Category Archives: What’s In The Lab

A Tiny Press Calls for a Tiny Book

Over the past year, I’ve been working on an exhibit revolving around the work I do in Conservation Services and the Collection Services Division as a whole. As luck would have it, Beth has this wonderful miniature book press that fit perfectly into the display case I was in charge of designing.

But what is a book press without a book to press? With that in mind, I took this opportunity to make my first miniature book.

First, I made a tiny book block.

I left the paper longer than it needed to be so that I could weigh the pages down while I sewed it all together. Once that was done, I decided it would be nice to try and round the spine. This proved to be a bit difficult with the normal tools we use for rounding.

I felt I was more likely to just crush the entire spine with the hammer than actually round it. A Teflon folder made for a safer option for this tiny spine.

Next, I needed to trim the book block to a more appropriate size. I started to cut it with just a scalpel and a ruler, but as you can see that wasn’t really going well or looking particularly nice.

I decided instead to try to trim the book in a more traditional method. This meant placing the book block into a press and using a sharp, flat blade to cut across the pages evenly.

This was much more successful and I ended up with a nice and neat book block.

After that, I covered the spine with a Japanese tissue for strength. Then I added a textile spine lining as well as a paper lining for additional support.

Now I could make the covers, which ended up being the easiest part of this whole process.

The hardest part came next, which was casing the book block into the covers. Because the book is so tiny, it was difficult to make sure the book didn’t move out of place as I glued up the paper that would connect the book block to the covers.

I eventually managed to figure it out and put the book in a press to dry flat.

I have to say it looks a bit silly in the full-sized press.

But once it was dry, the book was done!

It certainly fits in much better with a press its own size.

You can check out this tiny press with its tiny book, along with the rest of the great displays my colleagues put together, in the exhibit The Library Uncovered: Behind the Scenes with Collection Services that is currently open to the public in the Jerry and Bruce Chappell Family Gallery in Perkins.

Hidden Print Waste

A lot of different materials go into producing a book’s binding and for centuries bookbinders have used pieces of broken or discarded books to produce new ones. We often find scraps of manuscript or print, on either paper or parchment, used as spine linings, as endsheets, or even as full covers for bindings (see images from the collections of Princeton or Library of Congress here). We often describe this practice as waste (manuscript waste, printer’s waste, binding waste, etc.). Some important texts have only survived because they were reused in this way.

While some examples of binding waste (like covers or endleaves) are immediately obvious, others are only revealed by damage. This early 18th century printed book came in for rehousing recently and shows some of the fascinating things that can be hidden beneath the surface.

In areas where leather corners have come off or the sprinkled brown paper sides have lifted you can see some text peaking through. The book itself is printed in Latin, but the waste used in the binding is in German. This edition was printed in Munich, so it makes sense that a contemporary binding would also include waste in German.

In addition to the mechanical damage to the paper covering material along the board corners and edges, there is also some insect damage along the faces of both boards.

The insects have eaten away at the first several layers of binding material, revealing many layers of print – sometimes in different orientations. It seems our print waste was not just used as a board lining, but the boards themselves are composed of many layers of print laminated together.

I am usually not excited to encounter an insect-damaged book, but in this case the bugs have created a rather beautiful object – almost like a typographic topographical map – and have revealed useful information about its production.

The Week in Conservation: We’ve Been Busy!

It’s been a busy week this week in the Underground. We hosted a tour for the Class of 1990, who had their 20th Reunion a bit late due to the pandemic.

Tour group listens to department head
Our first in-person tour of the new academic year.

We have a tremendous amount of mold recovery work in the lab at the moment. We have been drying and vacuuming materials pretty much non-stop for several weeks. There is no light at the end of the tunnel yet, but every page gets us closer.

vacuuming mold spores from paper
Vacuuming mold is both satisfying and disappointing. It’s like the Schrödinger’s Cat of treatments.

We had an all-hands-on-deck repair day for the circulating collections backlog. With no summer students this year, we had a lot of materials waiting for their 15 minutes of fame aka Quick Repair. We got through 107 items in half a day.

book truck with finished repairs
Quick repairs are very satisfying and great for the stats.

Speaking of backlogs…Technical Services has been working through a lot of musical scores lately and they have backed up a bit in the lab. This workflow is next on our list of “get it done” projects.

Book truck with music scores ready for binding.
Can scores have existential crises?

Preparations for the Lilly Library renovation started back in 2019 and really hasn’t stopped. We are getting close to finishing a huge project to provide enclosures for items going to the Library Service Center for the duration of the renovation project. Tyvek envelopes are a quick and economical enclosure for brittle and fragile materials that we can’t treat before going off site.

book truck with enveloped collection material
So. Many. Envelopes.

Our student assistant is back, and plowing through work. Look at all the brittle pamphlets she has put into binders this week. We love seeing work pile up on the QC shelf.

A shelf of finished pamphlets await quality control
We love seeing the QC shelf pile up with work.

And of course, at the time of writing this post, we are experiencing the remnants of Hurricane Ian. We spent Thursday afternoon putting out absorbent pads around our known leaks, and making sure everyone knew the disaster team’s contact information.

Map of Hurricane Ian
Hurricane Ian’s impact. Image Raleigh News & Observer

For organizations looking for recovery help, here are some resources:

We are thinking of all our colleagues in Florida whose institutions took a direct hit, as well as everyone who has experienced the ravages of this storm.

Invasion of the Binding Snatchers

When this copy of Memoirs of the life of the Reverend George Whitefield (1798) came into the lab the other day, we knew pretty quickly that something was off.

The label on the spine looked like it was sitting inside a little window of leather, and not even very well lined up. Looking closer, you could also see some stitching running vertically along the center of the spine.

