Tag Archives: library conservation

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.

Quick Pic: Work Comes In, Work Goes Out

When I first arrived at the library the repair unit was considered the place where “things went to and never came back.” That, of course, wasn’t true then and it certainly isn’t true now. Here are a few lovely repaired items going back to the general collections thanks to Mary and Tedd.

New cases and rebacks. Headed back to the shelf thanks to Conservation.
New cases and rebacks on their way back to the shelf thanks to Conservation.

1091 Project: 5 Days of Preservation

1091 graphicKevin Driedger, author of Library Preservation 2, had a brilliant idea to ask institutions with preservation and conservation responsibilities to post at least one picture a day this week on the theme, “This is what preservation looks like.” Everyone tagged their posts with #5DaysOfPreservation. Search the hashtag on Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook and you will see hundreds of images from across the country. He’s also collected the entries on a Tumbler.

For our contributions we divided the post responsibilities between Conservation, Preservation and the Digital Production Center. On Monday, we visited Conservation as they made custom enclosures for some very old pin cushions.

On Tuesday we visited Winston Atkins, Preservation Officer, as he was working on reconciling the just-ended fiscal year budget. As he reminded us, “What we do is administration, after all.” That is one of the hidden secrets of library preservation, we do a lot of paperwork, research, writing, program administration and attend a lot of meetings to gather information to help form our vision for the preservation program’s future.

On Wednesday, we went over to the Digital Production Center to see Zeke digitizing the Duke Chronicle, our campus student newspaper. This digital collection has proved to be one of our most successful projects, and more issues will be available soon.

Thursday we were back in the conservation lab with our student, Wolfgang, who was putting CoLibri (TM) covers on books from our New & Noteworthy collection. These covers protect the publisher’s dust jacket, are non-adhesive and take just a couple minutes to complete.

On Thursday we got two more posts from the Digital Production Center. Mike was working on preparing digital files for transfer into the Duke Digital Repository.

And Alex was working on reformatting videotape to preservation standards.

Friday was a flurry of activity. We found Beth and Rachel changing out the board shear blades in the conservation lab.

And finally we visit the not-so-attractive but vitally necessary job of insect monitoring.

Overall I think Kevin’s idea was a huge hit, and we should all do this again. So often preservation and conservation are hidden in basements or offsite, and I sometimes thing that even our own colleague may not know what we do every day. #5DaysOfPreservation demonstrates the wide variety of services we provide for our institutions and how we contribute to the accessibility of our collections. Let’s go see what Parks Library Preservation’s contributions were this week. What did you do post? Put your links in the comments.

 

1091 Project: Portrait of the Student Technician

1091 graphicThis month on the 1091 Project we discuss an essential part of almost every conservation department, student technicians. Without our students we could not keep up with the sheer amount of materials that come to the lab. This week is spring break, so I can’t show you pictures of our wonderful students, KellyNoel, Kaiti and Jessica (on loan from ERSM for a project), but I can tell you about the work they do and what we look for in a good student assistant.

Students in the lab do a lot of boxing, pamphlet binding and CoLibri covers.
Student work, finished and in-process.
Student Workflows

Our students start out learning how to bind pamphlets, make simple enclosures, create CoLibri book jackets, make pockets and do simple repairs such as tip ins, cut pages, and binding musical scores. They also help with the tracking and physical moving of materials.

If the students have the abilities and interest they can  learn more complicated repairs and enclosures. These might include recasing or rebacking books, or making four-flap or corrugated clamshell boxes for fragile materials. We have had a couple students who stayed for several semesters and because they had the skills and interest, they were able to learn multiple conservation rebinding techniques and cloth-covered clamshell boxes.

Newspaper project
Newspapers ready for boxing.

We currently have students helping specifically with renovation projects. These students are primarily getting the newspapers ready to go to the Library Service Center. This involves jogging brittle paper into place, fitting the bindings into pre-made boxes, and making spacers in the boxes so the brittle papers don’t shift around during transit. This is a very labor intensive, dirty and repetitive project but all of our students are working hard to meet our fast approaching deadline.

What We Look When Hiring Student Technicians

Most of our students are undergraduates, but every now and then we hire a graduate student. We of course like it if they have state or federal work study, but that isn’t a requirement. We prefer to get the right student with the right skills regardless of their funding. Occasionally we will get a UNC-SILS student who wants to intern with the department and we will work with them to develop a project that fulfills their school requirements but also helps us move our department forward.

There are basic job requirements that are listed in all of our positions including being able to use sharp instruments and large binding equipment safely, lifting heavy boxes and moving full book trucks, and being able to work in a potentially dusty or moldy environment.

Beyond that, what I look for when I interview students is the ability to learn quickly and be productive, to work independently but to know when to ask questions, and to have a good attitude and work well with a diverse staff. It is rare that we find students who have bookbinding experience, so I look for interests or past work history that involve eye-hand coordination and attention to detail. It might surprise you that gamers have very good eye-hand coordination, students with musical backgrounds are excellent at following instructions, and research science students are amazingly skilled at detail-oriented work. If you are a student, you don’t need to be a crafty person or an art major to work here. We can teach you the skills you need to be successful if you have the ability to learn the craft.

Let’s head over to Parks Library Preservation to read about their students.

What Conservators Need To Know

I’m often asked how you become a conservator and what we need to know to do our jobs. Here’s a short list of the skills all good library conservators have:

  • Knowledge of the history of the book and printing
  • An understanding of organic chemistry, especially as it applies to paper, leather, parchment and pigment manufacturing and deterioration mechanisms
  • Knowledge of historic and modern materials (paper, thread, cloth, inks, pigments, skin, etc.)
  • Skills in mending and housing a variety of archival formats (books, paper, audio-visual, felt dolls, early codices, etc.)
  • Understanding of libraries (mission, language, organization, etc.)
  • Critical thinking, decision-making, communication, and research skills, not to mention computer and photographic skills.

But there is one skill that every conservator needs that we use almost every day…

We love our cork floors!

 

Cat-like reflexes.

These are particularly useful for when you drop your scalpel on the floor.