measures from printers, rather than aesthetic reasons.
Unfortunately, it was historically common practice to re-trim the edges of a texblock during rebinding. Books that have been rebound many times may be significantly smaller with no remaining margin or even some missing text, like this poor bound serial.
I should close with the disclaimer that no book edges are harmed as part of our modern conservation efforts. The treatment of an edge can tell us a great deal about how a book was prepared or repaired, so we make every effort not to alter or obscure that evidence through repairs or treatment.
Etherington, D. , & Roberts, M. (1982). Bookbinding and the conservation of books : a dictionary of descriptive terminology. Washington, D.C.: U.S. G.P.O.
Zaehnsdorf, J. W. (1900). The art of bookbinding. A practical treatise. London: G. Bell and Sons.
This gecko mummy was found in a collection being processed at Smith Warehouse. I suspect she was long gone before the collection came to us.
Geckos are what we call an indicator species. They don’t pose a hazard to your collections per se. She may have crawled into these papers looking for a snack of insects, or a nice place to raise (or deposit) a family.
As we approach Preservation Week at the end of April, it’s a good reminder that you shouldn’t store your collections in basements, garages, attics or outbuildings. Spaces with unregulated environments can harbor unwanted guests looking for a dark, quiet home or a food source.
The holidays are upon us and that means it is the season for parties, family get-togethers, and making memories. There will inevitably be photographs and keepsakes from these events, and you may at some point consider gathering them together in a photo album or scrapbook. Before you begin, however, let us take a look at some historical examples so that you can avoid the mistakes of our scrapbooking-forebears.
Duke, like many research libraries, holds a large number of scrapbooks and photo albums across our collections. Scrapbooks are complex objects and they frequently come to the conservation lab to address inherent problems with the materials or housing issues. Usually, we find some pretty strange objects inside as well. A student scrapbook from the 1940s recently arrived in the lab which perfectly illustrates five common and problematic conditions.
No. 1: Tape
There are so many varieties of pressure sensitive tape and, because it is a very convenient way to attach materials to pages, we encounter it all the time on collection material. Unfortunately, adhesive tapes do not age well and can exhibit a number of problems, such as discoloration, adhesive creep, or even adhesive failure. Tape can stain the items it touches (like the white tabs on the felt flag above) or cause pages to stick together. A better option is to use a simple and reversible attachment method, such as photo corners. Stable plastics such as polyester, polyethylene, or polypropylene are preferred.
No. 2: Glitter
This one is more social etiquette than preservation practice: When you add glitter to your scrapbook, you give the gift of glitter to every person who looks at your scrapbook until the end of time. It is literally all over my bench as I write this.
No. 3: Perishable Items
Flowers and candy may hold many memories, but they are not so compatible with scrapbooks. Like tape, perishables can either discolor the pages and items around them or adhere pages together. These items may also be attractive to insects or mold, potentially compromising the entire scrapbook and putting other items in the collection at risk. Photographs of the flowers will function a little better in the book.
Strangely, tobacco products, like cigars or cigarettes are also commonplace in historic scrapbooks. Use of tobacco products in general seems to be declining, so maybe we will stop seeing this in more modern scrapbooks that come into our collection. If the urge does strike you, however, I would suggest just including the wrapper or packaging (like the Lucky Strikes on the left, above), rather than an entire cigar (as on the right).
No. 4: Rocks (Or really any hard, pointy object)
Books are not the best containers for three-dimensional objects. In addition to distorting the entire book, pointy objects can pierce through facing pages and damage the attached photographs or ephemera. Heavier objects can even tear support pages from the book. Objects like this will be much happier in a box.
No. 5: Large format materials
In a similar vein, larger format pages, such as whole newspapers or large posters, may not survive well when folded up and tucked inside a scrapbook. The bulk of the folded piece can strain the scrapbook binding. Some papers become very brittle as they age and may crack along the folds- especially as they are unfolded and refolded with use. These items are better left out of the book and stored flat.
Scrapbooks can be important cultural artifacts. I hope that in this digital age people continue to make them and that they will eventually make their way into library and archives collections. But I also hope that they do not contain so much tape.
This item came in for boxing this week. The book is Manual of Botany, for North America by Amos Eaton dated 1829. There are multiple pressed flowers in the volume, and some marvelous doodles on the paste downs, and this sweet paper-cut-out silhouette. The paper is only about four inches wide. I love the detail of the bangs.
This book was sent down to Conservation for an enclosure. Inside were many, many pressed leaves and bits of ferns. We couldn’t leave them in the text as they were staining the paper, but we were hesitant to just remove them due to their provenance. Jennifer devised this clever solution to removing the leaves but saving the information about where they were in the book.
Each set of leaves was encapsulated with a tag that says where in the book they were found. The set of encapsulations are inside a small folder, and both the folder and book are inside a beautiful new box.
Written by Erin Hammeke, Conservator for Special Collections.
This two volume set came through the lab recently for rehousing, and we were little prepared for what we found inside. The set is a from a small collection called the Jantz Early Manuscript Collection and little is known about it.
Both volumes are handwritten and illustrated and bound in wooden boards with blind-tooled leather covering. They appear to date from the 18th or 19th century. The texts seem to cover a variety of subjects from emblems to architecture and music to optics.
They contain a variety of different examples of decorated Dutch gilt paper bound in throughout the text. There are numerous hand-painted illustrations and the neatest ones involve cutouts that expose parts of the subsequent page. There is even a trompe l’oeil dog-eared page!
We look forward to learning more about this fascinating set.