This letterpress book has been on our shelf for a very long time, too long admittedly. Mea Culpa. Letterpress books can be challenging. This one has paper as thin as Kleenex (TM) and as brittle as any mid-century newsprint. The iron gall ink has degraded and taken the substrate with it, leaving lots of tears, holes, and losses.
James Redpath was the Head of the Haitian Bureau of Emigration in Boston. I would tell you more about these letters but you literally cannot turn a page without breaking something. After a lot of consideration and consultation with Rubenstein Library we have decided the best thing to do with this item is digitize it so researchers can actually use it without destroying the original.
But before we can digitize it we need to flatten out some of the heavy creases to uncover the writing, and do some very minor stabilization so we can turn the pages without tearing off chunks of text. The goal is digitizing, not a full treatment. This book will still have page tears and losses when it leaves Conservation, but putting in hundreds of hours of conservation time to repair every tear, sinking letter, or loss isn’t practical or feasible. We want to get it ready for the camera, and help our camera operators handle it as safely as possible while they are turning the pages.
It feels good to have digitization in our toolbox as a way to increase access to this item. It will go from completely unusable to readable. What better outcome for a primary resource that is so fragile?
Written by Rachel Penniman, Senior Technician for Special Collections
When two copies of a newspaper arrived in the lab I didn’t expect then to be terribly exciting.
They were folded and as is typical with old, acidic newsprint it had become brittle and split along the folds. After discussion with curator Andy Armacost we decided to carefully unfold and repair the one copy that was in slightly better condition.
Unfolding the newspaper revealed something quite unexpected: the paper was gigantic! What I expected to be multiple issues folded together was in fact a single extremely large issue.
The Constellation: Illuminated Quadruple Sheet claimed to perhaps be the largest sheet of paper ever made and printed when it was published in 1859 in New York. Created as a one-time, limited edition of 28,000 copies, it had taken ‘eight weeks of unceasing labor of nearly forty persons to produce this MASTODON PAPER!’ To generate one issue, a single sheet of 70X100” paper was printed and folded into four leaves of 35×50” each. In comparison, the massive double elephant folio Audubon Birds of America volumes currently on display in the Mary Duke Biddle room are a paltry 26×39”.
In total each copy of The Constellation has 49 square feet of paper! It is made up of 8 pages with 13 columns of text per page, and 48” per column totaling 416 feet of printing. Along with historical articles, essays, stories, and poems, there are four pages with numerous portraits and illustrations. Originally sold for 50 cents an issue, this copy was marked down to only 15 cents. This seems like a really good deal for what adds up to a small book’s worth of reading material.
Unfolding the paper also revealed the full extent of the damage. The main folds separating one leaf from another had degraded so badly that each leaf was held to the next with only a few inches of weak paper.
In order to allow for safer handling and easier storage, I got approval to completely separate each leaf. Working with individual leaves of 35×50” was much more manageable; though I still had to work on two folding tables pushed together with board across the top in order to have a large enough flat work surface.
Very carefully, bit by bit, I flattened the creases and mended the tears using a very thin toned Japanese tissue paper and wheat starch paste making the repairs almost invisible. Wherever possible, I reattached loose fragments of paper that I found loose in the old folder. With 49 square feet of paper work on, I did mending on and off for many weeks.
After mending, each leaf was encapsulated between sheets of Mylar using our ultrasonic welder. See this previous blog post for a video of our encapsulator in action.
Now that it’s finally finished, this huge newspaper is the perfect candidate for storage in the Rubenstein Library’s new super oversize cabinet drawers. It actually looks tiny in comparison to this large flat file drawer.
Part of a description of the newspaper on the back page reads:
The Publisher does not wish to conceal the honorable pride which he feels in presenting this magnificent sheet to the public. It is the off-spring of Invention, Taste, Enterprise and Herculean Industry; it is without a compeer or rival; and he believes it will never be excelled. It cannot be surpassed in typographical beauty – in its artistic splendor – in its general imperialism of thought and design. It will be the pride of every true-hearted American, and the wonder of the world; and those who are so fortunate as to obtain a copy will obtain a curiosity which they will keep and treasure with the utmost care.
I am very proud to have been able to help provide this curiosity with the utmost care its publisher desired. Though to be honest I would be happy to take a break from such oversize items and work on miniatures for a while.