We often see examples of home-made repairs for bindings, but I had never seen one like this before. It appears that someone has just swapped bindings from another book!

I’m guessing that the original boards had come off of the book and, rather than having it rebacked, a previous owner had just located a similarly sized-volume as a donor. On the interior of the boards, you can see evidence of cord from the previous board attachment. After removing the binding from it’s original textblock, a little window was cut in one of the spine panels to allow the correct titling to mostly show through, and then the new textblock was glued (and sewn) in at the spine. It’s a pretty clever solution, but it must have been difficult to find a donor binding of similar enough size to work. I always enjoy finding evidence of historical repairs and seeing the creative approaches that people have taken to keep their books in usable condition.

Edit: Today I learned that there is a term that could be applied to this item: remboîtage.  It is interesting to compare the definitions from Etherington & Roberts and Ligatus (derived from Carter’s ABC for Book Collectors). Most folks would not think of this as an example of a recase, because that term implies putting the textblock back into it’s own binding. Carter’s definition of remboîtage goes to great lengths to describe it as putting a textblock in a more elegant, more desirable, or superior binding. This rather crudely executed swap may be a bit of a stretch for Carter, but one could argue that a functioning binding is more desirable than a broken one.

What’s In The Lab: Thursday Edition

Things have been quiet this week as we await the upcoming move-in day. The camps have ended, there are fewer tours happening on the quad. It’s been nice to just get some work done.

We like big books and we cannot lie. Especially History of Medicine items. Tabulae arteriarum corporis humani (1822)
Charming Chinese pamphlet. 陈梦海写 ; 韩敏画 (1966)
removing glue
Removing glue from spines is a great way to spend your afternoon.
book truck with a lot of boxes
Books with enclosures, ready to go to the Library Service Center.

Blast From the Past

Twenty years ago when I started working at Duke we had a “morgue” of broken books. This is where damaged books came, and sat, until they could be repaired. Most of these were very brittle or nearly so. To clear the space for work benches and tables, we decided to tie books up with cotton tying tape and insert a flag requesting the book back if it was used.

Today, we got one back!

book tied with string
The Methodist Hymn Book

The flag is two sided. The front alerts the patron to the fact that the binding is fragile. It also asks Circulation to return to book to Conservation after use.

The back explains how to photocopy a fragile book. I created this flag using images from our colleagues at the University of Kansas libraries. Unfortunately the link to that page no longer exists.

It’s fun to see a 20-year-old, low cost and easy solution actually working. The book came back and now we will address it either by repairing the brittle leather cover, or boxing it to keep the detached covers with the text block. This item has been scanned by the Internet Archive, so boxing may be the answer since there will be digital access to it.

New Outfits for Sailors

Sometimes an object comes through the lab in an enclosure which is not good for long term preservation, but still has artifactual value and should be retained with the item. In these cases, we have to get a little creative in fabricating a new housing that will keep all the parts together in a safe and intuitively usable package.

two prints of female sailors

A set of early 19th century hand-colored engravings arrived here recently, featuring portraits of the same female sailor on land and at sea. The paper was quite brittle and showed some staining, surface soiling, and insect damage. The prints had been housed in matching wooden frames which were slightly too small. The edges of the prints had been folded around the backing boards to fit, and some of those folded edges had snapped off.

front and back of empty picture frame before rehousingIt was clear that the frames were not a safe place for the prints to live, but they are important to the history of the object and need to be housed together. Time to make some new outfits for these sailors.

After deframing, both frames and prints were cleaned to remove any surface dirt. The prints were humidified in a chamber and flattened to remove the creases around the edges. The loose fragments of the “shore” print were reattached using a thin Japanese paper with re-moistenable adhesive we make in-house. interior of mated print, showing full encapsulation and photo corners

The brittle paper requires some additional support for safe handling and the media isn’t flaking, so each print was fully encapsulated in clear polyester film. The prints and frames would need to live inside the same box without rattling around, so I cut window mats and assembled portfolios with tyvek tape for the hinge. Each print was mounted inside with polyethylene photo corners, so that it can be easily removed if a researcher wants to examine the verso.

The frames also got some new housing in the form of a padded tray. Each tray features tabs at the head and tail so that they can be easily lifted out of the box. The foam is notched under the tab to accommodate the metal ring at the top of each frame, but also so that the frame can be safely tipped out of the tray.

wooden frame in padded tray

The trays and mats were made to the same size so that they can be neatly stacked inside a  clamshell box. Labels on the outside of the box indicate that it should be stored flat on the shelf and warn anyone retrieving the item that it contains glass.

Completed enclosure with mats and framesI like to go back and check on rehoused items like this after they have received some use to ensure that the new enclosures are functioning well.

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!

Miniature Screens

The internet loves things in miniature, and books are no exception. We’ve previously written about miniature figurines, photo albums, and other books – but today I’d like to add miniature screens to the mix. Recently this wonderful little book came into the lab for boxing: Japanese Screens in Miniature; Six Masterpieces of the Momoyama Period.

The Momoyama Period (1573–1615) was a time of great social change and constant warfare in Japan. A growing interest in the outside world and the introduction of European firearms contributed to new styles in both architecture and art. Large folding screens, covered in gold leaf and ornately painted, became an important decorative element inside the large fortresses built during this period.

The set of six small screens (~ 6″ tall) comes in a textile-covered wrapper and includes a short introduction with some historical context.

Each screen is six panels, mounted on board and folded in accordion style. A paper label with the title, artist, and date is adhered to the verso. The hinges are a little stiff, so I had to use some small weights to hold the screens open wide enough to image.

It is such a satisfying tactile experience to open each screen and unfold these delightful images. You just get the sense of how incredible the original objects must be, standing approximately 60″ tall with so much gilding.